Monday, February 9, 2009

Pet Peeves / Misuse of Language

Language is a living thing.

Our language is constantly undergoing change. Since the first reliable English Dictionary, compiled by Samuel Johnson and published in 1755, there has been a constant tension between strict "prescriptivists" and "permissivists." Are "ain't" and "irregardless" real words?

In truth, dictionaries are reactive and largely passive repositories. Once a definition of meaning and usage is established, however, it takes the force of persuasive use to bring about a change. Some words simply die for want of usage.

Language is slippery. The implications and "spin" of certain words or phrases change over time.

Is this a good thing? Would we all be better off if our language was always fixed, if no one was ever "allowed" to break the rules?

New words come into being to describe new objects, or new processes and relationships. New technologies breed special vocabularies.

For communication requiring greater precision, mathematics furnishes another kind of language.

Does common discourse suffer as a result of the decay of proper usage?

I often feel that common misuse of words or phrases, which may occur as a result of laziness, or haste, or simple ignorance, is probably not a legitimate generator of useful, meaningful language.

Lazy thinking generates poor speaking and writing, and it works the other way around. The more we all misuse our language, the less effective our speaking and thinking become.

From time to time, the Compass Rose will note examples of bad English, in the never-ending fight for Truth, Coherence and Literacy!

1. A "whole n'other". This is a false contraction of "a whole other" or "another whole" but it's ungrammatical. It's a stupid mistake which has begun to take root in common speech.

2. "Mischievious". This is not a word. The correct word is "mischievous". There's no "i" after the "v.". Probably people think the word works like devious, but they're wrong.

3. "Massive" as meaning large in size or extent. Massive means DENSE, not large. Lead is massive. Teakwood is massive. A mountain or a large crowd or a glacier are not examples of massive phenomena.

4. "Little, tiny" as a compound adjectival phrase. This, or "small, little" is naively redundant; yet perfectly intelligent people will consistently use these phrases, when they know they're wrong. Why?

5. "In regards to". This phrase simply isn't English. "With regard to" or "in regard to" are perfectly acceptable, but "regards" is only appropriate as the plural form of regard for a thing or person. "Warmest regards." "Give my regards to Broadway." Smart people use "in regards to" all the time, but they should stop.


Kirby Olson said...

Since language is constantly in the process of evolution, it's hard to know what innovations will endure, and which are "bad" and must be stomped out. I hear "mischievious" with the extra vowel all the time, and I think it works better than the un-morphed form, perhaps because it banks on devious, or is amplified by "devious," making for a stronger term.

Words that exist in use for a while are ultimately picked up by the dictionary, which is simply a guide to use, rather than the other way around.

It's not as if English was decreed in advance by some committee. It's a huge mix of languages, which keeps growing as newcomers flow in with all their nonsense out of dying cultures.

Top cultures that want to get here over the last 50 years have mainly been from the bloated remains of the Spanish empire (any place south of the Rio Grande), and from the bloated remains of the Marxist countries.

Back in the day, it was religious persecution that drove many out of Europe.

Or famines.

Now a lot of it's economics. However, as the country's about to go down the tubes, perhaps immigration will cease, or at least slow down.

Or even reverse, and some of these people will go back where they came from.

I'll bet that Obama adds a few words to the language.

Bush added one, "misunderestimated."

That's quite a feat, even if it was unintended on his part, and even if it largely has a jocular use at this point.

One of my favorite neologisms is adding "big ass" to something. Like you could say, "It's over that big ass bridge."

It's strangely lewd, and I have no idea why it was originally formulated.

My favorite phrase to have died out (I'm glad it's died out), is the use of "man," at the end of sentences, and in the middles, and everywhere, spawned by the hippies. I never knew what that was about. Or the use of like "Like, man, like..." This was terrible, and when it was coming from a speed junky was especially hard for me to take.

Did you use that phraseology back in the day?

Now many groups use the f. word to salt their phrases. Even the mafia does this. It's supposed to denote toughness on the part of the speaker, but I think it denotes dumbness or numbness.

One of the problems with being correct, however, is that you might sound like a prig. If you were talking with a mafia don, and he was using the f. word, and you weren't, it might feel strained.

If you were to actually use massive in the sense that you mean, to have to do with talking about how someone is dense, and you said, "That dude is massive," people would think you were saying that they were built, or diesel.

If you were to say, "With regard to," in actual live speech, outside of London, you would not get any more lunch invitations.

You might feel that everyone should still wear a tie, and hold their pinkies out while sipping tea. But if most people in a group are downing Budweiser, wearing t-shirts, and using the f. word, you have to harmonize.

You are funny!

