Yes, 5 Words Can Ruin it for You

After a week of heightened tension with North Korea making all of the headlines, it’s important to keep things in perspective. Many of us forget that it only takes a few incorrect words (5 to be exact) to create epic linguistic disasters of the same importance as a potential nuclear threat. Or so the mavens would have us believe.

One outlet gave us the click bait hyperlink “5 Words You’re Probably Saying Wrong.”

From the Huffington Post. 4/12/2013

From the Huffington Post. 4/12/2013

Fortunately, the author of the piece, William B. Bradshaw, chose the title “How Do I Say It?” to address the five most frequent inquiries about pronunciation: either, neither, tomato, harass, and Caribbean. To be fair, his conclusion was that all of these words have multiple accepted pronunciations. Though I acknowledge that his position on either is more nuanced, I disagree on his assertion that the preferred pronunciation of either is e-ther. This article, at least, is not quite so maven-esque.

Another news site didn’t even bother to provide its own content but chose to hyperlink another article published five months prior, “5 Words That Make You Sound Stupid.” The focus of this piece was five commonly used crutch words. The author, Mariam Jehangir, describes crutch words as follows:

Dictionary.com compiled a short list of these words that we carelessly slip into sentences to give ourselves more time to think and, in doing so, ruin the sentence. These so-called “crutch words” detract from your main message and don’t add useful meaning to your statement. (emphasis added).

Examples include:

Actually

Basically

Honestly

Like

Literally

In linguistics, these so-called crutch words are called fillersThe author is correct in noting that they give us more time to think. But she missed their other, more important role. They signal to others that we have paused to think but are not finished speaking. When speaking, most of us use fillers at some point. There is nothing careless about their use. They don’t ruin our sentences. And they don’t detract from our main message unless we use too many of them. And they certainly don’t make us sound stupid. They are natural parts of our spoken language (shared with many other languages) used by the vast majority of us. If they make us sound stupid to some rare person out there, too bad for them for not understanding how language works.

If someone were to correct your use of honestly:

Um, excuse me, but you just used the word “honestly” like a crutch word. “Honestly” should only be used to add meaningful honesty to your sentence.

then you will know you are speaking to a maven and, as such, have my permission to ignore them. Let their correction become part of the white noise in the background and carry on. The bellicose rhetoric of the grammar mavens is inversely proportional to any semblance of relevance they think they have.

There is a bright side to these nearly worthless salvos in the grammar war. More often than not, in the comments section we will find mavens getting caught and called out in their own errors.  I’ll leave you with one exchange found in the Jehangir article:

obongo replied:

You are wrong, the most over used phrase is “you know”. Just count the number of times some of these slow thinkers use that phrase because they usually cannot think in straight lines to express a cogent thought.

PotKettle replied:

“Overused” is one word, so I guess you won’t be joining the elite caste of fast thinkers any time soon.

Priceless.

© 2013 Jay P Laughlin

And now, there’s an “M-word”

At first I was stunned by the very idea. Another word that is so shocking to our sensibilities that we can only refer to it by its initial letter. One more word that so scrambles our intellects that we cannot comprehend the use-mention distinction and, therefore, are forbidden to mention. But what is it?Untitled

Brace yourselves…

Ma’am.

The stun turned to anger as I thought, “Really? Ma’am?”

As it turned out, the title on the front page of the HuffPo was not the same chosen by the author, Ronna Benjamin, a much more reasonable “Don’t Call Me Ma’am.”

The subject is not just of academic interest to me, it is also personal. As a child growing up in the American Deep South, I was taught that addressing a woman with ma’am was a sign of respect. We said it to our mothers, grandmothers, teachers, women we didn’t know, and even, if you wanted to both show respect and delight her, your much younger sister.

My first experience of culture shock  (though, admittedly, a mild case of it) after moving to the Pacific Northwest was the first time I was rebuked for saying ma’am to someone. She was offended. It was a passing encounter and I had no opportunity to explain myself. At first, the encounter had no effect on my use of the word. But after it happened a few more times I became hesitant to use it. I cannot say that I’ve quit using it (30+ years of usage doesn’t just vanish that easily) but  I can say that the frequency has declined.

