Language


This weekend was my 6th wedding anniversary with my beautiful wife, and we managed to arrange an overnight stay to get away to a hotel about 45 minutes away, complete with dinner, movie, swimming, hot tub, and some shopping today (mostly for my wife). It was a good time, and we enjoyed our time away, especially since we were able to spend time together without our two boys (who stayed with my parents), something we don’t get to do often.

Now we’re home, and I need to update the blog – what better to do that with than a tale of my recent acquisitions on the literary front?

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I promised a review of a little grammar text I recently finished, Things Your Grammar Never Told You, and since I’m a man of my words, here goes.

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Just a few days back, I finished perusing the little grammar book Things Your Grammar Never Told You. It’s an interesting book, and I’ll get around to posting more about its strengths (and of course, its weaknesses), but I have a small qualm for the time being.

On page 54, Scharton and Neulieb talk about usage and shifts in meaning, specifically mentioning the word decimate:

Sometimes confusion about a word’s denotation occurs when people use the word in a more general sense than its original meaning warrants. Generalized use can stretch a word’s meaning until it sags like an old sweatshirt, comfortably covering more and more, revealing less and less, and doing its job in a particularly unattractive way. […] As far as some political writers are concerned, the verb decimate means “to reduce drastically.” Decimate, which is related to the word decimal, means “to eliminate one in ten.”

Later, in a glossary of usage, there is an entry for decimate, annihilate:

Note that the Latin root, deci-, is the same as in decimal, a system of numbers based on ten. Decimate means to “reduce by ten percent”; it refers to the bloody practice of slaughtering one captured soldier in ten. That’s bad but not as bad as annihilating, that is, wiping out everyone.

I was, to say the least, disappointed at seeing this.

The truth, of course, is that decimate does not merely mean “to take one out of ten,” and it very frequently means “to reduce dramatically.” Moreover, this error is an example of a fallacious appeal to etymology, and linguist Ben Zimmer  gives very convincing evidence about why it should not be defined as such:

Saying that the “real meaning” of decimate is ‘reduce by one-tenth’ aptly illustrates the “etymological fallacy” — the notion that we have to go back to the usage of a bygone era, and perhaps even a different language, to divine the “true” sense of a word. Decimate entered English around 1600, with reference to the Roman army practice. Around 1650, the Earl of Essex tried to revive Roman “decimation” to keep the peace in Ireland, but subsequent use of the word decimate in the “one-tenth” sense invariably referred back to the Roman era. And by 1663 the usage of decimate had already expanded to mean “to destroy or remove a large proportion of,” according to citations collected in the Oxford English Dictionary.

For nearly three and a half centuries, then, virtually every use of the word decimate has been in this extended sense, except when referring to the harsh old Roman practice. And these days such references seem limited to complaints about the word itself.

This error, in my opinion, is indicative of a deeper problem that seems to be entrenched in most grammar texts. Yes, grammar is about rules, tendencies, and to a degree conformity to the standards that your readers  will expect you to have, but it is not about proscriptions and dictums handed down from on high. While I think this text does better than some others (like the highly overrated Elements of Style), its propensity to spout the same old grammatical canards is disheartening. If someone can show me a grammar text that doesn’t do this sort of thing, I would be delighted.

As part of my summer reading (which is a sizable list: the majority of 3 literature textbooks, at least 3 canonical novels, and some other smaller works purely for enjoyment), I am taking a look at two grammar texts that I happened upon in my new classroom, obviously left from previous teachers (either the most recent one or the veteran who retired the year before). One should be familiar to many: William Strunk and E.B. White’s The Elements of Style. I can’t say I’m surprised to see this one, honestly, given how revered it is in so many circles.

The other is Things Your Grammar Never Told You (there’s a picture of an old woman on the cover, supposedly a grandmother figure – get it, grammar, gramma? …yeah) by Maurice Scharton and Janice Neulieb. The latter is a figure familiar to me: she is a professor at nearby Illinois State University, the executive secretary of IATE, and the editor of the Illinois English Bulletin. (At least one of my regular readers should be familiar with her as well.)

