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Archive for the 'Style & Usage' Category

Redundancy in the Way we Speak

Friday, July 4th, 2014

Rhonda Taylor sent a couple of redundant phrases some time back. I publish them here without comment:

  • hot water heater: In fact, it heats cold water. Call the plumber our hot water heater has a leak.
  • hose pipe: In fact, a hose is nothing but a flexible pipe. You kids quit squirting each other with the hose pipe.
  • ATM machine: In fact, ATM stands for “automatic teller machine”; you don’t need to add an extra “machine”. I have to stop at the ATM machine on the way.

What’s your favorite peeve of this type?

Starting First

Thursday, December 12th, 2013

I heard a TV talk show host say recently, “I want to talk to all of you but starting first with [John Smith]“. My question is, could we start second with someone? Starting sort of implies first, right?

Language is full of redundancies like this. We simply write this one off as one of the many idiomatic phrases that haunt English, or any language for that matter. How often have you heard (or said) “Let me start first with . . . ?” “ATM machine” is another that bugs me. What do we think the “M” stands for?

High Dudgeon but not Low Dudgeon

Saturday, November 30th, 2013

George Kovac asked about the idiomatic used of the Good Word dudgeon, to wit:

“Why is it always high dudgeon? Does no one (but me) ever say just dudgeon or low dudgeon or even medium dudgeon? Some words are always paired in usage, and I guess I should get over it. For example, have you ever heard of something being boggled other than a mind? And if someone is always in a state of high dudgeon, why can’t we describe them as uneven keeled?”

Well, George, the rules of language are strewn with linguistic rubble. Sometimes it results from the lack of a reference (what else besides a mind could be boggled)? Sometimes we simply don’t know. How to you explain the rubble left from grinding out rules that are always changing?

Did you read the wonderful article that appeared in a 1957 edition of The New Yorker called “How I Met my Wife“?

When is ‘different’ treated differently?

Saturday, October 19th, 2013

Joan Gambill noticed a rather odd use of an adjective in my characterization of pruinose the other day. Here is how she put it:

“In yesterday’s word email about pruinose, under Notes at the end of the paragraph, it seems as though it should be differently, not different. I do enjoy your words.”

In most dialects of English both different and differently are allowed after verbs depending on what you mean. The suffix -ly on differently associates the adjective different with the verb, so that to tell you differently would mean “to tell you in a way different from the normal way of telling”, e.g. whispering, or in a letter. To tell you different implies “to tell you that the thing we are talking about is different”.

It is difficult to find situations in which both the adjective and adverb are applicable but they do pop up from time to time: She worked furiously (to finish on time) vs. She worked furious (at the way the boss treated her). In the former sentence, furiously modifies the verb; in the latter sentence, furious refers to she. As you see here, when the adjective is used, we usually supply a subordinate clause to clarify.

Without the subordinate clause, the result is often humorous: “Mary ate her salad undressed.” Here the joke arises from the ambiguity of which thing is undressed: the salad or Mary?

Can you Enjoy without a Direct Object?

Monday, September 23rd, 2013

Joel Jacubowicz sent me the following message today:

I have several questions about the usage of the word ‘enjoy’ as a complete, standalone sentence.

1) Is the complete sentence “Enjoy!” (As in, “Here’s your meal. Enjoy!”) grammatically correct?
2) If not, despite being ungrammatical could it be considered to be acceptable usage? 
3) Is it an Americanism? And if so could it be argued to be acceptable to use it anyway in British English?

I ask this because a certain person I know has a pathological and irrational hatred of the phrase “Enjoy!”, e. g. without a direct object (“enjoy WHAT??!!”) but I argue that, even if it’s grammatically incorrect, it’s essentially a set phrase and communicates slightly different meaning to “enjoy this” or “enjoy your meal”, so it can be exempt from following the rules. Alternatively it could be just a command (Enjoy! / Eat! / Read! / Sit!) which is taken as a polite invitation rather than something that you absolutely must do. 

Here is my response.

Enjoy! as an intransitive verb was first used by Yiddish speakers according to Harry Golden in his 1958 book, For 2 Cents Plain. I first heard it from a retired Pennsylvania forest ranger who made commercials for the Pennsylvania Department of Parks about 40 years ago. It would seem to have arisen among speakers of German dialects in the US. I don’t think it is common outside the US; I’ve never heard it used in all the British or Australian movies and TV series that my wife and I have watched over the past 25 or so years.

Enjoy is an obligatorily transitive verb, i.e. a verb which must have a direct object. There are pseudotransitive verbs, verbs which may be transitive or intransitive, i.e. the verbs you mention (eat, read, sit), but enjoy, devour, fix aren’t among them.

An interesting article from the New York Times Magazine points out that the imperative is the only way we can use the intransitive enjoy. I enjoy, you enjoy, s/he enjoys, etc. without a direct object are never heard or spoken. How can this be? It follows that this usage is at best idiomatic.

