Using the wrong word

Discussion in 'Linguistics' started by Oli, Apr 3, 2009.

  1. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    But the thing lost is almost invariably a subtlety that no longer has any important meaning, or else we wouldn't be so cavalier about letting it vanish. As a culture evolves, its language also evolves--new vocabulary, new grammar, new phonetics. The distinction between the various inflected forms of "lay" and "lie" no longer serves any purpose so we're letting it go.

    Instead, we're putting our energy into coining a whole glossary of compound words of a new syntactic pattern: fuel-efficient, computer-literate.
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  3. Pete It's not rocket surgery Registered Senior Member

    I see that bricklying is also flagged for spellcheck

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    . If you mean "lying on bricks", then could you not just say "laying on bricks"? If someone told me they were bricklying, I'd ask them what they meant.
    I wouldn't have any problem distinguishing between "laying bricks" and "laying on bricks".

    Is that a quote? I don't recognize it.
    But yes, bricks can be awful liars.

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    Would "the laying bricks on college hill", or "the bricks laying on college hill" produce any confusion?
    Or, perhaps I have in fact missed some distinction?

    It hadn't occurred to me.
    I'm missing your point. What do you mean?

    And all complexity involves loss. Lost time in learning, lost communication in confusion.

    My lament is with the pedantic strictness that arbitrary rules of language are held in cases in which the losses due to simplification are clearly outweighed by the gains. My particular peeves are with insistence on strong verbs when regular forms would serve, with unneeded inflexibility in spelling, and with reluctance to allow the use of simple plurals (eg sheeps, mouses, phenomenons, tooths, crisises, heros). Some of these rules change naturally over time anyway, in spite of pedantic kicking and screaming. Why not take some control of this evolution, acknowledge the useless arbitrariness of some rules, and allow some flexibility?

    I could go on. An example that springs to mind is the growing use of chatspeak in esay submissions (my wife and I are both business academics). Many academics will say (not in so many words) that a person who uses "U" instead of "you" is clearly incapable of mature thought. But I say "so what?" If someone writes "U" instead of "you", "wud" for "would", "bcuz" instead of "because", or even "gr8" for great, does it really reduce the effectiveness of that communication for an unbiased reader? As long as a student can effectively communicate their understanding of the concepts they are being assessed on, their adherence to formal rules of language is irrelevant.


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    End rant, thanks for listening.
    Last edited: May 20, 2009
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  5. iceaura Valued Senior Member

    As long as you're sure. Myself, I notice the loss of grass and grasses, for example, or water and waters. But no doubt in a few decades that loss will have become invisible.

    The American Chestnut was once the dominant tree of the eastern woodlands. It's wood was superior - light, strong, attractively grained, easily worked, and clean splitting. Its nuts were better eating than the inferior Asian kinds sold nowdays. It was tall and rugged in storms, reasonably fast growing and long-lived, provided excellent shade, and was hardy in towns. Do you miss it, now? Do you notice where it isn't?

    Methinks enough lost subtleties of language, and the loss to subtlety of communication, the cramping of thought and humor and play, will become noticeable to almost anyone fortunate enough to remember it. But they will die off. What will be left will be poorer, in many respects.

    We are in possession of an unusually rich, flexible, and precise language. Why piss it away?

    You are planning to discard much of that.
    There is a gain in clarity and concision, an increase in capability, to pay for the lost time in learning.

    I would argue that the complexity of thought is what takes the learning time - that the complexity of expression is easily and quickly learned by eight year olds.

    But you make the appropriate point: at some level of complexity, the language acts as a barrier to communication by absorbing too much effort in the means. That is so. But at some level of simplification, the language acts as a barrier to communication by imposing arduous circumlocutions and laborious, clumsy specifications of context, by denying manipulations and implications, etc - As Borges put it: "You can't say anything in Spanish".

    Lie and lay - no big deal. Multiply that by a thousand or more, every one of them rejected by some irritated group of speakers feeling itself subjected to arbitrary rules and useless impositions, and I think most people would regret the remainder.
    You catch me at a bad time - I have spent the past couple of weeks, all day long, attempting to decipher the attempted communication of people apparently taught under your proposed standards. They spell phonetically, write as they talk, wrap text around lines (Oka - y, WWI - I, woul - d) as their phone window does, and trying to figure out what they mean is a goddam chore. This job is taking twice as long as it should - and the other readers are a wide mix of ages and genders, ethnicities and backgrounds, having no better luck than myself.

    They not only can't effectively communicate concepts, they can't effectively communicate simple assertions - everything has to be read twice, three times, enlarged in the window, etc.

