Elitist Bastard Language

Christopher Hitchens
It’s one thing to act like an elitist bastard, but quite another to
speak or write like one. You can walk the walk, but can you talk the
talk? Here are some rules to help make sure you don’t lose bastard

Basic English

Some errors are both elementary and widespread, the equivalent of
walking around with shoelaces untied or with curry stains on one’s
tie. Don’t commit these:

  • it’s/its: as
    Bob the Angry
    points out, this one is ridiculously simple: “it’s” = “it
  • their/they’re/there
  • to/two
  • breath/breathe: these don’t even sound the
    same! Why do people keep confusing them?
  • greengrocer’s apostrophe: apostrophe’s do not signal the
    end’s of word’s.
  • e.g./i.e.: e.g. is short for
    exempli gratia, “for example”; i.e. is short for id
    , “that is”.
  • who/whom

The last one is a little less trivial than the others, but still falls
in the “Basic” category for any self-respecting elitist bastard. One
trick is to try to turn the sentence around so that the “who” or
“whom” becomes “he” or “him”. E.g., “Who/whom ate the apple?” becomes
“He/him ate the apple”. “Whom” and “him” both end with M, so they go
together: “he ate the apple”, therefore “who ate the apple?”.

Another trick is to learn another language, and remember that “who” is
“il/er/он”, while “whom” is “lui/ihm/ему”.

Less Basic English

Know your plurals:

  • stadium → stadia
  • forum → fora
  • virus → viruses (a true elitist bastard knows that “virii” is
  • opus → opera
  • octopus → actually, there’s some controversy over this one.
    The common plural is “octopi”, but in this bastard’s opinion, it’s more
    elitist to use “octopodes“.

Know your singulars:

  • data → datum (for example, when telling a friend about that
    Star Trek: the Next Generation episode in which the android got duplicated by a transporter
    malfunction, say “… but they were back to one Datum by the end
    of the show”)
  • media → medium (however, don’t overcompensate: you can order
    a medium rare steak, but you can’t order two steaks media rare, not even
    if you’re in medias res).
  • spaghetti → spaghetto
  • panini → panino

“Hyperbole”: pronounce it correctly.

“Forte”: this is a French word, not an Italian one, so it’s pronounced
“fort”, not “for-tay”. Although the bisyllabic pronunciation is
accepted by dictionaries with insufficiently-high standards, the
shorter pronunciation is more appropriate for an elitist bastard.

Presumably, by the time you graduated from your prestigious,
ivy-league, prep kindergarten, you could tell left from right. So
don’t confuse slashes (/) with backslashes (\), or quotes (‘) with
backquotes (`). Not only will you look like a typesetting neophyte,
but your Unix scripts will break.

Begging the question“:
this means “presupposing one’s conclusion”, not “raising the

Other Languages

If you’re an elitist (or Canadian), then you speak at least two
languages. And if you’re a bastard (i.e., not Canadian), then you feel
no need to translate the foreign words and phrases that pepper your

While it’s perfectly fine to describe a home as gemütlich
rather than cozy, or to add a soupçon of basil to your penne
all’arrabbiata, rather than a pinch, make sure that
your word or phrase is truly le mot juste. Otherwise, your
elitist bastard peers will see you as a prima donna
poseur with no grasp of the zeitgeist‘s
chiaroscuro gestalt. A schrecklicher
salaud con quilon menthæ, if you will.

If you’re trying to decide which foreign language to learn, French is
one in which you will be able to give your elitist bastardry full
rein, with its irregular past tenses and subjunctives. How much better
to say « je préfèrerais que vous ne fûtes point ici » rather
than « casse toi, pauv’ con! »?

(Update, Sep. 1: fixed spelling of penne all’arabbiata.)

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19 Responses to Elitist Bastard Language

  1. RBH says:

    And “data,” of course, is pronounced “day-tah.” Decades ago (more than four!) I worked for Control Data Corporation, then an up and coming computer firm. Part of the orientation for new employees was a 15-minute film (no video tape in those days) on how to pronounce the name of the firm. 🙂


  2. Eamon Knight says:

    Re to/two and there/their/they’re (and similar homophones): my head knows the difference, but I find that my fingers frequently don’t. I expect this tells us something interesting about the way words are stored and retrieved when typing.

