Watch your language!


I’ve ranted elsewhere about bad habits of speech, including my own.

This entry is mostly about things I see in writing.  That means someone is supposed to have thought a little before putting it down, and presumably thinks it makes sense.  I’ve beaten this poor horse before, of course:  that bad communication can really impair getting ANYTHING done, including the activism that prompted me to establish this blog.

First, let’s get this out of the way:

Things that I won’t complain of:  playing around with language.

The Times They Are A-Changin’ caused a whole generation to grow up thinking the obscure variant “prophesize” was the only such word, unaware of the standard verb “prophesy”.  No great harm.  Dylan might have been playing around with dialect, or he might have just been ignorant.  I suspect the latter, but the meaning is clear, and that’s what’s important.

I like to use the occasional spoonerism or malapropism myself.

It’s just playing,  and doesn’t mess with the meaning of what’s being said, or that’s not the intent, anyway.

Things that I WILL complain of

I’ve divided them into three broad categories.  The first and largest contains things that are no more common among activists than anywhere else, just really bad habits that I see everywhere:


(1) Errors that can make the meaning unclear, or show that the writer is ignorant of the meaning of a word or stock phrase


●  Using “quality” as an adjective

English is very flexible because it’s not inflected much, i.e., words that serve as one part of speech don’t usually need to be given a different ending when they’re used for a different part of speech.  It’s what makes a sentence like “Grace me no grace and uncle me no uncles!” possible.

Nouns, verbs, and adjectives can freely move into a new role, morph to another meaning in that role, and then go back again.  In case this isn’t clear:

“Let there be light!” (noun)
“get the tinder to light” (intransitive verb)
“light a lamp.” (transitive verb)
“put a light in the window.” (noun, with slightly different meaning)

So ordinarily it wouldn’t bother me at all that a noun becomes an adjective, even if the habit is taken from adspeak.  (Sometimes adspeak makes some sense.  “Donut” is a more sensible spelling than “doughnut”.)

Some time long ago, “high-quality” came to replace “good” in ads.  Why didn’t they just say “good”?  Because some writer wanted to make it longer.  Some people think more letters means you’re saying more.  They’re wrong.

Then “high-quality used cars” morphed into “quality used cars”, simply because “high-quality” was such a familiar phrase it could be chopped down (maybe to fit on a sign) and still recognized.  It’s as if all these standard phrases were abbreviated thus:

“high-speed rail” to “speed rail”
“red-tailed hawk” to “tailed hawk”
“one-hoss shay to “hoss shay”

Already, I’m a bit uncomfortable with this kind of mutilation, but it might still be ok if the the phrase on the left were as extremely familiar as “high-quality”.

But there’s a very different problem with “quality”.  Its whole reason for existing as a word is to be described:  to be modified by an adjective or prepositional phrase.  It means “characteristic”, and means nothing if you don’t tell what that characteristic is.

So the point is, my head hurts when I read something like “Our children deserve a quality education” in propaganda.  What quality of education? The writer is not saying.


●  “take another tact”

The three words have very different origins and meanings.  “Taking another tack” is changing direction.  That’s the cliché, and I’m sticking to it.


● “by and large”

does NOT mean “for the most part”, or “usually”.  It means “all the time, without  exception”.  You can sail “by the wind” (close to the wind), or “large” (ahead of the wind), but if you’re sailing at all, it’s one or the other.  “By and large” means “no matter which way you’re going” or “under all conditions”.  A secondary meaning might be “after all the data are in”, e.g., after you have tried out the ship both “by” and “large”.

You’ll find that Cecil has a different view of this:  http://www.straightdope.com/columns/read/1908/what-is-the-origin-of-by-and-large but it’s not corroborated by anything else I could find.  The safest course, unless you’re a 150 year-old sailor, is not to use this phrase at all.



● “Problematic”

People often use this to simply say that something is bad or wrong.  Why don’t they just use “bad” or “wrong”?  That’s not what “problematic” means.  It means that something is a “problem” in a rather specific sense: that of a math problem.  Something unclear or uncertain, yet to be fully explained.


● “wet your appetite”

Someone might have originally used this as a pun referring to salivation, and the ignorant might have taken it as the standard cliché thereafter.

Now that hardly anyone in North America makes a distinction between “wh” and “w” in pronunciation, people can easily forget that there is a word “whet”, but there is.  It means “sharpen”, usually by some kind of scraping.  You know what a whetstone is?  Google it.


● “forte”

There are two different words spelled this way in English, borrowed from two different languages, both meaning “strong” in the original language.  They have two different meanings and pronunciations in English.

Italian musical term:  It means “play this part louder than usual” and is pronounced “for-tay”.  Trilling the “r” is optional.

