Friday, May 23, 2008
Is it a Change — or is it a Goof?
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.