I’m about 50+ pages into the latter – I’m saving up my energy for Elements after hearing both the highest praise and serious criticism of it – and while it has a lot of redeeming qualities (computer tips, for instance, which are interspersed throughout the chapters), I have my reservations about many of the things it says. A full review will of course be in order once I finish it. (Whether or not I say anything much about Elements depends on how much of my comments will be any different than what more knowledgeable people like Geoff Pullum have already said.)

Off the beaten tracks of this blog: I just noticed that one of the searches that this blog comes up as an option for is “how to pronounce docere.” With my limited knowledge of Latin pronunciation, let me be of assistance. (Latin/IPA experts, please correct me below in comments where I err.)

Docere is the verb, “to teach,” which is the root of the modern word doctor. Accordingly, the pronunciation is doe-kay-ray (in IPA, /doˈkeː.re/).

Est (“is,” from the verb esse) is pronounced with a short e: est (IPA: /est/).

Discere, the verb “to learn,” from whence we get words like discipline and disciple, is also pronounced with the same hard c as docere: dis-kay-ray (IPA: /dιs ˈkeː.re/).

For reasons why I chose this Latin phrase for the title, see my about page.

As an educator, I try my best to keep up with my professional reading: I treasure my subscription to NCTE’s English Journal (which I’m reminded is coming up for renewal in August along with my NCTE membership), and I attempt to read through each issue as I receive them. I’ve been mostly successful; I think a previous issue got lost in the mix, and I’m in the midst of reading the current issue on real-world teaching (a topic I’m very much in favor of). I also like to respond to articles that I particularly like or issues that I think need to be brought into the professional conversation, and that I haven’t done so great a job about.

I recently finished an issue of EJ (Vol. 98, No. 4) that was on an interesting subject for me: sexual orientation and gender variance. (‘Sexual orientation’ is probably a fairly self-explanatory term, but ‘gender variance’ may not be; the latter is essentially the variance in gender expression from the ‘norm,’ which could range from simple deviations from normal gender expression such as girls who are “tomboys” or boys who “act girly” or “effeminate” all the way to transexuality. The issue of ‘intersexuality’ also comes up, which is related to these two ideas.) I have been thinking about many of the articles that have been included in the issue, trying to think about them as I consider my curriculum as a first-year teacher.

Mostly, I’ve been thinking, “Are you nuts?!”

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I’ve talked here before about what have been called “word moments” (a phrase which I dearly love for its multiple uses and the clarity of the experience it describes). I just had one of those, and I had to share it so that maybe someone else will have the kind of realization I did.

I’ve been sitting in front of this laptop for a while now trying to pound away from of these blasted assignments, and I glanced over at the newest issue of English Journal, which I just received in the past few days (and which I would much prefer to read instead of doing these useless assignments). For some moment, the analytical part of my mind parsed the latter word in that title in a way it never has before: Jour/nal. My first thought, despite the fact that I don’t speak the language at all, was of the French word jour, “day.” Upon thinking it over further, my mind went to journals of the personal sort, the kind that you write in daily. Even the idea of journalism and dailies (newspapers that print daily) popped into my head.

After these kinds of thoughts, I had to pursue the etymology further to confirm or disconfirm my linguistic hypothesis, and to my surprise, it was confirmed but in a slightly different way – journal does in fact appear to come to us through Old/Anglo-French, although the root itself is Latin, from diurnalis, “daily.” (It is curious to me how the introductory Latin “diu-” sound became the French “jou-,” but then again, I don’t claim to be a linguist, just an interested observer.)

Interestingly enough, I consciously re-parsed the word as journ/al, which I immediately associated with the word adjourn. Turns out that the root and etymological connection are the same.

