Monday, December 7, 2009

Ignorance and Arrogance

Many years ago, I was given a paperback copy of a book called The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way as a gift. So crammed are my shelves with unread books I’ve only just got around to reading it. I stumbled across it by chance a week ago and was drawn to it because I had covered some of the same territory in an earlier article, Mispellers of the World, Untie! I wanted to see what the author, Bill Bryson, had to say and see whether I had left out anything major.

Most of the book is a discussion of research and histories done by others. Nowhere does Mr. Bryson mention any original research done by him, and his name does not appear in the bibliography, so I’m guessing he has not published in this field previously. None of the books in the bibliography was published before 1931, and there are no primary sources, such as Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. There is no information about the author at all; his academic background and current profession are unknown. According to the blurbs all over the cover, this book was a hardcover bestseller and well reviewed, even earned the accolade of “scholarly” from the Los Angeles Times. The writing style is breezy and fun, more magazine than academe, which of course adds immensely to readability. But the author betrays such a fundamental lack of understanding of the basic structures of English that I am astounded he got his book published.

In his chapter on English grammar and its oddities, Mr. Bryson states that in English, “A noun is a noun and a verb is a verb largely because the grammarians say they are.” He supports this by giving a list of nouns that are also verbs, such as charge and towel. But the statement is arrant nonsense. A noun is a word that functions as a noun; a verb is a word that functions as a verb. In the sentence “The charge appeared on my statement,” the word charge is being used as a noun, and grammarians are as powerless to turn it into a verb as they are to turn it into gold. Only native speakers can decide how to use a given word, setting its function through use, and if they want to change its use, they have to construct a new sentence for it. The fact that English has so many multifunctional terms is a tribute to its unique versatility. A word’s function (noun, verb, whatever) is not revealed until it is actually used; no one can look at the isolated word charge and declare it noun or verb, because it has the potential to be either. This is a very neat trick, not a shortcoming, and cannot be done in many other languages.

Claiming that “the parts of speech are almost entirely notional,” Mr. Bryson offers the examples “I am suffering terribly” and “My suffering is terrible.” He says the grammarians would call suffering a verb in the first but a noun in the second, but in his opinion both sentences use “precisely the same word to express precisely the same idea.” Well, no. Technically, the first suffering is a present participle, a verbal adjective, and the second is a gerund, a verbal noun, both of which are derived from the same verb, suffer. It is thus not at all odd that they should express the same idea, but the verb has been inflected in different ways, to form a participle (adjective) to use in the present progressive tense and to form a gerund (noun) to use as a subject. Every English verb has the ability to become a noun or an adjective by the addition of -ing; which it is is strictly a matter of how it’s used. As a native English speaker, the author has automatically used terrible to modify the gerund and terribly to modify the participle even as he claims they are modifying “precisely the same word,” proving that the language center in his brain is operating better than the reasoning center. It isn’t a noun or an adjective because grammarians say it is; it’s a noun or adjective because that’s how it’s functioning. There’s nothing “notional” about it.

Having said one puzzlingly harebrained thing, Mr. Bryson reveals even deeper ignorance of how his language works (the language, remember, he has dared to write a book about). In the same paragraph, he writes, “Breaking is a present tense participle, but as often as not it is used in a past tense sense (‘He was breaking the window when I saw him’). Broken, on the other hand, is a past tense participle but as often as not it is employed in a present tense sense (‘I think I’ve just broken my toe’) or even future tense sense (‘If he wins the next race, he’ll have broken the school record’).” These cavils reveal such a complete misunderstanding of basic grammar I am left breathless. Throughout the book he cites Fowler, Copperud, and other well-known grammarians, but he has clearly been too selective in actually reading them. No authorities are cited in this section, but the lack of support for his pet peeve didn’t stop him from ranting. No research went into these inanities. There is nothing here but gibberish.

First off, there is no such thing as a “present tense” or “past tense” participle; a participle is an adjective and has no tense. Participles, present and past, are used to form various tenses. The present participle is used to form the progressive tenses present, past, future, and perfect: I am walking, I was walking, I will be walking, I have been walking, I had been walking, I will have been walking. Likewise, the past participle is used to form the perfect tenses: I have walked, I had walked, I will have walked. Reexamine the statements that “present tense participles” are often used in a “past tense sense” and vice versa, and you realize that his statements make no sense at all, present, past, or future.

It gets worse. Mr. Bryson follows this arrogant demonstration of ignorance with one of boneheaded wrongness. I can only quote; paraphrase will not suffice. “A noun…is generally said [to denote] a person, place, thing, action, or quality. That would seem to cover almost everything, yet clearly most actions are verbs and many words that denote qualities—brave, foolish, good—are adjectives.” These arguments are meant to shore up the assertion that “the parts of speech must be so broadly defined as to be almost meaningless.”