Curtis Faville said...

I think it's dangerous to conflate grammar with, for instance, fashion. Cartoonists might be inspired in that way, but it's still risky.

I drew a distinction with respect to the different kinds of changes which language may undergo. Certain additions permit us to speak of new phenomena, such as computers and software. Remember when people said I "inputted" something? That word, thankfully, has died--at least I believe it has. That's an example of a bad invention (or mis-invention). People now use "dot coms" and it's well understood.

My problem is with poor grammar or common mispronunciations which crop up out of laziness, or ignorance, and are then propagated, like the oxalis weed that has taken over California landscape in the last generation. It's become almost impossible to garden or grow a lawn without battling this ubiquitous squatter.

For those of us who want to make sense, make distinctions, it's important at least to try to maintain the language to the degree necessary that it will serve our purposes. I don't intend, for instance, to let ethnic minorities prevail over my language by constantly inserting stupid ungrammatical words and phrases, at least not without a fight.

Don't mess with my birthright!

Curtis Faville said...

Linguistic behavior is the product of all practice, and all the discipline that exists in the world. If everyone spoke according to their own made-up rules, then there would be chaos.

Language is, as Wittgenstein said, a common agreement between people to accept what words and grammar mean, how they are routinely used. Changes, however small, enter that stream of intercourse gradually, incrementally, and are either resisted or abandoned, or welcomed and adopted, like orphan children.

If everyone started using "hadn't ought'ta" instead of "shouldn't" then it might be adopted. Then it could be abbreviated to "hadn'ought" and then, maybe, to "had-nought". Eventually it might eventually find its way back to shan't (the original contraction of "shall not"). But shall not is not the same as "ought not".

Odd, isn't it?

Policing bad grammar and usage is a full-time job. But small reminders and prods do work. That's what teachers do.

Kirb: Don't you correct your students' grammar in their papers they write? If not, shame on you!

Kirby Olson said...

I do, if it's a little tiny problem, but if I sense too much density, as in massive illiterary in regards to English, then, like the mischievious iconoclast that I am at times, I sometimes look the other way, and instead focus on something they can actually fix, like coming up with a better argument.

Chomsky thought that language rules would work themselves out with use. That is, all you had to do was talk, or write, and the rules were natural.

If I were to correct the problems even in one paper all the way down to the last problem, I might have to write an encyclopedia, and the students wouldn't read it. That's just the problem. They won't read in the first place. If they did, there wouldn't be so many problems.

Around and around we go. This is no little tiny matter, but is one that is massive in regards to the mischieviousness of our KULCHUR.

Where do you start with an Augean stable and one life?

I'm glad to see you're on the case with your shovel and your sense of what must be done.

Kirby Olson said...

(If you can't beat 'em, join 'em.)

(What did you think of Peter Orlovsky's poems such as FRIST POEM, where every nuther word is misspelled?)

Some things irritate me more than others. For me, it's loud noises, like clicking pens, in the classroom. Weird grammar I find inspirational.

Out of 100 students I generally have no more than two who have any sense of literary style. I'm not saying that any of my students would have given a Proust a run for the money. Well, maybe one, in twenty years of teaching.

You just can't get too wrapped in saving western civilization.

Students have to save themselves on an individual basis. If a student wants to get a good clean style then they will have to work at it for decades. It's a lot harder feat than just getting ripped.

But it's also something inside an individual. It can't be imposed from outside, any more than can style in clothes, or even the tendency in general to wish to think things through. You can't make people do these things.

I do lead the horses to water, but the rest is up to them.

If there are only two or three wrong in a paper, I try to correct them. But if it's such a profusion of wrongs that they outnumber the rights -- then, I just focus on what little I believe I really can do to help.

I like almost all the students, but a great number of my students do not wish to write. They have never even thought of writing a poem. They want to do things like play sports. That's the norm.

And they can't turn me into Michael Jordan over night if I ask for help. At most, they might be able to get me to do a crossover dribble.

Curtis Faville said...

Samuel Johnson saw a moral imperative in grammar and proper spelling. He thought speaking correctly and maintaining standards would palpably raise the ethical standard of civilisation.

It is, of course, perfectly possible to act in a morally correct way without speaking properly. But it's very difficult to address real problems effectively and efficiently without being proficient in language. All the higher questions men face are more accessible through the vehicle of eloquent, accurate language.

We may have a greater chance at arriving at truth through language, if we aren't hung up on les crudites!

Curtis Faville said...

I like the idea of a metaphorical "cross-over dribble" carried into language.

I don't know what Proust is like, in French, since I've only read him in translation. Donne's sermons give some idea of what English can do in a master's hands. Addison and Steele are good, too.

