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.


Comment from Anonymous
May 24, 2008 at 4:39 am

What do you think accounts for these errors that morph into acceptable English? Immigrants who say it incorrectly, lazy speakers of the language who don’t care about correctness or uneducated speakers? Or all of the above?

Comment from Grammar Guy
May 24, 2008 at 9:35 pm

That’s a great question, “Anonymous.” I think all of the above have played a role at times in shaping our language, although I’m not too keen on calling anybody “a lazy speaker.” I think you may be referring to people who tend to be less sensitive to language than others.

Mostly, though, I think the theory that addresses accumulation of error is probably most responsible for changes, especially in grammar and vocabulary.

One explanation as to why we dropped almost all the conjugated suffixes on verbs is that with the influences from the Vikings (the Danes) and the Norman French, and the competition that arose in the Middle Ages among the various dialects of English, people finally got so confused that the endings just started dropping off.

Vocabulary has gone through big changes, partly due to all the influences you’ve cited, and partly due to associations made between words or phrases. That’s how “livid” got to be considered a synonym for “very angry” or “furious.” The original expression “livid with anger/rage” got shortened over time, so that now just saying “livid” is enough. The original meaning of “livid” was “ashen/gray.”

Good hearing from you again, “Anonymous”! Thanks for commenting.


Comment from Sam Simian
May 28, 2008 at 5:29 pm

They hung Saddam Hussein in 2007.
— Author Unknown

Usage Note: “Hanged,” as a past tense and a past participle of hang, is used in the sense of “to put to death by hanging,” as in “Frontier courts hanged many a prisoner after a summary trial.” A majority of the Usage Panel objects to “hung” used in this sense. In all other senses of the word, hung is the preferred form as past tense and past participle, as in “I hung my child’s picture above my desk.”
— “American Heritage Dictionary,” Fourth Edition

In a 1979 interview on National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered,” Lerner discussed some of his lyrics for “My Fair Lady.” They were not grammatically correct, but they were written that way for the sake of the rhyme; Henry Higgins sings, “Look at her, a prisoner of the gutter, condemned by every sentence she utters. By right she should be taken out and hung. But it rhymes with the tongue,” Lerner said, “so for the cold-blooded murder of the English tongue. And I thought, oh well, maybe nobody will notice it, but not at all. Two nights after it opened, I ran into Noel Coward in a restaurant, and he walked over and he said, ‘Dear boy, it is hanged, not hung.’ I said, ‘Oh, Noel, I know it, I know it! You know, shut up!’ So, and there’s another, then to have ever let a woman in her life. It should be as to ever let a woman in her life, but it just didn’t sing well.”

I like the sound of “They hung Saddam Hussein in 2007” better than “They hanged Saddam Hussein in 2007.” Ironically enough, I think it has more life. “English [grammarians] be hanged! It’s just common [speech].”*
— Sam Simian

Apologies to George Bernard Shaw

Comment from Grammar Guy
May 29, 2008 at 5:48 pm

I really like the anecdote you’ve sent in about Alan Jay Lerner’s take on lyrics. I can feel for what he must have gone through pondering the pro’s and con’s of sacrificing the proper way for something more “singable,” as he put it. That’s why we get so many “aint’s” and double negatives like “it don’t…nothin'” in pop lyrics; those one- and two-syllable words just go with the beat of the music better than proper two- or three-syllable words like “isn’t” and “it doesn’t…anything.” Let’s just chalk it up to literary or poetic license! 🙂

And as far as your preference for “hung” over “hanged” concerning Saddam Hussein, well, if we want to say “he was hung,” that’s okay as long as we mention by what! 😉

By the way, Sam, how about the other sentences I listed? Got any ideas on those? Or, if anybody else does, I’m sure Sam and I would like very much to hear from you!

Thanks for writing in, Sam. Always a pleasure to hear from you!


Comment from Christopher
December 8, 2008 at 5:18 pm

I guess I’m a little late to this party. If it gives you any consolation to know that you aren’t alone, I wouldn’t let a friend get away with any of those sentences.

As for Prof. Higgins, It would be a less offensive error if he wasn’t recommending that the poor use of language deserves capital punishment.

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