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I began life as a copy editor, which means, I had to know my commas and em-dashes. My spelling had to be impeccable and I memorized the Associated Press Style Book, which taught me that the color was spelled g-r-a-y, not g-r-e-y. Except in “greyhound,” that is. 

It is a line of work I fell into quite naturally, because from the second grade on, I have had a talent for words. I diagrammed sentences on the blackboard that had the visual complexity of the physics formulae written on his whiteboard by Sheldon Cooper. I managed to use my 10 weekly vocabulary words, tasked with writing sentences for each, by writing one sentence using all ten. I did OK with math, but it was never anything that much interested me, but words were another thing. I ate them up like chocolate cake. 

The upshot is that I am a prime candidate for the position as “Grammar Cop,” bugging those around me for making mistakes in spelling, punctuation and usage. And, admittedly, in the past, I have been guilty. But as age softens me, I have largely given up correcting the mistaken world. And I have a different, more complex relationship with language, less strict and more forgiving. 

The cause for this growing laxness are multiple. Certainly age and exhaustion are part of it. But there is also the awareness that language is a living, growing, changing thing and that any attempt to capture it in amber is a futile endeavor. 

But although I have come to accept many changes in speech that I once cringed at — I can now take “their” in the singular (“Everyone should wash their hands”) and have long given up on “hopefully” — there are still a handful of tics that I cannot get over. I try, but when I hear them uttered by a news anchor or starlet on a talk show, I jump a little, as if a sharp electric shock were applied to my ear. 

The first is “I” used in the objective case. It gives me the shivers. “He gave the award to Joan and I.” It gets caught in my throat like a cat’s fur ball. 

The second is using “few” for “less.” I know that the usage has largely changed, but it still assaults my ear when I hear, “There will be less pumpkins this Halloween, due to the drought.” Ugh. 

A third is the qualified “unique,” as in, “His hairstyle is very unique.” It’s either unique or it isn’t. 

Then there are common mispronunciations. “Ek-setera” is just awful. Although, I did once know someone who always gave it its original Latin sounding: “Et Caetera” or “Et Kye-ter-a.” Yes, that was annoying, too. 

The last I’ll mention here is the locution, “centered around.” Gets my goat every time. Something may be “centered on” a focus point, or “situated around” something, but “centered around” is geometrically obtuse unless you’re discussing Nicholas of Cusa’s definition of the deity, whose center is everywhere and circumference is nowhere. 

Others have their own bugaboos. One friend cannot get past the confusion between “lay” and “lie.” She also jumps every time someone uses “begging the question,” which is misused 100 times for every once it is understood. 

Of course, she may be more strict than I am. “There have been errors so egregious that I’ve stopped reading a book,” she says. “I just stomp my foot and throw the book away.” 

Her excuse: “I was an English major.” 

There are many other issues that bother me, but not quite so instantly. I notice when the subjunctive is misused, or rather, not used when it should be. If I were still an editor, I would have fixed that every time. 

I am not sure I will ever get used to “like” used for “said.” And I’m like, whoever started that linguistic monstrosity? I also notice split infinitives as they sail past, but I recognize that the prohibition against them is a relic of Victorian grammarians. It is too easy to lazily give in to those ancient strictures. 

So far, I’ve only been talking about catches in speech, although they show up in print just as often (you can actually come across “ect.” for “etc.”) But reading a book, or a newspaper or a road sign and seeing the common errors there can be even more annoying. There is probably nothing worse, or more common, than the apostrophe plural. You don’t make something plural by adding an apostrophe and an “S.” “Nail’s” is not the plural for “nails.” This is encountered endlessly on shop signs. 

And digital communication is fraught with homophone confusion. “They’re,” “there,” and “their,” for instance, or “you’re,” and “your.” I admit that occasionally this is just a mental hiccup as you are typing. We all make mistakes. I have sometimes put a double “O” after a “T” when I mean a preposition. That’s just a typo. But there are genuinely people who don’t seem to notice the difference with “to,” “too,” and “two.” (I have great tolerance, however, for the ideogrammatic usage of “2” for “to” in electronic messaging. I find it kind of amusing to see the innovation in space-saving for Twitter and e-mail. I may even have been guilty myself of such things. Indeed, there is a long history of this sort in handwritten letters in the 15th to 18th centuries, when “William” was often “Wm,” and “through” was often “thro.” Paper was expensive and abbreviations saved space.)

Some frequent typological absurdities make me twitch each time. I really hate seeing a single open-quote used instead of an apostrophe when a word is abbreviated from the front end. You almost never see “rock ’n’ roll” done correctly. 

There are lesser offenses, too, that I usually let pass. “Impact” as a verb, for instance. It bothers me, but the only people who use it tend to write such boring text that I couldn’t wade through it anyway. (I wrote about the management class mangling of the language in what I call “Manglish.”) “Different than” has become so normalized for “different from” that I’m afraid it has become standard English. Of course, the English themselves tend to say “different to.” So there. 

