Using the wrong word

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

  1. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    Well sure, but I'm not talking about the slow process of forming a consensus on a new word or grammatical construction. (Academy-administered languages ought to have an advantage in that regard but it seldom seems to work out that way.) I'm talking about the somewhat faster process of letting things we don't need atrophy from sheer disuse.
    As a writer and editor I find that people simply use "they" and damn the awkward results like "they must wash their face." Maybe we'll then have to invent "they-all" for the new plural, like "you-all."

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    Chinese, of all the unlikely languages, has only gender-neutral pronouns.
    The need for a formal second-person singular pronoun and its inevitable loss of stature is a peculiar cycle that occurs in many languages. Co-opting the plural is a common first iteration, and English is still at the beginning stage of that iteration because we've only recently begun to invent a new plural. Portuguese is in its fourth iteration. Tu=thou, vos=you, vossa mercê=your grace, você=a contraction of that (like Spanish usted), and now você is considered informal and the new singular is o senhor, a senhora, a senhorita=the gentleman, the married lady, the unmarried lady.
    Yes, it's really hard to say, "Don't worry, I promise that I won't not pick up the kids at school," in Spanish.
    "I hope you're not dreaming of getting into the major leagues."
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  3. CutsieMarie89 Zen Registered Senior Member

    Okay fine "people" instead of "you". You don't have to get so irritated. You wrote that people get your and you're confused in spoken language didn't you? I was just trying to think of an example when that might happen, but I couldn't. If that wasn't what you meant, then what did you mean?
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  5. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    It seems pretty unlikely. The best I can come up with is a Garden Path sentence, but the garden path is so short that it's barely worthy of the name:

    "If you're consultants..."

    (Oh boy, we've got this client fooled. He thinks we might be consultants!)

    "If your consultants can start work on the 15th..."

    (Oh dang, now we've got to hire some.)
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  7. iceaura Valued Senior Member

    As do I (as one of the "people"). And I will defend it as an inherently plural reference, in a deeper sense. But it is awkward.

    We don't have things, or keep them, just because we need them or would use them often. There is such a thing as a bad habit that spreads from a common laziness and ignorance.
    That is not the only manner of vanishing. I keep coming back to it, but as a math tutor I notice it - the "logical" handling of the double negation will vanish from English unless it is pedagogically defended. And that will be a loss, not an atrophy of the disused. The vernacular interferes with clear reasoning, no kidding. It's like saying "ten times less" - if the kid has to fight their language to handle these concepts, it's harder for them.

    There is a role, a large and normal and humanly significant role, for the flywheel effect of standardized, inculcated, considered and reasoned, academic rule in a written language. The evolution of language changes when formal literacy occurs, and that's OK.

    (btw: I have heard foreigners, I think one was Finnish, confuse the reference gender of pronouns in English - a strange and enlightening experience, at the time.)
    Last edited: May 25, 2009
  8. Pete It's not rocket surgery Registered Senior Member

    (This post is a few posts behind the stream. Sorry - I've been a bit distracted, and it's taken nearly a day to compose!)
    Hi iceaura,
    If you are marking an exam that is explicitly assessing formal English as a truly necessary component of the course objectives, then you should certainly grade accordingly.

    If not, then grade based on the argument presented.
    If you have to guess their meaning, then mark down. If not, then don't.
    If the student fails to express subtleties and make complex arguments, then grade accordingly.
    If a student uses "2" for "to" in a context where it could be confused with the number 2, then mark down. If not, if there is no potential for confusion in that instance, then why should it bother you?

    That is certainly a critical category. I suggest that more students might master such distinctions if they were not force-fed so many truly arbitrary formalities, and if the reasons for the rules were learned from a very early age.

    I think that the pedantic insistence in question is misdirected at formality for formality's sake, rather than at functional improvement. We could have a neutral third person singular pronoun if children were exposed in their early schooling to writings that used more of the various options available (eg Spivak). Perhaps pedantic insistence on correctness is the reason that we don't have anything better than the singular "they" in widespread use for this purpose?

    The problem is that the biggest influence on our basic use of language and attitude towards language is directly by primary school teachers, and indirectly by education academics.

    I think that by drumming arbitrary formalities of language into children in their early school years, we are missing the opportunity to guide the evolution of the language both immediately (by the language children learn) and, more importantly, in the long term by nurturing a more direct appreciation for what makes language good language.

    And that's really what I'm on about here - that "good language" is good communication: effective, concise, precise, and flexible. Some rules are obviously necessary to make those things happen, but strict adherence to an arbitrary rule set is not.
    Last edited: May 26, 2009
  9. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    I don't know which generation you belong to but that was arguably true back in the 1950s. Although in those days of nuclear families and sit-down dinners, parents and other elders in and around the home had a tremendous influence as well, due to sheer quantity of exposure time plus a degree of respect that had not yet started to wane.

    But I think today the entertainment industry wields colossal influence on children's learning of language (and everything else). According to the screeds, children today spend more time listening to music and watching TV than they do in school, and (according to the same screeds) they have more respect for rappers, athletes and Eric Cartman than for their parents and teachers.

