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.

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