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THE ARCHIVES

AN INTRODUCTION

(Re-Posted May 23, 2015)

Life's Lessons Learned

The dynamics of English language can be very baffling to the non-native speaker trained in the tradition of formal/written (as opposed to colloquial/vernacular) usage. US English is especially quirky. In the book Mother Tongue & How it Got That Way an oriental businessman is quoted as telling his countrymen not to be daunted because they might make mistakes when expressing themselves to Americans in English: “They cannot speak their own language, anyway!” he said. And right he is too. There is a lot of babbling in the USA! While Americanism may be charming and catchy in colloquial usage, some of it is downright incongruous in written communication. The distinction between colloquial and written English is often ignored in the USA these days. The rot is spreading furiously now that everyone feels emancipated from restraint and entitled to write as they please without oversight.

English language is, so to speak, the final frontier of an all-too-familiar steam-rolling American dominance in world affairs. British imperialism planted English language in all corners of the globe and US military, economic, and social dominance consolidates that trend, making English a second language for nearly everyone on the globe. But whereas the British required all users of the language to conform to a rigid structure in grammar and syntax, American English is free-wheeling, in keeping with the irrepressible individuality of Americans. As the bold initiators of change in our world, with boundless drive and a pronounced disregard for they way things are done anywhere else, Americans are changing English rapidly ― for better and for worse. US English is, ultimately, an expression of the hegemony of a peerless and pushy people.

At first the US immigrant from a former British colony is intimidated by the honey-smooth flow of the American accent. He starts to copy the style, warts and all, just to be “with it” and to get along. He begins to pronounce the second month of the year as “Ferb-you-wary” (which seems to be OK because even British commentators now use that pronunciation). Then he gets a note from his college-educated boss saying “We may loose money do to your error,” and he begins to wonder: Does anyone care anymore? Do Americans use the dictionary? Do they really learn English in high school? Does the use of correct English matter at all?

Declension of pronouns is muddled ― so that presidential candidate Bill Clinton once kicked off his cross-country bus tour with the folksy message to rally attendees: “If you have any questions send them to Al Gore and I.…” (Did anyone understand that Mr. Clinton was saying: “Send your questions to Al Gore and/or send them to I”?) Verb conjugation is going too. “If I was you” is much more common than the correct formulation, “If I were you.” We may overlook oddities of colloquial expression; otherwise we alienate too many people, for instance by observing that the “dee-poh” in Home Depot (or the “deb-you” for debut) is really neither French nor English but a higgledy-piggledy amalgam of both languages. But what of errors in written communication? Should we ignore them too? Must I guess the meaning behind your sentence? If so, at what point shall we become mutually unintelligible?

Ask Johnny how he’s doing and he will reply: “I’m doing good.” Not long ago that would have meant that he is performing charitable deeds! Perhaps because of its ending in “ly,” the word “likely” has morphed entirely from adjective to adverb. Casting a sentence in the subjunctive mood was always challenging at best with its troublesome requirement of a verb in the infinitive tense; now it is altogether a lost art. Actually, it has been said that whereas the British have only recently began to fudge the subjunctive mood, Americans never bought into it in the first place.
Among the most noticeable changes in written English (one hesitates to call modern American popular writing “literature”) is, that the hyphen is following the semi-colon and the serial comma into oblivion. Those changes in punctuation style are accelerated by the proliferation of text editing features embedded in nearly all software and textual apps we use. If you are reading this text on an electronic screen you will notice several words or phrases underlined in blue or red. Many instances of such machine editing turn out to be wrong, and if you click on the underlined passage you are apt to receive a wild and horrible suggestion for an alternative! All it shows is that those hidden text editors are no better-informed than the persons who wrote them in the first place. I almost always ignore all the editing prompts in MS Word. (Most useless and ubiquitous is the prompt that says, “Fragmentary; consider revising.”)

