The English language is a living thing. That's the excuse I use every time someone accuses me of butchering it.
This is usually My Lovely Wife or her mother, there being some part of their shared genetic makeup that makes it physically impossible for them to encounter "who" when "whom" is called for without pointing it out with equal parts smugness and glee (smlee?).
All I can say is, I try. Really I do. I may not be able to recite the precise rules of grammar -- I may have forgotten how to define a gerund -- but I'm a great believer in going with what sounds right.
Over the last few months, readers have been sending me examples of what sounds wrong to them, and of what obviously is wrong.
Easily the most mail I've received is about a linguistic transformation I've seen happen during my own lifetime: the fall of "I couldn't care less" and the rise of "I could care less."
David Blackman of Columbia said he first encountered it in the mid-1960s, while in graduate school in New York City. It was uttered by a fellow student who had grown up in the Midwest.
"I thought this was just a regional misuse," David writes. "But since moving to the D.C. area in 1971 I have heard -- and read -- it more and more frequently."
Trish Gomersall of Falls Church speculates that perhaps "could care less" rolls off the tongue a tad more glibly than "couldn't care less," but, she says, "It's just wrong."
The word "irregardless" is one that bugs Burke's Scott Babcock. It's not an actual word, he points out, but "a lovely blend of 'regardless' and 'irrespective.' " And also: wrong.
Jim Scruggs of Alexandria cringes whenever he sees someone trying to make the word "unique" even more unique: very unique, somewhat unique, really unique. "Unique needs no qualifier," he says.
Eloise Weidner of Fairfax Station says there are a few phrases that she doesn't like to hear spoken and that she really doesn't like to see written: "try and" instead of "try to" and "should of" instead of "should have."
Owen Baker of Fairfax has a vague memory that "That begs the question" means something different than what everybody seems to think. And that begs the question: What does it mean?
Well, I just used it incorrectly. It doesn't mean to raise a question, but to be guilty of circular reasoning in your argument. The question-begging example that Washington State University professor Paul Brians gives at his habit-forming "Errors of English" Web site (www.wsu.edu/~brians/errors/) is: "This painting is trash because it is so obviously worthless."
Gail Fiorini of Reston expressed astonishment at the number of "intelligent people" who say "NUKE-you-lar" for "nuclear."
"I often wonder how they spell it, since the pronunciation of the word is clear from its spelling," she wrote.
That's not the case with our next word. Charles Cook of Annandale blows a gasket every time he hears someone say the word "comptroller" as if it had an M and a P in it.
"The word is a misspelling of 'controller' and should be pronounced as 'controller,' " pointed out Charles, who remembers being corrected by his high school history teacher in the 1930s while reading the Constitution.
Alexandria's Nan Reiner hates redundancies, that is phrases that repeat themselves, duplicate some element therein, include some unnecessary extraneous information . . . you get the idea. She gives as examples "ATM machine" and "IRA account."
Laura Fedak of Ashburn wrote to say, "I work at a bank and I wish I had a nickel for every time someone came in and asked if we have a 'notary republic.' "
Speaking of banks, David Howell-Jones of Washington is amazed when he hears the expression "safety deposit box." Said David: "Anyone who thought about what he or she was saying would realize that 'safety deposit box' would have to refer to a box in which one could deposit one's safety."
(Of course, you don't keep a safe in a safe deposit box either, but let's not quibble.)
To get all persnickety, D. Thomas Longo Jr. of Ocean Pines, Md., said Post reporters are forever misusing the word "airborne."
"A vehicle is airborne only when lift from aerodynamic wings like an airplane sustains it in the air," he wrote. "A vehicle is not airborne when it is launched upward by an impact following a crash. In that case it is simply a victim of inertia."
Jean Busby of Manassas is bothered by two sets of phrases that are used interchangeably. One pair is "In honor of" and "In memory of." The former, she said, should be used to honor a living person, the latter to honor a non-living one.
The second pair is "wrong place, wrong time" and "right place, wrong time." She says that if you are at a bank doing bank business when a robber enters and shoots you it would be a case of "right place, wrong time."
I think this is arguable.
If all of this is making you sick, you'll appreciate parsing the difference between "nauseous" and "nauseated."
Gigi Speakes of Fort Belvoir says the former is the thing that makes you sick (a nauseous smell) while the latter is the state of being sick. Gigi quotes a line from her favorite grammar book, Patricia T. O'Conner's "Woe Is I": "Never say, 'I'm nauseous.' Even if it is true, it's not something you should admit."
Share your favorite grammatical errors, or anything else that's on your mind, during my online chat, today at 1 p.m. Go to www.washingtonpost.com/liveonline.