    "She seen she whant drawling incit eappels he seen pichur onlys hesaided"

    I've cleaned up the handwriting, but preserved the spacing peculiarities of the texting generation - letters drift off the ends of words, end up attached to other words or floating in space, that kind of thing. Have a go at it.
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  7. Pete It's not rocket surgery Registered Senior Member

    I suspect that those that miss old subtleties will also miss new ones.

    Who's pissing it away? I do not think that allowing flexibility on certain formalities implies a loss of richness, flxibility, or precision.

    No, I still don't get it. What's would be discarded?

    Not in this case.

    I have an eight year old, and I have spent time with reading groups in his School. In my experience, they do not easily and quickly learn arbitrary and complex exceptions to simple rules, unless there is some demonstrable need for the exception.

    So you would steadfastly hold on to all?
    Why not actually think about which rules enhance richness, flexibility, and precision, and which are useless? I think that this is a reasonably objective task.
    My proposed standards are not as lax as you seem to think. I suggest that effective communication could be taught more effectively if attention was focussed on those attributes of language that do enhance communication (including why). An appreciation of audience is obviously one such attribute.

    Again, implying that I should endorse this language is a misrepresentation of my argument. But, consider this: What is more difficult - for you to learn to read chatspeak, or for a native texter to write your language (particularly in an exam situation, which is what I was considering in my previous post)?
  8. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    "Strong" is not the opposite of "regular." A strong verb usually has a past participle distinct from the preterit, is inflected by changing the vowel, and often adds -N to the participle. A weak verb has collapsed the past participle into the preterit, which is formed in -D or sometimes -T. Many weak verbs are irregular, such as make/made, think/thought, do/did. From the perspective of the whole Germanic language family, there is no such thing as a "regular" or "irregular" strong verb because there's no standard paradigm for them to deviate from.
    We've been slowly regularizing them. You're more likely to see radiuses and fishes (to pick the two that popped into my head) than we were fifty years ago.
    Pedantic kicking and screaming is not a very powerful force in English, especially American English. now includes the bison as one of the "several large wild oxen of the family Bovidae" and lists snuck and dove as alternates for sneaked and dived. And yes I note the irony in the colloquial generation of new irregular inflections. Apparently regularity isn't as popular as we thought.

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    Yes it does. Since English writing is not phonetic, we each spend quite a bit of time learning to recognize words as they are written and mapping them to the spoken versions we learned first. A misspelling slows us down measurably. Yes I know that we read holistically and to be precise only the first and last letter must be in the right place, and the rest need only be there in any order with no additions, deletions or substitutions. "Bcuz" still fails that test.

    I'd like to see someone set up an experiment with one group reading a set of properly edited documents and the other reading them in thumb-typing. I'll bet money that the group reading the real words finishes earlier than the group stuck with the digital pidgin. (Didgin?)
    The operative word is "effectively." For example, I only have a certain amount of time I can devote to SciForums. I tend to skip poorly written posts because they take longer to read and I wouldn't be able to cover as much material.

    It's not that the meanings of these whimsically misspelled words aren't reasonably obvious. It's that they take longer to figure out. Typing that way, in order to save yourself a few seconds, requires everyone who reads it to spend extra time deciphering it, causing a net loss in productivity. It's simply rude. It tells everyone who reads your writing, "My time is much more valuable than yours so I'll let you guess the vowels." I don't respond well to rudeness.
    A few decades? I'm surely older than you because I'm older than almost everyone here, and I can't remember "grasses" and "waters" having any meaning in vernacular speech. They're specialized words now: Rice and corn are both grasses. There are so many purified waters to choose from in the supermarket. Maybe I don't read enough nineteenth-century authors.
    You have to be very careful when you make an analogy, and I'd say this one is a dismal failure.

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    Language is a technology, not something from the natural world. We get to revise it into the toolset that works for us in a given era and culture. That's why there are now so many languages! Each people crafted their own from what they started with.
    Each people comes up with the words to express the subtleties that are important to them. Chinese people are aghast at our paucity of words for family relationships. "Older brother" and "younger brother" are two different words. They can distinguish an older female cousin from a younger male cousin. Those subtle distinctions are really important to them.

    Japanese people are downright disgusted by the fact that one uses the identical English sentence when talking to both a superior and a subordinate, and that men and woman use the same verb forms.

    Many foreigners are uncomfortable with the demise of "thou," so that we use the same word "you" when addressing either the Queen or the family dog.