FUNDRAISING, SHOPLIFTING and THANKSGIVING are similar constructions: in each case a noun is formed by plugging a gerund onto another noun, in the lego style that is quite common in the German language. One can imagine that not long ago the preferred style was to connect the noun and gerund with a hyphen; however, the hyphen is becoming extinct. If you change the gerund to its verb of origin the similarity between the three words vanishes. “They shoplifted” is OK but not “They fundraised” or “They thanksgave.” If you wonder why that is so then you are getting to the heart of the matter, the very spirit of this blog. What is right or wrong in English language is often not a matter of logic, of rhyme or reason. Good English is to a large extent idiomatic, and idioms are a matter of conformity, acquired by learning (aka imitation) rather than by I-too-can-improvise derring-do.

But while tinkering with English grammar and syntax is not for the dilettante, expanding the vocabulary with home-minted words is a different matter. Now and then we find new words injected into the language by some intrepid souls. Recently a blogger dismissed the contrary views of an opponent as “mere hopium” (thus fusing the two words ‘hope’ and ‘opium’ to create a neat, derogatory tag that means essentially addiction to unreasonable hope). Note that blog, and tweet and their derivatives blogger and tweeter, etc. are themselves brave recent coinages spawned by new technology (just like ‘broadcast’ and ‘broadcaster,’ which passed into Queen’s English with the onset of radio communication right after World War II).

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CONFUSION OVER PARTS OF SPEECH

(Posted April 30, 2015)

Once Upon a Good Book
When Life was Peachy!

Everybody knows the difference between nouns and adjectives, right? Wrong….

Electric Bill or Electricity Bill?
An electric bill is one that shocks you, and it may not be for electricity consumed. A $10,000.00 water bill would be considered “electric,” even if you are Bill Gates. The bill that comes from your power utility is your electricity bill; it is not electric if it is for $1.50.

Athletic or Athletics?
The man that controls and regulates sports in your high school: Is he your “Athletic Director” or your “Athletics Director”? It depends. If he is muscle-bound and presses 200 lbs., he may qualify to be called “athletic” (which means the same as “sportive”); but if he is a 250-lb couch potato that oversees sporting activities from the cushy comfort of an air-conditioned office, the best he can be is an Athletics Director. A school may have a physics or mathematics or athletics teacher (in each case a noun). Those nouns are always used in the plural, never in the singular, so that a “physic” or “mathematic” or “athletic” teacher makes no sense.

Are you “six foot tall” or “six feet tall”?
The foot in “six-foot man” is really an adjective. It is called an adjectival noun because, while it is a noun, it functions as an adjective in that construction (qualifying man). It is like saying someone is a house painter: “house” is an adjectival noun here, qualifying painter.

So, “I am six foot tall” makes no sense really: it uses an adjective (foot) where it should use a plural noun (feet). A six-foot man is six feet (plural noun) tall; a woman who measures five feet and six inches in height is a “five-foot-and-six-inch woman”; and a child that weighs fifty pounds is a fifty-pound child. Similarly, a twenty-dollar lunch costs twenty dollars (plural noun). We seem to get confused only when it comes to height! Nobody can be “6 (or 5, etc.) foot tall,” Such a unit of height does not exist. If your height is six feet, then: You are a six footer, a six foot person, or a person six feet tall. Just keep in mind “noun versus adjective” and you shouldn’t get it wrong.

Transitive & Intransitive Verbs
Do you lie down or lay down? It depends on what is lying or being laid. Americans seem to tip-toe around the verb “to lay” because of its sexually loaded nuance. But as children we learned the Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John prayer: “…Before I lay me down to sleep / I give my soul to Christ to keep.”

LIE is an intransitive verb. In present tense , “I lie down” (in past tense, “I lay down”). But LAY is a transitive verb because it takes an object. Thus, a child who is ready to sleep will first lay her book down and then lie down (or lay herself down). So, “I will lay down on the couch” is confusing, unless you are a hen laying eggs.

Similarly, one version of The Red River Valley song lyrics says: “For I know you are taking the sunshine / That has lied in our path for a while.” That is bad English; the last line should read “… that has lain in our path for a while.” Again, the tenses of the 2 verbs are: LIE: Now it lies in our path; yesterday it lay; for years it has lain; tomorrow it will lie; etc. LAY: Now I lay it down; yesterday I laid it down, for years I’ve laid it down; tomorrow… lay. But don’t confuse them with the verb to tell a lie: I lie, I lied, I’ve lied, I will lie; etc.

