Thursday, January 17, 2008

Welcome to My Blog!

By Richard FirstenRetired ESOL Teacher, Teacher-Trainer, Columnist, Author

Glad you’ve come to visit my blog! I’d like to consider this my cyber-living room, so to speak, where we can have good chats to exchange ideas about any and all aspects of the English language: where it’s been, where it is now, and where it’s headed.

This is our chance to discuss troublesome parts of the language, vent frustrations in trying to teach or learn it, talk about pet peeves concerning how the language is used, and offer amusing, insightful observations on this means of communication we call English. You’ll be able to send me your comments, and that should prove very interesting, too, for me and for other guests. I’ll do my best to give you a stimulating, innovative, anything-but-ordinary experience at The Grammar Guy.

I’ve been wondering what I wanted to start off my blog with, and it suddenly dawned on me: vocabulary! Why vocabulary? Well, I’ve been teaching English for almost 35 years, and one area that never ceases to ambush me is vocabulary. What a daunting feature of the language this is for teachers and students! Just when I think I know what I’m talking about, I’ll either find myself wondering about a word, or somebody will ask me a tricky vocabulary question that makes me cringe. So yes, vocabulary seems to be a good way to get the blog ball rolling.

May I Have a Word?

In his book Crazy English*, author Richard Lederer goes into some of the odder oddities of English. He pointed out something that has always stuck with me: “Why do we park in a driveway and drive on a parkway?” Yep, it’s funny, so we chuckle at the cleverness of his question and maybe grin sheepishly, but at the same time, I, for one, feel uncomfortable because I know I can’t answer the question right then and there. We’ll probably find the answer if we dig into the etymology of both words, but to come up with an answer on the spot? Yipes! Anyway, the point is that English vocabulary is always ambushing us like this. Hasn’t it done that to you?

That author’s queries got me thinking about all sorts of curious questions on English vocabulary that can make my job – and yours – much tougher. I figure it’ll be fun to list some of those musings, both Lederer’s and my own, for you to think about. I mean, why shouldn’t I let you go as nuts over words as Richard Lederer and I do? So here are a few of those choicer musings. Fasten your seat belts. It’s going to be a bumpy ride!

  • Discounting sibling and spouse, why is it that the only term for a family member that’s genderless is cousin? I mean, when we say father, mother, brother, sister, uncle, aunt, etc., we know we’re talking about a male or female. But that’s not the case with cousin. I find that very curious.

What made me think about this is when an EFL teacher from Malaysia happened to mention something about his “cousin-sister” in a thread on the Azar Grammar Exchange. “Cousin-sister”? Huh?? My first reaction, of course, was to correct him and say there’s no such thing as a “cousin-sister.” Ah, but I know better now. I don’t make such broad pronouncements any more, not after all the times I’ve been ambushed. And guess what. In certain areas of Asia, the terms cousin-brother and cousin-sister have evolved to deal with the problem of cousin being genderless. Aha! How creative! It might take a little getting used to, but it works, doesn’t it? Now I wonder if it’ll ever catch on elsewhere. But I digress . . .

Here are some more gems that have preyed upon my poor, addled brain and made me reach repeatedly for a bottle of aspirin. Please think about them, will you?

  • Have you ever tried to explain the difference between electric and electrical?
  • If you can rear children and rear animals, can you rear fish?
  • Can we really rush around during rush hour? Hah! And why is it only an hour?
  • Aren’t wise man and wise guy synonyms?

And then there are words that contradict themselves:

  • Fast can mean either “move or do quickly,” or it can mean “not move,” as in holding fast.
  • Trim can mean “add decoration to” as in trim a Christmas tree, but it can also mean “remove from,” as in trim the shrubs.
  • Why is there no egg in eggplant, or apple or pine in pineapple?
  • Aren’t boxing rings square?
  • How can a slim chance and a fat chance mean the same thing?
  • For that matter, how can flammable and inflammable mean the same thing?!

Have you reached for your bottle of aspirin yet? Aren’t you glad you haven’t been hit with these questions – or have you been? It’s enough to make you want to take up accounting as a career! But since I’m not any good with numbers, I’ve stuck with teaching English. And I’m glad I have. After all, it does keep me hopping – and wondering, and hopping, and wondering.

So let me know if you’ve been ambushed by vocabulary too. I’d love to hear your war stories. I’m glad you dropped by, and I hope you are, too.

*Richard Lederer. Crazy English. Pocket Books (Simon & Schuster, Inc). 1998


Comment from Sam Simian
January 18, 2008 at 3:16 am

I always forget to remember

Dear Grammar Guy,

John Irving has written that he was once a hopelessly bad speller, and he, also, wrote that he often had to look up “strictly” because he often wanted to write “striktly.” I kind of like the fact that a great writer has had some problems with some basic things because, in addition to remaining a hopelessly bad speller, I always forget to remember — 🙂 — some “ESL basics.”

I teach ESL, and I always forget how “speak,” “talk,” and “say” differ from one another. As a native English speaker I know how their usage differs, but I always have to run through examples in my head before I can explain it to my students. I usually say that, among other differences, I think that “speak” and “talk” usually require an indirect object, but “say” usually doesn’t. If I think long enough, I can sometimes come up with some other stuff, but I can never seem to commit my own “discoveries” to memory.

Is there any spelling or word usage that you always forget to remember?

Sam Simian

Comment from F. Thinh-Ball
February 25, 2009 at 12:52 pm

Actually, from a computer programming perspective, I prefer genderless family member names.

Question: do we actually have any for uncle/aunt, niece/nephew? What would you suggest?

For Sons and daughters I have descendant or offspring, is there another more eloquent genderless name?

Comment from Richard Firsten
February 25, 2009 at 3:44 pm

Thanks for posting your comments! : )

Nope, there aren’t any genderless words for those family member names. Odd, isn’t it?

As for sons and daughters, I have to tell you that I’m not thrilled with “descendants,” although “offspring” works fine.

Now I’ve got a question: Why is it preferable to have genderless family member names in computer programming?

Comment from F. Thinh-Ball
March 15, 2009 at 9:34 pm

I’m creating a rudimentary database of family trees. When I connect one pair, it is simpler to use genderless family members. Otherwise my code will have to take into account the genders of both members of the link.

It is easier to say Sally is the offspring of Stacy and automatically create the opposite link: Stacy is the parent of Sally. Rather than program: Sally is the daughter of Stacy, and Stacy is the father of Sally.

Maybe I’m just lazy… 😎

Comment from Grammar Guy
March 16, 2009 at 7:54 am

I see. Thanks for explaining that. No, I don’t think you’re lazy, just looking for an efficient way to deal with this issue.

Very interesting!

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