Emerson is terrific, too.

I'm not just talking "ornate" here; late Henry James is probably a bad model for any student of the language--elegance taken to an extreme limit.

Kirby Olson said...

On eo fthe strangest things to ponder is Caravaggio. He could paint brilliantly, but he also murdered people on a semi-regular basis.

He was an odd duck.

I wonder if it's possible to get so darned mad about misuse of words that you actually kill ouit of frustration.

Is that humanly possible?

Proust is a lot more lovely in French. But I don't generally like to read his stuff. He was just an example of someone with long, complex sentences who could spell and who is thought to have a style.

Hemingway has a style, too.

Hemingway's is probably at least as difficult to achieve as Proust's.

Curtis Faville said...

Hemingway looks deceptively easy, but is like a gordian knot. No matter how you try, you can't mimic his simple progression of statement.

I think the best imitation ever done was E.B. White's parody "Across the Street and Into the Grill"--it nails his style (as well as his pieties). Check it out. It's in his collection The Second Tree from the Corner (Harper & Brothers).

Proust is actually easier. Those long, ambling sentences, flourishing like a velvet cape, can be done with very little effort. But you have to believe in them a little bit.

But that's true of any imitation. You have to get inside the original to talk like him.

Can anyone who's never actually fly-fished understand Big Two-Hearted River?

Kirby Olson said...

There are levels of understanding anything.

Updike wrote some humdinger sentences that never struck me as the slightest bit pretentious. Proust comes off as very pretentious. I think part of his style is openly calculated to stun and amaze.

Updike isn't doing that. I haven't got the paragraph I'm thinking of in front of me. I'll try to post it tomorrow. Hemingway's style is clearly a style, and you are meant to be amazed by it, I think.

I think Updike's style is partially so neat because it's Proustian at times but he never rubs your nose in it. It's a kind of Proustian complexity without the attitude.

I'm thinking about a paragraph in Rabbit, Run where he's just played a pick-up game of basketball and is now walking down the alley, breaking into a run, and tosses his smokes in a trash can "cans it" and somehow the vowels are going every which way and he's in love. I'll try to find it.

Kirby Olson said...

I googled, and voila:

Rabbit picks up his folded coat and carries it in one hand like a letter as he runs. Up the alley. Past the deserted ice plant with its rotting wooden skids on the fallen loading porch. Ashcans, garage doors, fences of chicken-wire caging crisscrossing stalks of dead flowers. The month is March. Love makes the air light. Things start anew; Rabbit tastes through sour aftersmoke the fresh chance in the air, plucks the pack of cigarettes from his bobbling shirt pocket, and without breaking stride cans it in somebody's open barrel. His upper lip nibbles back from his teeth in self-pleasure. His big suede shoes skim in thumps above the skittering litter of alley gravel.

That's poetry, I think, but doesn't present itself as basking in its own glory. You just read right through it, focusing on the vision unfolding, but the brilliance of it, -- my favorite thing is when he "cans it" -- continuing the basektball bit, but also, ka-bam, a verb and a noun combined.

I just choose that one thing at random to celebrate. Everything about the paragraph is great, but perhaps especially how modest it is about itself.

No Frenchie could be that modest.

eddie watkins said...

As far as Orlovsky goes, all the misspellings, for me, convey an innocence of sorts, that actually shines some new light on old common words, and on his mind. Again, this is because I don't think he was "playing the part" of an innocent. It wasn't laziness or sloppiness or game-playing, it was authenticity.

Kirby Olson said...

Not many people have read and appreciated Orlovsky's poems. I really think they were wonderful poems. Good, Eddie!

Kirby Olson said...

One thing that really bothers me is when people say, "I TOOK my degree from ...." as opposed to "I RECEIVED my degree from..."

The first sounds to me as if you stole it.

The second sounds as if it has been conferred.

Which one do you believe is correct?

I cannot stand the aggression in TOOK.

The institution CONFERS a degree, doesn't it?

I wish that there were actual penalties for such transgressions. Two years at hard labor, for example.

But again you don't seem to believe that penalties should exist outside the notion of private censure.

Curtis Faville said...

Clean Asshole Poems.

That about says it all.

Orlovsky was said to have a fetish about clean windows. He'd carry around a bucket and squeegee and do them for free, just because it made him feel so fine.

Norman L. said...

One time when I looked in a dictionary, a few years ago, I noticed that they had the word "harass" with the emphasis on the second syllable; then at the end of the definition they added (paraphrasing) "some do not think it should be pronounced this way". It appears they left out the P.C.-correct alternative pronunciation.