    And parents are passively complicit in this passing of the baton. I was a university student before I was allowed to stay up to watch a ten o'clock TV show on a school night--except there were no TVs in the student residences!
    The parameters of "good language" are not universal. Concision in particular comes to mind; in some cultures it's considered rude to approach a subject directly.
  10. Pete It's not rocket surgery Registered Senior Member

    Yes, that is often true (although we should be cautious of the stereotype). However, the idea of what is "good" language is still the domain of schools, and the fact that this influence is waning makes it more important (in my opinion) to make sure that influence is functionally productive, and not wasted on arbitrary formalities.

    I beg to differ. I suggest that there are indeed universal parameters of good language (not necessarily those I listed), and that the ability to be concise is one of them, even if that option is not exercised at all times.
  11. Pandaemoni Valued Senior Member

    I would argue that one of the charms of Shakespeare is that he is often not concise.

    That's a long way to go for "despite its seeming significance, life is meaningless," but the fun of it is in the metaphor. Similarly,You can more concisely write, "When we have shuffled off this mortal coil" as "When we have died".

    Shakespeare aside, I think I can see a way to shorten this:

    I can get that whole thing down to "We shall not surrender, and even if our main islands are beaten, our overseas territories shall continue the fight." One has to imagine that my version of the speech would not have made the annals of history.
  12. iceaura Valued Senior Member

    We are grading handwritten essays from twelve-year-olds, according to the standards established by the State involved - it is our job to match our grading standards to theirs, and we try to do that.

    I assure you that no "arbitrary standards" of rhetoric, grammar, vocabulary, spelling, or penmanship are involved. We accept anything we can decipher. The problem is that failure to abide by these "arbitrary standards" creates difficulties in deciphering. They aren't as arbitrary to those on the receiving end.

    It is easier, for example, to detemine whether a particular scrawl is a "to" if you don't have to consider all the possibilities that might be a poorly writtten "2". And we don't - the kids have obviously been coached to eschew chatspeak. But one of the problems encountered in real life is that the context is often uncertain - most of that stuff that depends on context assumes a clear, unambiguous, grammatically standard context.

    Ny1 who can restrict there use of "2", instead of (sa) "too", "to", "two", "tutu", etc, 2 clear situations, (1s that don't, as that 1 did?, cre8 little hitches and rereadings) is capable of employing "too" easily and without difficulty 2 - - - - - - themselves. Ny1 inconvenienced bI being 4ced 2 use "too" 4 "2" 2 traditionally, is either paying bI the pixel (that's OK, then) or incapable of evaluating their use of it. And, 2, probably among those 2 whom all such considerations appear 2 arbitrary 2 bother about.

    I claim their can be know po10tial for confusion in these last 4 sen10ces - as there, 1ce you figure them out, perfectly clear, eye expect know objections, of course.

    And we haven't even considered, say, the deaf or foreign - for whom the sounds do not mentally match up.
    There can be no objection to that sentiment, as expressed. The problem is when those who wish to get rid of the stuff they don't like make a list of what exactly that is - and the rest of us say "wait a minute, you don't seriously think {fill in the blank} is arbitrary, do you?"

    The written English language has been throwing out bathwater for centuries now. The concentration of babies is pretty high.
    There aren't that many truly arbitrary rules, and there aren't that many children capable of understanding the logic behind the patterns of a written language they have not mastered yet.

    Chicken and egg problem. They have to be able to employ the rules, to follow their logic, if any. So they're arbitrary, in the first place.

    But all language is, at bottom, arbitrary - barring onomatopoeia and similar minor inclusions. Children learning language are faced with mountains of the arbitrary, inevitably and necessarily. The rules of standard written English are models of tight logic and relevance, compared with the rest of the project they face.
    Last edited: May 27, 2009
  13. Pete It's not rocket surgery Registered Senior Member

    Et tu, Brute? Then fall, Caesar.
    The relevant point is that Shakespeare can be concise when required.
  14. Pete It's not rocket surgery Registered Senior Member

    I'm not suggesting a specific set of things that should be thrown out. I'm railing against the attitude that nothing should be thrown out or added. You seem to imply that the question of whether a given rule is arbitrary is necessarily subjective, but I disagree. There are objective properties of our language that that make it a good language, and there are objective properties that make it difficult. Likewise, there are components of the language that objectively relate to those properties, and in turn either enhance or detract from the language as a whole.

    I think that one reason that we are losing babies with bathwater is precisely because there is no attempt to proactively manage the evolution of our language. Get in early, help them learn to distinguish babies from bathwater. Don't try to maintain the fiction that it is all babies.

    There are enough arbitrary rules for children to recognise them. Many subsequently stamp all school English as useless formalism.
    They should at least learn that there is logic behind the rules that they learn. Unfortunately (?) for educators, this means that you need to understand that logic yourself and acknowledge when that logic is lacking.

    The buck stops at common understanding. It might be fundamentally arbitrary that "legs" doesn't include a tail, but clearly calling a tail a leg doesn't facilitate communication.

