Archive for May, 2008

Saturday, May 31, 2008

And the Answer is . . .

By Richard Firsten
Retired ESOL Teacher, Teacher-Trainer, Columnist, Author

In a previous entry entitled “Why Do We Say That?” we had fun with some of the odder idiomatic expressions that go a long way to embellish and enrich the language. At the end of that tongue-in-cheek entry, I left five additional idiomatic expressions unexplained to ponder over. I guess it’s time now to reveal their possible, interesting beginnings to explain why we say what we say. Some people call such explanations “urban legends,” but whatever we get out of these little tales, they’re certainly entertaining and may, after all, contain some truth. So here goes . . .

1. That husband of mine! He’s not well educated, but he always manages to bring home the bacon.
5. You want to know what we did last night? We just sat around and chewed the fat.

In the Middle Ages, people could sometimes obtain pork, which would make them feel really special since all meat, including pork, was considered a luxury item for the dinner table. When company came over, they would bring out some bacon and hang it to show it off. It was a sign of some wealth that a man could bring home the bacon. They would cut off a little to share with guests, and would all sit around and chew the fat.

2. Mildred always tips extravagantly at restaurants. She acts like she’s a member of the upper crust.

Again in the Middle Ages, bakers customarily divvied up bread among their customers according to their status. Workers got the almost-burned bottom of very large loaves, families got the middle, and guests got the top, or the upper crust.

3. Good night. Sleep tight.

In Shakespeare’s time, mattresses were secured on bed frames by ropes. (I can testify to the veracity of that statement since I myself visited Shakespeare’s birthplace in Stratford-upon-Avon and saw not only the ropes on his bed frame, but also the device used to tighten them.) When you pulled on the ropes, the mattress tightened, making the bed firmer to sleep on. Hence the phrase, “Good night. Sleep tight.

4. Here’s a rule of thumb for good cooks: Only add salt and pepper to meat right before cooking it.

The phrase rule of thumb is derived from an old English law which stated that you couldn’t beat your wife with anything wider than your thumb. (Aw, shucks!)

I’ve got to tell you . . . Whether those tales are true or just entertaining, my students have always enjoyed hearing them. And the most important reason for telling them these tales is that it always helps them remember the idioms and use them appropriately, so those tales definitely serve a good purpose!

Moving right along, there are some juicy little sentences I left you with at the end of my last entry entitled “Is it a Change – or is it a Goof?” The idea was to see if you could spot the word in each of those sentences that’s open to debate about whether it represents an actual change in the language, or whether it’s just a mistake some speaker or writer has made. Here’s how I see them:

She’s an alumni of Duke University.

A goof: Here we go again with those Latin plural suffixes! To be technically correct, we should say, “She’s an alumna of Duke University.” For a guy we should say, “He’s an alumnus,” and for both of them we should say, “They’re alumni.” Most people these days don’t distinguish between the Latin masculine and feminine singular suffixes, just lumping them together with alumnus, so he’s an alumnus and she’s an alumnus. But we still distinguish between the singular and plural forms and say, “They’re alumni” or “the alumni association.”

The police found teeth marks on the victim.

A goof: I really don’t understand why this is happening, but some speakers don’t think it odd to say teeth marks. At first I thought it might be because of the irregular plural form (teeth), but I’ve never heard anybody say *feet prints, have you? So, if we don’t say *teethpaste or *a fine-teeth comb, why on earth do some people say *teeth marks? Weird, huh?

The media isn’t reporting this accurately.

A change: Here’s a perfect example of that phenomenon called “accumulation of error.” The singular is medium and the plural is media, but so many educated speakers and writers have continuously made the mistake of thinking that media is a singular noun that now it’s become acceptable to say the media is instead of the media are, so you hear both, although I do think the media is is winning out.

He shouldn’t talk like that about John and I.

A goof: Yes, I know you’ve heard lots of people say such phrases as “… about John and I,” but I don’t think this is considered acceptable ― at least not yet. After all, John and I are both objects of the preposition about in this sentence, and as such, I needs to be in the objective case, me. We all should say He shouldn’t talk like that about John and me. I think people have been making that goof because they think John and I sounds more “educated” or “elegant,” but it’s really just the opposite, if you ask I ― I mean me. This is a case that will prove very interesting in the future as far as “accumulation of error” goes. It remains to be seen whether this goof becomes a change at some point in the future. What’s your guess?