Prepositions
Some prepositions are used exclusively or preferentially with some verbs in certain contexts. Thus you “wait for” somebody (if you are biding time for that somebody to be ready to do something); but you “wait on” somebody if you are a waiter in a restaurant, an attendant in a shop, or a teller in a bank, for instance.

We have seen the case of “off” and “on” in a previous post at this blog site. Each is a complete preposition: “I put the book on the table,” or “I won $5 off him in a bet.” In this context “off-of” is meaningless (as in “Take your hands off-of me”).

Another surprising error is the saying “It’s not that big of a deal.” What is of doing there? The correct expression is, “It’s not that big a deal.” Shuffling “a deal that big” to read as “that big a deal” is good enough; you don’t have to insert “of” anywhere in it.

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TAUTOLOGY

(Posted April 08, 2015)

Older and Wiser!

Older and Wiser!

Everybody now feels compelled to say, “including but not limited to…” because it sounds sophisticated: all lawyers insert it into contracts and letters to impress laypersons, or more likely because they are paid by the word: A lawyer will charge you $350.00 for drafting a one-paragraph “Cease and Desist” letter to your adversary. And so the rot spreads because lawyers are the most ubiquitous and most glorified professionals in the USA. An American is more likely to go through life without needing a doctor than without needing a lawyer! Lawyers are very important role models in the USA. And lawyers simply love obfuscatory verbiage because they make documents sound impressive.

I scratch my head whenever I see “including but not limited to….” The word “including” is completely adequate here; it needs no bells and whistles. The clothes in my closet include shirts, but they are not limited to shirts: I have pants and jackets too. It is IMPOSSIBLE to find a case where “including” implies that what is included constitutes the whole category under reference. To see this clearly, draw a rectangle and inside it draw a circle. Your rectangle includes the circle but is not limited to the circle: there are things (areas) that lie within the rectangle but outside the circle.

So whenever I see that “…but not limited to” I delete it. My lawyer does not seem to notice the deletion; or he does not mind because he knows it is totally tautological: it adds no meaning or clarification.

What of “in any way, shape, or form”? What distinction do “shape” and “form” add to the phrase? How about “in and of and by itself”? “In itself “is adequate and everything else there is tautology. While we may blame such chain-link deployment of prepositions on lawyers eager to impress us, there is a new kind of preposition that is more baffling, and the origin of which is more nebulous. English usage in America seems to have evolved a new preposition, “offof”: as in “Get your hand offof me!” Or is it off-of? Ofof? Of-of? I guess I’ve never seen it in writing, so anything goes here. What is wrong with saying just “off” (“Get your hands off me”)?

Such creations start when someone makes a mistake and others latch onto it as a new style. An apparently even more recent creation is “The problem is is…” What is the second “is” doing here? Someone probably heard a speaker say “What this is, is a mistake,” (which is correct English) and the listener (who cannot “hear” the comma after the first “is”) then thought that “is is” is cute. A similar nonsense is “the reason being is….” One can say, “I came late. The reason is that I missed my bus.” Or you can join the two sentences into one by changing is to being: “I came late, the reason being that I missed my bus.” But you can’t keep both is and being together right there (and say: I came late, the reason being is….”

One suspects that such mangled sentence formulation comes from the American habit of taking our cues from “celebrities.” Celebrities are persons who have achieved fame through their hard work (one hopes) in specific, narrow spheres of human endeavor. Such achievement does not make them all-round gurus. In fact, in most cases a celebrity status was attained through the habit of practicing just one role in life and, unfortunately, devoting less time or none at all to education. The child who watches lots of movies but pays scant attention to her English teacher at school is likely to become an adult who speaks gobbledygook!