There are distinctions that have been mostly lost in usage. “Can I” now means the same as “May I” in most circumstances, and almost no one still makes a distinction between “shall” and “will.” 

Many of us have idiosyncratic complaints. I knew someone who complained that “laundermat” was not a word. We saw such a one on Vancouver Island when visiting. “It should be ‘laundromat,’” she said, arguing the parallel with “automat.” 

Another cringes at “would of,” “should of,” and “could of” in place of “would have,” “should have,” and “could have.” But this is merely a mishearing of the contractions “would’ve,” “should’ve,” and “could’ve” and turning them into print. Yes, it should be corrected, but it doesn’t get under my skin when I hear it. 

And there are regionalisms that bother some, although I glory in the variety of language. One person I know complains about such phrases as “had went,” but that is a long-standing Southernism and gets a pass, as far as I’m concerned. 

And much else is merely idiom. If you get too exercised about “I could care less,” please relax. It means the same thing as “I couldn’t care less.” Merely idiomatic. Lots of grammatical nonsense is now just idiomatic English. Like when the doorbell rings and you ask “Who’s there?” and the answer comes back, “It’s me.” If you hear “It is I,” you probably don’t want to open the door. No one talks like that. It could be a spy whose first language is not English. Better ask if they know who plays second base for the Brooklyn Dodgers (old movie reference). 

And the Associated Press hammered into me the habit of writing “past week” instead of “last week,” on the principle that the previous seven days had not, indeed, been terminal. You can take these things too far — but I am so far brainwashed not to have given in. “Past week,” it will always be. 

I may have become lax on certain spelling and grammar guidelines, but one should still try one’s best to be clear, make sense, include antecedents for one’s pronouns and be clear about certain common mistakes. “Discreet” and “discrete” are discrete words. And someone I know who used to transcribe her boss’s dictated letters once corrected him when he said a client should be “appraised” of the situation and typed instead, “apprised.” He brought her the letter back and complained that she had misspelled “appraised.” Being a man and being in management, he could not be persuaded he was wrong. She had to retype the letter with the wrong word. There’s just nothing you can do with some people. 

Language is just usage at the moment. It shifts like the sands at the beach, what was “eke” to Chaucer is “also” to us. What was “conscience” to Shakespeare is “consciousness” to us. Thus does conscience make grammar cops of us all. We don’t learn our mother tongue, we acquire it and what we hear as babes becomes normal usage. Ain’t it the truth?

“What do you read, my lord?”
“Words, words, words.”

words words words

For 25 years, I made my living by writing words. In all, some two and a half million of them, writing an average of three stories a week. Yet, in all that time, I had an underlying mistrust of language, a sense that, even if I could still diagram a compound-complex sentence on a blackboard, the structure I saw in chalk did not necessarily mirror the structure of things I saw around me in the world before it is named. The one was neat and tidy, the other was wooly and wiggly.

A good deal of misery and misunderstanding derives from a failure to recognize that the logic of language and that of the real world are not the same.

tomatoWe find this in simple form whenever someone tells you that, for instance, “a tomato is not a vegetable, it is a fruit.” This is a sorry assertion. A tomato is neither animal nor mineral, therefore, it is a vegetable. But, of course, that is not what is meant. In common usage, we use the word, “fruit,” to name a sweet edible and “vegetable” to name a savory. But “vegetable” is also an umbrella word, describing all things vegetative. To aver that a tomato is not a vegetable is to confuse these two usages, and therefore to make an assertion both pedantic and ignorant.

More importantly, this doesn’t really say anything about the Solanum lycopersicum, but about the categories we use language to establish. It is an argument not about the berry (and that is the technical term for the red globe you slice onto your salad), but about the English language.

Whales GoldsmithOr consider this: “A whale is not a fish.” When such a statement is made, it does not discuss whales or fish, but rather, makes a claim about language. The whale is unaffected by the words and fish swim happily past it. But it is a discussion about the categories of nouns: We choose to make the definition of the two classes mutually exclusive. A whale is a mammal.

But it needn’t be so. Through the 18th century, a whale was a fish. Jonah was swallowed by a “great fish.” Anything torpedo-shaped that swims in the sea by the action of its fins was considered a fish. A whale was a very large fish, who just happened to be one that gave birth to live young and suckled them. It was an idiosyncrasy of the whale, just as it is an idiosyncrasy of the salmon that it swims upriver to spawn.

spinous and testaceous fish goldsmithgoldsmith crustaceous fishIn fact, if you read Oliver Goldsmith’s “History of the Earth and Animated Nature,” the best-selling nature book of its century, the category “fish,” also included many other things that live in the watery parts of the world. Whales were “cetaceous fishes,” flounder were “spinous fishes,” sharks were “cartilaginous fishes,” crabs and lobsters were “crustaceous fishes,” and clams and oysters were “testaceous fishes.” It was a perfectly natural way to divide up the various denizens of the undersea. It wasn’t till Carl Linne decided to slice up the world in a new way, based on a combination of skeletal morphology and reproduction, that the whale was surgically removed from the universe of fishes and told to line up on the other side of the room with lemurs, llamas and raccoons. Did the whales even notice?