    On the other hand, speakers of highly inflected languages stumble over their sentences when trying to describe the intricacies of a reverse mortgage or a software program with ten levels of decomposition.
    Why do you think that the loss of obsolete inflections is going to make it more difficult to think, laugh or play??? Are the Italians or French any worse of than the Romans, for having more streamlined grammar in their descendants of Latin?

    English rivals Chinese in having the world's richest vocabulary. There are your "subtle shades of meaning." We don't need the pluperfect subjunctive tense or the vocative dual case--much less spellings left over from before Shakespeare--to have a good time with our words.
    We are losing richness, flexibility and precision in areas where we no longer need them because they represent objects that no longer exist, activities that are no longer performed, conditions that no longer prevail, concepts that are no longer useful, and relationships that are no longer formed. Every day we form new words and new combinations in order to gain richness, flexibility and precision in areas where we need them. As I've pointed out numerous times, we're even updating our grammar. During my lifetime I've seen the creation of the noun-adjective compound such as user-friendly. That's what we need in the 21st century, not strong verbs.
    But this phenomenon does not run at breakneck speed and you won't see thousands of these simplifications in a single lifetime. Each one is "voted on" by the population and only those that work are accepted.
    I'm an editor so I know what you mean. These days I'm grateful that people can write at all. I consider a paper satisfactory if I can figure out what the writer means and convert it into proper English.

    What bothers me is that they also read at that level.
  9. Pete It's not rocket surgery Registered Senior Member

    Thanks for the clarification. I meant irregular vs regular, rather than strong vs weak.

    It's more powerful than it should be in the education system, in my opinion.

    I think that is a biased point of view; biased toward the way that you learned the written word.

    I suspect that it would depend on the early education of the groups. Persons who were not taught rigid adherence to arbitrary rules, who were actually taught and exposed to flexibility in writing from an early age, would come out on top on an overall test of communication effectiveness.
    Again, I think that your bias is showing. Why is the time you lose in reading more valuable than the time they save in writing? How long do you think it would take you to get used to the small chatspeak vocabulary that is usually encountered in practice?
    Note also that the case I made was specifically for a one-person audience when the writer has limited time: a student sitting an essay exam. If that student uses understandable shorthand to make a good argument, should they be marked down because it takes the academic marginally longer to read? Who is being rude in that case?

    I think the relevant factor is the level at which people think. I think that the educated class (myself included) use person's level of implementation of the arbitrary formal rules of English as a measure of that person's intelligence/level of thinking.

    There is good reason behind this stereotyping - there is a correlation between education, use of formal English, and intelligence. However, it is not universal: there are good thinkers who do not are can not use correct formal English. Using the stereotype (however convenient) is discriminatory and unjust.

    The stereotype is also self-perpetuating. If someone fails to learn the formal rules of English for whatever reason, their ability to read it will suffer. And since the required nutrition for a well-educated mind is almost universally written in formal English and continues to be so written, it is very difficult for a person to be learn. This is not, in my opinion, a necessary state of affairs. No threat would be posed to the necessary precision and flexibility of language by relaxing particular rules of spelling and grammar.
  10. iceaura Valued Senior Member

    That isn't generally true. It's an illusion or artifact of the common circumstance that the words involved are short, plus the imposed restriction that the rearrangements in the middle be random - which usually preserves most of the phonemes in words containing few of them, with the rest fixed by contextual suggestion. Eaeeiiomnprttxn iiolnnvvg paioyyblllsc vaaoubclry and more tooughrh, naoodlmnnry gaeeenrtd raaeeegmnrrts naollmry peoucdrs saiiountts in wichh deeeichpmnrt beeocms caeeiobdknrg raehtr tahn hiiolstc paeursl.

    Still frequent, and distinguished, in my world of ecological essays and biological topics. The "increasing" vs "decreasing" grasses of the Great Plains, for example, or the acidic waters of the Canadian Shield.
    You might as well say we have no younger brothers because we lack the Chinese to refer to them.

    We will still lay on the bricks, and lie on the bricks, when we need other words for such activities. The various idioms will probably outlast the confused words - the layup, to lay up, to lie up, laid up, laying up, lying up, lay down the law vs lie down in peace, and so forth, increasingly anachronistic. We will still have different grasses, and we will need to talk of species or kinds or varieties or roles or whatever, at some loss of brevity (and therefore clarity).
    Why do you think the only losses will be of the obsolete?
    That's not the question. The question would be, which is more difficult: to make complex arguments and conduct sophisticated linguistic business and handle deep subtleties of meaning in chatspeak, or to gain familiarity with standard English prose?

    These kids are confusing "do" and "don't" - they use the two words interchangeably, with either one filling either former role. Meaning is derived from context. The context is of course more of the same.