American children (and increasingly children the world over) learn much more from television than from school, for two reasons. One is that much more time is devoted to TV watching than to school work or home work. Another is that the presenters on TV (including actors especially) are spellbinding because they are cute, while the harried teachers in class are drab. So perhaps our society can ameliorate he problem by requiring that script writers for TV programs be quite literate and competent!

 

A FEMALE MAN?

(Posted March 11, 2015)

 

WHO IS A “GERWOMAN”?

The ascendancy of women in occupations previously dominated by men is brewing some headaches in nomenclature.

When I was in college ages ago, the head of a committee or of an academic department used to be called “chairman.” Then an intrepid crop of trailblazing women rose to those tasks and we began to say: “chairwoman,” “chairperson,” or just “chairman.” I believe we are still vacillating between those options. But then, at an animated campus round-table, I heard a feisty woman describe her field of study as “herstory.” Only the knowing smirks around the table revealed to me what she meant. Sure: If “history” is OK, why not “herstory” (or, really, “hertory”). Academic disciplines should give equal billing to women. Right? Well….

In my father’s time it was perfectly fine to say: “Everyone should speak his mind” and not worry that females were being excluded from speaking their minds. In my own time we hedged our bets and said, “Everyone should speak his or her mind.” Clumsy, yes, but it kept the feminists mollified. Later, the need for brevity AND gender-neutrality led to the ungrammatical but irresistibly succinct, “Everyone should speak their mind.”

The use of the masculine pronoun to represent the human race has been in retreat ever since. Some now even claim that God is a woman. Why not? When referring to the deity why don’t we stop using the pronoun “he” and replace with “it”?

And so we are now at a point where anything is possible. Recently a lady on television was introduced as an “ombudswoman” for Medicaid patients. OMBUDSMAN is not an English word; it comes from Swedish, and the “man” at the end of it does not really mean “male person.” One must wonder whether Swedes would approve of this overly creative adaptation of their word for a designated arbiter between government and citizen. Unfortunately, that silly coinage is enabled by no less an “authority” than the Yahoo Dictionary (dictionary.search.yahoo.com ), which, in this day and age, defines ombudsman as “a man who….” (Yahoo could simply have said “person” instead of “man.”)

If the trend continues we may end up calling a female from Germany a “Gerwoman” instead of a German; and we may come to have both manpower and “womanpower” in the American workforce, all under the leadership of managers and “womanagers.”

Who is responsible for the coinage of new English words, anyway?

Come on, guys (and girls?): Do you have an instance of feminist nomenclature gone too far, or not far enough? Want to share it with us?

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KNOW WHAT I MEAN?

(Posted January 05, 2015)

The dynamics of English language can be baffling to non-native speakers trained in the tradition of formal/written usage (as opposed to the colloquial/vernacular). US English is especially quirky. An ad for Rosetta Stone (the language learning tutorial) states that the average American does not speak a second language. That may not matter these days when the whole world is gravitating to English language under the spell of America. What may be troubling is the question of whether the average American has sufficient mastery of English, especially for written communication.  In the book MOTHER TONGUE AND HOW IT GOT THAT WAY, an oriental businessman is quoted as telling his countrymen not to be daunted because they might make mistakes when expressing themselves to Americans in English: “They cannot speak their own language, anyway!” he said. He is right: US English can seem like a lot of babbling! While we may find Americanisms charming and catchy in colloquial usage, some of it is incongruous in written communication. The distinction between colloquial and written English is often ignored in the USA these days. The rot is spreading furiously now that everyone feels emancipated from restraint and entitled to write as they please without oversight.

English language is, so to speak, the final frontier of an all-too-familiar steam-rolling American dominance in world affairs. British imperialism planted English language in all corners of the globe and US military, economic, and social dominance consolidates that trend, making English a second language for nearly everyone on the globe. But whereas the British required all users of the language to conform to a rigid structure in grammar and syntax, US English is free-wheeling, in keeping with the irrepressible individuality of Americans. As bold initiators of change in our world, with boundless drive and a cultivated disregard for how things are done anywhere else, Americans are changing English rapidly ― for better and for worse. US English is, ultimately, an expression of the hegemony of a peerless and pushy people.

