Archive for Tag: errors

Friday, September 12, 2008

Head Scratchers, Part 2

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

Awhile back I wrote a piece with the same title as this piece, “Head Scratchers.” I had lots of fun with it, and I must say I enjoyed sharing my amazement with you over the things that people say or write without anybody questioning the logic of what they’ve come up with. I said in that piece that I’d have more little gems to comment on, and the time has come. So let’s get started.

First off, there’s the case of one of my all-time favorite redundancies: Church of Christ. Now really, can there be any other kind of church besides one that deals with Jesus Christ? Or there’s a Spanish version I’ve recently come across: Iglesia Cristiana, “Christian Church.” This is just silly. Jews have temples or synagogues; Muslims have mosques; Hindus and Buddhists have temples ― and Christians have churches. We know who churches are for.

Besides silly things people say or write, there are things in our grammar that make me scratch my head just as much as the kinds of things I talked about in my first piece on this topic. Take, for example, a newspaper headline like “Ice Cream Chain Co-Founder Dies.” (This was a story about Irvine Robbins, one of the co-founders of Baskin & Robbins, Inc.) Yes, I know it’s common to use the simple present in such headlines, but have you ever stopped to consider how silly that is, how funny that sounds, and how this use of the simple present can confuse ELL’s? Here’s a verb form that signifies something done repeatedly or habitually, and it’s being applied to something like dying? Where’s the logic in that? I mean, if you’ve died, you’ve died. You’re not going to do that all the time! If you want to say Ice cream chain co-founder shaves, that’s okay. Ice cream co-founder smokes, that’s okay (grammatically speaking, anyway). But Ice cream co-founder dies? Doesn’t that bother you? There are points of English grammar that do bother me!

And just for the heck of it, how is it that highly is an adverb, but lowly is an adjective? (Just thought I’d throw that in.)

Continuing with more grammatical oddities, let’s talk about teeth whitening. I’m beginning to come across this outrageous creation of advertising more and more. TEETH whitening? Not TOOTH whitening? To begin with, the grammar rule is that when you’re compounding nouns ― which is what’s happening here ― the first element, the descriptive element, is almost always in the singular. That’s why we don’t say *bedsroom or *starslight. The exceptions are when that first element is normally used in the plural, like in the arms race. Why on earth would they think that teeth whitening would be acceptable? Do we say TEETHbrush or TEETH decay? And how about fingers or feet? Have you ever heard anybody say FINGERSprints or FEETprints? Exactly! I rest my case.

Finally, before we all run for some aspirin or blood pressure medicine, there’s the matter of unnecessary mispronunciations. Shouldn’t educated people at least approximate the way a name is pronounced? Not too long ago, the famous fashion designer Yves St. Laurent passed away. That’s pronounced “Eev San Laurón” for those in the know, not like my local news anchor who pronounced it, “Eev Saint Law-rent.” Ugh! And I recently heard the actor Ben Stiller do a public service announcement to help the victims of that horrible cyclone that hit Burma, also known as Myanmar, or, as Mr. Stiller so sophisticatedly pronounced it, “MY-an-mar,” as if the first syllable should rhyme with tie. I must have heard a hundred news stories about that country after the cyclone hit, and in every one of those stories, the reporters pronounced the name more or less correctly, “Myanmar.” But not our Mr. Stiller. I guess he never listens to the news. And along the same lines, another one of my local news anchors called the General Secretary of the United Nations “Ban Kigh Moon” (“Kigh” also rhyming with tie) instead of the right way, “Ban Kee Moon.” That gentleman is the Secretary General of the United Nations, for Pete’s sake!

Am I amazed at these mispronunciations? Yes! I would think that educated or professional people would know better. They don’t have to get the pronunciations exactly native-like, but they surely can come close if they just put a little effort in checking out the pronunciations when in doubt. The problem is, they don’t seem to care.

But that’s not what really gets me. What absolutely flabbergasts me is that those people aren’t working in a vacuum. They’re involved with script writers, producers, directors, videographers, et al., and yet nobody but nobody seems to notice their off-the-wall mispronunciations and think it important enough to save the day by giving them a tip on the right way to pronounce the name. That’s what flabbergasts me. I just don’t understand it.

Here’s one for you that you may not know. There’s a very ancient fish swimming around out there in the ocean that scientists thought had gone extinct about the same time as the dinosaurs. It’s the coelecanth. That’s right, you haven’t read it wrong; the coelacanth. Now don’t you think it would be a good idea to check out how on earth that name is pronounced? I certainly do. Well, it so happens that the name of that ancient fish ― which isn’t extinct after all ― is pronounced “SEE – luh – canth.” So, besides being one of the ugliest fish you can imagine, it’s also got a name whose spelling doesn’t give you much of a clue about its pronunciation. Of course that didn’t stop yet another TV newsperson from calling it ― yes, I’m sure you can guess ― the “koh – ELL – luh – canth.” You can imagine how fast I fired off an email to him! At least he had the courtesy to thank me for the correction.

Of course the example of the coelacanth is kind of understandable. It just boils down to laziness or not having enough curiosity to check the pronunciation out. As far as all the other gems I’ve cited in these two pieces like “Recorded before a live audience” or teeth whitening, I keep trying to come up with scenarios that will explain how such blunders are made, but I can’t. I simply can’t. If any of you can explain this to me, I’ll be very grateful. I’d like to stop scratching my head before my hair starts falling out.

