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Further Linguistic Defeats

Last September I lamented that the "lie-lay" distinction seems to be a lost cause. Joining it now, I think, are certain uses of "obsess" and "cliché." I've recently come across sentences like these in the writing of two forty-ish (I think) people, both very well educated, one of them a Ph.D: 

I am obsessing about that movie.

That movie is so cliché.

And these instances are in books, not casual online commentaries, email, or text messages--books edited and published by reputable publishers, and so presumably approved by at least one competent editor. I despair.

If you don't notice anything wrong with these sentences, well, I guess you're on the right side of history for the moment. They make me wince, if not worse.

When you can't get something out of your head, you are not obsessing about it. It is doing the obsessing, not you. It is on the active side of that verb. It is obsessing you. You are obsessed by it. 

Cliché is a noun, not an adjective. I'm not sure that it's even really a good thing to turn it into "clichéd," as in "That movie is so clichéd." I'm out of my grammatical depth in trying to analyze that, but it sounds better than "so cliché." 

My authority for these judgments is my Webster's New Twentieth Century Dictionary (Unabridged), published in 1966. I guess it's a relic now, like me. It's falling apart, also like me. So cliché. 


Accents of the British Isles

(Does Ireland count as part of the British Isles? I wouldn't think they'd be very pleased about that.)

I saw this on Facebook, then went looking for it on YouTube so that I could post it here. I was surprised to see that there are a number of videos of the same basic type. There's a lot to work with, I guess; it always surprises me a little that there are so many and such different accents in such a relatively small geographical area, though it really shouldn't. I suppose the actually atypical thing is that they all speak English, which is of course a political more than an organic linguistic development. There are different accents within Alabama, which is roughly the same size as England, and they didn't have hundreds of years and geographical concentration in which to develop.

I've developed a strange liking and fascination for the Scottish accents that I hear on some of the British TV shows. In one, the villain was a Scotch (Scottish?) woman, and I kept wanting her to be on screen more just so I could listen to her talk. Katia Kvinge, by the way (whom I had of course never heard of), is "a Scottish BAFTA New Talent Award Nominated comedian, actor and impressionist." Doesn't sound like a Scottish name--I wonder where it came from. Oh wait--from her web site:

Q: Where is Katia Kvinge from?
A: Mum is Norwegian, Dad is American. Born in London, grew up in Oxford and Scotland


Here Lays "Lie"

I'm actually not a grammar martinet, although it may sometimes seem that way. I've never paid a lot of attention to rules of grammar, not in the sense of being able to state them, and talk of verb tenses and such usually confuses me. It's just a matter of what sounds right or wrong, very much like hearing the right or wrong notes in music (leaving out the case where the "wrong" one is deliberately used, or the whole idea of wrongness is being subverted). Certain grammatical errors give me something like the pain of hearing a bad mistake in music.

One of these is the "lie-lay" distinction. I can't quote the rule that governs them, but I know that "I'm going to go lay down" hurts my ears. This is now so common that the incorrect use probably occurs more frequently than the correct. The trend has been in place for a long time now. There were always a fair number of people whose native usage, so to speak--what they had grown up hearing--was the incorrect one. Teachers tried to change them, but it didn't always work (to say the least). I remember when I was getting physical therapy for a back problem thirty years ago that the therapist would instruct me to "lay down" and do this or that exercise.

So I thought I was pretty much reconciled to the fact that this is a lost cause. But I had that realization driven home definitively a few weeks ago when I read a sentence written by someone with a PhD that went something like this: "Beneath this concern lays this other concern...". It was not a PhD in science or engineering where language is merely functional, but in theology, where words are hugely important. (I do know where I read it, and just checked again to make sure I wasn't misreading the text, but am not going to identify it, partly because I see no reason to expose the writer to ridicule for his grammar or myself to ridicule as a grammar martinet. Anyway, it's possible that it was only a typo.)

Anyway, I think that use of the word "lie" is actually passing out of use altogether, with only the other word, "lie" as in "speak falsely," remaining. Well, it's certainly a word to which we need to resort quite often.

Lay-lie

Oh, never mind (graphic from Grammarly.com)

EVEN THOUGH IT'S REALLY NOT THAT COMPLICATED IS IT?


A New Kind of Crazy

From a comment at Rod Dreher's blog: "Throughout human history....people have gone stark raven mad or crazy."

I like that. I had a post about that kind of thing not so very long ago--not craziness, I mean, but the phenomenon where someone substitutes for a word that was really part of a saying or idiom another that sounds like it, as in "tow the line." Though this one may just be an erroneous auto-correct that slipped by. Anyway, it's a rather striking image. 


Imperatives

A few months back...no, wait, over six months back--see this post...I listened to an audio version of the Josephine Tey novel The Franchise Affair. It involves someone falsely accused of a crime, and early in the story there's an exchange between the accused and her lawyer which goes something like this:

What have you done?

I haven't done anything.

Well, what are you supposed to have done?

This use of "supposed," precisely in its strict sense, referring to something believed but with a degree of uncertainty, similar to "alleged" or "conjectured," caught my ear, because as often as not today we don't use that ordinary sense. And I would bet that its most frequent use is to convey something similar to "required" or "commanded," or at least "intended." "You're supposed to..." frequently means "you must."