“Do you mind if I sit here?” “Sure.

A goof: This one throws me for a loop. It’s as if the meaning of that question has gotten lost to many native speakers. Do you mind if …? means something like “Does it/Will it bother you if …?” so the polite response should be “No,” which means “It doesn’t/won’t bother me.” The person replying to the question above is really saying, “Of course it will bother me.” Yikes! And yet that’s not what he means at all. Something tells me that if more and more native speakers keep forgetting the true meaning of this polite question which asks for permission to do something, it will become a synonym for saying something like “Is it all right if …?” And then, of course, one proper response will be “Sure.”

They hung Saddam Hussein in 2007.

A goof: I still don’t hear too many native speakers saying something like this. Most people still distinguish between th
e irregular past (hung) used to mean that something has been suspended from something else like a ceiling or tree branch or placed on a wall, and the regular past (hanged) used to mean “executed” with a noose tied around a person’s neck, etc.

So there you have it. We’ve taken a tongue-in-cheek look at the possible etymologies of some idiomatic expressions and scrutinized some oft-heard words under the linguistic microscope. There’s so much more that could be said, but so little time. Oh, well . . .

Friday, May 23, 2008

Is it a Change — or is it a Goof?

By Richard Firsten
Retired ESOL Teacher, Teacher-Trainer, Columnist, Author

Ever feel conflicted about what is and isn’t considered “acceptable” in English? I know I do. (Guess what. I just used an adjective, conflicted, which wasn’t considered “a real word” some years back.) So we sometimes find ourselves in this awful gray area of language, which has got to be the most uncomfortable place for an English teacher to be. Do we teach this word is acceptable? Do we teach that word is unacceptable? Do we just shrug our shoulders, sigh, and leave it up to somebody else to decide? And if we go for that third choice, who’s that “somebody” supposed to be?

If you want to get some perspective on this issue, here’s a term for you: an accumulation of error. It’s a term used as a way of accounting for what the language has done with particular words or phrases over the centuries. If an error is made often enough and by enough people, it finally stops being an error and becomes acceptable. And going along hand in hand with this is the concept that if a word is a high-frequency item, chances are it won’t change much over the centuries. A case in point is high-frequency irregular verbs such as go, eat, and see. We use them so often that there’s no confusion about their past tense (went, ate, saw) or past participle forms (gone, eaten, seen) in standard English. But verbs that aren’t used quite so often have either gone through a complete transition from being irregular to regular (e.g., the past of help used to be halp; now it’s helped) or they’re in transition at this time (e.g., the past of dive is now dove or dived).

I have to ask myself, though, are some of the things I hear or read real changes caused by accumulation of error combined with low-frequency items, or are they just goofs that people make because they don’t know any better?

One example of this is a bunch of nouns we got from Latin or Greek. Those two languages have three genders: masculine, feminine, and neuter. In Greek the ending on a neuter noun is –on in the singular and –a in the plural. With Latin neuter nouns the endings are –um in the singular and –a in the plural. So that’s why the Greek loan words phenomenon and criterion are phenomena and criteria in the plural, and that’s why the Latin words are datum and bacterium in the singular and data and bacteria in the plural.

The problem is, how many English speakers know this anymore? Not too many, if you ask me. And because there’s this gap in their linguistic awareness, they view data and bacteria as singular nouns rather than plural.

Funny how that problem never occurs with masculine singular words like octopus and cactus. For some reason, English speakers always recognize them as singular nouns. The only problem that came up was putting them in the plural. Do we really want to use the Latin masculine plural and say octopi and cacti? Nah! Sounds uppity:

A: Hey, Clem, how’s about you and me go to the nursery and buy us some cacti for the front yard? They’ll do great in this drought.
B: Yep, sounds like a good idea, Myrtle. Bet they’ll look mighty nice!

No, I just can’t imagine Myrtle saying “cacti.” It’s going to be cactuses for her. And why not? We’ve been regularizing the plurals of loan words for quite some time, so it’s cactuses and octopuses and hippopotamuses for Myrtle. But at least she recognizes that it’s one cactus and two cactuses. Not so with those poor neuter plurals like data and bacteria.

