English phrases that are quite an annoyance

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


7 thoughts on “English phrases that are quite an annoyance

  1. I think there’s a difference between “quite the expert” and “quite an expert.” The former suggests that the speaker is being sarcastic, and they don’t think whoever they’re talking about is any kind of expert. The latter is a sincere opinion and positive.

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    1. I agree! What I suspect has happened, though, is that the ‘the’ usage has become synonymous with the ‘a’ or ‘an’ usage. I’ve seen it multiple times in context where it’s clearly meant to be complementary. See what I mean about it being a bit annoying… 🙂 On the other hand, English always does mutate. I did some work a few years back on whaler patois in early nineteenth century New Zealand – an eclectic mix of usages and terms which had partial origins in US whaler slang, partial origins in Sydney convict-era slang, and was fast on its way to becoming a dialect of its own.

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  2. “…but to die in a ditch over tiny points of grammar is pointless” may be my favorite phrase of yours so far, Matthew, and that is saying something. I agree with you about “the” and “an” substitutions. What I once assumed as sarcasm, I now scour context to see if it is complimentary, not that context always reveals the meaning. Yet as you say, “…to die in a ditch…” As always, great post, Matthew.

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  3. My wife’s native tongue has no articles, definite or indefinite, doesn’t doesn’t differentiate between singular, plural or uncountable. Although she’s been living in NZ for almost fifty years, she still cannot grasp their usage. Whether she uses the indefinite article, the definite article or none at all seems to be a lottery. This has resulted in many cases of misunderstanding each other (and arguments) on occasions too numerous to count.

    My take on “quite an expert” versus “quite the expert” is that the latter is said precisely to imply the difference between ‘an’ example and ‘the’ archetype, to use your words. Certainly within the circles I move both forms are used, with “the expert” meaning an expert among experts – the one whose knowledge/skill surpasses every other expert in that field. It can be used either sarcastically or to acknowledge the expertise of the person referred to.

    On the other hand I do struggle with “quite the complex concept. Does it imply “a very complex concept</em" or "the most complex concept (I’ve considered)</em"? In either case, "quite” seems inappropriate. This is a situation where I would use a comparative or superlative instead.

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  4. ‘Learnings’. I cannot tell you how much I hate it. Just recently I even heard a politician use that bit of nonsense. Said politician is also a medical doctor which presupposes quite a few years of tertiary education. Bangs head on keyboard, repeatedly.

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  5. I don’t like putting the punctuation mark outside of the quotation marks. I understand their logic for the change, but the tiny period seems to get lost. Putting the punctuation mark one space out from the end of the sentence was totally stupid in my opinion. Another annoying change was putting an apostrophe S with a word ending in S. It’s too cluttered and how are you supposed to pronounce it. Jones’s said as Joneses? The one change they made years ago – using only one space between sentences instead of two – made sense and I liked it.

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