Writers Got to Know Words Good


While going through some boxes of papers and notebooks recently, I unearthed a copy of “Jimmy Winston, Private Eyesore,” a detective spoof I wrote about 25 years ago.

As I paged through the 12,000-word novella, I recoiled in horror at my slapdash writing, the egregious errors in grammar and syntax, and my general mangling of the English language in my greenhorn attempt at satire.

Now, having a published book under my belt, and having written dozens of freelance articles and hundreds of columns over the years, I like to think that I’m getting a handle on this writing thing. Don’t get me wrong—Hemingway, I ain’t. But I’m always learning, and I’ve always been an aficionado of the language, and of the hilarious and maddening ways I see it misused every day.

So I’ve compiled a short list (a full list would stretch from here to Gumption, Minnesota) of offending words and phrases, along with their proper usage or meanings. Grab a hot cup, settle in, and pay attention. The reputation you save may be your own.

I’ll start with one of Barb’s most-hated specimens: “Orientated,” as in, “We gathered in the conference room and the systems manager orientated us all to the new porn search program.” People do not get orientated, they become oriented. Unless they are new students attending Orientation at a university in Asia, where they become “Westernized.”

I hate how the word “literally” is used as a modifier, but not as the opposite of “figuratively.” If you drank too much tequila and vomited into your wife’s purse, and you told her it literally made you feel like an ass, then you have actually taken the form of a donkey. A soon to be single donkey.

Local broadcasters and advertisers on TV and radio are always saying VEE-hickle when talking about a car or truck, which makes them sound like refugees from Hee-Haw, or perhaps a football coach. It figuratively makes me climb the walls. Local sportscasters talk about teams “chomping at the bit” to play another team. The correct term is “champing,” as in, “this team will be champing if they win every game on their schedule.”

Bob Wire doesn't just read the dictionary, he defines it.

Any writer worth his salt spends a lot of time reading the Bible of writing, which is the dictionary. (Photo: Speaker Wire)

These same talking heads and chattering dupes are also guilty of uttering the Holy Triumvirate of mispronunciation: excetera, exscape, and expresso. I love seeing a newscaster reporting that a couple of convicts have “exscaped” from the state prison in Deer Lodge.

Gee, do you think they rode out of there on their escape goat? I suppose they were imprisoned for committing a “senseless murder.” What murder makes sense? Especially now that the election is behind us?

As if English weren’t tough enough to master, people love tossing a phrase from another language into their speech and writing, often having no clue as to its meaning. Foreign words and phrases are tricky. They’re just something you should avoid unless you have a firm grip on their usage and spelling.

The internet provides a platform for a tsunami of unchecked writing, and it’s an unending source of clueless usage from ignorant people who just don’t care how stupid they look. We’ve all grown up with the phrase, “voilà,” but I often see it written as “walla” or “wah lah.” Jesus H. Christ, that’s right up there with “bonified,” an attempt at “bona fide.” “Per say,” when they mean “per se,” only shouts to the world, “Yes, I’m reading on a fifth grade level.”

Here’s another example: “Mano a mano.” The literal meaning of this Spanish phrase is “hand to hand,” like hand to hand combat. If your boss comes up to you and says, “Simpson, we need to have a talk, mano a mano,” it will be accurate only if you are both deaf. And your name is Simpson.

One of my favorite bonehead gaffes is “on the lamb,” for someone who’s running from the law. The word you’re looking for is “lam.” Look, if you’re literally on the lamb, you’ve got bigger problems than John Q. Law breathing down your neck. Not only are you guilty of bestiality, but you’re a pedophile as well. Better to be in the wind than on the lamb.

I love when someone writes that she’s waiting “with baited breath.” I can only picture her with a mouthful of chum, or perhaps gnawing on a small herring. Or maybe chomping at the bit.

Speaking of bestiality, I hear a lot of language-mangling coming from the pie holes of political candidates, too. They’ll say their opponent “misrepresented the truth,” when they mean he “lied his ass off. His pants are literally on fire.”

These politicos don’t want the American public to “take anything for granite,” because they will deliver on their campaign promises, “irregardless” of the painful choices they’ll have to make, like “having to do a complete 360” on certain issues. That means, of course, that they change their “anti-abortion” agenda to one that is “pro-life.”

I’ll leave you with this classic example of a wrongly used word, from the cinematic landmark, Animal House. It’s the scene where Otter has taken some pledges to the Food King to shoplift some groceries, and he’s trying to hustle Dean Wormer’s wife in the produce section.

Eric ‘Otter’ Stratton (waving a large cucumber): Mine’s bigger. My cucumber. It’s bigger. I think vegetables can be very sensuous, don’t you?

Marion Wormer: No, vegetables are sensual. People are sensuous.

Otter: Right. Sensual. That’s what I meant. My name’s Eric Stratton. People call me Otter.

Marion Wormer: My name’s Marion. People call me Mrs. Wormer.

Otter: Oh, we have a Dean Wormer at Faber.

Marion Wormer: How interesting. I have a husband named Dean Wormer at Faber. Still want to show me your cucumber?


   Check out all of Bob Wire’s posts in his blog archive.


Bob Wire is medicated and ready to rock.

Think of it as Gonzo meets Hee Haw: Missoula honky tonker Bob Wire holds forth on a unique life filled with music, parenthood, drinking, sports, working, marriage, drinking, and just navigating the twisted wreckage of American culture. Plus occasional grooming tips. Like the best humor, it’s not for everyone. Sometimes silly, sometimes surreal, sometimes savage, Bob Wire demands that you possess a good sense of humor and an open mind.

Bob Wire has written more than 500 humor columns for a regional website over the last five years, and his writing has appeared in the Missoulian, the Missoula Independent, Montana Magazine, and his own Bob Wire Has a Point Blog. He is a prolific songwriter, and has recorded three CDs of original material with his Montana band, the Magnificent Bastards. His previous band, the Fencemenders, was a popular fixture at area clubs. They were voted Best Local Band twice by the Missoula Independent readers poll. Bob was voted the Trail 103.3/Missoulian Entertainer of the Year in 2007.

You can hear his music on his website, or download it at iTunes, Amazon, and other online music providers. Follow @Bob_Wire on Twitter.