    I am much cheered of late, btw, by a somehow belated observation - the random employments of the spellings of "yoor", such as your and you're, often generate double entendres. We have the essayist who informs me that "whatever you do" is worth doing "as long as your happy" - my happy being long enough for considerable doings, I endorse the sentiment.
  11. Pete It's not rocket surgery Registered Senior Member

    Using chatspeak doesn't necessarily imply a lack of familiarity with standard English. I think of chatspeak as an enhancement to the language rather than a replacement, an alternative rendition of some words.

    You are making a mistake by assuming that if someone chooses to use chatspeak, they are to some degree illiterate. It's a common stereotype, because as I said before such a correlation does exist. But, it is not universal or necessary. Using chatspeak abbreviations for common words does not negate the ability to express subtleties or make complex arguments.

    And in education, we should concentrate on the things that matter in language. Obviosuly, using do and don't interchangeably is a problem, but it is very easy to learn to use them properly because it is easy to understand why it is problem. But if those important lessons are mixed up with arbitrary distinctions that are learned for no other reason, then the important lessons will be lost because the whole exercise is seen as meaningless. So, why insist on distinguishing lay/lie, great/gr8, and/n, to/2, you/u, wud/would, bcuz/because? Why not focus on the distinctions that actually matter, like do/don't?

    Yes, language is fun! And more flexibility only increases the opportunities...
  12. StrangerInAStrangeLand SubQuantum Mechanic Valued Senior Member

  13. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    Agreed. But once those people assimilate back into the non-academic world their influence is greatly diminished. In my observation the popular press has much more influence on spelling and other orthographic conventions than academia, and more often than not the two stand in opposition. For a while it became almost standard to write atrocities like "Mr. Marquez' hat." Eliminating dozens of S's in a newspaper makes an extra column-inch or two available for revenue-generating advertisements. Given that I've known people named Jones who thought it was okay to write "Mr. Jones' hat," I have to assume that the complaints came from foreign dignitaries who were offended.
    Perhaps. But I'm focusing on reading speed. I generally find that younger people who were guinea pigs in the premature-self-actualization style of education simply can't read as fast as I can. And considering that most of them can barely write at all, I'm not sure where the advantage you speak of lies.
    I'm talking about forums like this, where twenty people are going to be reading it. In aggregate the readers' time is indeed worth more.
    Perhaps once it is standardized it will become more intuitive. I agree that since no one in my circle uses chatspeak (and rarely even the media in which it's customary) it's still an odd regional dialect to me. I still agree with "Boondocks": Nothing worth reading was ever written by a man typing with his thumbs. That style of conversation does not hold my interest in writing or orally.
    No, I understand your point.
    I agree. But still there is a less superficial level of language mastery that is such a measure, and I think you'll agree that the two levels correlate highly. Language being a completely virtual technology, it's one that exists only by consensus; and the more one appreciates the richness it adds to life, the more one becomes willing to respect the power that consensus holds over the power of the technology itself.
    Of course. I had trouble with "experimentation" because it's too long to take in in a single scan, and "nonrandomly" and "codebreaking" because I was expecting hyphens (my age works against me). Several of the other words slowed me down tremendously. But the usual examples are much shorter and most people can read them more quickly than a person of my generation can read ch@speak.
    I already noted the biologists' need for "grasses" and a commercial use of "waters." These usages do exist, just like "airs," "loves," "foods," etc. And I don't think the average person has any problem with them. We even have a grocery store chain named "Whole Foods."
    It isn't that we don't have them. It's that the importance of distinguishing a younger from an older brother is not nearly as important to us as it is in a Confucian culture in which age trumps all of a person's other attributes. Besides, we have words to distinguish a younger brother than an older brother. The point is simply that it takes four syllables for us instead of two, because we don't need those words very often and efficiency isn't an issue. The far more important concepts that we refer to every day, like "light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation," have quite compact two-syllable words.

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    Why else would a people stop using words or other elements of language, than for the reason that they don't find themselves needing them? Of course English was powerfully influenced by the superstratum of Norman French a millennium ago, but situations like that are rare. To be sure we still have superstrata today since both the UK and the USA have a huge influx of immigrants, but those superstrata are much less powerful than that of the conquering and occupying Normans. They seldom contribute much more than new vocabulary and inflections like -nik and -mente, which enrich our language without any concomitant loss.
    While I insist on "correct" spelling in the short run, in the long run I expect a slight improvement in the phonetic correlation of English spelling and pronunciation. There's no reason for "your" and "you're" to be written differently since we have no problem distinguishing the two meanings in the spoken language. Much less "horses'," "horses" and "horse's."
    Last edited: May 22, 2009
  14. StrangerInAStrangeLand SubQuantum Mechanic Valued Senior Member

    People do have problems distinguishing your & you're in spoken language. We need to get rid of homonyms.
  15. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    You wouldn't last ten minutes in China.