If this usage spreads throughout  the US, it will be an acceptable usage in the US only, hence it is dialectal. Transitivity is rather flexible; if anyone can think of a situation where a transitive verb works intransitively or vice versa, and they (mis)use it in that situation, it is just a matter of “catching on”. Still, this expression will only be dialectal and idiomatic.

(This blog was partially based on research by Luciano Eduardo de Oliveira.)

On the Health of English Usage

Tuesday, July 9th, 2013

Jackie Strauss recently posed a question that elicited from me a longer response than I think she needed. Jackie wrote:

“Would you please clear up something for me that’s been plaguing my mind for years. People speak of ‘healthy foods’ all the time. My impression was that we who eat these foods will be the healthy ones for it. Shouldn’t those foods that are good for us be called healthful foods, meaning ‘health-giving’? And doesn’t healthy mean ‘health-having’, so to speak?”

“Please tell me the proper use of healthy and healthful. I’d really appreciate it!”

No one has worked out all the rules of semantics, but we (linguists) know that they are different from the rules of grammar. Three of the things we know are: (1) You do not need a grammatical connection for a semantic one. Semantic rules operated on what makes LOGICAL sense, not grammatical sense. Example: “An occasional sailor walked by.” What is an occasional sailor? The semantic rules automatically assign the modifier occasional to the verb, not the noun, so we semantically interpret this sentence as “A sailor occasionally walked by.”

(2) Another semantic rule is that cognition adjusts the meanings of what we say. “John ran over a dog coming home,” doesn’t make sense literally. We know John drives a car home, so we don’t have to say, “John ran his car over a dog coming home.”

My favorite example of this filling in to make sense is something that happened in my home for decades. My wife would say, “It’s Thursday,” and I would take the garbage out (like a trained puppy). She wouldn’t have to repeat over and over every week, “It’s Thursday and Friday is garbage pick up day; please take the garbage out.”

Healthy food falls in this category. We know food can’t literally be healthy so our brain looks for another connection between healthy and some other word in the sentence and—Bingo!—it quickly finds it: healthy for humans.

(3) Semantic rules operate on semantic features, not grammatical ones. “Harry’s a pig!” doesn’t imply that Harry has a snout and curly tail, only that he is either “dirty” or “greedy”. These are semantic features that we have (unfairly) attached to the meaning of the word pig. That pigs have snouts and curly tails are lexical features of pigs and, if Harry really is a pig, and both speakers know it, the listener will interpret the sentence with the full definition. However, if we know that Harry is not a real pig, that doesn’t stop semantics from looking for other features in the definition of pig that do fit.

By the way, language often treats animals unfairly. I’ve treated the subject before. But to summarize, “Sheila’s a cow, dog, cat, (clothes) horse,” doesn’t put these animals in any more of a good light than it does on Sheila.

Do you have to ask interesting questions? I’m sure this is more than you wanted to know. I’ll have to make a language blog entry out of this.


Saturday, June 29th, 2013

A former student of mine now living in and working in Russia, Troy McGrath, recently wrote to me and passed on this anecdote:

A linguistics professor was lecturing to his class one day and said, “In English, a double negative forms a positive. But in some languages, such as Russian, a double negative is still a negative. However,” he pointed out, “in no language in the world can a double positive form a negative.” But then a voice from the back of the room piped up, “Yeah, right.”

I responded that intonation was a crucial factor in his example and gave him a second example I actually heard.

Another linguistics professor, the late Kenneth Pike, once proved the importance of intonation in speech by demonstrating that intonation may contradict the content of a sentence.

If we simply say, “I love you”, the sentence has a positive meaning. But if we add question intonation, “I? Love you?”, the meaning of the sentence is exactly the opposite of the content of the sentence.

Terms and Conditions

Sunday, January 13th, 2013

Mike Lim sent in a question that might be of interest to a wider audience. Mike wrote:

“Why do licences and contracts use the phrase ‘terms and conditions’? The two words terms and conditions seem to be almost identical in meaning.”

The meaning of term has probably taken on the meaning of condition because of its association with condition in this phrase. The original meaning of term was “limit in time or space, or limits on conditions”. Contracts by definition set limits on applicability of its conditions in terms of time and jurisdiction (space).

The term term (I had to do it) is confusing because is also refers to any specialized definition(s) of a word, e.g. “scientific terms”, “legal terms”, etc. This definition is also applicable in the phrase “terms and conditions”, and this sort of ambiguity often causes speakers to lose control of the meaning of a word in a given context. This allows the word to pick up the meaning of another word commonly associated with it. The fact that legal terminology is so alien to most speakers only exacerbates the tendency.

So these two terms have discrete meanings which have merged by association with one another—guilt by association?

Malapropisms Again

Tuesday, October 9th, 2012

Seth Twiggs writes: “We who teach find malapropisms often in student writing, of course. One should not take such occurrences for granite.”

My reply: I hope you didn’t think we have the same a devil-make-hair attitude about them that students have. Far from it.

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.