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

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

The Hermemorphic Shift: a Parody

Why'd you pull me into this, huh?

Why’d you pull me into this, huh?

A seldom discussed linguistic principle, the Hermemorphic Shift is named after Hermes, the Greek god of language. The principle states:

In any conversation in which the meaning or pronunciation of a word is contested, a speaker’s religious belief about the word in question trumps all other scientific and conventional usages.

In short, it is an appeal to having access to a god’s knowledge of the word. Thus, for an otherwise competent speaker to change the meaning of a word to suit their purposes they need only say something to the nature of “It is my religious belief that the meaning is otherwise.” Case closed.

When it comes to disputes about pronunciation this is rarely a serious matter. Claiming heavenly or elysianic authority over the pronunciation of atomic weapons as NOO-kyoo-ler, for example, or that the people of our nation are uh-MER-kins, doesn’t tend to produce mutual unintelligibility. (Though if more Americans favoring the latter pronunciation understood the joke, they might work harder at their elocution).

However, when it comes to disputing word meaning, a heremorphic shift is absolutely corrosive to the discourse. Although both speakers may hold the same, or similar, religious beliefs about all other word usages, the first to rely upon this principle for a word in dispute is usually the “winner” of the debate. As an example, consider the following (partially) parodic dialogue inspired by Rep. Tim Murphy:

S1: Is the morning after pill or something like that an abortifacient drug?

S2: This drug is a contraceptive, not an abortifacient. It does not interfere with pregnancy. If the morning pill were taken, and a female were pregnant, the pregnancy is not interrupted. That’s the definition of abortifation.

S1: Ma’am, that is just your interpretation and I appreciate that.

S2: A contraceptive prevents pregnancy before fertilization. So it’s not my interpretation. That’s what the scientists and doctors…

S1: We’re not talking about scientists. Almighty Wotan himself told me that this pill is an abortifacient, using that very word! Ma’am, I’m asking you about a religious belief. This is, therefore, a violation of a religious belief. Wotan himself condemns it.

If by definition a substance is a contraceptive but the speaker’s religious belief declares that it it not, then it is not. Science, definition, and conventional usage (norma loquendi) be damned!

The speakers may be using the same words but now they are decidedly not speaking the same language. The winning strategy by employing a hermemorphic shift is, therefore, through assuring mutual unintelligibility. It dissolves the meaning of the word in mid-discourse and without warning to such an extreme degree that words, in general, no longer have meaning in the conversation. The complete lack of even the appearance of meaning, and the subsequent difficulties in analysis that ensues, is why linguists shun this principle.

© 2012 Jay P Laughlin

If You Know the Difference Between “Dragon” and “Wyrm”…

you might be a fantasy geek…

but you are most assuredly a language geek.

As an ardent fan of fantasy and science fiction, I am often exposed to authors who use the words dragon and worm (frequently spelled wyrm) interchangeably. Occasionally, the word drake is thrown in for good measure. Perhaps the most famous author to use dragon/worm, and sometimes drake, synonymously in their work is J.R.R. Tolkien. At least, it was while reading the French translation of his book, The Hobbit, that this pairing caught my attention.

A passage on Thror‘s map, that follows the title page, reads as follows:

Loin au Nord

sont les Montagnes Rocheuses

et

La Lande Desséchée

d’ou vinrent

les Grands Vers

It is a straightforward translation of the English original:

Far

to the North

are

the Grey Mountains

&

the Withered Heath

whence came the

Great Worms.

but notice the word vers (worms) in bold. Until I read this in French, I had not given much thought to the idea that worm can also refer to dragon in fantasy fiction. Curious about this, I sought to understand why English has this archaic sense of worm and if this sense is shared in the French language. Satisfying this curiosity began my love affair with the history of the English language.

The first recorded instance of the pairing dragon/worm is in the epic poem Beowulf.

Hwäðre him gesælde, þät þät swurd þurhwôd wrätlîcne wyrm, þät hit on wealle ätstôd, dryhtlîc îren; draca morðre swealt.

Wyrm is the Old English (Anglo-Saxon) that means “serpent” and may share an Indo-European root with the Latin vermis (worm). Draca is another Latin import into Old English that carries a similar meaning, “large serpent.” Through the years, both of these words have undergone changes. Wyrm had an orthographic change into the modern worm. Draca eventually transformed into drake. This is not, however, the same drake that refers to a male duck and has an entirely different etymology. Although draca and dragon share the same Latin root, it appears that the French dragon didn’t entered the English language until after the Norman invasion in 1066.

