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Archive for the 'Grammar & Mind' Category

Attending to the Problem of ‘Attendee’

Friday, September 21st, 2012

Aubrey Waddy dropped me a line right after the Good Word mentor appeared. Here is the gist of our conversation:

“Thanks for the daily exploration and today’s word, mentor: good fun as usual. I read the Odyssey and the Iliad as a boy, in English I hasten to add, and they were great adventures; I’d forgotten Mentor.”

“Your use of the word advisee, however, prompts me to ask whether you can address the abominable word attendee. I pedantically make a point of using attender, but it’s a lost cause.”

This confusion is a result of the two different meanings of attend: “to take care of” (intransitive) and “to go to” (transitive). There is an old tendency in English to use (1) -ee (standee, devotee, retiree) and (2) -ant (congregantclaimant, and applicant) as the personal (agentive) suffixes for intransitive verbs, words that cannot take a direct object in some sense. The suffix -er at one time applied only to transitive verbs like drinker, eater, player, words that can take a direct object.

Notice, however, I say ‘tendency’ not ‘rule”, for the tendency is dying out now in favor of a general suffix -er: runner, swimmer, walker. This probably relates to the difficulty in keeping transitive and intransitive verbs straight. Run, swim, walk may all now be used transitively, as to run the course, swim the river, walk the dog.

Now, getting back to attendee. Someone who attends to someone might be called an attendee but for whatever reason attendant seems to be preferred, probably because this word is a borrowing from French. To attend a meeting, however, implies a transitive verb, suggesting attender the correct form. So you are right in claiming that attender is more appropriate than attendee; in fact, I see no room for attendee under any guise with its current meaning.

But don’t expect a change any time soon; this word is too firmly embedded in the vocabulaty now.

Improving Conversational Skills

Monday, November 23rd, 2009

Marnie Kaur recently raised a question I’ve heard many times before. This time I will share my thoughts on it with everyone within eyeshot of this blog.

I have always been fascinated by words. Having never had the chance to study them I was wondering if you could give me some pointers on being able to converse with the best of them. Regards, Marnie.

Conversation is an art, which means it requires practice. To become an excellent conversationalist, you must converse with excellent conversationalists. The best conversationalists tend to be people who read a lot, thereby developing a large vocabulary that they can use to make subtle distinctions that other well-read people pick up.

Repetition plays some role in learning. That is why we repeat our Good Words so many times in our essaylets. We always give two or three examples, play with the words creatively, and repeat them in discussing their derivational history—even in our acknowledgment to the people who suggest them.

However, human learning is more complex than repetition. Sometimes we can hear a word a hundred times and never remember it, as kids often exhibit a problem remembering “no” no matter how many times it is repeated. Other times we hear or read a word once and never forget it: once is usually enough for a kid to remember “candy” the rest of his or her life. 

Reading is the starting point for vocabulary building. My students often asked me what they could do to improve their spelling. I always told them that there is only one way: read more. Reading builds our word recognition or comprehension but does not bear directly on conversational skills.

We have a far larger vocabulary in our memory than we can actively use. This is another way of saying that we comprehend far more words than we can use in speech. However, the passive and active levels are connected, so the larger our passive vocabulary, the large our active vocabulary becomes. Our active or spoken vocabulary trickles down from our passive or comprehensional vocabulary. (For ages I thought this was the “trickle down” theory.)

Every language has four aspects familiar to every language teacher: (1) reading, (2) writing, (3) comprehension, and (4) speaking, ordered here from easiest to most difficult. That’s right: reading any language is far easier than speaking it. Actively using grammatical skills and vocabulary on the fly is by far more difficult that slowly reading the words on a printed page, where we may reread them and mulling them over as long as we wish. In conversation we don’t have time for all that.

Still, language written by clever writers contains a larger vocabulary more sensitively deployed than even the writer can use in speaking. If we read a lot, remembering the words that stick out, examining them closely as we do in our Good Words, that passive vocabulary eventuallly meanders into our speech. It is therefore the best way to improve spelling and the best if not only starting point for improved conversational skills.

English’s Invisible Suffix

Sunday, June 29th, 2008

I recently heard an NPR reporter misplace the accent on a word and it reminded me of the invisible suffix in English. I did not write down the specific word (I’ve heard this error many times on radio and TV) but it was a word like survey, which is pronounced both survey and survey. Both are legitimate words. Do you know the rule which governs where the accent falls? Here are some more examples:

  • reject : reject
  • increase : increase
  • subject : subject

If you think accent on the second syllable indicates a verb and accent on the initial syllable indicates a noun—you’re right.

