Saturday, July 5, 2008

Is it a Change ― or is it a Goof? Part 2

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

In “Is it a Change ― or is it a Goof?” I dealt with the topic of recognizing whether some items are actual changes in the language or just mistakes made by people who don’t know any better. I think this topic merits an additional look, and I hope you do, too.

Just to put some more perspective on this issue, let’s showcase the words apron and umpire. If you had wanted to look those words up in a dictionary back, say, in 1200 (imagining that such a thing as a dictionary existed at that time), you wouldn’t have found them listed under a and u respectively. They would have been listed under n. “Huh?” you say. Yep, both of them would have been under n. That’s because something really odd ― but also funny ― happened to those words. When people speaking Middle English said those nouns with the indefinite article, after enough time had passed, the /n/, which was the first sound of those two nouns, migrated over to the indefinite article, so a napron became an apron, and a numpire (originally numpere) became an umpire. Ain’t that a linguistic kick in the head! And that’s the way those words changed. From a funny mistake said often enough, napron and numpire got transformed and became real lexical changes. That’s accumulation of error at work, all right!

And it keeps happening. A rather recent example is livid. Its original meaning is “gray,” or “ashen” in color. The original expression was livid with anger or livid with rage. In other words, if you felt that angry, your color would turn something like ashen. Well, you can see what happened without my telling you: the “… with anger” or “… with rage” parts got dropped, and livid has come to mean “very angry” or “furious.” And that’s okay. That’s what happens to language.

But here’s something that drives me slightly nuts. Almost everybody now says the media is rather than the media are. I talked about this in my first piece on this topic, when English speakers don’t recognize any longer that the Latin and Greek neuter –a ending is really a plural. Well, so be it. If English speakers want to make that an acceptable change rather than just a goof, okay. But I think that if it’s a real change, it should be consistent whenever used ― and in this case, it isn’t. Read the following and think about whether or not you feel comfortable with it:

The horrendous earthquake that hit southwestern China and the terrible cyclone that hit Myanmar were well covered by television, but were they covered just as well by another media like radio?

“Another media.” Are you comfortable with that? Wouldn’t you probably opt for another medium? If your answer is yes, then we’ve got a troublesome inconsistency. On the one hand, you may go along with employing media as a singular collective noun (the media is), but on the other hand, you may feel you should say another medium instead of another media. That’s not consistent. Maybe this is a change that’s still in the process of taking place. Maybe that can explain the inconsistency.

And if that isn’t enough to question how this word is used, even though with a completely different definition, read the following sentence, which I copied down verbatim from a television commercial for a language-teaching program ― of all things ― called “Rosetta Stone.” This is the testimony given during the commercial by a satisfied customer: “I’ve used a lot of different mediums to learn a language, but …” Oh, my goodness! “A lot of different mediums”? Before I freaked out altogether, I ran to different dictionaries to check this out. Most said that when the meaning is a means of communicating or transmitting information, the “usual” plural is media. One dictionary, however, listed an alternative plural form as mediums. So I guess mediums isn’t used anymore just to mean people who claim to communicate with the dead. I just keep shaking my head more and more when I come up against things like this. Is a real change going on? Is that why one dictionary I looked at mentioned that media is still the preferred plural form, but that mediums is okay, too? Maybe the jury’s still out on this one. But being the kind of conservative speaker I am, I’ll stick with television is a medium and television and radio are media. And as far as I’m concerned, Alison Dubois, who can see dead people, is a medium, and she suspects that her daughters are mediums, too!

So let me end by asking you how you’d categorize the following. Do you see them as changes, or do you see them as goofs? I’ll let you know what I think later, so do feel free to comment. And what do you think about this whole issue? Let me know.

1. I think I’ll lay down for half an hour. Wake me up at 6.
2. This paint goes on real easy. / She does her work quicker than most of my employees.
3. If he didn’t move away from that tree, he would have been killed when the lightning struck.
4. “Do you know where’s the main office?” “Sorry, I’m not sure where the office is at.”
5. We utilize those logs in the fireplace during the winter to make the living room cozier.


Comment from Teacher: Jackie
July 5, 2008 at 9:32 pm

Hi Richard,
I am glad you have started this blog.

I think that the first two sentences are goofs that have the potential of becoming change. Hardly anyone gets the lie/lay distinction right these days, so although it is still a goof, I think that the distinction may disappear. As for the confusion of adverbs and adjectives (so pervasive now that I spent the better part of a semester trying to break native English-speaking graduate students of the bad habit), I think Sapir (1921) was spot on when he said that “the adverbs ending in -ly are likely to go to the wall in the not too distant future . . . .” And we grammarians will have no way to stop the change.

Comment from Grammar Guy
July 6, 2008 at 8:52 am

I’m happy that you like my blog, Jackie. Thanks!

I agree with you about what’s happening with the lie/lay distinction. At the rate this is going, I foresee lie finally only given the meaning of not telling truth, and lay taking over completely the meaning of placing oneself or placing something else in a horizontal position.

Concerning what’s happening to adverbs, I can empathize with you over the challenge of getting native speakers – especially younger ones – to use them correctly. I guess Sapir’s prediction will likely come true at some point, or at least descriptive grammars will start mentioning using adjectives instead of adverbs in certain environments as as option. Sic transit gloria adverbs!

Thanks very much for participating, Jackie!

Comment from Anonymous
July 8, 2008 at 8:01 pm

Wow! What a blog! I love it. You is (he he he:)) are a great teacher. I teach English here in North Japan and have often wondered why the people here speak book English. For example “This is the cup which I drink water from” or “The girl is loved by him”. Though these may be proper, they sure do sound funny so I correct them (once in a while) to an easier more non-conventional way of speaking the language so people like me can understand what they are really trying to say.

Perhaps there are many goofs in our langauge but isn’t that the way language is, ever evolving into newer styles?

Some schools here advertise “Learn Perfect English” Is our langague perfect? I believe it is more communicative than perfect or even near perfect.

I will be checking back from time to time so that I may be learning as well from another teacher who knows much more grammar than I.

Have a wonderful day today.

Comment from Grammar Guy
July 8, 2008 at 8:35 pm

Hi, Mark!

I’m very glad that you like my blog. Please feel free to check out previous pieces I’ve written, and tell your colleagues and advanced students about and this blog.

I know exactly what you mean about the stilted language you hear from people who haven’t been fortunate enough to live in an English-speaking country for long enough a time to “work the kinks out,” so to speak. It’s very tough to speak a language in a natural way if you haven’t been exposed to it enough and had a chance to internalize those more natural ways of expression.

I would probably laugh out loud if I saw an ad that said “Learn perfect English.” Just learning English is a big enough challenge. Learning perfect English? Well, that’s going above and beyond! 🙂

I’m very glad you’ve found my blog, and I hope you visit here regularly. I do my best to post a new piece at the end of every week.

Best wishes,

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