Language


Author’s Note: I’m sort of on hiatus at the moment for various reasons – the main being that I’m in a writing slump. In the meantime, enjoy this tidbit of logic and language.

Recently, I taught my sophomores about qualification – the practice of using certain words to qualify generalizations, such as probably, generally, perhaps, etc. Qualifiers, in my opinion, are eminently important since they are the best way to avoid error (such as suggesting that all swans are white) and still make strong evidentiary claims.

But today I ran into an example of overqualification – that is, qualification where none is needed:

Very few of you [in the audience] has [sic] a coin in your pocket with only one side.

Cases such as this where qualifying a claim would indicate that a logical contradiction is possible show how qualification can sometimes end up in absurdity. No one needs to qualify claims about one-sided coins anymore than claims about being able to draw square circles or be married bachelors. If a statement is tautologous, then there is clearly no reason to qualify it.

Spurred by my recent foray into ideas for increasing critical thinking, here’s an idea that I think combines a lot of different ideas, including critical thinking and logical inference, into a skill-building activity that engages a virtually universal student interest: music.

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That’s one of the most debated questions in terms of language, in my experience. It’s an important question because there is at least a general consensus that there is good language and bad language – acceptable and unacceptable language – and a common question because everyone seems to have an opinion on the subject, although they tend not to be exceptionally informed opinions. It’s also important because there are plenty of people – some who have knowledge of language and some who really don’t – who have decided at some point that they are the arbiters of what is good and true and what is not and dispense advice (often unsolicited) or make disparaging comments about language use, be it word usage, grammar, mechanics, or style.

I don’t consider myself an expert on language use by any means, but I think my interest in language is perhaps greater than the average layperson: I have studied writing theory, I have read grammar texts critically for personal edification, I regularly read blogs about language and try to keep up with what people are talking about regarding language, and I’m a certified English language teacher. I don’t claim that my advice on language is gospel, and I stress to my students that comments on written language especially are mostly tentative (even though I think it would be prudent for them to take my advice). Generally, I think I know what I’m talking about, but I’m open to correction from people who know more about the subject, primarily linguists.

This in mind, I’m pretty used to people making comments about language when they lack relevant training, like that old proscription against terminating prepositions. But I still confess that it puzzles me when I see people who are qualified in the area of the English language railing against things about which they really should know better.

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I happened to catch a TV ad for the Illinois Lottery’s holiday campaign, entitled “Joy Someone”. My first thought: Is this a new sense of the verb joy? I knew the intransitive sense of “rejoice; take joy in,” but this transitive sense was new to me.

Well, I no longer have access to the OED Online (darn you, alma mater!), but I can at least see free dictionaries, and lo and behold, I found:

v.tr. Archaic
1. To fill with ecstatic happiness, pleasure, or satisfaction.
2. To enjoy.

So the sense of “to make joyful” is there, but it is mostly obsolete. I am skeptical that the creators of the ad knew this, opting instead just to use this existing intransitive sense of the verb form (which I think is rare, although I could be wrong) and use it transitively. (Linguists: Is there a term for using an otherwise intransitive verb in a transitive sense?)

But at least there is precedent for it, and that makes my inner grammar snob feel better.

Short version: Sometimes they’re wrong.

Okay, the background – I purchased a small class set of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein for my novels class, and we’re getting through it right now. While the students are digging into the monster’s narrative about his life after being created (and rewriting/paraphrasing it), I’ve been reading ahead to have some ideas for discussion.

My students have also expressed difficulty in understanding much of this novel, which is due in no small part to the fact that all of the novels we have thus covered – Of Mice and Men, The Grapes of Wrath, and The Great Gatsby – have been 20th century American novels, and Frankenstein is early 19th century British. One of the nice things about this text, however, has been a glossary of endnotes and a vocabulary reference at the back of the book, broken down by chapter so that students can refer to them. It’s worked okay for some, not as much for others; one student has been asking me about certain words, and I’ve found that explaining some words – like traverse – takes a little more than a simple denotative explanation. Still, it’s reasonably helpful.

That is, when it’s right.

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I am so far behind, both here and in real life, so here are some highlights of the past, uh, week or so:

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If one can be considered a fan of some grammatical artifact, I am a fan of the subjunctive mood, for some undefinable reason. Maybe it’s because the subjunctive is somewhat of an endangered species, having all but disappeared from modern English. I’m not a stickler about it – I don’t know that I can really be called a stickler about anything grammatical other than the bare essentials for communication – but I have been known to advise students in feedback about its formal use. Yes, it might be acceptable in general to say something like “If I was six feet tall, I would be much better at basketball” even though the subjunctive would call for the construction “If I were six feet tall…”

However, I suggest that there are instances where understanding of the remaining uses of the subjunctive mood or at least the underlying reasons for its existence are useful, since it does still exist but is rarely ever taught explicitly. Generally, this should consist at least of an understanding that the subjunctive can be used to express a state or proposition that is contrary to fact.