Okay, now the updates:

  • I signed a contract on Thursday for the school that I’ll be working for in the fall and confirmed that I will be teaching four courses: sophomore English, junior English, senior English, and an elective writing/novels course (although the emphasis for the first semester is more creative writing than research; I might try to incorporate research into it, though). I was also able to see my room, which is surprisingly nice given the class sizes I’ll have and the size/income of the district. (I have a pod of 4 computers at the back of my room, and the teacher’s computer is hooked up to a large TV, which is also connected with a DVD/VCR combo. That’s really good, all things considered.)
  • The same day, I brought home a wagonload – literally – of material to begin preparing over the summer. (I say “literally” because the material filled an actual wagon that one of the teachers had brought to school, which the principal and I took out to my car to unload.) This included the teacher’s editions for all three of the new textbooks that were purchased for the main sections, as well as a great deal of supplementary materials for the American lit text (for junior English), including a dozen or so CDs of software, several little books for writing and other areas, and even a book of lesson plans.
  • Thursday night, the board approved me as a teacher for the fall, so I am good to go there.
  • Finally, the unofficial scores came back on Friday evening for my APT test (see here), and I scored 286 out of 300 (scaled). I only needed 240 to pass, and this was the final step that I needed to take care of to be 9-12 certified. (The 6-8 certification, of course, will be in order once I get these middle school courses completed.

Everything’s working well, and I’ve got a lot of work ahead. (The incoming juniors and seniors have already been told that they’re very behind because of this year of English, so the task to get them caught up is a little daunting.) At least, though, everything is moving forward.

I left this morning hoping that I wouldn’t miss anything today; there were a few schools who had indicated that they would try to be in touch by today, and my wife and I were taking our oldest son to a follow-up visit with his developmental pediatrician. I took my cell phone to make calls back home to check the voicemail and my new PDA (my graduation present, a Palm TX – okay, it’s new to me) in case we could get to someplace that would have free WiFi for me to check my voicemail. (And apparently, not all McDonald’s offer free WiFi – what a ripoff.)

That was mostly useless: no calls, no E-mails. So I’m left this weekend to wonder about callbacks for second interviews with two schools and about whether or not the third will consider offering me that position. I hate being left up in the air, but I guess that’s just how things go sometimes.

But there was a consolation prize of sorts: a box had come to my parents’ house with my name on it that was marked from amazon.com. My mother assumed it was from my uncle (who has been in the habit of buying gifts from Amazon for family), but it was actually a gift (I am guessing) from my former, soon-to-be-current coworkers. And a fitting gift it is: a copy of the New Oxford American Dictionary, 2nd edition, the principal editor of which was Erin McKean (yes, this Erin McKean). (It’s fitting because I had the habit of finding out etymological facts or having “word moments” and sharing that with my coworkers, which earned me the nickname “Mr. Dictionary.”) I’m not excessively fond of dictionaries (although I am rather partial to the OED), but this dictionary is beautiful.

And perhaps the best part was the note:

Congrats! I hope this is big enough to properly beat people over the head with.

Of course, if I were a stingy old prescriptivist, I would probably beat the author over the head with this sizable volume for breaking two of the most uptight grammatical “rules” ever (No Split Infinitives and No Terminating Prepositions), but I’m not, so I’ll let it slide. It’s a nice gesture, anyway, and maybe it’ll help keep my mind off the waiting. (Probably not, but hey, a guy can hope.)

This Language Log post by Geoff Pullum is one of the funniest things I’ve read in a while. Pullum has been making rounds after his article in The Chronicle of Higher Education talking about Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary of the first edition. I’m not a big fan of Elements (although I’ve had at least one writing instructor who was), and neither is Pullum, which has made some people very angry, including a commenter on an NPR story which Pullum was interviewed for on the topic of Strunk and White.

The whole response is brilliant (and you’ve got to be amused by someone who gets so angry at criticism of “proper” grammar but fails to use it herself), but my absolute favorite part is when Pullum responds to the accusation that he merely looked at his “favorite authors” to decry one of the grammatical proscriptions contained in Elements:

Third, I didn’t look at my “favorite authors”. I would rather eat live worms on cold toast than read fin-de-siècle chick lit like Anne of Avonlea.

When people like Pullum have blogs, it makes me feel like the world, at least in a small way, is just.

Week 1 is over for student teaching, and I have to consider it largely a success. I’ve been teaching one course entirely since Tuesday, and those students have been fairly responsive over that time. I’ve also learned quite a bit about these classes and about instructional technique in just these few short days.

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