Notes by Autumn Light

On Hebrew, English, translation, editing, and more—by Jonathan Orr-Stav

What words or phrases do you find cringeworthy?

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(My answer to this question at

I don’t know if “cringe” is the right word, but there are a number of expressions that really rub me the wrong way:

Alternate in the sense of alternative—e.g. Drivers are requested to use an alternate route. Although I’m all in favour of language evolving, etc., this is annoying, because it means that English has two words for describing “alternative”, but no word to describe the idea behind “alternate”—namely, “taking turns,” or “every other.” If you’re going to rob a word of its meaning, at least provide a new word to replace its original meaning.


Reach out in the sense of contact. This has become endemic, particularly in North America, in the past decade. To reach out used to mean to extend a hand in sympathetic support. Now it’s being used by every DJ, blogger or P.R. company simply to denote getting in touch—e.g.:

The word is contact, people—use it. Leave the reaching out to Good Samaritans and others who actually help…


Death of the Present Perfect. The present perfect tense—e.g. You have done—that most useful tense that English has and most other languages don’t, and which conveys the nuanced meaning of a past action whose effects are still valid—is currently dying in North America, and in some parts, it’s already dead. If you tell me, for example:

When do you mean? Just now? Last Tuesday? Have they unsubscribed since then? If you said This person has subscribed, I would know that it has just happened, and it’s still valid, rather than a statement of something that happened in 2008 and is no longer true.

Likewise, when you ask:

I can say: “Yes, I did. Back in 2013”—and since you didn’t use the present perfect tense (“Have you purchased a ticket?”), I may be legally entitled to claim that any such purchase in the past is enough to qualify me for parking at that spot.

Some think that just using the word just is enough—but it isn’t. In fact, it can only confuse matters—for example, when you say:

— do you mean he has just spent $100,000, or that he has spent only $100,000?


Go aheadand… This is not so much annoying, as amusing. One of the lesser-known ways to tell an American from a Canadian is that Americans can no longer simply do things—they can only go ahead and do them. (If you don’t believe me, go ahead and watch some of these videos…)


The future is coming—arrive intact. I’m very fond of Spark, a Canadian radio program about new technology, but its slogan, which is repeated in various voices at the start of each episode, is a classic example of what I call the Lost Subject Syndrome: the sentence starts with one thing as the subject of the sentence, and midway through, suddenly the subject changes.

If the future is coming, then it’s like a train pulling into the station, and you’re watching it from the platform. In that case, you’re not the one who’s arriving—the train is. If you want to express the same idea but in a grammatically logical fashion, say something like Next stop: the Future. Arrive intact.


Finally, not a word, but a name:

BASHer el-AsSAHD. The Syrian president’s name is not BASHer El-AsSAHD, but BaSHAR el-ASSad. In the grand scheme of things, the mispronunciation of his name by Western reporters and newsreaders might seem trivial, compared to the horrors of the civil war going on there for the past five years.

However, the casual indifference to the correct pronunciation of Arab names is indicative of a more serious malaise—namely that these journalists not only do not speak the language (not all foreign reporters can be expected to be fluent in the language of the country they’re reporting from), but that they’re not even talking to local people, or listening to the English-language broadcasts in that country—because if they were, they would know at least how the names of local figures and places are properly pronounced. Which means that they’re getting their information not even second-hand, but third- or fourth-hand, and probably just in text form. What use, then, is their reporting? (For the same reason, my respect for Malcolm Gladwell took a big hit when I watched his TED talk about his book on David and Goliath, in which he repeatedly mispronounced the region of the battle—SHEFFaluh, instead of Sh’felLAH).

It is also indicative of a profound disrespect—by those reporters, and by the broadcast corporations that sent them— for the country they’re reporting on. Those same reporters, if they had been reporting from Washington D.C. when John Boehner headed the Republicans in Congress, would have made damn sure to pronounce his name “Bayner”, as expected, and not “Boner”, as they might have thought if they didn’t do their homework—else they would have been laughed out of the room, and probably lost their job. So mispronouncing Third World names is OK, but Western ones is not? What kind of message does that send?


So—go ahead and make of all that what you will…

What words or phrases do you find cringeworthy?


Author: יונתן אור-סתיו | Jonathan Orr-Stav

Hebrew-English translator, editor, author. מתרגם עברית–אנגלית, עורך באנגלית, וסופר.

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