15 January 2011

Language

[Preface: Upon reading this a second time, it reminds me of a medieval codex found in (what's now called) Italy. It was written by a frustrated Latin teacher who kept admonishing his students, "It's not [x], it's [y]!" Of course, to future linguists this discovery was a gold mine: this frustrated teacher's 'corrections' were markers showing the evolution from Latin to Italian. So before reading the following treatise, remember: if you think any of it strange or unwieldy, take comfort in the fact that many of the 'mistakes' I point out will likely be the rules of English in future centuries. But since you are living in the here and now, well, they are still just mistakes...]

My random ravings on language usage:

1) Incorrect usage of the words 'irony' and 'ironic'. I don't understand why people feel the need to use such words if they don't understand the meaning. Do people just generally feel they should know the meaning, so maybe they use these words to overcompensate? Why? There is no reason why everyone should get irony, any more than everyone should get, say, skydiving. I don't get spatial reasoning, so I avoid giving directions and I do my best to avoid maps at all costs. I don't go out of my way to volunteer as a navigator to overcompensate for this deficiency. I am also terrible at remembering names.* I do not offer to introduce people at parties to overcompensate for this failing. And that's OK. It's who I am. So why do people who do not understand the concept of irony feel the need to use the word and its adjectival form so much? I blame Alanis Morrisette. Her rather silly song shoved the word into popular use, despite the fact that her use of it was almost entirely off base. There is nothing ironic about rain on your wedding day. It's just sad and unfortunate. A traffic jam when you're already late is annoying, but not ironic. A no-smoking sign on a cigarette break? Also just a sad bit of luck.** What's worse, people often use these words when they in fact mean precisely the opposite of irony. Example: "Ironically, the prisoner was captured as he was dashing out of the prison yard." That is exactly what one would expect to happen! But there is a delightful irony in all this: people using the exact wrong and opposite word when saying 'irony', is itself a form of irony, so this suddenly got all meta. Anyway, the point is, be hereby absolved of any need to understand the words 'ironic' and 'irony'. You are liberated! So just stop using them!

2) People making pretentious attempts at using what they deem 'fancy' grammar words...and then failing to use them correctly. I am a bit of a self-confessed grammar nazi, in the sense that I recoil at poor grammar when I find it in places one should least expect it, e.g. newspapers, books, etc. So it's ironic*** that I am in fact not really a normative grammarian at all when it comes to everyday speech and informal writing. Even in formal writing, it doesn't bother me terribly, as long as the rules are broken for the sake of fluidity and clarity. For example, take the 'split infinitive'. First of all, it's a stupid rule, and believe it or not, it is relatively new and quite artificial. But new or old, avoiding splitting infinitives leads to tortured word order and poor clarity in many cases. So why bother? Proper grammar and syntax are supposed to be instruments that facilitate communication. The moment they become a hindrance, dispense with them. It's that simple. But when writing formally, just make sure you know the rules before you break them.

Examples of people attempting to use 'fancy' grammar:

a) Who v Whom. If you don't know the difference, just always say 'who'! It's fine. I promise. Even I won't judge you for it!**** 'Whom' is a word on its way out anyway. Why? Because language is the most democratic thing ever devised. In the end, the majority always wins. If it didn't, Italians would still be speaking Latin. So, like 'may' v 'can', 'whom' will soon be a relic. Even I don't bother with it all the time. But for the record, the difference is relatively simple: 'Who' is always a subject of a verb. 'Whom' is always an object.***** Some people simply can't get their heads around this. And you know what? That's FINE! So just say 'who' all the time! Nobody cares! Just don't sound foolish by using 'whom' incorrectly, because then you sound pretentious (for attempting to use a word you do not understand) AND foolish (for said lack of understanding). And to be fair, it can be hard to get the concept sometimes, because it is not a function of syntax, despite what many people believe. In other words, just because the word you're looking for is not *immediately* followed by a verb belonging to it, doesn't mean 'who' is the incorrect choice. Classic example: "Whom shall I say is calling?" Sounds fancy, huh? It's wrong. It's easy to think that the 'shall' belongs to the 'I' (which it does) and thus that the 'whom' must be an object; but it isn't: it is the subject of 'is calling'. So it should be "Who shall I say is calling?" The easiest way to untangle these things is to play with the word order a bit. "I shall say whom is calling?" You would never say "'whom' is calling" there, right, because it's obvious it should be 'who' as a subject, no? So don't use 'whom' in the other formulation: just because the word order has changed, doesn't mean the grammar has.