Not in my universe, bub. He has ignored or overlooked the fact that a noun expresses an action or quality in a different way than a verb or an adjective, and it is not uncommon to have closely related words (cognates) in multiple functional categories (e.g., sleep as noun, sleep as verb, sleepy or sleeping as adjective, sleepily as adverb) so that statements about a topic can be made in multiple ways. How is this a failing?? The noun is bravery, the adjective is brave; they both describe a quality, and each can be used to express a thought about heroism. How does that render the categories of noun and adjective themselves meaningless? Wouldn’t it be a bitch if we always had to use sleep as a noun and cast every sentence to accommodate that inflexibility?

I repeat, in English a word is characterized by how it is used, and native speakers decide how any given word may be used by using it that way and being understood. Mr. Bryson would seem to prefer a language in which the nouns were always and forever nouns and referred very solidly and concretely to things, and so on. This is not only impossible, it is supremely undesirable. It takes away all possibility of wordplay and inventiveness, not to mention growth and change.

I cannot believe this book was ever subjected to an editorial eye. No editor worth her salt would have allowed this nonsense to stand. Although I enjoyed other sections of the book, once I had read this chapter, I could no longer trust any statement the author made that I didn’t already know to be true. “Scholarly,” my ass. I rather doubt the reviewer read the whole thing. Who knows what other idiocies lurk beneath the breezy exposition? I usually resell or donate my unwanted books, but this one is going in the recycling bin as too worthless and too dangerous to pass on. I am as puzzled and outraged as if I had come across arguments for a flat earth in a book on geography.

This is article 18 in a continuing series. © 2009 Christine C. Janson

Hey! You Talkin' ta Me?

Reality shows sometimes resort to on-screen captioning when the dialogue goes mumbly or gets scattered by noise. News programs do the same thing, for example, for heavy accents and 911 tapes. People do not speak orthographically; what they say must be interpreted into the symbols we call writing, and those symbols include more than letters. These on-screen transcriptions do a reasonably good job of presenting the spoken word within the standard expectations of spelling and usually (not always, alas) get the homophones correct. But punctuation is a different story. In particular, nobody seems to understand that direct address requires distinctive treatment to avoid syntactical hash.

We interpret the spoken word differently than we do the written word. The spoken word is always context specific; the written word is always outside the context and must be specified. If the person next to you says “The house is on fire!” you hear the urgency, and you can probably turn and see the flames and feel the heat. If you read the same words, you’re probably far from the fire in time and space, but the quotation marks tell you someone actually spoke the words, and the exclamation point conveys the sense of urgency. Like tone and emphasis in speech, punctuation works with syntax to create meaning in a written communication.

When you address someone directly, that is, call them by their name or title or honorific (e.g., sir), that instance of direct address is grammatically isolated from any other part of the sentence in which it appears: we say to Bob, “I heard, Bob, and I laughed.” In speech, we can emphasize this separation by a slight pause, but because Bob is actually present, context alone makes the meaning clear. In writing, we must isolate the address with commas as a parenthetical element that is not participating in the grammar. (I.e., the commas are not replicating the spoken pause so much as they are visually fencing off that which is grammatically irrelevant.) If we do not set it off, Bob becomes the direct object of the verb heard because, grammatically speaking, that is how we must read the sentence as written: “I heard Bob and I laughed.”

Failure to set off a direct address with a comma may cause great embarrassment or great amusement. A desktop sign seen in a recent catalog reads “Work with me people.” This is clearly advice to work with egotists, not a direct address pleading for cooperation, which would require a comma: “Work with me, people.” “John get the phone” is pidgin for “John gets (or is getting or got) the phone”; a demand that the phone be answered requires an indication of direct address and the imperative: “John, get the phone.” “Don’t hassle me dad” is a Briton’s command to leave his father alone; “Don’t hassle me, Dad” is a plea from son to father for some peace. Note the capital D on Dad. A title used as an address is capitalized: “This is my aunt Mary,” but “Welcome, Aunt Mary!” Now note that without the comma to show direct address, this becomes a command: “Welcome Aunt Mary!”

Another thing that is always set off with commas because it has no grammatical role is an interjection. Many interjections appear in company with the exclamation point that underlines their emphasis: Hey, you, outta my yard! (interjection followed by direct address); Oh, man, is it cold! (two interjections back to back, or perhaps again an interjection followed by direct address); Haven’t seen you in, jeez, 30 years! (euphemistic interjection in midsentence). Swear words and obscenities not participating in the grammar are set off as interjections: “Shit, where’s my cell?” but “Get your shit together.”

There is a new animated Christmas special premiering this December called Yes Virginia. The first word is an interjection, and the second is a direct address, providing two imperatives for separating these words with a comma. I suppose it’s too late for them to change all the ads and titles and unembarrass themselves? Gee, guys, that’s a shame—on you.

If you’re talkin’ ta me, baby, you better get it right.