    “Begging the Question” — yeah, one of my pet peeves when people get that wrong. That’s almost as bad as using “literally” as an intensifier. Along the same lines: “tenants” vs. “tenets”. The tenants of a church would be someone who rents space in the building.


  3. arensb says:

    Eamon Knight:

    my head knows the difference, but I find that my fingers frequently don’t.

    Ah, sort of like the way I spell “unique”: U-N-I-X-backspace-Q-U-E.

    And yes, “literally” and quotation marks as intensifiers are two reasons we desperately need smite-over-IP.


  4. Fred Nurke says:

    Tack/Tact … a true elitist bastard knows his/her sailing terminology, and to try a different approach will take a different tack.


  5. arensb says:

    Fred Nurke:
    True, and also in keeping with the nautical theme of the Carnival.

    Thanks for that tidbit. Or tack, as the Norwegians say.


  6. Wayne Robinson says:

    I use a voice recognition programme at work (I wouldn’t want to wish it on my worst enemy), and some things it just can’t get right, regardless of how many times I train it. Almost homophones are the worst; to, too and two I can understand, but or, all and wall? It also has trouble with voiced and unvoiced consonants b versus p for example. I use the word malignancy a lot (I write pathology reports) and it gets transcribed variously as malignant C or malignant sea (only if you get seasick). I used to be able to date reports by using the word pineapple (trained into the vocabulary as the spoken form of today’s written date; the command date report takes too long, I think the computer has to check with a far distant clock, perhaps on Mars, to find out what today’s date is) but recently that has stopped working so I have started using the phrase “lousy rotten computer” and it works perfectly, even with a lot of feeling in my voice. At least the computer doesn’t stare blankly at me as the typists do when I explain that a sentence requires an indefinite article instead of the definite article since the object in question has only just been mentioned for the first time, and ask “what is an indefinite article?”


  7. Kiwi Dave says:

    Fora is the plural form of forum only in the nominative, vocative and accusative cases. Other correct plurals, depending on how word is used in a sentence, are fororum and foris, if my 40+ year recollection of Latin lessons is reliable – probably not. People who misuse the Latin rules are not so much elitist as pretentious.

    Being quite unable to understand the enthusiasm for non-English plurals in English sentences, I usually anglicise borrowed words, so I must be a member of the hoi polloi.


  8. Kiwi Dave says:


    …on how the word is…

    There must be a term for this – making a syntax/spelling error in a comment on language correctness.


  9. arensb says:

    Kiwi Dave:

    There must be a term for this – making a syntax/spelling error in a comment on language correctness.

    If there isn’t, there should be. It seems to happen nine times out of ten. The heavy hand of grammatical irony, perhaps?


  10. Tilsim says:

    That would be Hartmann’s Law, or the Law of Prescriptivist Retaliation…


  11. Tilsim says:

    And Hartman has only one n… zut alors!


  12. Hallelujah! A certain class of commenters seems Hell-bent on destroying their credibility before it is established by testing how many of these rules they can violate. Is it that difficult to spell, or to tell ‘their’ from ‘there’?


  13. arensb says:

    It turns out that principle has several names, including Hartman’s Law and Muphry’s (sic) Law.

    Though “The Law of Prescriptivist Retaliation” captures the essence of the “grammatical irony” I was aiming at, above.


  14. Cobalt says:

    Thank you. ❤


  15. Andrea M says:

    Perhaps you mean Penne all’arraBBiata. Double b there please. And truncation of alla is rather more elegant.


  16. arensb says:

    Andrea M:
    Indeed I do. Fixed. Thanks for the correction.


  17. arensb says:


    And Hartman has only one n… zut alors!

    We’re not uptight here. You can say “bordel de merde” if you like.


  18. Pingback: It’s the Thought that Counts » Blog Archive » Carnival of the Elitist Bastards #4

  19. valter says:

    “Forte” is (also) an Italian word and the 4th edition of The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (see http://www.bartleby.com/61/0/F0270000.html) claims that its use in the English language is in fact derived from the Italian, not the French language.

    For the record, the primary meaning of “forte” in Italian is “strong” (as opposed to debole/weak), but it is also used idiomatically as in English (i.e., to refer to someone’s absolute or comparative advantage.)


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