I read Ronna Benjamin’s article with a hint of indignation for the first half. “No, that’s just not it,” I kept saying as she expressed her belief that it was never appropriate to address a woman as ma’am because she thought it meant “old.”

Ma’am, to many of us, is similar to sir when addressing a man. It is a manner of showing respect. What are our other choices to show respect if we get rid of it? We could extend the contraction back out and say madame but that has negative connotations of its own (one who operates a brothel). Or, we could replace the French with its English counterpart my lady. As much as I love the expression I think we’d sound rather foolish saying yes/no, m’lady or thank you, m’lady.

I must admit that about halfway through the article, I was getting frustrated.

But that’s just where her piece started to change. After asking her son if he used it, he replied, “All the time. It is polite.” In the end, after listening to her son and examining the words origins, she changed her mind about the use of ma’am.

I was pleased. But part of me still felt annoyance at the HuffPo’s choice of title. The “m-word”? I understand the logic…reel them in by suggesting a new “unsayable,” even worse, an “unprintable.” What a gimmick. [edit: I have since learned the term for this is called click bait].

Ronna Benjamin, thank you. I appreciate your effort to understand and your willingness to change your mind. I’m curious as to how ma’am acquired the connotation of “old.”

HuffPo…keep this stuff up and you might become my own h-word.

© 2013 Jay P Laughlin

Even Dictionaries Don’t Always Get It Right

Quoth the Maven:

I was recently informed of a terrible error in the Dictionary of American Regional English. This error is so egregious that it rivals the permissive Webster’s 3rd in lacking the linguistic and authoritarian fortitude to identify proper American Regional English.

The error in question is the word smidget.

Everyone is quite familiar with the abbreviated form smidge, which means a small amount of something and is most often used in reference to food. However, anyone worth their salt knows that the long-form of this word is smidgen. Only the most intellectually slovenly of speakers would ever mispronounce it smiget.

If this error is not corrected, the DARE should surrender all claim to authority on matters of American Regional English. This is at heart a symbol of the permissiveness that has infected our society, our education system, and our families. The very future of our glorious language is at stake.

© 2012 Jay P Laughlin

Usage Poll: Shined or Shone?

After reading my last post, my wife expressed some doubt about the appropriate usage for the past tense of to shine. Her belief that some of the examples were incorrect only emphasized my point. I believe that having both a regular and an irregular past tense of a verb is superfluous and will eventually lead to the loss of the irregular form.

However, the question still remains as to how interchangeable the regular and irregular past tense forms are for the speaker community.

The sentences in question are as follows:

The sun shined on the clear blue lake.

The sun shone on the clear blue lake.

Each of these sentences is considered correct by some authorities while the other is incorrect.  The American Heritage Dictionary suggests that they are interchangeable. So there is no hard and fast rule as to which is correct.

I decided to see what you all think. Are both OK? Do you prefer one over the other?

© 2012 Jay P Laughlin

Out-shined by Norma Loquendi*

Grammar mavens like to complain. One complained recently that the narrator of a history program used an incorrect past tense for the word to shine. The narrator used shined when, as the argument goes, he should have said shone. Of all of the nuanced usage distinctions that mavens sometimes get themselves all worked up over, this is arguably one of the weakest and most useless. The fact that the verb to shine has two past tense forms is an example of unnecessary redundancy in our language.

So what is causing this hullabaloo over the past tense of to shine? Simply put, it’s a matter of whether the verb is used in its transitive or intransitive forms. However, it gets a bit more complicated than that.

The transitive form occurs when the verb has an object and takes the past tense shined. For example:

Mark shined his shoes before going to the dance.

The intransitive form occurs when the verb does not have an object and takes the irregular past tense shone. For example:

The sun shone all day last Saturday.

At this point the distinction is easy enough. True, two past tenses for the same verb is excessive and superfluous, but it’s not difficult to keep straight. But it doesn’t end there.

When the verb is transitive but less active, there is a disagreement over whether the use of shone or shined is appropriate. Consider the following sentences, both of which are considered correct by some but incorrect by others.

