Friday, July 18, 2008

Head Scratchers

Ever have one of those moments when you hear or read something and do an instant double-take? “Huh? What was that? What did I just hear/read?” And then you wait to see if you’ll hear it again or you reread what you just read so you can check out that you weren’t imagining things? Yeah, I’m sure you’ve had those moments. So have I. And then comes that “aha” moment. You hear it again or reread it, and it was exactly what you thought it was ― nuts! Totally illogical! Downright silly! But then comes the moment of self-doubt. “Am I the one who’s being illogical or silly? Am I perhaps being too picky?”

Okay, so you’d like to know what I’m going on about. Well, here’s an example: “This program has been pre-recorded.” Think about that for a moment. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen that flashed at the bottom of my TV screen or heard it delivered by a voiceover. “This program has been PRE-recorded”? Huh? Does it mean the program was recorded before it was recorded? Isn’t that what it means? Isn’t that totally nuts? Do you react the way I do? I doubt the TV studios that produced those shows got lots of letters pointing out the silliness of that statement. I say that because they’ve kept saying it, year after year. I just end up sighing in utter frustration. How about you?

This is fun. I love to vent, so let’s keep going. Another of these little silly gems created by the same TV studios, one that always cracks me up when I hear it or read it, is “Recorded before a live audience.” You don’t say! A live audience, eh? So they’re reassuring us that the show wasn’t performed in a cemetery or in a morgue full of corpses? Nice of them to let us know. Well, at least they didn’t say “Pre-recorded before a live audience”! How can people actually say such things deliberately? I mean, I can understand if somebody says something silly like that on the spur of the moment without realizing how silly it is, but you’d think that somebody else would catch it or the person saying it would catch it himself and realize how funny it is. But no, statements such as these have been thought out, accepted, and used on American TV shows without anybody so much as blinking when they’re flashed on the screen or said by a voiceover. How amazing is that?

Another gem that used to make me chuckle every time I saw it was a sign in the New York City subway system. It was there for years, and I wonder if it still is. It was at the 14th Street station on the IRT line, and it said, “Use last two stairways for toilet.” Don’t you just love it? I wonder if any literal-minded, inebriated person ever followed those instructions to the letter. Actually, I’m glad I never found out in person. But there you have it. Another example of people not realizing what they’re saying or writing. Sure, I understand perfectly well that it’s an ambiguous sentence, and that’s why it’s funny, but couldn’t somebody have come up with something unambiguous? I mean . . . really. (By the way, if any New Yorkers who ride the IRT read this piece, please let me know if that sign is still there, okay?)

Here’s one more that’s made me scratch my head on more than one occasion: “I’ll try and get back to her before the end of business today.” What’s with that often-heard phrase I’ll try and + base verb? Shouldn’t it be I’ll try to + base verb? Okay, I can just see you making a face and thinking, “Aw, c’mon, now you’re being picky. Lots of people say that.” Yeah, I know they do, but they don’t say it in the past (*I tried and got back to her …) and they don’t say it in the present (*I’m trying and getting back to her …), so how come it’s okay to say it in the future? I just don’t get it! It’s also another one of those gems that don’t make sense when you think about them in detail: You’ll try AND get back to her? You’ll try WHAT? You forgot to mention what you’ll try before you get back to her. Aaaaarrrghhh!

I’ve got to calm down. My blood pressure, you know.

Why does it seem that so many things we teach our students ― even the most basic things ― always seem to get contradicted in real-life English? Every Level 1 teacher goes over such basics as Thank you and its customary response, You’re welcome. You’d think that combination couldn’t be tampered with, wouldn’t you? Well, think again. I listen to the news on NPR (National Public Radio) most mornings. They give wonderful, in-depth stories that really inform their listeners. More often than not, when a piece is over, the anchor will say, for example, “Thank you, Quil, for that report.” Now you’d expect Quil to say, “You’re welcome, Lisa,” or “My pleasure, Lisa,” or something like that, right? Nope, that’s not necessarily right. What does Quil say? “Thank you, Lisa.” So Lisa has said Thank you and Quil has replied Thank you. And I sit there, making a face and thinking in a whiny sort of way, “We can’t teach our students to say that. Why are those two saying that?” And they’re not alone. It’s amazing how often I’ll hear Thank you repeated instead of a good old-fashioned You’re welcome or My pleasure. (Time for me to sigh.)

I could go on and on about head scratchers like these, but I’ll save the rest for another time. I’d love to know if you’ve got any I haven’t mentioned, ones that make you do a double-take, too. And I'd like to know if any of them have kind of ambushed what you teach your students they should say. So let me hear from you. I promise that your pre-recorded comments will be viewed by a live person.

4 Comments:

Blogger Sam Simian said...

Dear Grammar Guy,

Once again, I’ll let Mr. Carlin speak for me. I found a video on YouTube that deals with language. It’s entitled “Words” — no, NOT the seven words. It deals with stuff that’s close to what you discussed.

George Carlin - "Words" - 1976
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mVzT1Xtw2Us

Sincerely,
Sam

July 21, 2008 5:13 PM  
Anonymous Grammar Guy said...

Thanks so much for that YouTube video clip, Sam. It was hilarious and very à propos!

Greatly appreciated.
Richard

July 21, 2008 7:24 PM  
Blogger Susan WB said...

I think the reason you hear "Thank You" responded to with another "Thank You" on NPR is that in this case, both the interviewer and the person being interviewed feel that they have something to thank the other for. The NPR host thanks the guest for coming; the guest thanks the host for inviting him/her. (As in, "Thank you for sharing your expertise with us today." "Thank you for having me.") This is different from many other situations where the transaction is more straightforward: I bring you a cup of coffee and you say "Thank You" and I say "You're Welcome." You would never hear "thank you/thank you" in that situation.

But the one oddity I've noticed in listening to people on NPR is this one: "The thing is, is that...." to start sentences. Is it just me? Does no one else notice that there are 2 verbs? Listen for this! I bet you'll hear it to, because the thing is, is that you never really notice it until someone else points it out!

September 8, 2008 1:13 PM  
Anonymous Grammar Guy said...

That's a very good observation you've made about why both parties often say thank you on those National Public Radio (NPR) shows, Susan. I'm sure you're right about the reason. I just find it less jarring when the guest or field reporter actually does say something like "Thank you for having/inviting me" rather than simply repeating "Thank you."

As for that other observation you've brought to our attention, you can bet the ranch that I'll be listening for it! I have to admit that I've never noticed people saying that, but I'll let you know if I do now.

Thanks again for commenting, Susan. Much appreciated!

September 8, 2008 2:18 PM  

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