Some real-life situations:

  1. A student in one of my classes was talking about something gender-related (I don’t recall the specifics) and asked me, “Mr. B, if you were a guy–“; at this point, I interrupted and said, “Whoa, wait a minute: are you saying that I’m not a guy?” He didn’t intend (I think) to communicate this piece of information, but it was communicated nonetheless through the construction.
  2. Similarly, my wife recently started out a sentence, “If I were me,” at which point I remarked that she must have some severe identity (and logic) issues.

So even if the subjunctive is on its way to extinction, despite my affinity for it, understanding the remnants of this mood can in fact be useful. And don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

Okay, so I had my observation earlier today, and I was very pleased with how things went. My lesson flowed just how I wanted it to: brief mini-lesson on complete sentences (amazing how many of my sophomores didn’t know how to identify the verb in a sentence), followed by another mini-lesson on run-on sentences, with guided practice throughout. It was practically an ideal situation (well, except for the amount of unprompted student response, but I chalk that up to grammar). I happened to be talking to a student as the principal left the room, and she gave me a thumbs-up as she left. Great feeling, I must admit.

Now on the other hand, I wanted to sell my juniors to the highest bidder (and at this point, it wouldn’t probably take too much of an offer). My nice lesson on McCarthyism and the “red scare”? Drowned out to “Why can’t we have time to work on our projects?” and “We’ll just forget this by Tuesday” and other various examples of whinery.* Nothing wears me out (not down) like complaining, especially when I know that I can’t give in and must push on with material.

Sigh. At least we only have one more day this week, and then a four-day weekend!

I have needed this so badly…


*I think this is my own coinage, although in truth, it’s a pun off of the name of a bar that was nearby the university I attended.

I continue to finish up planning my curricula: honing in on the major projects that I want to do for each course, matching up key assessments with state standards and descriptors, finishing my syllabi (which I think are clear and honest). I feel good about this.

I come home from work and find a letter from my superintendent, one which has been sent to all returning and new teachers. It contains the agenda for our teacher institute the first day of school (before classes start the following day) and…a list of suggestions from the spring?

I think, Okay, this should be interesting to see what the teachers thought could be improved. Maybe I can get some idea of what I’m in for.

I was at least right on the last part.

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Disclaimer: I like thinking too deeply about the characteristics of things that some most people probably think should be taken at face value. If you are one of those people, turn back now. If you’re one of those people and can’t help yourself, my condolences.

I recently noticed – okay, it wasn’t recent that I first noticed, but I observed again – that the syntactic features of Facebook statuses are quite varied. Eric Baković at Language Log wrote about pronoun issues with Facebook back in May, which was sometime after Facebook decided (perhaps after some complaint from syntactic-minded users, or maybe just from non-syntactic-minded people who just thought it was awkward) to stop forcing users to use “<Person’s name> is” at the beginning of statuses. Currently, the default is a box that says “What’s on your mind?” rather than prompting for an exact phrasing of the user’s status. Some people have ignored the fact that Facebook inserts the user’s profile name at the beginning of the status, which results in updates like

Jane Smith* what to eat….

Isaac Houston* stargazing! finished up for the night. took a fantastic picture of jupiter live! I will have a picture posted tomorrow I hope..

But at least among my friends, who are not universally English-oriented individuals (although I have plenty of English majors, graduates, and professors in my friend list), the trend as I’ve observed it in my relatively small sample is to stick with the classic style of updates and start with a verb. What’s interesting to me as I think about how I update is that there is also a tendency to stick to forms of “be” or “have,” the former especially due to the natural tendency for status updates to be expressions of an emotional or physical state (e.g. “Jacob Seinz* is tired and needs to go to bed now.”). Other copula appear less frequently, and there are a few others that tend to be more abstract (c.f. “need” in the previous example).

I’ve noticed, however, that even when I want to express some action rather than a state of being, mood, etc., I almost always use the present progressive. This tendency popped out to me when a friend’s status said “Marsha Cherrywood* reads Freire”, and I realized that I probably would have said “Mr. B is reading Freire.”

So now, just because I don’t like fitting into neat little syntactic modes, here is my new status:

Mr. B updates his status in simple present tense.

Much better.


*Names withheld to protect the innocent. Or something.

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