Word Watch: December 2010

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Over the years, I’ve received a lot of comments about this column. They’ve revealed the existence of two linguistic parties.

One party asserts that nothing will come of noticing the mistakes people make with language. “The offenders don’t read you, anyway,” these people say, with great plausibility. “Or maybe they do, but they don’t understand that you’re talking about them. Barbarians don’t know they’re barbarians.” That’s even more plausible. At my university, I get messages every day from people who don’t have a clue that they’re Vandals, or Visigoths at the best.

The other party doesn’t believe in giving up. These are the people who squirm every time a politician compliments “senior citizens.” They scream when it’s chummily shortened to “seniors.” “Senior to whom?” they demand. And when Republicans and Democrats debate who is better at “growing” jobs, their response is that both sides have already applied enough manure.

The members of this second party may be either 20 or 90 years old, but they’ve been afflicted this way throughout their thinking lives. They just can’t stand to see the language debased. So every time a snoop like me uncovers another nest of abuses, they rejoice and applaud, as if they were on the winning side of the Hundred Years’ War.

Who’s right? I won’t try to decide; I’m not an unbiased judge. But I do remember a time when I myself didn’t know how to explain what is wrong — all the things that are wrong — with “senior citizens” — and I was glad when one of my mentors, Robert Koelz, came to my rescue by giving me the word “cant.” He helped me gain control of the language I use. And let’s face it, it’s fun to be right, even if nobody else pays any attention. Besides, the fact that people have been making some of the same mistakes for generations only makes it more important to bring them up again. So please keep me enrolled as an enthusiastic member of the second party, the party of linguistic remembrance, rebellion, and revenge.

Now, take the word “alleged.” (Take it, please!) I brought that up in last month’s column, referring to a headline that proclaimed: “Panel hits Rangel with 13 alleged ethics charges.” It wasn’t the first time I’d mentioned the guilty word. It’s been sinning for a long, long time. But does that give it immunity? Hardly. There’s no statute of limitations on murder, and this is the murder of brain cells.

There are thousands of habitual criminals that need to be brought to justice, no matter what their age. I fingered one of them just the other night, while watching a rerun of “Network” (1976) . There’s a scene in which we see the villain sitting behind a nice big villain’s desk, and there, resting prominently on the shiny surface, is a sign saying: “Thank You for Not Smoking.” So that nauseating pretension to politeness has been going on for 34 years. Longer, if you’re not thinking just about signs objecting to secondhand smoke. Have you ever been in an office — usually, this is the office of a lumberyard or a car repair place or some other useful enterprise — where there’s a sign that says, “This Is My Busy Day”? It’s an impolitely polite way of telling you to shut up and pay your bill. This one also goes way back. In Sinclair Lewis’ best novel, “Babbitt” (1922), the protagonist visits his pastor’s office and notices that there’s a sign on the wall: “This is the Lord’s Busy Day.” Amusing satire, right? But that was nine decades ago, and the fad still hasn’t stopped.

Neither has the “Kraze for K,” which Louise Pound brought to notice in a famous essay of 1925. Her comments haven’t stopped people named Christine from opening Kris’ Kafé and Kookery, or Krissy’s Kanine Kompound, or Kristina’s Kaktus Korner. Christine may not realize that she’s being trite, but at least she’s getting her message across. There isn’t much ambiguity about a Kaktus Korner. But not everyone has been so lucky with creative spelling. My favorite is the young lady who appears in Mary Chesnut’s Civil War diary, the girl who writes a letter in which she calls her sister a “mean retch.” Who says great writing doesn’t transcend the centuries? The memory of that idiotic girl has brightened many a sad hour for me.

Not so the locutions of California congresswoman Maxine Waters, who has her own problems with being understood. The main problem is that she doesn’t understand what she herself is saying. As you know, Waters is in trouble for allegedly cadging a financial bailout for a bank in which her husband had an interest. Here’s her defense, as quoted by the Associated Press on August 2: “The record will clearly show that in advocating on behalf of minority banks, neither my office nor I benefited in any way, engaged in improper action or influenced anyone.”