I’m unfamiliar with the history of this synonymy in the centuries between Beowulf and The Hobbit but it is obvious that dragon became the most common word to denote the winged, fire-breathing beasts we’ve all come to know and love. Worm and drake were both relegated to a place in archaism. Beyond The Hobbit, this synonymy is present in the settings of other fantasy novels as well as fantasy role-playing games. This synonymy has also produced wyrmling, usually meaning a small or baby dragon.

The history of dragon/worm, then, is a uniquely English story. Therefore, the question still remains as to the French translator’s choice to use ver (worm) in a reference to dragons. Was this just a straight literal translation without an understanding of the connection between dragon and worm in English linguistic history (as it appears to be)? Or is there a similar pattern in French romans fantastiques?

According to Le Trésor de la Langue Française informatisé (TLFi), ver, in the form of verme, referred to the larvae of certain insects from as early as 980AD. Others have ver originating with the Latin vermis (worm). It would appear, therefore, that the English wyrm and the French ver have a similar historical root but significantly divergent original meanings. Etymologically speaking, I’ve yet to find a connection between ver and dragon.

What about a stylistic connection in literature? I read French fantasy novels as often as I can and, admittedly, am a slow reader. I have not yet, however, found a similar trend in French fantasy literature that uses ver as a reference to dragon. Until such time as I do, I’ll consider the issue as just a literal translation…and thank the translator for the seed of inspiration. Merci beacoup!

© 2012 Jay P Laughlin

Regular or Irregular?: Conjugating the Verb “to Romney”

Harnessing the social power of the internet can have undeniable effects on language communities. Recognizing this, one form of political activism draws on this power in an effort to impact the meaning of words. Using Dan Savage‘s famous campaign as a model, an intrepid web-user (semantic combatant, maybe?) has dogged former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney by re-defining his last name. Inspired by Romney’s infamous road-trip with his dog strapped to the top of his car, there is now a website devoted to offering the verb “to romney” as meaning “to defecate in terror.”

All seriousness aside, what then, some may ask, is the proper conjugation of this new verb? Does it have an irregular conjugation or does it carry the regular inflectional suffixes -s and -ed? The answer is that, despite an unusual spelling, “to romney” is a regular verb.

third person singular = romneys

past tense = romneyed

Why is this the case? There are two reasons.

First, starting at a very early age, English speakers tend to assume regularity when confronted with a new verb. In a famous example, known as the wug-test, psychologist Jean Berko Gleason demonstrated that when children are exposed to new words (words they could not have heard from their parents) they apply the regular pattern to word endings. Thus, new nouns, such as wug, get the plural inflection -s (wugs) and new verbs, such as gling, get the past tense inflection -ed (glinged). This is evidence of a rule-forming capacity that generalizes regular inflections as applying to new words. The principle, according to Steven Pinker, is as follows:

If a word can provide its own past tense from memory [i.e. an irregular plural or past tense form], the rule is blocked; elsewhere (by default), the rule applies.

(from Words and Rules: The Ingredients of Language)

Although “to romney” is not technically a new word, it is a new verb derived from a proper noun. This is the second reason for its regularity. Normal verbs and nouns are stored in memory as a root. These words are then either: 1) linked to another root (the irregulars) or 2) governed by the regular inflectional ending rule. Names that are called into service as verbs, however, are considered rootless. English speakers treat rootless words as if they require the regular rule. All names employed as verbs, therefore, use the regular inflections -s and -ed.

(And yes, the pun in the title is intended).

© 2012 Jay P Laughlin

Book Review: “Eats, Shoots & Leaves” by Lynne Truss

Lynne Truss is a witty, funny, and accessible author whose love of the English language shows on every page. All of this makes Eats, Shoots & Leaves a delight to read. If you are looking for a great quick-reference to brush-up on some of the lesser known intricacies of English punctuation, or simply looking for some authentication for your tendency to employ “corrective graffiti,” then this is your book.

Lynne’s main argument is that correct punctuation is important because it clarifies meaning. She cautions us all against sloppy punctuation and warns against the potential for disaster if we do not heed her warnings. While she is justly dismayed by the apparent pervasiveness of punctuation errors, and what these errors say about the state of English education, I finished this book feeling like she had not convincingly made her case.