Okay, I’ll make a confession, owing to the fact that I tend to be conservative in my use of language. I find it jarring to hear somebody like a doctor, nurse, or TV journalist say a bacteria instead of a bacterium. But that’s just me. In fact, not only has bacteria become accepted as a singular noun, but it’s also been pluralized by adding an –s, so some people actually say and write bacterias. Yikes! We’ve now got a plural on top of a plural. It’s a linguistic “two-fer”: two plural forms for the price of one! Well, is this a goof or is this a change? I don’t think the jury’s out on this one. I think it’s a change.

Oh! By the way, speaking of a word like phenomenon . . . I was watching an American TV game show called The Phenomenon. (It didn’t have a long run.) Anyway, the host of the show, a young man from the UK, actually kept saying “phenomenom.” The first time he said it, I thought I’d just heard him wrong. But he said it three or four more times during the show: “phenomenom.” Unbelievable! But do you know what I found really scary? The fact that nobody from the script writer to the cue card guy to the director to whoever else was involved with that show ever corrected him on it. That’s what I found really scary. Now that was a goof, not a change!

So here are a few goodies to ponder over. The question is, are they changes or are they goofs? I’ll leave it to you to decide. They’re some of my favorites because they bother me. (Remember, I told you I’m kind of conservative.) Anyway, I’d love to know what you think of them. Are they acceptable changes or are they goofs? Any others you can think of to add to my hit list will be appreciated. Just let me know.

  • She’s an alumni of Duke University.
  • He shouldn’t talk like that about John and I.
  • “Do you mind if I sit here?” “Sure.”
  • The police found teeth marks on the victim.
  • The media isn’t reporting this accurately.
  • They hung Saddam Hussein in 2007.

Now ponder, dear reader, ponder. I’ll have more to say on this subject at another time.

Friday, May 16, 2008

When Two Wrongs Make a Right

By Richard Firsten
Retired ESOL Teacher, Teacher-Trainer, Columnist, Author

I remember learning a term in college: reactionary. It meant somebody who reacts negatively and strongly to any social or political change. I think we can apply that term to language as well. I’m not a reactionary, but I suppose I’m a conservative when it comes to language. I find I have to push myself into accepting a change in the language that I don’t like or don’t want to stay as a permanent fixture. I usually don’t really accept the change; I just swallow hard and say something like, “Well, since so many educated native speakers now say that, it’s become ‘acceptable.’” It sometimes hurts to say that, especially if I’m gnashing my teeth, but I take a deep breath and do so. The thing is, I find myself saying that more and more often, and that tends to disturb me. I suppose I’ll have to get used to it, though; it’s the nature of language to change.

Here’s something that’s becoming “acceptable.” I can’t tell you how vividly I remember finding a big red mark an English teacher of mine had put through the word why in a sentence I’d written in a composition. That why was part of the phrase the reason why. When I questioned my teacher about it, she explained it was redundant. She reminded me that why means the same thing as the reason: He told me the reason he had done that. / He told me why he had done that. “You see?” she said smiling. “If we can substitute the reason with why, it shows you that they mean the very same thing, so using them together is a redundancy ― and it’s silly.” I’ve never forgotten that. My teacher really opened my eyes to the world of redundancies, which I spoke about in a previous piece on this blog. And you can bet the ranch that I’ve never said or written the reason why again.

Well, as the saying goes, “That was then; this is now.” I hear educated people say the reason why every single day, usually many times a day. I still cringe a little whenever I hear it ― a reflex action, you know ― but I’m going to develop a tick if I don’t stop cringing. Almost everybody says the reason why these days, so does that mean I have to say once again, “Well, since so many educated native speakers now say that, it’s become acceptable”? I suppose it does. (Can you hear me sighing?)

Here’s another example. I remember being taught that we should use each other when speaking about only two of something and one another when speaking about three or more. Come to think of it, I was taught the same grammar rule for between and among. Well, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard educated speakers throw that rule to the wind and use one another for just two people and use between for three or more. I just shake my head and wonder. I’ve found that even dictionaries and fairly recent grammar books now accept one another in place of each other. (I’m sighing again.) So can the same laissez-faire attitude towards between and among be far off? Probably not.