French fencing term:  It means the “strong” part of the blade, closer to the hilt, and is pronounced “fort”.  Gargling the “r” is optional.  Sword blades are usually thinner as they get near the tip, but more importantly, the fencer has more leverage against the opponent’s blade if the opposing blade is closer to one’s own hand.  Much of fencing is about pushing against the opponent’s “foible” (old word for “weak”) with one’s own “forte”.

So if you’re talking about something that you want to be loud about, or emphasize, it might make sense to say “That is my for-tay.”, but I’ve rarely or never heard it used that way.

If you want to say “That’s what I do best, my strong suit.”, it’s your “fort”. Hearing “for-tay” in this context is, to say the least,


● “could care less”

In my childhood people used this in a way that made sense:  “I couldn’t care less.”, meaning “I care so little that it is not possible to care less.”

“Could care less” means the opposite:  that one DOES care SOME.

● “by the same token…”

does NOT mean “at the same time” or “on the other hand”.  It is not a way to introduce something contrasting or unrelated.  It means “for the same reason”, or “indicated by the same visible signs”, and should introduce something very directly related, and in agreement with the previous sentence or clause.  I don’t like the phrase much at all myself, but if you must use it, it should go something like:  “If a dog bites a man, it’s not news.  If a man bites a dog, it’s news.  By the same token, if banks rob people, it’s not news.  If people rob banks, it’s news.”


(2) Next are some things that aren’t really wrong, but as a matters of style they can really mark the writer as a bit uh… “strange”.


● Ending with a slogan:

I don’t see this very often, but it’s out there. At the very end of a letter, email, or signed statement of some kind, just above the signature, or whatever passes for it, something that one would never speak in conversation.   A few choice ones gathered from some of our more remarkable personalities:

“Repectfully, Troops home today, Trials tomorrow!”

“Venceremos!”

“With hope and audacity,”

It often takes the form of “For…!”

“For Cindy Sheehan, and a California Green Party Alternative US Congress,”

“For womyn’s rights and power, for feminism,”

“For peace and justice, against obama and the dnc,”

“For self-determination of all oppressed people and nations within and without Iran and the same for the US,”

“For the continual growth of the social justice movement here and abroad!”

Had enough? I’ve seen this sort of thing much more in 80 year-old letters, or translated from other languages.  In other times and places, it might be a much more common habit, but definitely NOT among present-day Americans.  Using it here and now marks you as maybe affected, maybe a member of a bizarre little subculture, maybe an agent from Cuba.  It’s no way to recruit anyone for a mass movement, that’s for sure.


● “All out for …..”

I occasionally see this as a heading on some kind of announcement of a demo.  Used to be, when a group of people “came out” it meant they were going on strike.  It was a serious demonstration of power, hurting the enemy in a very direct way.  An order “All out for ….” still carries a connotation that there’s an organized action decided upon by a large membership with some considerable collective power, and that someone has the authority to issue it as an order.  If you’re just an organization with no real power organizing a demo, using that phrase makes you sound like a nut house Napoleon shouting orders to an imaginary army.


● “Stop ……!” or “End …..!”

Imperative sentences with some evil noun after “Stop” or “End” might have their place if the message goes on to explain exactly how it will be done. On the other hand, something like “Stop Racism!” or “End Oppression!” sounds like you think it’s a very simple thing with a single cause, that can be ended by the reader.


(3)  a couple of my favorites:  pretending to say something without saying anything

For instance,


● in a bio: failure to tell what happened

People who teach people how to write resumes give this as perhaps the #1 rule:  Make simple declarative statements about what you did, with transitive verbs and direct objects.   Not “Was manager of…” or “Was active in…” but “Stuffed envelopes”, “Designed graphics”, “Composed communications”.  The fact that you held a title or sat in the meetings says nothing.  What you did is what matters, and you need to say it.


● Failure to say what you’re going to do

I’d kinda like to see the word “support” banned from political discourse.

It always bugged me to hear people say “Support the team!” at pep rallies, as if people in the stands could have any effect on the outcome of the game.  If they could, it would be a crooked game.

If you support a woman’s right to choose, it might mean you’re donating to a clinic or escorting patients in and out.

If you support the war, it means you’re enlisting, or asking the government to accept more than the usual taxes from you.

If you support a candidate, it means donating, walking precincts, or working phones.

If you’re asking for my “support”, what do you want me to DO?

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18 Responses to Watch your language!

  1. OMG! This is wonderful! You put a lot of work into this. Your graphics are phenomena and make your point so effectively. I am impressed beyond words!

    In my last post I’ll be doing about my pet peeves, I’ll put a link to this post. You deserve recognition for this masterpiece.