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  16. StrangerInAStrangeLand SubQuantum Mechanic Valued Senior Member

    YOU YOU YOU!!!
    People saying you this & you that when they should be saying I.
    It is so absurd, confusing & damn frustrating.
  17. StrangerInAStrangeLand SubQuantum Mechanic Valued Senior Member


    I guess that was a long realistic dream then.
  18. CutsieMarie89 Zen Registered Senior Member

    You get you're and your confused when people are speaking? I'm trying to think of a homonym that I actually get tripped up on when people are speaking but I can't think of any. :shrug:
  19. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    Either that or you never learned to speak Chinese, which is rampant with homonyms.

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    Languages are self-correcting. If one change results in poor communication (such as the contraction of "you are" into "yer" which sounds just like "your"), another one will quickly arise to correct for it.

    For example, there is no singular-plural distinction in the second person pronoun in Modern English. Various dialects have found a way around this. In the American South, "you all," pronounced "yawl," is a new plural that fills the gap. It even has a genitive: yawl's. Elsewhere "you guys" has become common. In some places they say " 'mongst ye." On the other hand, the Quakers use "thee" in the singular, the accusative form of "thou," which nicely mirrors "you," which is actually the accusative form of "ye."
  20. StrangerInAStrangeLand SubQuantum Mechanic Valued Senior Member

    “ Originally Posted by StrangerInAStrangeLa
    People do have problems distinguishing your & you're in spoken language. We need to get rid of homonyms. ”

    HOW the heck do you get that I get you're and your confused when people are speaking???
  21. StrangerInAStrangeLand SubQuantum Mechanic Valued Senior Member


    It does not compute.

    Not enough, by a long shot & at once, it's selfdestructive.
  22. Pete It's not rocket surgery Registered Senior Member


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  23. iceaura Valued Senior Member

    If you are planning on having only one reader, and you are sure it would take you a lot of time to spell correctly etc, then that might hold.
    It's not a one person audience, it's an unknown person audience. If the student can't write Standard Written English, then why not mark them as not having that ability? If they can, then why are they making my life miserable with this crap? They hate me?

    As a matter of fact, btw, in my own little grading project here we are not marking down for grammar, etc. That means that we are simply guessing, in some cases, what the actual meaning and the "good argument" might be - especially when the interchanging of words like "should" and "shouldn't", "do" and "don't", "did" and "had", "have" and "of", "no" and "know", and the like, is combined with various misspellings and poor handwriting, it's kind of a problem. Communication is not happening very easily, or quickly, or clearly, and the problem is not that the would-be readers are "academics".
    Communication with whom?

    Why do you think the language loses flexibility with the codification of rules? In many cases, it gains flexibility - such as the rules regarding double negatives: they make it possible to use a single or a double negative and mean it.
    Then Fraggle's discourtesy observation becomes pointed. The writer is assuming my familiarity with what they know to be their in-group's vernacular, when they know better.
    If I had ever made such a foolish assumption, David Foster Wallace would have cured me.
    OK - but on an essay exam, that ability is specifically not assumed. Prove it.
    The critical category is the distinctions that seem arbitrary and difficult to the student but are not, once mastered.
    Two remarks: claiming that a particular distinction "doesn't matter" often reveals a lack of experience or a failure of imagination. If you do not find the distinction of "to" and "2" important, many arithmetic teachers might beg to differ; if you don't think that "wud" might turn into "wood", "wooed", "wad", "woot", or "with you, dude", as easily as "would", you haven't been confronted with the world of the student essay recently.

    Well, it happens. What people need and what they have learned quite often don't match. We "need" all kinds of features we don't have, such as a gender neutral third person singular pronoun, we've lost things we once found useful and would find useful if we still had them, such as "thou", and we've gained and kept extremely valuable features such as the double negative through pedantic insistence. People just learning to write have no real idea what they will find themselves "needing" anyway, and discard (even as a population) in ignorance and uncomprehending irritation mostly - that tendency should be opposed.

    The written language, lacking gestures and tones and situational context, presenting more complex grammatical structure and the like, benefits in clarity by providing more clues such as spelling. The apostrophe marking a missing letter is a valuable convention, widely useful, no?

    Consider: I have seen youths playing softball, with their hats on backwards, shading their eyes against the sun with their gloves. If told by such a youth that hats don't need bills or brims, what is the reply?

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