The sun shined on the clear blue lake.

The sun shone on the clear blue lake.

Compound the needless distinction of dual past tenses with disagreements over how the distinction is best applied and you have a grammar rule that’s ripe for the garbage bin. In fact, the American Heritage Dictionary, which normally provides an explanation of contentious usage that has been submitted to a usage panel, doesn’t even mention the issue of “less active” transitive usage. In fact, it has the intransitive form taking shone or shinedMore prescriptive than other dictionaries, if the American Heritage Dictionary reports that shone versus shined is optional, then I think it’s safe to say that the distinction is close to disappearing.

Shined will eventually reign. Remember that the rule for forming regular past tenses only requires adding the suffix –ed to the root. The exception to this rule occurs when separate (irregular) past tenses can be provided by memory. In the case of the verb to shine, there is an overlap that does not follow the rule. Given that we tend to obey word forming regularity as we learn our language, a child learning English will default to the regular ending unless some other input (parents, teachers, etc.) introduces the irregular form and its contexts. But this requires that the distinction is held strongly enough that most fluent speakers remember it as well. And as we have seen, the unnamed narrator didn’t remember it, and there is disagreement over whether it is necessary or optional. In this case, I predict that the loser will be irregular shone. And the grammar sticklers risk appearing even more lugubrious than normal by insisting upon keeping it.

*norma loquendi: a lexicographic principle, started by Samuel Johnson, stating that the standards of word meaning and usage are established by the usage customs of the speaker community. In other words, the principle is to report how speakers use language, not dictate how the speakers ought to use the language.

This principle is still in use by lexicographers today for descriptive dictionaries such as the Oxford English Dictionary and Webster’s Third New International Dictionary.

© 2012 Jay P Laughlin

Nudge Nudge, Wink Wink. Say No More

One of the great joys of being a parent is the opportunity to revisit children’s literature, particularly fairy tales. Reading them with an adult eye, however, I was at first surprised at the number of adult themes that are addressed in these classic tales. I sometimes wonder if it is not just my stereotypical male brain that reads too much sexual innuendo into statements that are semantically innocent.

For example, a tale called “East of the Sun and West of the Moon” in Andrew Lang‘s The Blue Fairy Book, tells the story of a prince turned into a bear by some trolls and forced into an engagement with a troll. He finds a girl to marry and the two of them hatch a plan to break the spell and the engagement. When they knew that the plan would work, the story explains:

There was great joy and gladness between them all that night…

Reading this line as a child, I would never have thought more of it other than what it says on the surface – they were glad to have created a plan to escape their predicament. And this interpretation of the text is semantically sound.

However, looking at this sentence through the perspective of pragmatics, there is an implicature that suggests the writer’s intended meaning is beyond the purely semantic. How can we infer that the writer implicates another meaning? H.P. Grice explains implicature as flouting of either the Cooperative Principle or one of it’s maxims. The Cooperative Principle is a description of how people interact in a conversation. It is stated as follows:

Make your conversational contribution such as is required, at the stage at which it occurs, by the accepted purpose or direction of the talk exchange in which you are engaged.

Flouting this principle intentionally could be used to deceive the listener/reader or to convey some other meaning to what is being said. Grice proposed four additional conversational maxims that are special cases of this principle. For this context, I will skip the first three maxims and focus on the fourth which, I believe, reveals the implicature of the sentence in question. (Grice’s full article can be found here).

The Maxim of Manner is “Be perspicuous” followed by four sub-maxims:

  1. Avoid obscurity of expression.
  2. Avoid ambiguity
  3. Be brief (avoid unnecessary prolixity).
  4. Be orderly.

The assumption is that, by following all of these maxims when conversing, semantics will determine the meaning of a given statement. That is, they were glad and experienced great joy at finding a way out of their predicament. Flouting the sub-maxims of obscurity and ambiguity, however, is an attempt to convey a meaning to one party while leaving the meaning unknown to a third party. A common example of this is when adults are speaking around a child and do not want the child to understand all of what is said. The speaker/writer must not be so obscure, however, that the meaning is lost for everyone. Regarding the sentence in question, why did the author not say they rejoiced if that was what he intended to mean? Semantically, they rejoiced is nearly synonymous with the sentence, is far more concise, and less ambiguous.