At first the US immigrant from a former British colony is intimidated by the honey-smooth flow of the American accent. He starts to copy the style, warts and all, just to be “with it” and to get along. He begins to pronounce the second month of the year as “Ferb-you-wary” (which seems to be OK because even British commentators now use that pronunciation). Then he gets a note from his college-educated boss saying “We may loose [sic] work days do [sic] to bad weather,” and he begins to wonder: Does anyone care anymore? Do Americans use the dictionary? Do they really learn English in high school? Does the use of correct English matter at all?

Declension of pronouns is muddled ― so that presidential candidate Bill Clinton once kicked off his cross-country bus tour with the folksy message to rally attendees: “If you have any questions send them to Al Gore and I.…” (Did anyone understand that Mr. Clinton was saying: “Send your questions to Al Gore and/or send them to I”?) Verb conjugation is going too. “If I was you” is much more common than the correct formulation, “If I were you.” We may overlook oddities of colloquial expression; otherwise we alienate too many people, for instance by observing that the “dee-poh” in Home Depot (or the “deb-you” for debut) is really neither French nor English but a higgledy-piggledy amalgam of both languages. But what of errors in written communication? Should we ignore them too? Must I guess the meaning behind your sentence? If so, at what point shall we become mutually unintelligible?

Ask Johnny how he’s doing and he will reply: “I’m doing good.” Not long ago that would have meant that he was performing charitable deeds! Perhaps because of its ending in “ly,” the word “likely” has morphed entirely from adjective to adverb. Casting a sentence in the subjunctive mood was always challenging at best with its troublesome requirement of a verb in the infinitive tense; now it is altogether a lost art. Actually, it has been said that whereas the British have only recently begun to fudge the subjunctive mood, Americans never bought into it in the first place.

Among the most noticeable changes in written English (one hesitates to call modern American popular writing “literature”) is, that the hyphen is following the semi-colon and the serial comma into oblivion. Those changes in punctuation style are accelerated by the proliferation of text editing features embedded in nearly all software and textual apps we use. If you are reading this text on an electronic screen you will notice several words or phrases underlined in blue or red. Many instances of such machine editing turn out to be wrong, and if you click on the underlined passage you are apt to receive a wild and horrible suggestion for an alternative! All it shows is that those hidden text editors are no better-informed than the persons who wrote them in the first place. I almost always ignore all the editing prompts in MS Word. (Most useless and ubiquitous is the prompt that says, “Fragmentary; consider revising.”)

FUNDRAISING, SHOPLIFTING and THANKSGIVING are similar constructions: in each case a noun is formed by plugging a gerund onto another noun, in the lego style that is quite common in the German language. One can imagine that not long ago the preferred style was to connect the noun and gerund with a hyphen; however, the hyphen is becoming extinct. If you change the gerund to its verb of origin the similarity between the three words vanishes. “They shoplifted” is OK but not “They fundraised” or “They thanksgave.” If you wonder why that is so then you are getting to the heart of the matter, the very spirit of this blog. What is right or wrong in English language is often not a matter of logic, of rhyme or reason. Good English is to a large extent idiomatic, and idioms are a matter of conformity, acquired by learning (aka imitation) rather than by I-too-can-improvise derring-do.

 

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MIND YOUR LANGUAGE

 

This is a new site, full of hope and trepidation! What you can expect to see at this site are the issues and snafus that attend communication between people in the USA.

This blog is driven primarily by an interest in those peculiarities of the American scene which reflect nothing so much as a desire to be defiantly different, to blaze your own trail. Such as calling a game “football” when it is almost never played with the foot (and with utter disregard for the billions of people the world over who play their football with the foot); riding to the moon and beyond in spacecraft that still measure quantities in “bushels,” “inches,” and “pounds,” with implicit disdain for the rest of humanity who have coalesced completely around metric mensuration for generations now; such as the blustery assertion, “I don’t want no nothin’ from nobody.”

The American gusto for improvisation fosters innovation, yes; but also quite often it leaves you scratching your head. Please come in! You scratch my head and I will scratch yours, OK?