I have a lot of linguistic pet peeves—terms or expressions that annoy me for various reasons.  I thought I’d share a few of them here so that I can have some company in my annoyance. 

Let me begin with a term that now actually appears in some dictionaries:  “incentivize.” In recent years this verbification of the noun “incentive” has become so common that it seems now to be as popular as the term it replaces: “motivate.”  But the question is, why use “incentivize” instead of “motivate” when the latter is actually easier to speak and write?  It seems to me that if you’re going to prefer a word with an extra syllable then it should be clearer or more descriptive than a standard synonym.  But neither is the case with “incentivize.”  So what’s the deal?  Probably the term emerged in the business world, and this verbal virus spread from there.  Ugh. 

Another one that drives me crazy is the way many people add an “n” to the word “other” when using it after the word “whole,” as in “that’s a whole nother matter.”  I have even heard well-educated people do this, and I really have to fight my inclination to lower my opinion of them.  This is another  deviation from correct form which actually increases the difficulty of the phrase.  It is easier, after all, to say “other” than “nother.”  Yet many people use the latter, even though it’s not a word.  I just don’t get it.

Perhaps the most annoying to me, however, is the phrase “past history.”  Sadly, this expression is often used in formal contexts, even by scholars like the author of this statement:  “Past history of major depression is more common in smokers than in non-smokers” (from the abstract of an essay in a scholarly journal).  Since this was a published paper, it must have been approved not only by the author but also the journal’s main editor and at least one referee!  The problem, of course, is that when one refers to the history of anything, we can assume that s/he is talking about the past.  So use of the word “past” to modify “history” is simply redundant.  Again, I don’t get it.

Thank you for allowing me to vent about these things.  I hope you share my annoyance.  If you don’t or, heaven forbid, you are guilty of using one or more of these expressions, then I urge you to repent.  I trust you’ll clean up your act and make the world a better place from a linguistic standpoint.  Or you might be guilty but refuse to change, such as if you are one of those sad individuals who doesn’t really care about proper use of the English language.  If so, then I have other ways to motivate you.  But, alas, that’s a whole other issue.

12 Responses to “My Linguistic Pet Peeves”

  1. Paul


    Ah…interesting that you should mention these. I’ve one as well: “these ones” as in “These ones are better for cleaning out your car.” Argh!

    Okay…I feel better now ;->

  2. Jason


    For me it’s “literally” as meaning something like “this is true/serious.” I glanced at a tabloid (I literally glanced – I wasn’t reading through it) and saw this block quote: “Lindsey’s breakup with her girlfriend is literally tearing her apart.” I doubt that there are pieces of her flesh lying around the house because of the breakup.

  3. Jim Spiegel



    Funny that you should mention your pet peeve about “literally.” I actually posted about this last summer—see my August 31 post.

  4. John


    I don’t know if this is just in this region, but some people here in Kentucky say “ideal” when they mean “idea” (as in, “I have an ideal.”). Anybody outside of Kentucky hear that?

    (I also don’t like people adding an “s” to the end of store names, such as “Krogers” or “Meijers”.)

  5. Jason_73


    I’m not sure what the actual grammar rule is, but it drives me CRAZY when people say “humbleness” instead of “humility,” or “humanness” in place of “humanity.”

  6. layla


    I hesitate to leave a comment for fear I will be shamed and criticized by the scholars who frequent this blog. Unfortunately, the desire to contribute my perspective won this battle.

    The “pin/pen” merger…sometimes people just don’t get the vowels right.

    Using the phrase “what an unexpected surprise” just makes me want to shout, “Pick one and go with it, you don’t need both!”

    In the interest of full disclosure, I often say “whole nother”, but have decided to replace that with “a horse of a different color.”

    What do you think?

  7. Lezlie


    I think people should be allowed a couple of quirks in their speech. For instance, I habitually say, “might could” instead of “might be able to.” I did, however, get rid of the “s” on the end of store names. (I am from KY and always envisioned it as being written in the possessive rather than the plural.)

    And is there no correct usage of “past history”? Could it not mean the way we used to understand an era as opposed to the way we currently understand it?

    There. I just “literally” threw myself to the sharks!

  8. John


    I past history in high school, but it was my most poorest subject, but that is a whole nother story. If they had incentivized it, I might have done more better.


  9. Jim


    Please add to your list:

    “Dialogue-ing ”

    “Future reference”

    “Unpacking” (as in “let me unpack this…”)

    “Paradigm” (usually accompanied by “shift”) It’s as if this word were just discovered in the last five years.

    And how many times a day do you hear “further” used instead of “farther”?

  10. Peter


    I can’t stand “Up a creek without a paddle”…Well, if you’re up a creek, just sit tight and you’ll get back down soon!

    Also, “I could care less”…Well, this just plain doesn’t make sense. I think you meant “I could not care less”. Or maybe I’m just confused.

    Just my two cents.

  11. Charlie


    Thanks for the laughs, Jim. I have a lot of language peeves. Verbification of nouns is one. Incentivize is interesting, though. I’d slap myself for using it, but I can see a distinction. Motivating suggests pushing someone or creating pressure to move them (and move, of course, is the root of motivation). An incentive is more subtle, however. It’s a lure, bait, something designed to get you to move on your own without my having to push you. The former sounds more manipulative than the latter, to my ears.

    Past history reminds me of “true fact.” How about “foreign imports?”

    Whole nuther doesn’t bother be because I grew up in the South, and there are a whole passel of endearing southern regionalisms that are used for color and emphasis.

    Linguistically, the word “whole” is unnecessary. “That’s another matter” is sufficient. If you decide to add emphasis, you could tack on the word “whole” and say “That’s wholly another matter.”

    But if you swap the word order, you can easily get to “that’s a whole (an)other matter,” and I suspect our brains rebel at dropping the “an” from another, so we compromise with “nother,” not realizing that it isn’t a word. But it does communicate.

    I’m new to your blog and I’m enjoying what you do here.

  12. Lezlie


    Ooh! Now that’s an interesting point Charlie makes! It’s like interrupting the word “another” with the word “whole.” Hence, “a-whole-nother.” I think your entry may have backfired, Jim. I’m becoming a fan of one of your pet peeves!


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