And what about less and the least vs. fewer and the fewest? Awhile back I was watching a hit TV show called The Biggest Loser. They had some trivia questions for the television audience, among which (not between which!) was, “Which of the following kinds of pie has the least calories?” Yes! They said “the least calories”! The writer who came up with that question thought it was fine. The graphic designer who mounted it on the screen thought it was fine. The narrator who did the voiceover thought it was fine. I guess the director thought it was fine. Everybody thought it was fine ― except me! At least, that’s the feeling I got. Well, if nobody thinks there’s a problem with it, who am I to decry that use? Do you see why I wonder if I’m just a conservative or a true reactionary? And I don’t want to touch on what I should do in the classroom with my ESOL students. No, no, don’t even go there! I still have nightmares over being forced to deal with explaining why it was okay to say two coffees when the lesson in our antiquated grammar book clearly said coffee was only an uncountable noun. Ugh!

So what’s your take on all of this? Are you an ultraliberal as far as these kinds of language change go? Or perhaps you’re a conservative, or even a reactionary. I’d really like to know if I’m all alone or if I have colleagues I can commiserate with. Tell me what changes you’ve noticed that you find either completely acceptable or you would like to see disappear from common usage. Talk to me!

Friday, May 9, 2008

It’s Just Not Enough!

By Richard Firsten
Retired ESOL Teacher, Teacher-Trainer, Columnist, Author

Something there is in human nature that makes us want to be absolutely sure others have understood what we’ve said. Something there is in our nature that makes us want to add unnecessary bits and pieces to our utterances just to make sure enough attention has been drawn to whatever our point is or because we feel an urge to stress our point. It’s a trait that seems to have always been with us and can be traced back even in writing to the ancient Egyptians.

Although most people don’t realize it, the ancient Egyptians actually had an alphabet, but never woke up to the fact that all they needed were the hieroglyphs that represented individual sounds, just as letters do today. One thing they did was add lots of hieroglyphs that worked together with their alphabetical symbols. Here’s a typical example. The Egyptian word for “beautiful” was nefer. They had a symbol for n (water), a symbol for f (a horned viper), and a symbol for r (an open mouth). They even had symbols for the vowels, but rarely used them, much as we see in Hebrew and Arabic today. So if they’d wanted to, the Egyptians could simply have written nefer, but they didn’t. What they did to make sure nobody would get confused was to add one symbol which, by itself, represented the whole word nefer (a heart and windpipe of a animal) and then repeat the f and the r. They didn’t pronounce it nefer-fer, though; they still just pronounced it nefer! They just didn’t feel right about using only the phonetic glyphs. They had to build in a redundancy to feel sure when writing down words.

I get a real kick out of finding all sorts of redundancies in English that basically satisfy the same need that the ancient Egyptians had. Take, for example, that final –s or –es on the 3rd person singular of verbs in the simple present tense. Why on earth do we need that inflected form? We don’t have any endings on the other persons, singular or plural, so why do we persist in keeping that one inflected ending? It’s a mystery to me, especially because it’s totally redundant. As soon as I say he, she, or it, you know who or what the following verb refers to (he like, she need, it go), so that’s why it’s redundant ― and silly.

I’ve got an idea! Can you recognize some typical redundancies you hear all the time? The thing is, most people don’t realize they’re being redundant when they say these things. Even though most writing teachers would consider their inclusion poor writing style, they’re firmly entrenched in how a great many people speak. So look over each of the following sentences, pick out the redundancy or redundancies, and send in your findings:

  • “Krueger National Park in South Africa is a very unique wild animal reserve.”
  • “The reason why he did it was unclear.”
  • “Make sure you remember your PIN number when you go to use the ATM machine.”
  • “Students from other countries who want to study at American universities will need to achieve a certain score on the TOEFL test.”
  • “Scuba diving in the Bahamas was the most unique experience I’ve ever had.”
  • “Let’s have tuna fish sandwiches for lunch.”
  • “The police were able to prove that the car had been stolen by its VIN number.”
  • “Watch an all new episode of Grey’s Anatomy next Thursday night here on ABC.”
  • “The police were able to return most of the stolen clothes back to the store.”

