There’s a new usage emerged of late in everyday English which I find a little annoying. It’s come up in the last year or so and involves substituting ‘the’ for ‘a’ or ‘an’ in an intensifer comparison. You know: ‘this person is quite an expert’, which these days has become ‘this person is quite the expert’. Or maybe ‘quite a complex concept’, which these days becomes ‘quite the complex concept’.
New usages pop up all the time in English – any language is a social construct, after all. We have to accept this. However, that doesn’t mean we have to like every new turn of phrase. What this latest instance produces, is the implication that the subject is not merely ‘an’ example of the intensification, but ‘the’ archetype. It adds intensification but also provides a specificity that probably isn’t intended in the phrase. To me that’s vaguely annoying.
Of course there’s nothing I can do about it, any more than there was anything I could do about the mutation of ‘invitation’ (the noun form) into ‘invite’ (originally, the verb form, but now also a noun), which was also a bit irritating.
English, of course, constantly changes – and rightly so. It’s a social construct. For all the vigour with which schoolteachers smash grammatical rules into children and then ruthlessly beat them for getting anything wrong (well, they did when I was at school, anyway), the reality is that English ‘rules’ are more like ‘guidelines’. Yes, they need to be known, and yes, it’s good to generally adhere to them – but to die in a ditch over tiny points of grammar is pointless.
The question I always ask myself when proof-editing, for example, is whether the sentence conveys the intended meaning. Minor transgressions of grammatical ‘rules’ – such as a sentence where ‘that’ follows ‘which’ – are less crucial than whether that error creates ambiguity. (The ‘that…which’ rule, incidentally, is a pain – technically, it’s ‘that …[phrase] …which’, however there are cases where ‘which’ needs to come first. But I digress.)
So yeah – this new trend by which someone might become ‘quite the grammar expert’, as an intensifier, is annoying. But we’re going to have to live with it. And to me it’s proof of the fact that English is a living language. Which is a good thing, annoying though some of the neologisms might be.
Do you have any pet annoyances with new English usages?
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2021