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  3. Ron Rodarte says:

    When I entered 7th grade the world became immense and excitingly new. Worlds opened up with new minds and people to meet and enjoin with. Some weeks passed before I felt comfortable with the new school, and during the first semester I began to read the Tom Swift collection of books in the school library. The series became a morning recess and afternoon reading frenzy where I set my goal to complete each of the series of stories on each consecutive day of the school week. The last of the series I read was “Tom Swift and the Aquatomic Tractor”, I didn’t understand the title and remember the book only for the incomprehensible mix of water, atomic energy, and what seemed to be an utterly wasteful use for atomic energy to power a tractor. I did, however, see that if such drivel had a publisher and was in my school library, I could have no problem in becoming a published writer.
    This goal never lost the luster, but somehow the magic of the ’60’s and early to mid 1970’s broke any walls of confinement to my use of the English language. I don’t think I have ever recovered well enough to complete the writer’s process from beginning to end in any effort of written communication, and spoken English became a pre-ordained exercise in chatter.
    My last reply to “kitchemudge” was one such attempt in communication as I labored to produce for some minutes, and I have no idea of how it was accepted by any who read the note. My idea was to explain the frustration I feel in the institutions of mainstream American participatory activism in the goal of questioning the usefulness and validity of these everyday examples of what a good American should participate with to make the difference we want to be. By the intertwining of these institutions to the demand for unquestionable loyalty I can only see the sword dangling over the head of Damocles and the impossible freedom of action that is imposed.
    So, over the years, here and there, I labored in writing classes and withered the gauntlet of each essay review, building a confidence of tin as my patina for the effort. This same tin is what is between my desire to help my country change in my best dreams, and yet while I listen as the fruit of the tree of conservative power falls on my roof of tin, pounding fear in to every action and leaving the patina of rotten fruit as its calling card, my conclusion was to eschew participation in the established institutions.
    Whether one chooses to participate with a society that makes no sense, or believe in a society that attempts to explain the dilemma of its actions and the words so hypocritical, or, to deeply reach into the past and retrieve a dream of what my country is and to move that dream forward, one must act and speak in the same breath of truth or the very notion of an individual’s value is lost.
    I cannot recall an elementary school teacher that instilled the curiosity of the English language to me, it was a neighbor child who was three years ahead of me and in first grade who sat me down and taught to me that a drawing of a chicken and the pair of consonants alongside could impress me to make the sound of the word.
    That basic curiosity is with me always. I have a difficult time in naming the parts of a sentence. I have a wonderful and enthusiastic few minutes naming the parts of an arthropod’s legs. My curiosity for symbols and meaning brought me to a love of the use of words and not so much the dissection of the sentence.
    So to draw this short essay to a close, I have to admit that I very much like to sit at a keyboard and just let the keys click while the editing is performed by the muse of the last interesting article I have had to pleasure to read, and this short reply is for the most part my enjoyment of such talented English grammatical lecturing. I wish to God I had such an English teacher in grammar school, I may have learned something as his.
    What I did learn is this:
    The word “donut” is derived from the fried dumpling of sweet dough that was a treat somewhere long ago. Since the middle of the dumpling would not cook as readily as the outside of the dumpling, an enterprising fry-cook took a cup and cut the center of the dumpling out and fried the circular dumpling through and through, Some saw the round dumpling with a hole as similar to a zero, or “naught” in old English. The origin of the word donut is in the old English term “dough-naught”, a fried “zero” dumpling.
    I still dwell on the meaning of an “Aquatomic Tractor”. It eludes me.

    • kitchenmudge says:

      I am glad to have Ron’s comments here, in case he’s still wondering how they were received.

      If you really like to go on for a few paragraphs, it’s not hard to make your own blog for free, as I’ve mentioned here before. There might be a size limit to comments. I don’t know.

  4. Andrew B. says:

    I agree with most of your points, but I think you’ve failed to acknowledge the dynamic nature of language. If a particular expression is already widely used, it’s difficult to call it incorrect – however grating it may seem to prescriptive linguists such as yourself.

    • kitchenmudge says:

      I don’t know what you mean by a “prescriptive” linguist. My only concern with the first large class of examples was whether the meaning was conveyed. In all those examples, it clearly was not, since the usages of which I complained conflicted with well-known meanings.

