Enough said … Grammar

Blue plume penA double negative is a no-no. Author unknown

Only in grammar can you be more than perfect. William Safire

And all dared to brave unknown terrors, to do mighty deeds, to boldly split infinitives that no man had split before—and thus was the Empire forged. Douglas Adams in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

The past is always tense, the future perfect. Zadie Smith

I really do not know that anything has ever been more exciting than diagramming sentences. Gertrude Stein

A preposition is a terrible thing to end a sentence with. Winston S. Churchill

If rhetoric study was the military, grammar teachers would be the drill sergeants. T.K. Naliaka

Grammar is like your overarching compulsion. It’s math with words. Thomm Quackenbush

The past, the present, and the future walked into a bar. It was tense. Lex Martin

Red x pen

 

As far as I’m concerned, ‘whom’ is a word that was invented to make everyone sound like a butler. Calvin Trillin

 

The Politics of Language

The role of language in politics becomes very evident during elections. For better or worse, language plays a crucial role in the entire process: in debates, speeches, on the Internet.

But what about the politics of language? To what extent is language shaped by or at least restricted or influenced by politics. In 2015 the Washington Post officially adopted the use of the singular “they” – that is, the use of the plural form of the third person to avoid awkward “he/she” or “he or she” constructions. Naturally this also includes the acceptance of the singular “their” in  place of “his/her” and “his or her” but read more about it here.

And we have all struggled to find gender neutral terms for occupations: firefighter instead of fireman or firewoman, police instead of policeman or policewoman. These are the politically correct, excuse my triteness, designations for women and men’s occupations in our newest world, or word, order.

After 9/11 there was an attempt to change French fries to freedom fries, following an attempted demotion from French to french fries too. But it appears, fortunately, that there was no permanent consensus and support for these suggestions.

Beyond words, yet another area of language has been affected, namely names. For example, the Islamic group referred to alternately as ISIS or ISIL, or simply IS, for the Islamic State has been revisited. It has been reported that certain world leaders refuse to use any of these names citing the fact that the group is not officially a “state” instead preferring to call the group by the acronym in Arabic: ‘Daesh’.

Fire biggerpng
Inflammatory language: must we fight fire with fire?

The acronym Daesh in Arabic stands for the phrase al-Dawla al-Islamiya al-Iraq al-Sham (or the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant). In fact, the Islamic group vehemently disapproves of the word. In Arabic there are two very similar words ‘Daes’ (one who crushes something underfoot) and ‘Dahes’ (one who sows discord) which can evoke a negative image in the eyes, or at least ears, of Arabic speakers. Certain world leaders elect to use the word; in the opposite camp, threats are being made to thwart the use of the name Daesh.

Thus we English speakers are bound to acknowledge and be aware of the subtle uses of words, phrases and names that can influence readers consciously or unconsciously. But isn’t that what effective writing is all about? Responsible writing however could incorporate neutral forms to inform rather than infect, incite and ignite. English neutral in all forms seems reasonable, doesn’t it?

There’s no “I“ in team

Team is-areA phrase heard often to emphasize the meaning and essence of the word team. Interesting philosophically, but it does have implications for language use too. Namely, is team a singular or plural noun from a purely linguistic point of view?

Actually it varies depending on the variety of English used. Generally in the US, team as well as other words like family and government are traditionally considered singular – a unit that functions as one entity. However, in the UK most speakers adhere to the idea of “notional concord“ – that is, the notion of what is meant. Hence, the family (or team) are means the members of the group while the family (or team) is means the members function as one unit. But to return to the use of “generally“ in the US, things may be changing. Some sportswriters and sportcasters have begun adopting the notional concept and the Miami Heat are and Orlando Magic are have begun to appear in the American media.

As mentioned above, the concept of singular vs plural may be a purely philosophical argument and perhaps these questions should be left to the colleagues and followers of linguistic philosophers such as Paul Grice to address. But from a practical point of view, notional concord may be creating havoc among English speakers in my opinion, especially non-natives. More and more often I hear speakers exposed to notional concord incorrectly using unambiguously singular nouns. With the exception of editors and professional writers, notional grammar may have confused speakers enough to where they just throw up their hands and use whatever form seems handy at the moment. Perhaps the old rules are simply going down the proverbial drain.

And while on the subject of rules, we might consider whether English actually needs singular and plural forms of the verb in the present tense. For example, the Scandinavian languages have a verb structure very similar to English; they are fairly alike regarding the tenses. But the Scandinavian languages do not have the third-person singular “-s“ form in the present tense such as he is, she likes, it has. There is only one form in these cases, which in English translates to the plural forms – are, like and have respectively. It certainly would simplify English grammar, particularly for second language learners of English.

There is a precedence too for this type of reduction or loss. Historically, English with its Germanic roots had two forms of the second person pronoun: you and thou. Except for poetry and Shakespeare, thou (originally the singular) has basically disappeared in favor of you (originally the plural).

Back to the beginning of this discussion, since there is no “I“ in team, does that make team a plural? Or is it a singular, or both? In the same vein, there is no “we“ in government, so is it singular? Or a plural, or both? But that is definitely dangerous territory and does not only relate to language. Philosophical and political indeed.

Plainly speaking…

Could you please repeat that -- in plain English?
Could you please repeat that — in plain English?

Each fall the Center for Plain Language in Washington, D.C., grades agencies of the federal government, non-profits and private companies on their efforts to write clearly. Their reports certainly make interesting reading; see the full report card for U.S. government offices here:

Writing in plain language entails many different elements from words and phrases to euphemistic labels and clichés. English is often deliberately made obscure, unclear or overly complex — when the point should simply be to communicate. (But that’s a discussion for another time.)

