Thursday, December 13, 2012

English, a Constantly Evolving Language, Part 3 of 6

Silly and Illogical – but still Commonly Used – Bits and Pieces

Richard FirstenBy Richard Firsten
Retired ESOL Teacher, Teacher-Trainer, Columnist

 In Part 2 we took a look at some things in English which, although considered ungrammatical by conservative language users, have nevertheless become commonly used features nowadays. At least they aren’t silly or illogical in a common-sense way of looking at things.

Now, however, let’s take a little time to check out some elements of English that really are silly or illogical if you step back and think about them objectively, even though they, too, have become standard features in the language. Here are examples of things that educated speakers say and write.

  • They say they’ll try and get here before sunset.
    I know you try and save some money every month for your kid’s college fund.

Try and is a very commonly used phrase that goes way, way back to who knows how long ago. But if you dissect it, you can see on different levels why it’s really very silly and illogical. In the two examples I’ve cited, they’ll try and get here and you try and save money, my question is, try WHAT? If it’s “getting here,” shouldn’t the speaker just say they’ll try to get here or they’ll try getting here? And in the other case, shouldn’t the speaker just say he or she knows that the other person tries to save or tries saving some money every month? In these versions I’ve suggested, we clearly see what those people will try: “to get here” and “to save some money.” But that try and get here and try and save money really throw me for a loop. It seems that they’re trying to accomplish two things, with the first of those things simply not mentioned.. For me it just doesn’t work, it’s illogical, it’s silly – but for many, many native speakers, it’s fine. Go figure.

To add to this silliness, can you use this phrase try and with he, she,or it? Let’s try to do so: She says she’ll try and get here … That’s okay.  /  I know she tries and saves some money every month. Oops! That’s not okay. It doesn’t sound right. Hmm … How about I know she tries and save some money every month. Nope. That doesn’t sound right either. What’s going on, you ask? What’s going on is that we don’t use the phrase try and with a 3rd person singular subject in any form of the present, just in the future. How strange is that!

And if you want strange, here’s more strange: You don’t use this phrase in the past either: They tried and got here … No, that doesn’t work. I know you tried and saved some money … Forget it! If you stop and think about it, try and really is silly and illogical on many levels.

Now, what about saying stop and as I’ve just done (If you stop and think about it …)? Why is stop okay when try isn’t? It’s okay because I really am talking about stopping some activity in order to think about what’s being discussed: If you stop (reading this blog entry) and think about it (what we’re discussing), try and really is silly.

Who would think you could say so much about a two-word phrase like try and! Well, it’s a standard phrase in English now, so here’s one of many great examples in which silliness wins out in language.

  • This show was pre-recorded in front of a live audience. (They’re talking about a TV sitcom.)

 I love this statement, which I first remember being said at the start of each episode of the hit comedy All in the Family back in the 1960s.

First off, we have a very silly statement. The show was pre-recorded? Really? Doesn’t that mean that the show was recorded before it was recorded? What?? Of course that’s not what they mean to say, but that’s what it means. And this statement is still being used.

Second, when they say in front of a live audience, of course they mean that during the show, you’ll hear the reactions of real people sitting in the audience, not canned laughter. But it does sound very funny. They wouldn’t record the show in front of a dead audience, would they? All they really need to say is This show was recorded in front of an audience.

  • The last showing of this movie on Saturdays starts at 12:00 a.m. 
    The office always closes for lunch at 12:00 p.m.

These two are silly because 12 o’clock is neither a.m. nor p.m. When you say 12:00, it’s either midnight or noon. The designations a.m. and p.m. start at 12:01, but these two silly time phrases are commonly used.

  • My name is Dr. Lynn Sousa.
    His name was Captain John Walker.

I think commonly heard sentences like these are silly because Doctor and Captain are not part of those people’s names. I guarantee that you won’t find those titles on their birth certificates! What should be said is My name is Lynn Sousa. / His name was John Walker. If there really is a need to mention their titles, what should be said is I’m Dr. Lynn Sousa. / He was Captain John Walker.

  • It’s become acceptable to use they, them, or their instead of the 3rd person singular forms when it’s not known if somebody is male or female. For example,

If somebody leaves their valuables inside their car in the store parking lot,the management is not responsible for any break-ins or thefts.

In this case, somebody could be a man or woman, so instead of using the awkward he/she and his/her, it’s become acceptable to use their just to simplify things. (Of course this problem could easily be  avoided most of the time by simply using a plural subject (If people leave their valuables …), but almost nobody thinks of doing this.

However, take a look at the following.

  • The speaker knows she’s talking about a man:
    This is someone who really knows their stuff. (It should be his.)
  • The speaker knows he’s talking about a woman:
    How could somebody say such a thing in front of their six-year-old daughter? It should be her.)
  • The speaker is aware he’s talking about an all-woman’s team:
    Every member of the relay team did their job perfectly. (Correct word: her.)
  • The caller realizes she’s talking about another woman:
    “911. What’s the nature of your call?”
    “Yes, I have someone here who’s been physically abused by their husband. I think she needs medical assistance.” (The right choice: her.)
  • The speaker is looking directly at a father when he says this, and he’s referring to the father:
    I understand a father wanting to protect their child, but … (It should be his.)

It seems that the use of the 3rd person plural has become so common that even when the speaker knows that the somebody is a man or woman, the 3rd person plural form is still used. I think that’s bizarre! It’s commonplace, but bizarre!

  • Do you mind if …? / Would you mind if …?

These phrases are quickly losing their meaning. More and more native speakers think they mean “May I …? or “Can I …?” instead of their real meaning of “Will it bother you if …?” or “Is it a problem if …?” Listen to how native speakers respond to requests that start off with one of these phrases and you’ll see what I mean. You’ll hear people respond by saying something like “Sure” or “Okay” instead of “No” or “Not at all.”

If somebody asks, “Would you mind if I took a photo of your dog?” the traditional response is “No, not at all” when the speaker means it’s okay. That’s because the speaker is really communicating, “No, it won’t bother me at all” or “It’s not at all a problem.” What you’ll hear instead is “Sure,” which actually means they’re saying “Sure, it will be a problem.”  But that probably won’t stop Sure or Okay from eventually becoming standard answers to these two questions when their real meanings are lost completely at some point in the future.

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