  5. Ron Rodarte says:

    I see a blog entry rife with examples of the dynamics of language. If one drops back and punts to a historical perspective of language and linguistics, an example of a near-Babel situation is the Chinese language and the pictographs that were the basis of the early written Chinese. There were very strict rules imposed on scribes whereas the invention of a new character in the Chinese lexicon was the product of intense research and study to ensure that all of the Chinese characters were concise and necessary. At a particular point in history the scribes became somewhat irrationally exuberant and tossed the rules aside to add to the 4000 basic Chinese characters over 10,000 basic Chinese characters with very confusing results effecting Chinese writing to this day. Americans are in such a historic epoch as this with tekkie words originating from actual baby-babble, as in the value of a “google” in mathematics, defining a very huge number, or in a progressively worsening media frenzy of totally unfounded word usage as illustrated in the blog entry that enters into every day use.
    One can see that the historic field is moving in many directions at once. A language must have rules or it becomes a muddle of confusion. As well, a language that cannot experiment cannot grow, an example of this is the early English language during the reigns of the early Kings prior to the Normans. The language of the native English nearly died out due to the influence of the French on the social movers of the time who would speak French exclusively for confirmation of their high status among the citizenry. English as a language darn near died. A very fortunate turn of events as the Renaissance brought a new language to fancy and Greek, Latin and the allowance for Germanic and varied languages to combine in a creation of immense proportions of novel words to describe the rapid advancements taking place in science, geography and discovery of all sorts during the illuminating period. Most of those words are defunct as they did not hold relevance beyond that age. Some, quite a lot, are still with us and can be recognized by the use of “ing” and “er” and other word-joiners (sorry I have no better knowledge of grammar) and Latin and Greek, German and French, Spanish and First Nation’s words were added to the English language we are familiar with.
    So, Mudge’s blog entry is making a comment with examples of dynamics in place, among them “The Caring Continuum” illustrating the dynamic of usage in one entire phrase.
    I don’t think Mudge meant to illustrate the entire dynamic of the language.
    However, if the object of a blog entry is to address the entire spectrum of a subject one might just sit down and write a doctoral thesis and make good use of the effort.
    That – I’d feel happy to accomplish though not attempted, yet.

    A personal addendum for the length of my response here is offered:
    I’ve been accused of being a barrister for my use of language, and sometimes it is a difficult chore to keep the message coherent. I have, however, succeeded in baffling at least one law firm with legal documents I have created of my own work and they are now legal documents of record.
    I for one enjoy the challenge of choosing the word and hoping it flies. Or excites. Or in the best outcome leads to the need for a new word. That to me is true discovery in language. To be involved in that dynamic is to be at the periphery of the social pulse and the heart of the matter of humanities. What one intends in these endeavors of language, at this critical time, is the opportunity to effect a vector to a rebirth in knowledge, or on another hand, a trajectory to the annihilation of life.
    I have a need to participate in a world.
    Now is a very good time to become active in spreading the word of love and coexistence, with the consideration of the charnel-house advertisements and resale of our dreams as all-the-while global corporate orators, the “corpse-orators” of a dying planet, begin the eulogy of humanity as a “news at 11” bite.
    I’ll be dreaming by that hour and by that beautiful effortless endeavor will attempt to change their message, again.

  6. Nurse Ruth says:

    To Ron Rodarte: Hypergraphia is a treatable condition.

  7. Ron Rodarte says:

    Write a prescription, Nurse Ruth.

  8. Olga SE says:

    Happy to come across a blog by someone interested in language as much as myself! I’ve also given some thought to such expressions as “quality food” etc. Having come to nothing, I just decided not to use them in my speech. Thanks for the explanation!

  9. A perspective from sunny rural New England. One of the glories of English usage is our penchant for turning nouns into verbs. I can remember when dinosaurs roamed the earth and “impact” “contact” and “message” were just plain nouns. Some years ago usage began to allow the noun “service” to be used as a verb, as in “I’m taking my car in for servicing.”
    This has caused red faces and slack jaws in farming communities. For many years, “service” has been a euphemistic verb in the animal husbandry subculture, and it refers specifically to what bulls do for cows when it’s time to make baby calves. The first time our local newspaper printed an ad for an appliance repair shop with the tagline “We can service your every need!” people took it as an obscene solicitation. I still get a chuckle at the thought of what the Maytag man might do with a front loader …

    • kitchenmudge says:

      It was 20-some years ago that I first noticed “stress” had become a verb, both transitive and intransitive. Also that “That’s ok.” had come to mean “No.” I imagine the latter can be confusing to non-native listeners.

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  12. whitt88 says:

    You’ve got me worried; I’m still far from 150 years old, I sail all the time, and can’t imagine a day without tacking, coming about or jibing. If changing an opinion, going off and doing something else, or even turning the other cheek can’t be related to my lifestyle, what’ll I do, professor?

    • kitchenmudge says:

      Avast, ye salty sea dog! The Word Pressers be tellin’ me I got some “page views” (thumb marks in me log book?) from French Polynesia. I reckon if ye be livin’ the life o’ Gauguin, ye can make up yer own rules.

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