Language Extremes

Instead of focusing on a particular word or phrase this week, I’m going to share some thoughts on what’s happening in our society that is pushing us to inaccurate extremes of expression.

We’re living in a world of extremes. On one hand, there is a mushy, fearful, and hesitant approach to our communication, best seen in the ubiquitous use of “kinda” and its cousin, “sorta.” It’s as if we are afraid of saying anything definitive or clear, perhaps for fear of actually standing for something. Listen to yourself and others, and you’ll likely be surprised by a couple of things: 1) How often kinda and sorta are used, and 2) how unnecessary they are. In fact, not only are they generally not necessary, but they dilute the meaning of what follows. “When did you kinda get started with such-and-such?” “I kinda got home late.” Huh? Just remove the phrase entirely from your vocabulary, and like a food allergy test, re-introduce it little by little into your speech, but only as necessary.

The other extreme can be blamed on social media and television. In an effort to stand out and be heard (either by what people post or what they say), we exaggerate and intensify, and thereby destroy any semblance of relativity. Everything must be the most and the best, and everything must be presented in the most extreme and sometimes throbbing manner.

Facebook posts tell us to click on the video, because WE WON”T BELIEVE what happens next.

Apparently the world is often not ready for someone’s dress, statement, or action. Not everything is amazing.

Television interviews of folks who are famous for being famous are not helping. Not everything is a crisis; not every other thing is INCREDIBLE.

Stunning used to mean that something stunned someone (or shocked him or her, or made someone unconscious). Awesome, whose attempts at maintaining its meaning have been an abject failure, used to mean inspiring awe, a powerful idea that loses its meaning when meals, small favors, and nights out can be described as awesome. Have we simply lost the concept of awe?

Let’s pull in our speech toward a clear and happy middle. Let’s pull away from exaggeration and intensity, and use hyperbole and passion only when necessary to make our speech clear. Let’s pull away from qualifying every other statement with kinda, and let’s get to our points without hesitance or compromise. Let’s not try to stand out; let’s just work to be clear and precise, because that would be kinda awesome!!!



I was, until my recent retirement, a film professor (see My students had to do a few papers that analyze some aspect of a film. Some chose to write about color, and I’m often treated to an analysis on pallets, palates, and palettes. Of course, only one of those is correct; the other two, to be fair, are amusing to visualize, and provide the occasional guffaw.

This is a palette:


It’s what painters use to hold their paints. It also refers to the range of colors in an image or film.

This is a palate:


This is also referred to as the roof of your mouth.

And finally, this is a pallet:


A pallet can also be a straw mattress or a makeshift bed.

My students, of course, usually meant “palette” when they wrote.

The biggest thing to remember is that there are three words that sound exactly the same but mean different things. And in the spirit of full disclosure, I confess that sometimes I have to look up the word to make sure I’m writing down the right one!

Who and Whom

This one may seem hard at first, but isn’t all that difficult to figure out. Probably the biggest problem is people who think that using “whom” sounds more elegant and sophisticated than simply using “who.” Not good, and not accurate. The two words are not interchangeable.

Think of it as the difference between using “he” and “him.” If someone is doing the action, we would say “he” is doing it. (We’d never say “him” is doing it, though we still have intelligent people sounding less so by saying “Him and I are doing….”) So if the action is being done BY someone, we’d say “who.”

For those who remember the distinction from English class, “who” is used when it’s the subject, and “whom” is used when the person is the object of some action. So anything before the verb has to be “who.”

These are correct:

Who is that woman?

Who is coming to the party?

Who did that?

Who shall I say is calling?

Still keeping “he” and “him” in mind, when something is being done for someone, or to them, or with them, we would say it’s being done to “him.” In the same way, when something is being done by, for, or to someone we don’t know, we’d say “whom.”

These are correct:

To whom do we give the note? (Or, We give the note to whom?)

Whom should I vote for in the next election season? (There is no good answer to this question, BTW.)

The home improvement company whom you recommended hasn’t returned my calls. (Of course, many people simply drop the “whom” these days in such a sentence.)

Whom do you prefer? In this case, “you” is the main subject, “prefer” is the main verb, and “whom” is the object of your preference. You could just as easily have said, “You prefer whom?”

“For Whom the Bell Tolls” (Thank you, Ernest.)

The distinction between the two words may well disappear in the near future. But for now, it still exists, and figuring out which to use is a good exercise for the brain.