Presumably, Lang chose the sentence, There was great joy and gladness between them all that night, to implicate (by flouting the maxim) an idea not stated semantically, to say something that he couldn’t say. It conveys a message to an adult reader that (he would hope) would be missed by a child reader. A prince and a maiden, sharing an experience of great joy and gladness, in the prince’s room,… at night and… well…

Nudge nudge. Say no more.

© 2012 Jay P Laughlin

The Case for Foreign Language (and…Middle English?)

The Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) released a report stating that a mediocre or deficient public school system is a threat to national security and prosperity. While I do not agree with all of the reports recommendations (some of which demonstrate a misleading selection of research), I was delighted to see an emphasis on the importance of foreign languages alongside reading, math, and science. I was not so delighted to see, though was not surprised, that American public schools perform so poorly at preparing citizens in foreign languages. Some have criticized the report as too alarmist and a replay of the “Nation at Risk” report from the 1980s. Perhaps. It does appear to highlight the worst of the schools at the expense of great improvements. But if it starts a new conversation about the importance of education in our culture, I commend it.

Regarding foreign language instruction in the US, the report states:

Although the United States is a nation of immigrants, roughly eight in ten Americans speak only English and a decreasing number of schools are teaching foreign languages.

This as another blow to the uninformed proponents of the English-only movement. Clearly, the prevalence of English speakers in the US is not under threat. And the cited lack of quality foreign language instruction available at an early age has a negative impact on (the report says “crippled”) our nation’s “ability to communicate effectively with others in diplomatic, military, intelligence, and business contexts.”  The report goes on to state:

The Task Force does not necessarily believe that every U.S. student should be reading Chinese; indeed, too many are not reading English well enough. However, the group is troubled by the language deficit, and fears that it will prevent U.S. citizens from participating and competing meaningfully, whether in business or diplomatic situations. It will also have a negative impact on government agencies and corporations attempting to hire people knowledgeable about other countries or fluent in foreign languages.

This is a cause for alarm. The lack of access to early and quality foreign language programs affects nearly every aspect of national and economic security.

The latter quote hints at US English deficiencies as well.  In some ways, this trend in mediocrity could be said to extend far beyond language proficiency in the public school systems and into the greater reading culture itself.

Take, for example, publishing efforts that modernize the archaic spelling and language of Middle and Early Modern English. This trend to modernize, for example, the language of Geoffrey Chaucer and William Shakespeare, assumes a diminished intelligence on the part of the reading public. The language of these authors is not very difficult. Ezra Pound once observed this fact stating, “Anyone who is too lazy to master the comparatively short glossary necessary to understand Chaucer deserves to be shut out from the reading of good books for ever.” While eternal banishment from good books may be a bit draconian, the idea does recognize the fact that what editors are modernizing (by assuming a lazy readership?) is not difficult material to begin with. Modernizing underestimates the abilities of the modern reader to interpret meaning and relevance of any given text. Moreover, it also prohibits a greater understanding of the English language itself.

And if this can be said of modernizing Chaucer, who wrote more than 600 years before our time, how much more could it be said of doing this for publications written only 200 years ago. For example, a recent re-publication of the Federalist Papers has them “reworked into ‘modern’ English” (hint: they were already written in Modern English) ostensibly to make them more accessible to readers (and are provided with the editor’s own illuminating interpretation, of course). This concept declares to us all that modern readers are just too stupid to understand without a little bit of pedantic hand-holding.

Editors underestimate the abilities of their readership, schools produce readers who are deficient, and this provides evidence that the editors’ underestimations were correct. That’s not good enough. And if the CFR’s assessment is correct, this assumption contributes to greater problems regarding security and economic prosperity. Isn’t that argument enough to change this trend? I have some hope that this report might start the needed conversation in the right direction. Not much hope, but some.

© 2012 Jay P Laughlin