September 21, 2012

Two (or Maybe Three) Linguistic Observations

I notice interesting aspects of how people use language and often fail to comment on them, since doing so would make a very small essay. I made two unrelated observations today, and I thought they might together constitute a critical mass of data that could justify a post.

BP commercialThe first observation comes from a BP commercial titled—at least I think this is the actual title—“BP’s commitment to America.” This ad is not trying to induce us to buy BP products but to convince us what a good neighbor BP is being. In other words, it is trying to divert us from thinking about the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico for which BP was responsible.

The voice-over  begins with this:
Two years ago, the people of BP made a commitment to the Gulf. And, every day since, we worked hard to keep it. BP has paid over 23 billion dollars to help people and businesses who were affected and to cover cleanup costs.
Cleanup costs for what? For the BP screwup that must not be named, apparently. Actually, I noticed this peculiarity in the script only after I decided to write about a sentence later in the one-minute spot:
BP supports nearly 250,000 jobs in communities across the country.
Supports? BP supports jobs? Doesn’t BP employ people to provide the goods and services that make money for BP? To say that BP supports jobs seems to suggest that it magnanimously provides employment for Americans. Trust me, if BP could accomplish the same work with 200,000 people, it would fire 50,000 Americans in a New York minute.

My second observation comes from a popular Anglican blog that I read regularly but which I will, charitably, not name. In reading a post there today, I came across the phrase “once and a while,” meaning, loosely, occasionally. I was stopped cold by this phrase because I thought the correct idiom was “once in a while.” Upon consulting several dictionaries, I determined that I was correct. Use of the phrase “once and a while” is simply a mistake.

That said, idioms are, by their nature, well, idiosyncratic. Neither “once and a while” nor “once in a while” makes much sense if you’ve never encountered it before. And, even if you have encountered the correct idiom in speech, you might not transcribe it correctly if you had not also seen it in print. When I read “once and a while,” I was about 85% certain that it was wrong, but I was not 100% certain. It is easy to get these things wrong. Have you ever heard someone refer to this as “a doggy dog world”?

Checking out the phrase on-line was amusing. defines “once in a while” as “at intervals; occasionally.” Merriam-Webster, on the other hand, defines the phrase as “now and then,” yet another  idiom! Merriam-Webster defines “now and then” as “from time to time: occasionally.” Of course, “from time to time” is yet another idiom, which is defined as “once in a while: occasionally”!


  1. Not sure you would call this an idiom, but it drives me crazy, probably since I used to use it and now understand why it is not correct, is when people say, "I could care less." If you "could care less," then you actually could care less when you really want to say that you could NOT care less. It is, "I couldn't care less," right???

    1. Bob,

      You certainly are correct. It drives me crazy, too, when people say “I could care less.”


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