I don’t think I’m being picky in these instances. Some things are acceptable, but some things just aren’t. And yet there they are, for all to hear and read and use. And we don’t have any Academy to rule on such usages, do we, or to tell us what is or isn’t silly. Nope, we don’t. With English, it all seems to be very “democratic,” so to speak. If enough people say it’s okay and use it, or simply don’t react negatively to it whatever it is, it becomes “acceptable.” That certainly doesn’t make our jobs as English teachers any easier, but what can you do? So even though I lowly recommend it, we may find ourselves having to teach our students these odd alternatives to what we traditionally cons
idered “correct logic,” “correct English” or “correct pronunciation.” And, by the way, this piece has been pre-written.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Head Scratchers

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

Ever have one of those moments when you hear or read something and do an instant double-take? “Huh? What was that? What did I just hear/read?” And then you wait to see if you’ll hear it again or you reread what you just read so you can check out that you weren’t imagining things? Yeah, I’m sure you’ve had those moments. So have I. And then comes that “aha” moment. You hear it again or reread it, and it was exactly what you thought it was ― nuts! Totally illogical! Downright silly! But then comes the moment of self-doubt. “Am I the one who’s being illogical or silly? Am I perhaps being too picky?”

Okay, so you’d like to know what I’m going on about. Well, here’s an example: “This program has been pre-recorded.” Think about that for a moment. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen that flashed at the bottom of my TV screen or heard it delivered by a voiceover. “This program has been PRE-recorded”? Huh? Does it mean the program was recorded before it was recorded? Isn’t that what it means? Isn’t that totally nuts? Do you react the way I do? I doubt the TV studios that produced those shows got lots of letters pointing out the silliness of that statement. I say that because they’ve kept saying it, year after year. I just end up sighing in utter frustration. How about you?

This is fun. I love to vent, so let’s keep going. Another of these little silly gems created by the same TV studios, one that always cracks me up when I hear it or read it, is “Recorded before a live audience.” You don’t say! A live audience, eh? So they’re reassuring us that the show wasn’t performed in a cemetery or in a morgue full of corpses? Nice of them to let us know. Well, at least they didn’t say “Pre-recorded before a live audience”! How can people actually say such things deliberately? I mean, I can understand if somebody says something silly like that on the spur of the moment without realizing how silly it is, but you’d think that somebody else would catch it or the person saying it would catch it himself and realize how funny it is. But no, statements such as these have been thought out, accepted, and used on American TV shows without anybody so much as blinking when they’re flashed on the screen or said by a voiceover. How amazing is that?

Another gem that used to make me chuckle every time I saw it was a sign in the New York City subway system. It was there for years, and I wonder if it still is. It was at the 14th Street station on the IRT line, and it said, “Use last two stairways for toilet.” Don’t you just love it? I wonder if any literal-minded, inebriated person ever followed those instructions to the letter. Actually, I’m glad I never found out in person. But there you have it. Another example of people not realizing what they’re saying or writing. Sure, I understand perfectly well that it’s an ambiguous sentence, and that’s why it’s funny, but couldn’t somebody have come up with something unambiguous? I mean . . . really. (By the way, if any New Yorkers who ride the IRT read this piece, please let me know if that sign is still there, okay?)

Here’s one more that’s made me scratch my head on more than one occasion: “I’ll try and get back to her before the end of business today.” What’s with that often-heard phrase I’ll try and + base verb? Shouldn’t it be I’ll try to + base verb? Okay, I can just see you making a face and thinking, “Aw, c’mon, now you’re being picky. Lots of people say that.” Yeah, I know they do, but they don’t say it in the past (*I tried and got back to her …) and they don’t say it in the present (*I’m trying and getting back to her …), so how come it’s okay to say it in the future? I just don’t get it! It’s also another one of those gems that don’t make sense when you think about them in detail: You’ll try AND get back to her? You’ll try WHAT? You forgot to mention what you’ll try before you get back to her. Aaaaarrrghhh!

I’ve got to calm down. My blood pressure, you know.

Why does it seem that so many things we teach our students ― even the most basic things ― always seem to get contradicted in real-life English? Every Level 1 teacher goes over such basics as Thank you and its customary response, You’re welcome. You’d think that combination couldn’t be tampered with, wouldn’t you? Well, think again. I listen to the news on NPR (National Public Radio) most mornings. They give wonderful, in-depth stories that really inform their listeners. More often than not, when a piece is over, the anchor will say, for example, “Thank you, Quil, for that report.” Now you’d expect Quil to say, “You’re welcome, Lisa,” or “My pleasure, Lisa,” or something like that, right? Nope, that’s not necessarily right. What does Quil say? “Thank you, Lisa.” So Lisa has said Thank you and Quil has replied Thank you. And I sit there, making a face and thinking in a whiny sort of way, “We can’t teach our students to say that. Why are those two saying that?” And they’re not alone. It’s amazing how often I’ll hear Thank you repeated instead of a good old-fashioned You’re welcome or My pleasure. (Time for me to sigh.)

I could go on and on about head scratchers like these, but I’ll save the rest for another time. I’d love to know if you’ve got any I haven’t mentioned, ones that make you do a double-take, too. And I’d like to know if any of them have kind of ambushed what you teach your students they should say. So let me hear from you. I promise that your pre-recorded comments will be viewed by a live person.

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.

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!