The basic problem is that language is an intercessor. It sits between experience and understanding. When we approach language, we see only the intercessor — we mistake the priest for the deity.

Words always distort, they always lie. Yet, at bottom, we trust words more than we trust our own eyes. We judge politicians by the labels they are tagged with, not by paying attention to what they actually say or do: Conservative or liberal — when applied to reality, the labels are close to meaningless.

The case may be a little easier to understand in terms of Greek. The ancient Greeks were the first logarchs, they valued verbal meaning over experiential meaning; they actually thought language was a one-to-one descriptor of reality. Their faith is naive to us now. For instance, Zeno’s paradox is only possible in words. Set a tortoise and Achilles out on a race and see if Achilles can’t catch it. No problem. Set it in words, and suddenly, it can’t be done: The problem is entirely in the words, words, words.

sunspotsIt is the logic of language that frustrates Achilles, not the tortoise. It guided how the Greek thought about the world. Polarity, opposites, hidden ironies and surprising conjunctions,  it’s how the language is organized,  even before you even consult reality. So, when the Greek saw language as a mirror of the reality and language posits polarity, it must be because the world is polar. But is it? Opposites are only a linguistic trick. Hot and cold are just relative points on a single thermometer: Sunspots are “cold” places on the sun, even though they are thousands of degrees Farenheit; liquid nitrogen is “warmer” than absolute zero. Linguistic legerdemain.

Even liberals and conservatives are just guys in the same blue suits. They don’t look like a dime’s worth of difference to the Fiji Islander.

By the logic of language, the world is divided into nouns and verbs; look out the window, however, and what you see is the conflation of noun and verb: something very much closer to Ovid’s Metamorphoses: a constant velocity of things ever growing and changing. No noun is static; no verb without its referent.

Marble statue of the ancient greek philosopher PlatoThe issue I have with Plato — aside from his totalitarian fascism — is his faith in an “ideal” of things. The ideal bed, unlike any real bed, is a stultified noun, not a bed. To Plato, the world is cataloged with nouns, only nouns. The perfect human is a form of arrested development. For Plato, the perfect human form is a male figure, age of about 25, all muscle and lithe, with little fat. But a real person is born tiny, grows, ages, marries, has his own bairns, gains experience, grows feeble and dies. Just as a rose isn’t the pretty flower, but a shoot, a bud, a flower, a rose-hip bursting to seed and once more from the top. Over and over. All the world is at every moment changing, growing, shrinking, spreading, running, molting, squawking, collapsing, weeping and rising. It is a churn, not a noun. “Panta horein,” as Heraclitus says: “Everything changes.”

Language is this thin veneer, the shiny surface, the packaging we are cajoled by. Break open the box, and the reality is something else.

It is much like the belief that geometry transcends embodiment. In other words, a triangle is a universal possibility, no matter if one was ever built. It is one of Plato’s ideals. God himself cannot create a four-sided triangle. But to change this “truth,” all we have to do is change our definition of the word. We don’t need a deity to do that, all we need is a lexicographer.

Or better, we can look at the problem a different way: I have written elsewhere (https://richardnilsen.com/2012/06/24/artists-math) that a triangle is a five-sided figure — the three usual sides, plus the top, looking down on it, and the bottom, resting on the desk. You can turn any triangle over from its back and lay it on its belly. triangleIf triangles exist in the world of things, they must have five sides. Language, like the axioms in geometry, pales in comparison to the real world of mud and bricks. There are 300,000 words defined in the Oxford English Dictionary, but that is an infinitesimal number compared with the number of things, acts, colors and sizes in the phenomenological world. There are an infinitely large number of things in the universe for which there are no words.

Take this, for instance. Here, where two walls meet is a corner. But where the wall and the ceiling meet? What is its name? In English, it has none.

Or this place on the wall — it is named the “center.” But this point, just as real, only a few inches from the center, is nameless and so is the one a few inches beyond that.

starsNames are like the stars in the sky, only points, between which is an infinity of space, just as real as the stars.

Language is feeble. It is up to us to see the space between the words, to recognize the feelings between the signpost emotions of hate, joy, anger, sadness — this million slight inflections that are nameless.

Up to us to explore the confusing rush of sense data, the confusing signals of society and nature, the overwhelming input that we censor with our language, allowing only those portions that sport nametags, as if they were Shriners at a convention.

It is up to us to recognize and celebrate all the things, times, places, acts, flavors, feelings, breath and abysses that don’t have names, to enjoy the cold floor and sunlight coming through the window in the morning when the birds haven’t yet begun chattering.