This difference in accent may legitimately be called an invisible (though not inaudible) suffix since it distinguishes verbs from nouns as surely as -ment does in state and statement or -ation does in form and formation. The rule is very simple: two syllable verbs with accent on the second syllable are converted into nouns by simply shifting the accent to the first syllable. (The words generally have to be made up of two distinguishable constituents or morphemes such as re- and -ject in reject and in- and -crease in increase.)

The meaning of the noun created this way is “the result of the action signified by the underlying verb”, just as a statement is the result of stating and and formations result from forming. The result of surveying is a survey and if we reject something, it becomes a reject.

This rule is particularly productive (active) among verbs with the prefix re-. If you recap the news, the result is a recap, the result of retreading a tire is a retread, anything we remake turns out to be a remake. I could go on all night and through most of tomorrow but I think these examples are enough to show that this accent shift is an active rule of the English language.

Sometimes the meaning is simply the process of the verb, as a reboot of a computer is simply the act of rebooting, but the same duality of meaning can be found in nouns ending on -(at)ion and -ment. English has so few suffixes that all of them serve multiple functions.

The important point is that the language does provide a means of distinguishing between many verbs and nouns that are spelled identically and we should be careful to observe the rule that maintains this distinction when we utter these words.

More Ladyfingers and Woolly Bears

Thursday, November 8th, 2007

Yesterday and today even more totally undescriptive names of commonplace things in our lives popped into my mind. There must be a word for such but I have not yet been able to find it. If I don’t, I’ll suggest a neologism to press into that service.

OK, here are more: You wouldn’t want an earwig anywhere near your ear nor a rollmop near your mouth if they were anything near what their names suggest.  If the names of things were that important, people who would never dream of eating dogs would avoid hotdogs with the same fervor.

We never serve wingnuts in our nutbowls nor fry silverfish.  Shooting a real bull’s eye is—ugh! The one on a target has nothing to do with bulls.  And wouldn’t a baked Alaska be a mouthful if it meant what its name describes?

OK, I could go on but I probably made my point Monday. I just added these because of the hidden humor in words we use every day—without thinking.  Wouldn’t English be dull without them?

Absolute Adjectives in the Mind

Tuesday, October 23rd, 2007

Absolute adjectives offer an intriguing insight into how our knowledge of the grammar of language and our unconscious mental logic work together symbiotically. The brain is a magnificent achievement of nature and even though we do not know how it forms concepts and manipulates them during speech, we can see that grammar and logic are two distinct levels of mental processing that work together when we talk.

First, the claim that absolute adjectives cannot be compared or intensified is itself a misstatement of the grammatical facts. Most of us say “more infinite”, “very complete”, “pretty unique” all the time. Are all but the prescriptive grammarians and their dupes wrong in their use of absolute adjectives?

Of course not. The absolute adjective rule is a logical, not a grammatical rule. If the universe is either infinite or not, it makes no logical sense to say more infinite. However, grammar plays on that fact. Since we know this is logically true, we are allowed to use expressions like this since the hearer will know that more infinite cannot mean “more infinite”. The closest interpretation of this phrase is “more nearly infinite”—and this is precisely the interpretation we assign to such expressions. More complete means “more nearly complete”, “more dead” means “more nearly dead”, and so on.

Logic and grammar are intertwined but they are separate processes. Grammar, as you can see here, plays on logic. It does the same thing with the class of liquid substances. Logically, a substance like water has no plural. However, the vast majority of English-speakers say things like, “Please bring us two waters” or “four coffees” or “I put three sugars in my yoghurt” all the time.

Again, grammar plays off logic so that the speaker, knowing these phrases are not literally true, applies the nearest possible interpretation: “two portions (glasses) of water”, “four portions (cups) of coffee”, “three portions (teaspoons, lumps) of sugar”. Notice that the interpretation is perfectly consistent in all instances.

The reason that I studied and researched languages and linguistics for 40 years was the discovery of insights into the human mind like these. The fact that grammar and words tell us things about how our minds work that we can find nowhere else is a compelling reason to explore language on and on. I presume everyone reading this agrees with me on this point.