If You Could Care Less About Common Errors in English ...

AA:   I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on Wordmaster: "Common Errors in English," from a professor who wrote the book.

RS:   Paul Brians began with a Web site. It got so popular, it led to a book called "Common Errors in English Usage." Now there's a calendar of errors for every day of the year, for 2006.

AA:   This week he started his 38th year of teaching at Washington State University, in the Pacific Northwest. We asked Professor Brians to name some of the errors he expects to hear on campus.

Paul Brians
PAUL BRIANS: "One that is extremely common now, and it is so common now that I could be fighting a losing battle, is the expression 'could care less.' People say 'I could care less' when they mean 'I couldn't care less.' And the original expression is highly ironic. It's a sarcastic saying. 'You know what? I care so little about this, I could not possibly care any less than I do.'

"But people who don't understand what's being said think, 'Oh, I mean this ironically, so I'm going to say I could care less.' And, doing so, they think they're making something neutral into something ironic. But really they're making them sound like they don't know the original expression."

RS: "So how do you react when your son or daughter or student says 'I could care less about that'?"

PAUL BRIANS: "I don't usually say anything. I don't go around correcting people unless they ask me to. I think my job is not to tell people this is absolutely right or this is absolutely wrong, but [to tell them] some people will disapprove or think less of you if you say it this way. And that's just information, and then you do with the information what you want. If you still feel more comfortable saying 'could care less,' then go ahead."

AA: "Then you could -- couldn't care less if they continue to say 'could care less.' So what's another really common error in English."

PAUL BRIANS: "Well, here's another sort of parallel one that's turned up a lot in speech lately. Young people particularly have begun to say 'at all' in very inappropriate ways. You hear it most often from grocery-store checkout clerks. They'll say 'Do you want any help out with that at all?' Well, 'at all' has been traditionally used to offer minimal help, to stress that you don't need much, you're not really offering very much."

RS: "So use it in a sentence -- "

AA: "Correctly."

RS: " -- correctly."

PAUL BRIANS: "Usually it would be something like 'Can't you give me any help at all?" But when you use 'at all' when you're offering help, it makes you sound stingy or lazy. And so it's right up there with saying 'no problem' instead of 'you're welcome' when somebody thanks you for something. That's not an error, but it's not traditional and sounds less polite to people who aren't used to it."

RS: "Isn't this more a question -- let me rephrase that, is this a question of the language evolving?"

PAUL BRIANS: "Yes, but the problem is that as it evolves, you get caught as a user between people who are going with the new pattern and those who know the old pattern and are comfortable with it. And those people are often interviewers for jobs. They're often ... "

AA: "The professor."

PAUL BRIANS: "The professor who's going to grade your paper. There may be a date that you want to impress. So it's good to know that there are people that are bothered by some of these things. Another one that's become very popular is 'build off of.' And this one is used by very well-educated people, too.

"The traditional expression is to 'build on': 'Let's build on our strengths and do something ... ' 'Build off of' doesn't have the same metaphor of creating a tall structure. Instead, it's sort of a ramshackle adding-on to the side of it. Another one similar is 'center around.' Now there are some of the -- "

AA: "Oh yeah! Which one is it , center around?"

PAUL BRIANS: "It's center on!

AA: "Center on, right!"

PAUL BRIANS: "If you center on something, if it's centered, you're on it. You revolve around something."

RS: "You can't center around something."

PAUL BRIANS: "So people are mixing up the two expressions and they've mashed the two together into 'center around.' Now that one has become so common that some usage guides are now saying they accept it. But, again, if you're working with an editor or a teacher or somebody who really cares about language, they're going to raise their eyebrows at it."

AA:   So now let's center on what Paul Brians calls the single most common error. 

PAUL BRIANS: "I-t-apostrophe-s and i-t-s. 'It is' is abbreviated as it's, and that's the only time there should be an apostrophe in its."

AA:  That, and when you want to abbreviate "it has" -- it's also i-t-apostrophe-s. Paul Brians is an English professor at Washington State University in Pullman, and author of "Common Errors in English Usage." He has a free version online at wsu.edu. You can click on a direct link at voanews.com/wordmaster. And our e-mail address is word@voanews.com.  With Rosanne Skirble, I'm Avi Arditti. 


Correction: An earlier version of this page said that only "it is" is shortened to "it's." So is "it has."