    If you can establish the properties of what makes English a good language, you are then in a position to improve it - trim the rules that don't contribute to those properties, and introduce more that do. That is what students should be learning.
  15. Pete It's not rocket surgery Registered Senior Member

    Awesome use of the language, dude

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    . Those sentences are very cutely contrived examples that smell distinctly of straw. Can you post a real example that you think I shouldn't object to?

    But yes, I do grant that chatspeak can be overdone.
    My original complaint was with the complete rejection of commonly used shortcuts. I know academics who will reply to emails that contain "u" instead of "you" with corrections, and will not respond to the actual content until it is resent with such abberations removed.
    Last edited: May 27, 2009
  16. iceaura Valued Senior Member

    Children learning to write English prose are incapable of distinguishing the arbitrary from the constituent. That requires expertise, and even expertise does not settle all arguments (Fraggle, for example, occasionally expresses judgments not universal among his peers in the field).

    It is true that many children, especially American children from the deeply anti-intellectual American culture, tend to stamp all schooling (algebra, grammar, history, geography, biology, languages) as useless formalism. But they are wrong about that, no?

    Distinguishing the arbitrary from the necessary is the teacher's job, the parents' job, the community's job. It is not the children's job. Clearly, a policy of hiring teachers from the bottom third of each year's graduating class, providing them with working conditions no reasonable salesman would accept at a car dealership, paying them wages lower than those available to apprentices in the local machine shops, imposing a host of bureaucratic requirements and distant committee's preferences on the conduct of their classrooms, and vilifying both them and their subjects taught repeatedly in public political discourse, might in some cases interfere with the process of educating the young in the local school.

    It might even create numerous scenes of morale-damaging, rote and trivia focused, arbitrary feature ridden, English grammar instruction.

    But the solution to that is surely not an official acceptance of incapability and ignorance, a tolerated failure to educate the young?
    Discourtesies abound. If faced with such a person - or the possibility of such a person - in a real world situation, one would hope that the emailer could in fact correct the email, and stroke the jerk, no?

    Or even, odd as the possibility might sound, anticipate the audience, and write accordingly in the first place.

    I once knew a college professor of mathematics - an excellent, famously competent and caring instructor with a hyphenated English name - who stated to each class he taught (on the first day, by way of introduction) that any classwork submitted to him for grading with his name misspelled on it would receive a grade of F. He regarded misspelling the professor's name when asking for a conscientious evaluation of one's work as just too damn dumb to tolerate.

    Would you regard that as arbitrary? Objectionable?
  17. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    I would simply regard it as quintessentially British.
  18. StrangerInAStrangeLand SubQuantum Mechanic Valued Senior Member

    "I can't accept the fact that a junkie could shoot that well" should usually be "I can't accept that a junkie could shoot that well".
    Last edited by a moderator: May 29, 2009
  19. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    Really? Don't make me look it up. What's your source on that one? It sounds awfully colloquial to me. Following the verb "accept" with a subordinating conjunction just doesn't sound like the Queen's English.
  20. Pandaemoni Valued Senior Member

    "Et tu Brute," was needed for dramatic purposes, but I am not sure that Caesar's announcing his own death was the soul of brevity. Or, if it was needed "Then I fall," saves us a syllable and a comma. (Though it seems more poetic in the way written, which is of course the point. Caesar conveys this death in a way that sounds almost like a final command—to himself.) If you want real conciseness, according to Plutarch Caesar said nothing when he saw Brutus, but merely pulled his tunic up over his head. Other versions have Caesar saying things like "Even you, my child" (though without the reference to his own death).

    In any event, I do agree that Shakespeare could be concise when there was good cause to be, just as he could write in long passages using largely monosyllabic language when that served a purpose, but such things were generally the exception, or, at the very least, not amongst his goals in the use of language generally. It's very much like his switching between prose and blank verse, what, when the switch was made was always done for a reason, yet neither his prose nor his verse tended to conciseness without good cause to abandon his otherwise more colorful manner of speaking.

    That is the point I was making, that Shakespeare and others do not see concise speech as a goal for which one should generally strive. To me, that suggests that conciseness cannot be a "universal parameter of good language" since Shakespeare is so commonly regarded as amongst the greatest users of our English language. Even the Gettysburg Address, which is a model of conciseness for the most part, starts off with "Four score and seven years ago" rather than "Eighty-seven."
    Last edited: May 30, 2009
  21. StrangerInAStrangeLand SubQuantum Mechanic Valued Senior Member


    The former is refusing to accept a fact. Which is silly.
    The latter is inability to accept the concept.
  22. scifes In withdrawal. Valued Senior Member

    lol.."inability"..and this is the linguistics forum..

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    i'd say absolute and obsolete..

    and i still don't know the distinguishable difference between them..
  23. Oli Heute der Enteteich... Registered Senior Member

    And your point would be?
    It would seem we have a surfeit of inability somewhere around here...

    They're not even close in meaning
    Have you ever heard of a recent invention called "dictionary"?
    It can be useful at times.

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