Let me first state very clearly: Yes, proper punctuation is important. But is our current state of punctuation usage in a disastrous decline? I do not believe that it is. And despite how much I enjoyed this book, between the anecdotal evidence offered and her cause célèbre, the apostrophe, I am inclined to say that the situation is nowhere near as bad as Lynne would like us to believe. Moreover, the importance of proper punctuation has more to do with how we represent ourselves in society than it does in clarifying meaning. If we want to be taken seriously in academics, business, our social lives, etc. it behooves us to write clearly and follow the rules.

The lack of punctuation while text messaging has struck one of Lynne’s many grammar nerves. What surprises me about including this in her argument is that her data contradict her conclusions:

[We] asked people in the street…if they used proper punctuation when sending text messages and were surprised – not to say incredulous – when nine out of ten people said yes.

A full ninety percent report that they use proper punctuation. Aside from her upwelling sense of incredulity, how does she handle this contradiction? She dismisses the data:

I didn’t believe those people. Either they were weirdly self-selecting or they were simply lying for the microphone.

Did I read that correctly? Yes. While it is possible that all of her respondents are some sort of secret grammar gremlins, clandestinely shirking punctuation rules while texting in private but publicly professing compliance, it is archetypally priggish to assume this of others rather than reassess one’s own presuppositions.

Despite the prominence of apostrophe usage in Lynne’s book, it is the weakest example to argue for the meaning-based importance of punctuation. I say this because it is the least useful in clarifying meaning and, in most cases, we could do without it and still understand each other quite well. For example, one of the conventions of apostrophe usage is that it is used to indicate time or quantity. The missing apostrophe in the expression “two weeks notice” serves as Lynne’s overused example of grammar faults.

If, as Lynne argues, punctuation is the stitching of our language, what happens if we don’t use our stitching? What are the consequences of missing this apostrophe? According to Lynne, disaster:

Well, if punctuation is the stitching of language, language comes apart, obviously, and the buttons fall off.

Indeed. The representation of meaning carried by the apostrophe in “two weeks’ notice” holds the meaning together lest all of us be confused. It is clear that without this apostrophe there is some ambiguity as to whether “two weeks” refers to time or….what?

Nothing. Apostrophe usage in this case is purely a stylistic convention. Many of the other apostrophe rules – indicating possessive, indicating omission of letters and figures in dates, indicating plurals of letters and words, etc. – fall under this same category. There is a notable exception to this in apostrophe usage that distinguishes “we’re” from “were,” which have distinct phonologies. On the other hand, the use of “it’s” as a possessive comes from a confusion between two of the rules – indicating omission of letters and indicating possessive. The offense here is forgetting that apostrophe use in possessives does not apply to pronouns and determiners (“its” plays both roles). So, yes, there are times when the apostrophe has an important role and is called upon to assist context. But is it necessary to clarify meaning?

“What, though, does it mean to say everyone, or almost everyone, speaks incorrectly?” asks English professor Jack Lynch. We can ask the same regarding “uses apostrophes incorrectly.” In the case of “two weeks notice,” we are witnesses to the “indicates time or quantity” rule becoming inoperative. Our language history is changing before our eyes. It is a shift towards elimination because, as a stylistic convention, it is, quite frankly, useless.

Clearly, there is something else that has greater influence on our ability to understand what others mean than simply punctuation. We don’t, after all, speak our commas and apostrophes. That something else is context. “Two weeks notice” and “two weeks’ notice” sound exactly the same, as does “the boy’s mother” and “the boys mother.” Context provides the clues that guide meaning.

Let’s face it. If you find an entry for “panda” in a wildlife manual that reads, in part, “eats, shoots and leaves,” and you think that this means the panda fires a gun and walks away, then punctuation has interfered with your ability to understand the meaning of the entry. (That, or you’re being a self-righteous pedant). Again, a strike against the “clarifies meaning” argument.

While I enjoyed the journey through English punctuation rules lead by Lynne, I do not share her offense at the state of the English language and its users. More importantly, I don’t think she convincingly stated her case, to put it mildly. Sure, there are times when punctuation does clarify meaning. However, context is king when it comes to meaning and it relegates punctuation to a mere footnote for the occasional difficulty. The importance of proper punctuation, therefore, comes not from its relation to meaning but from what it signifies about our place in society, whether we want to be taken seriously when writing, and how much effort we are willing to put into learning the nuances of the rules.

© 2012 Jay P Laughlin