It’s refreshing to find a member of Congress who confesses that she has no influence. I wonder, however, what exactly Waters was “advocating.” I know, she was “advocating on behalf of,” but what exactly did she advocate?

This is a new problem: it used to be that people advocated ideas, solutions, proposals — something. But Waters just advocates on behalf of. So what did she say? We’ll probably never know. Let’s not even worry about the tenuous relationship between the adjective “minority” and the noun “banks.” The words literally mean that the banks are in a minority, whatever that might mean. Of course we’re supposed to understand that “minority” really means “African-American.” I guess it sounds less self-serving if you gum up the phrasing in the way Waters did. Why is it, though, that America is filled with self-serving people who talk as if society should give them a medal for this commonplace trait?

But there are many linguistic problems that have nothing to do with politics or “influence,” and these appear to be just as hard for our fellow citizens to solve, despite the fact that solutions to many of them are readily available.

Think, for example, about the problem of strong verbs, which is merely a problem of memorization and appreciation. A weak verb forms its past and past perfect by adding -ed; a strong verb changes something more basic. Thus, “she retches,” “she retched,” “she has retched” (weak verb), as opposed to “she takes,” “she took,” “she had taken” (strong verb). Strong verbs are archaic, interesting, and deeply inscribed in the structure of our language. Also, they usually sound very cool. Everyone who speaks English learns a lot of them: find-found-found, bind-bound-bound, writewrote-written, sing-sang-sung . . .

So why, if you’ve learned sing-sang-sung, do you have trouble coming up with spring-sprang-sprung? I have no idea, but you will never hear a person on TV or radio say that somebody “sprang into action.” Nor are you likely to find “sprang” in The New York Times. It will always be “sprung,” as in a report in the Washington Examiner (Sept. 15): “On April 15, 2009, in honor of Tax Day, seemingly spontaneous tax protests sprung up across the country.” Or try this one, which makes an attempt at an adjectival usage of the perfect form, and fails: “Indonesian Christians beat on their way to prayers” (AP headline, Sept. 13).

The second example is even worse than the first, because in that case it’s so easy to find the right form. Finding it doesn’t even require the minute amount of memorization that would clue you in to “sprang.” It merely requires you to put the crucial word in a somewhat different context. “How many eggs have you beat today?” should sound strange enough to let you see your mistake about the Christians being “beat.”

It should. Maybe it won’t. But I’d like to believe that the tens of millions of our fellow English speakers who imagine that they are being super-correct when they say, very politely, “Just between you and I,” would realize their mistake if they tried to reverse it: “Just between I and you.” “‘Just between I’? That’s not English.” Right! And why isn’t it? Because “I” has the wrong case. It has to be “me,” even though “me” may seem like a low, common word, compared with the classier “I.” End of story.

Unfortunately, that method doesn’t seem to occur to people naturally. But maybe if sixth-grade teachers tried to introduce it, we would hear fewer people asserting that “grammar can’t be taught.” Of course it can. Sometimes, it’s just a matter of getting students interested in things like strong verbs and pronoun cases.

Aren’t you appalled by the fact that professional writers ordinarily possess no such interests? They have now, almost universally, adopted the spurious word “snuck” as the past and perfect form of “sneak.” This is something so goofy that it can stand as a complete demonstration of the lack of logic in contemporary writing. “Sneak” is a weak verb: sneak- sneaked- sneaked. I prefer strong verbs, but that’s the way “sneak” is; too bad. At least it’s easy to remember. Yet along comes an illiterate variation, “snuck,” which is a spurious attempt to create a strong verb — obscure evidence (like “just between you and I”) of a bad conscience about formal language. And “snuck” wins the day. It’s everywhere in supposedly formal writing.

Word Watch, however, is one place where it will never win. And don’t think that Word Watch is going away. It will continue in the online version of Liberty. Just go to libertyunbound.com, and you’ll see it appear, very frequently.

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