This is article 17 in a continuing series. © 2009 Christine C. Janson

Yawning Emptiness

Humans are communicative critters. We trumped the animal kingdom’s grunts and whistles by inventing language, made up words and rules for stringing them together to yield meaning. After a few millennia to work out the kinks, we rose above ourselves with poetry, drama, rhetoric, and logic. We figured out how to record the words and preserve them, from cuneiform to alphabets to binary code, from clay tablets to parchment to CD-ROM. From the beginning, we also devised ways to subvert the communication that is the very reason for language. We invented lies and other prevarications, giving rise to legal systems for determining guilt and teasing the truth out of conflicting accounts. And we found ways to use words to say nothing at all.

Saying nothing at all ranges from the long-windedly verbose, like the seasoned politician who can speak stirringly for an hour and convey not one phoneme of real meaning, to the monosyllabically iterative, like those who “um” after every third or fourth word.

In current American idiom, there are several go-to phrases for saying nothing and filling the silence while you gather your thoughts. Two of the most dreaded are “you know” and “like.” Speakers in the habit of using these cannot be listened to for very long, because after the first two, every succeeding “you know” or “like” elicits a bigger wince, until the listener risks whiplash or assault charges.

There are also words that are mindlessly overused to the point that they lose all meaning. Right now, when I hear “amazing,” I am no closer to knowing what the speaker means, beyond general approval, than if he had not spoken. I’ve also heard enough of “actually,” which doesn’t actually mean anything most of the time. As for “toe-tally,” I’m not going there. These words could all be replaced with the nonsense syllable blah without changing the informational content one bit. However, blah would not carry the emotional charge, the thumbs-up of “amazing” or the emphasis of “toe-tally.”

Another way of using language to convey no information beyond emotional content was, until recently, not permitted in public. Now, only G-rated movies are guaranteed to be free of four-letter words and swearing, and obscenities can be heard on cable channels other than the pay-through-the-nose premiums. I am not against this. The words exist; people use them; I use them; it is unreal to portray the world entirely without them. However, I am no more inclined to listen to “fucking” three times per sentence than I am to listen to “you know” at the same frequency.

The constant bleeping of four-letter words on reality shows is bad enough. I am astonished that people resort to them as a matter of course, especially in front of cameras, knowing they will be aired (and bleeped) on national television. Swearwords are intensifiers, allow us to express pain, ill will, frustration, and anger without being specific. But a heartfelt “Jesus H. Christ!” when you stub your toe is one thing. A routine “Eat your fuckin’ vegetables, for Christ’s sake” at the dinner table is another. These words have no intended meaning beyond the expression of negative emotion, i.e., there is no actual reference to sex acts or deities. Language like this is a slap in the face, a confrontational way to say “Hey! Wake up! Listen to me! I mean it!” It’s hard for me to believe people are so ready to slap family, friends, and strangers alike.

Constant bleeping is bad enough; worse is the constant cussing on scripted shows such as The Sopranos and Deadwood. Lured to watch by rave reviews, I have never sat through an entire episode of either, because after the first ten or twenty uses of fuck and goddamn, about 5 to 10 minutes, I’ve had enough and hit the remote. Slap someone often enough and they’ll go numb. Intense language loses intensity through overuse, until intensity can only be maintained by increased density of use. When every utterance is redlining it linguistically (“The fuckin’ thing don’t fuckin’ work unless I fuckin’ beat on it”), the intensifiers lose all effect, and we are left with emptiness that echoes with negativity. The speaker is saying nothing just as vehemently as he can, shouting “Blah!” at top volume every few syllables.

I will, reluctantly, concede that perhaps people do talk to each other like this, with complete disrespect and belligerence, even within families. Reality TV is unpleasant proof of the ubiquity of bad language. I will not concede that such language is either necessary or acceptable as dialogue.

Drama may reflect life, but it’s life with most of the quotidian details mercifully left out. Real people visit a bathroom every few hours. That doesn’t mean we have to watch the characters in a play or movie interrupt the action to do the same in the name of verisimilitude. Unless it’s part of the story, we aren’t subjected to belches, nail biting, hiccups, nose blowing, or a thousand other common human acts. We don’t need to see every mouthful of food chewed and swallowed. We don’t want characters to spew “you know” and “like” multiple times in every sentence even though real people do, because they’re boring and annoying and turn the dialogue into Swiss cheese, riddled with empty spaces. And there’s no reason we should have to listen to a lot of meaningless cuss words that have had all the intensity sucked out of them. To hear “Fuck you!” once in a two-hour movie is shocking. To hear it thirty or forty times in a one-hour episode is just a bore, lots and lots of empty space between meaningful words. So much emptiness makes me yawn and go elsewhere, for characters who reveal the story through their words instead of slapping me silly with them.

This is article 16 in a continuing series. © 2009 Christine C. Janson