Let’s begin with a list of some redundant words and phrases, usually labelled pleonasms or pleonastic phrases by linguists — and these labels are themselves perfect candidates for translation to Plain English.

all-time record  record
by means of  by
close proximity  proximity (or ‘is close’)
controversial issue issue 
during the period  during
firstly  first
for a period of   for
herein   here
herewith  here
in an effort to  to
most unique  unique
past history  history 
rather unique  unique
reason why   reason 
set forth in  in
together with  together or with (but rarely both)
totally demolish  demolish
totally destroy destroy

The examples above are but one limited category of words that can result in obscure language or just excessive wordiness in writing. Keep checking this blog for some of the other categories.

The Center for Plain Language also publicizes awards annually, winners and losers basically: ClearMark and WonderMark. The name of the second award I dare guess is probably short for I-wonder-what-the-f-they-are-talking-about. You can see the lists of the latest finalists by clicking on the links below::

ClearMark

WonderMark

If you would like to read more about the center and its activities, visit their website here. In summary, it’s plain that we should keep our language clear and not leave our readers to wonder what we mean.

 

Enough said … the English language

Blue plume penWe don’t just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary. Booker T. Washington

English is a funny language; that explains why we park our car on the driveway and drive our car on the parkway. Author Unknown

Writing in English is the most ingenious torture ever devised for sins committed in previous lives. The English reading public explains the reason why. James Joyce

If the English language made any sense, lackadaisical would have something to do with a shortage of flowers. Doug Larson

Making English grammar conform to Latin rules is like asking people to play baseball using the rules of football. Bill Bryson

I speak two languages: Body and English. Mae West

Drawing on my fine command of the English language, I said nothing. Robert Benchley

To write or even speak English is not a science but an art. There are no reliable words. Whoever writes English is involved in a struggle that never lets up even for a sentence. He is struggling against vagueness, against obscurity, against the lure of the decorative adjective, against the encroachment of Latin and Greek, and, above all, against the worn-out phrases and dead metaphors with which the language is cluttered up. George Orwell

When I read some of the rules for speaking and writing the English language correctly, I think any fool can make a rule, and every fool will mind it. Henry David Thoreau

English? Who needs it. I’m never going to England. Homer SimpsonRed x pen

Does English need colour and glamour?

Color Abstract

For that matter, does English need favour, honour, flavour, savour and so many more -our words? Before our Australian, British and Canadian fellow English speakers panic – relax. This is just a point of discussion. From the standpoint of communication, it does seem that color, glamor, favor, flavor, honor and savor are satisfactory. Yes, these are the American spellings, but please note, US English generally prefers glamour. Thus the US -our/-or spellings are also not clearly defined.

Moreover, outside the US, the spellings are honourable but honorary (not honourary) so English in the UK is equally inconsistent. I must confess that I am a bit OCD and this type of untidiness is somewhat unnerving. While it is not going to end world hunger or solve world peace, I can’t help but ask whether we can come to some agreement on the lack of consistency and find some common ground. To add to this situation, some derivations of these words have already begun to lose the extra “u“ in the UK spelling. Note that the derivations of glamour and humour in the UK are glamorous and humorous, respectively. The combination of –our plus –ous appears to be a bit too much for all English speakers.

Noah Webster is basically responsible for many of the reforms in English spellings such as color ~ colour, center ~ centre and defense ~ defence. There has not been a real reform since then, in the early 1800’s, so it may be time to rethink some of these inconsistencies and redundancies. One argument for a reform is economic: producing text in all varieties of English can be very expensive.

Clearly there is a good argument for retaining the cultural flavo(u)r and historical development. English is richer for these details. Therefore I would like to ask you, do we really need “u” in our “our” words, or will “or” suffice for communicating on a worldwide basis?

Our native language is a very personal and emotional subject; language is identity. We all want to keep our individual identity and cultural perspectives. To quote a great observer of human nature on tradition and innovation:

An Englishman is a person who does things because they have been done before. An American is a person who does things because they haven’t been done before. Mark Twain

A polylingual multiglot?

Multidigit or polydigit … or simply just a lot of fingers.

In English the conventional terms are polyglot and multilingual. Of course. But what about polylingual and multiglot? Are these acceptable? Are they understandable? Can’t we just freely combine any “combining forms” like multi, poly, mis, dis, un, im, in, graph, kilo, auto, and so on?

Webster’s New World Dictionary (4th edition) has the following definitions of the traditional terms: polyglot and multilingual.

polyglot adj., noun [Gr polyglōttos < poly-, POLY- + glōtta, the tongue]

  1. speaking or writing several languages
  2. containing or written in several languages
  1. a polyglot person
  2. a polyglot book
  3. a mixture or confusion of languages

multilingual adj. [L < multus, much, many < IE base * mel-, strong, big > Gr mala, very combining form. ME < ML lingualis < L lingua:]

  1. of or in several languages
  2. using or capable of using several languages

These words entered English historically at different times: polyglot directly from Greek and multilingual through Middle English and (Middle) Latin. By convention we tend to combine Greek with Greek forms and Latin with Latin. However, descriptively I know of no real obstacle to being creative. Editors will surely shutter now. Apologies. But why not play with English.

We could create synonyms by crossing basic forms. For example, try Latin magna- instead of Greek mega- or macro- (all three mean ‘large or great’) and Latin urban instead of Greek politan (both basically mean ‘related to cities’). The results would be magnapolitan or mega-urban or macro-urban. Works for me. With all the roots from Latin and Greek, the possible combinations are numerous.

Let’s spice up our dull texts from time to time and be the first with a new twist on old words. Just for fun or at least in a blog.