I had an instructor in college who despaired the state of the English language because of the way people misused the word “hopefully.” I understood his argument but I didn’t get where he was coming from because a) I was in the camp of people who felt that English was a language that had been evolving for hundreds of years and would continue to do so, mainly because b) there wasn’t a force on earth that could stop people from misusing “hopefully” or any other word, and besides, c) I grew up using “hopefully” the wrong way, i.e. “Hopefully, people will continue to use words in new and inventive ways.”
Now I’m old and fossilized, and a lot less tolerant of new and inventive adaptations. A single word or phrase will spin me up in a second. While driving home from work today, I heard an NPR correspondent say “hone in on,” a phrase that’s like a hot needle in my ear. Honestly, if you want to ruin my day, maybe even my whole week, all you have to do is say something like, “this really hones in on the the problem,” which probably doesn’t sound wrong to you if you’re under thirty. Everybody says it, and has been saying it for years. It’s practically normal. I should be used to it by now, but it makes me want to grind my teeth right down to the roots because it’s WRONG! WRONG! WRONG!
Or, here’s another phrase that clunks up against my head: “VIN number,” for the same stupid reason that “ATM machine” bothers certain English nerds. “ATM” stands for “automated teller machine,” so when you say “ATM machine,” what you’re literally saying is “automated teller machine machine.” In the same way, what you’re literally saying when you say “VIN number” is “vehicle identification number number.”
And it just so happens that I work for the DMV, and my desk is right next to a call center, so I get to hear the people who pick up the phones ask callers, “can I have the VIN number?” a couple dozen times a day. Right after that they usually say, “Vehicle Identification Number,” because the caller didn’t know what “VIN number” meant. Makes me want to jump up on my desk so everybody can see me over their cubicle walls and shout, “DO YOU SEE WHY THAT IS SO WRONG? DO YOU?” But they wouldn’t, and I’d only be hauled away in a straitjacket, so I stay firmly rooted in my seat, grinding my teeth.
Hopefully, people will stop doing this. They won’t, but I’m hopeful.