Tey's sentence above, for instance, in isolation, would be most likely to refer to something meant to be done but not in fact done: "what should you have done?" or "what are you expected to have done?" But in common usage "You're not supposed to park here" means "you must not park here."

A couple of other words or phrases have taken on that imperative sense that they are not, well, supposed to have. It's a curious thing that I began to notice a long time ago. Frequently the imperative sense is a matter of word order in the sentence. Consider:

You have this form to fill out. 
You have to fill out this form.

It would be better for you to fill out this form.
You'd better fill out this form.

The second sentence of each of those pairs is essentially a command: "You must fill out this form."  "You'd better" is weaker, a command that's a little short of "must" but with an implied threat for non-compliance. I associate it first with children, especially girls: "You better give it to me," often followed by "or I'm going to tell Mama."

These things trouble me a little because they remind me that any particular language at any particular time is a sand castle. I spend a lot of time writing, and most of it now is poetry, in which every single word is to the best of my ability very precisely chosen and placed. Oh well, it isn't likely to be read very much, so it won't matter much when my words

Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,
Will not stay still.

--Eliot (T.S.)


Let's Revise the "Generations" Business

I've been complaining for a long time--yeah, I know, this sentence could end right there, but I'll continue anyway--I've been complaining for a long time about the "generations" construct which is a sort of pop sociology thing that sometimes seems barely a step up from astrology. This chart, harvested from Wikipedia, sums up the system, if we can call it that:

1024px-Generation_timeline.svgAnd I think it borders on crazy. I guess it started with the "lost generation" of the 1920s. But that term was just an observation that Gertrude Stein made about a particular set of extremely atypical artists. I don't know whether it was ever applied to an entire cohort of people who just happened to have been born around the same time. It certainly wouldn't have made much sense to classify my wife's grandmother, born ca. 1900 in rural Mississippi and growing up in circumstances more 19th than 20th century, more frontier than suburbia, with Ernest Hemingway's crowd.

Continue reading "Let's Revise the "Generations" Business" »


Bad Writing

If you can even call it writing.... Maybe just jargon. Or guff.

I received an email on my work account with this subject:

Implement Engaging Prevention Training at [college]

I wondered what it meant. Training for the purpose of preventing something, apparently. Opened the email and saw a company logo with this text:

Proven, Engaging Student Prevention Training

What?!? 

So I read the first paragraph:

Did you know SafeColleges Training provides a variety of effective student prevention courses through a robust training system?

I experienced deepening confusion. Few colleges wish to prevent students.

Only by reading as far as the second paragraph did I learn that they are referring to training aimed at "encouraging healthy behaviors" on topics like drugs, alcohol, and sex. 


The War on Transitive Verbs

I know I can be pedantic, but I like to think I'm not excessively so. I deny that I'm a grammar Nazi. I understand that language is constantly shifting, and that this is not necessarily a bad thing. Some departures from standard grammar--I hesitate even to say "correct," so wary am I of being overly judgmental--are enhancements in the way of color, or meet some need not provided by the standard. 

I notice the first one sometimes in certain constructs that less-educated people use. For instance: in the opening episode of The Wire, a character commenting on the death of a friend: "I guess sometimes life just be that way." "Be" is wrong, but it has a flavor that "Life is just that way" doesn't. I see a lot of memes that use, for lack of a better word, black English, and sometimes they're funny or punchy in a way that they wouldn't be in standard English. Like "be like":

SouthernersBeLikeAnd as for the second: I'm becoming reconciled to the use of "they/them/their" for the third-person singular when the sex of the person is unknown. You don't have to be a feminist to find "he/him/his" odd-sounding when the person referred to is most likely, or just as likely, to be female. I felt it often in my job in software services, where the office workers using the software were far more likely to be women than men. "Each user can set his own preferences." But 90% of them are women, and we all know it. "Each user can set her own preferences"--but isn't it just a touch patronizing to assume the user is female? "Each user can set his or her own preferences"--that's fine for one sentence, but it's clumsy if you need to repeat it. "Each user can set their own preferences"--yes, that grates mightily on my ear, but I guess I have to get used to it.

But there is no justification for this kind of thing:

This recording will repeat.

When the process is complete, a message displays. 

The screen populates with the information. 

Dr. Banner transforms into The Hulk.

She dies, then resurrects as a zombie.

If your tax doesn't calculate...

Is it really so hard, is it really too much trouble, to say "will be repeated," "is displayed", and so on? I'm not sure exactly what this syndrome signifies but I'm sure it's something bad. 

And by the way the title is partly in jest. Something else that annoys me is the declaration that any opposition to, or just neglect of, a thing constitutes "a war on..." the thing. 


Heard But Not Read, Or, Transcription Error

Back in August I had a post about the often-funny result of someone hearing a common phrase without having seen it in print or learned its actual meaning, then setting down in print what he thought he heard, which is sometimes oddly plausible. "Tow the line" as a misconstrual of "toe the line" was one example.

A couple of days ago I saw a new one which I think deserves the grand prize in this exhibition:

"It's a doggy-dog world."