b) 'Fancy' (mis)use of pronouns. WHY on Earth do people feel that nominative versions of pronouns are somehow 'fancier' than accusative ones? They aren't. Nominative means it's the subject of a verb. Accusative means it is the object. (Technically, accusative means it is simply the object of a verb, but in practice, since English doesn't really get into the weeds on variants based on case, for all intents and purposes****** we can say an object of anything, e.g. of a preposition within an adverbial phrase, etc.) So when people try to sound pretentious and say, "The letter was addressed to she and I", I cringe. Would you ever say "She did it to I" or "I did it to she"? No. So why would a letter be addressed to "I"? Answer: you think it sounds cool. Stop it.

But the worst (to my ears) is misuse of reflexive pronouns. You sound ridiculous when you say, "It was given to John and myself"! Or "She gave the letter to myself". Only you can do something to 'yourself'.******* Someone else does it to 'you'. "I sent the letter to myself" v "She sent the letter to me". And when you use it incorrectly, you sound so pretentious, because it's obvious you think it sounds 'elegant'...but it's not; it's just plain wrong.

c) 'Fancy' use of adverbs...when you really want an adjective. Classic example: "I feel badly." If you feel badly, it means your ability to feel is something you do poorly. If you mean that your state of being/mind is bad, then "You feel bad". Verbs like 'feel' and 'smell', when used intransitively, convey a meaning that is basically the same as 'to be'. Take 'smell'. If you smell badly, it is the manner in which you are capable of smelling, so you are saying your sense of smell is poor. If you smell bad, it is a state of being, so go take a shower.

A similar issue arises when one joins two words that are essentially subjects using a 'copulative'******** verb. That's why it is technically "It is I", because "to be" is an intransitive verb, so there is no object and both components are thus subjects joined by the copulative verb. But this is where democratization of language wins out: most people treat the second subject as an object and it is perfectly natural to do so, so someone reading this in 100 years will likely have learned that "It is me" is the correct way to go.

3) 'Literally'. Christ on a crutch, please stop using this word. My head literally explodes when you do. See, if that were true, I wouldn't be writing, since a coroner would be picking up pieces of my skull right now. 'Literally' is not a synonym for 'very' or 'really'. It is meant to distinguish between something meant figuratively (e.g. "My head is about to explode" => Shut up) v literally (e.g. "My head is about to explode" => Get the Windex and a towel). Sadly, I hear even (supposedly) educated people abusing this one. I recently heard a reporter announce that an issue was "literally tearing the country apart." Leave that to earthquakes, please. And just as the case with 'irony', it is OK if you don't get it; just don't use it. Sadly, the aforementioned democratization of language means there will soon be a permanent semantic shift in favor of making 'literally' mean 'really' or 'very'. Normally I would accept that with grace, but in this case it is too bad because we will have lost a word that is actually quite useful. But something else will take its place sooner or later. That's the beauty of language.

4) 'i.e.' v 'e.g'. This is a really easy mistake to avoid. Just imagine yourself saying 'that is' v 'for example', e.g. "We were stuck, i.e., we weren't going anywhere." Think of it this way: e.g offers examples that are a subset of the universe, while i.e. simply renames that universe. "I ate lots of things, e.g. apples, bananas, etc.". E.g => because these are just some examples of the many things I ate. "I ate lots of things, i.e. I had quite a variety." I.e. just restates the matter. If it helps, 'i.e' really does mean 'that is' in Latin ("id est"), so that's an easy way to remember it. E.g. means 'exempli gratia', 'for the sake of example'. And you know what? English is a beautiful, flexible language on its own. So if in doubt, just dump the stuffy Latin altogether! Just say 'that is' and 'for example'! You will use those properly every time! And why is Latin a better alternative to English anyway? Aside from the convenience of abbreviation, I see no advantage.