So how did you do? Did you find them all? Please let me know!

Whatever the reasons, it’s apparent that redundancy plays a role in language to satisfy some deep-seated need to make things clearer or to add an extra “oomph” to them. Whether they actually do or not I’ll leave up to you to decide. I’m looking forward to seeing if you find those silly little extras in the sentences I’ve cited. Happy hunting!

Friday, May 2, 2008

May I Have a Word? Part 2

By Richard Firsten
Retired ESOL Teacher, Teacher-Trainer, Columnist, Author

When I first started my blog, I thought it would be fun to delve into some of the challenging offerings of English vocabulary. I shared with you some of the more daunting questions about words and phrases that have caught my attention over the years. As I mentioned in that first piece, “May I Have a Word” (which is included in my first entry, “Welcome to My Blog”), there’s nothing quite as uncomfortable as being ambushed by a question such as “What’s the difference between electric and electrical?” (And please, let’s not add electronic to the mix!)

Well, I’m not finished. I still have lots of words and phrases that make me pause and ponder. Just a couple of weeks ago, I was asked by one of my students why it is that we have two words to distinguish some living animals from their meat, but we don’t do that for all of them. I stared blankly at my student, not quite sure what he was talking about. Recognizing that needy look on my face, the student offered an example: “You know, like cow and beef.” “Oh!” I said. “Now I get it!” So I listed the four most common domestic animals and meats as examples on the board:

  • cow → beef
  • calf → veal
  • sheep → mutton
  • pig → pork

That was all well and good, but could I explain the reason for this? It just so happened that I could! I remembered back to when I had taken a course on the history of the English language. The Saxon peasants served the Norman aristocrats in 12th century England, and the vocabulary from the two languages (Anglo-Saxon and Norman French) started to mix at that time. It so happens that when those animals were slaughtered, butchered, and their meat brought into the kitchens, the Saxon workers called them by their Anglo-Saxon names (cow, calf, sheep, and pig), but that when their meat was cooked and brought into the dining room for the Norman aristocrats to munch on, their Norman French names were used (beef, veal, mutton, and pork). That differentiation stuck through all these centuries, and that’s why we still have different words for those animals and their meat.

But then I got ambushed. Another student with a big grin on her face asked me, “Why is chicken the same word for the animal and the meat?” And another student piped up with “What about lamb and goat? Total silence fell over the room as the students awaited my answers. It was the kind of silence that precedes a great explosion or clap of thunder as a storm begins. I don’t particularly like being ambushed in class, but it’s an occupational hazard, I guess. So there I was, left holding the bag ― which, by the way, was an idiomatic expression I taught the students right then and there. It was one of those “teachable moments” I’d learned about in one of those education courses I’d taken so many years before.
Yes, I was left holding the bag. I had no idea how to respond to those questions. All I could do was fess up to my students and tell them I’d try to find the answers. Well, I still haven’t. If you’ve got the answers, please let me know!

Getting back to more of those words and phrases I’ve pondered over from time to time, here are more that I’d like to share with you, some of which come from my own head, and some from the head of authors such as Richard Lederer*. Please think about them. I think you should join me in wondering about these little gems of the language.

  • How do you distinguish between to die of something and to die from something?
  • Does quicksand really work quickly?
  • We ship by truck, but we send cargo by ship, right?
  • If the stars are out, they’re visible, but if the lights are out, they’re invisible!
  • Why do we recite at a play, but play at a recital?
  • If a vegetarian eats vegetables, what does a humanitarian eat?
  • I know what a gate is; that opening in a fence that I can go through. And I know what a door is, too. Well then, why do we call the thing you pass through at the airport when boarding a plane a gate when it’s a door? I’ve never seen a fence there, have you?
  • If there are proper nouns, are there also improper nouns?
  • Grapefruit. A grape is already a fruit, so why is this called a grapefruit?
  • For that matter, if tuna is already a fish, why do lots of people say tuna fish? Does this have any connection by analogy to grapefruit?

Help me out here, folks. If you’ve got any sage responses to my ponderings, please send them in.

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