5) Pronoun number consistency. Example: "I am not sure exactly which candidate we'll pick, but they will be qualified." This is an unfortunate side-effect of English's lack of a more flexible set of pronouns, combined with an increasing sensitivity about excluding women from general statements. The correct form is to say 'he or she' (or 'him or her' if accusative), e.g. "I am not sure which candidate we'll pick, but he or she will be qualified." It used to be common simply to say "...he will be qualified", but that's quite understandably and necessarily a no-no these days (unless of course it's, say, a sperm donor, in which case let's safely stick to the masculine pronoun). On the written level, I have a convenient short-hand for this: "...but s/he will be qualified."

This is probably an uphill battle, though. The fact is, using two pronouns, e.g. 'he or she', is just too cumbersome. It's a pity we can't just make up some nice neutral pronoun. If we had the equivalent of an Académie Française, I guess we could give it a shot. But I for one am quite happy that English lacks such a dictatorial governing body. One of the main things I adore about English is its amazing dynamism and creativity; any governing body would soon beat those traits out of it. Still, it's hard not to look with some envy at languages that have more flexible pronouns. For example, when I hear 'we' in English, there is always the ambiguity: do I mean you and I are the subjects? Or do I mean some third party + me as opposed to you? In other words, are you part of the 'we'? In many languages, this is solved by having two pronouns for 'we': one meaning the speaker and the person to whom s/he is speaking, another one meaning the speaker and someone other than her/his interlocutor. But I am getting off on a tangent here. Some other day, I will waste your time talking about comparative linguistics.

6) Lay v lie. This is actually very easy. Lay is a transitive verb. Lie is not. A chicken lays an egg. You don't 'lie' anything. You just lie, e.g. "I lie in bed." You don't "lie an egg". BUT, and here's where it does get a bit tricky, the past tense of the intransitive 'lie' is...'lay'. Sorry about that. So it's: "I lie in bed today", "I lay in bed yesterday", "I have lain in bed since last week". "I lay an egg today", "I laid an egg yesterday", "I have laid three eggs since last week". (What can I say, I'm one busy chicken.)

But again, language as democracy says that at some point, these two verbs will simply fuse into one verb with a single conjugation, but with two meanings: one transitive, one intransitive. And you know what? That's fine. There's a word for languages that don't change, evolve and adapt: dead.

OK, that was fun! But I am literally dying of hunger. Ironic since I haven't eaten in ages. But whom is responsible for that? It's me. I guess I should feel badly, e.g., I feel guiltily. So I shan't just lay about waiting for dinner! I have a guest coming, so I should prepare something for them.


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Footnotes:

*Seriously, it's embarrassing. But it only seems to apply to living people. I can tell you who succeeded Thomas Moore, who faced William the Conqueror at Hastings...but I couldn't tell you a single name of a single person I met at a recent party.

**She wasn't entirely off. For example, conquering one's fear of flying just in time to board a doomed flight is indeed ironic.

***Yes, ironic.

****Well, maybe a little. But we'll both get over it.

*****In the mood for more delicious irony? In every sentence in which I have used 'whom' so far, it has been a subject of a verb, in direct contradiction to what I just said. But this is in the same way 'me' is a verb in this clause: it is referring to the entity/concept v actually using the word in a sentence. Like saying "'Me' is a word in English."

******Not 'all intensive purposes'...minor pet peeve.

*******Settle down!

********You in the back! Stop that snickering!

3 comments:

  1. You forgot the lie vs lay rant...

    And will you be taking on excessive exclamation points, apostrophes, and ellipses next?

    ReplyDelete
  2. YES!!!!! Lay in wait....I will be taking these thing's on to. ;-)

    ReplyDelete
  3. There, Elizabeth, added lay v lie just for you!

    ReplyDelete