Grammatically speaking: III

November 29, 2006

coffee2.jpgAs I said the day before yesterday, I strive to be flexible on changing usage as our language evolves, but I won’t be flexible when sloppy writing or proofreading creates a document with anomalies that can’t, however flexible one is, be called anything but mistakes and/or have the potential to obscure meaning. Take the sign posted over the coffee machine in my department at the Defense Acquisition University, FOrt Belvoir, Va.:





Let’s take a look at the easy stuff first. There’s an “n” missing in “beginning,” and the second instance of  “scoop” has acquired an extra “o.” Maybe a scooop is bigger than a scoop, but I tend to doubt it. Someone made this sign in a word-processing program. How difficult would it have been to run the spell check?

Moving on:
Fill water to 10 cup level. Let’s not be persnickety about the missing hyphen in “10-cup” and go straight to the more important issue: How do I fill the water? I thought I’d need to fill the pot.

Begining at 0900 only make half a pot. Does this really mean I can make half a pot and do nothing else with it? I can’t smell it or drink it or pour it down the sink at the end of the day?

Poor old “only” is one of the displaced (pun intended) persons of the adverbial world. When I was teaching English 101, I used to give the following sentence to students and ask them what it really meant. It was almost always (U.S. high school English teachers, are you listening?) the speakers of English as a second language who got it right.

I only saw roses in the garden.

“The only flowers you saw were roses,” was the usual answer.

Bzzzz! Wrong! What it means (but you know this) is either that I saw the roses and that was my only interaction with them — I didn’t smell them, eat them, pick them, or dig them up — or that I and no other living being saw the roses.

I’d explain that if they wanted to indicate that they’d seen roses and nothing else (no daisies, wallflowers, lawn mowers, or garden gnomes) they needed to write the sentence this way: I saw only roses in the garden.

Then I’d ask my students how many different meanings they could get out of that sentence by moving just the adverb, and if the same position of the peripatetic word could make the sentence mean more than one thing, or if the same position of the adverb could make the sentence mean different things. The majority of them struggled with the exercise, and some of them didn’t grasp (even after explanation) that where you put the adverb really does change the meaning.

I saw roses only in the garden. Two possibilities: the roses were in the garden and nowhere outside it, or the only things in the garden were roses. It depends on whether you stress the words “only” and “garden,” or insert an almost imperceptible pause after “only.”

I saw roses in the garden only. Also means they weren’t anywhere else and is a construction you might use, putting a bit more emphasis on “garden” or “only” to distance yourself from the delusional person who said there were roses growing in the middle of the fast lane on the interstate.

Back to sloppy instructions. Here’s a sign that’s at the front of my local cheap restaurant: Please wait for the hostess to be seated. Hey, I’m the customer, so why do I have to wait for her to sit down?

I have treasured this one for more than 20 years. It hails from the United Kingdom and is (or was—let’s hope someone eventually caught it) the instruction on a stick of solid deodorant: Remove cap and push up bottom.

Let’s return to Fort Belvoir. Every so often, the Army conducts training near my building for the dogs that sniff for explosives, posting a sign that I assume is intended to tell people not to interfere by walking through the area — but maybe it really is warning us against the Army’s latest weapon: beagles that go bang and dobermans that detonate.


Grammatically speaking: II

November 27, 2006


When I came to the United States 35 years ago, one of the usages I immediately liked was “you’re welcome” as a response to “thank you.” Even though a formula response, it was so much pleasanter than the then-current mumbled British “S’all right,” with luck followed by “sir” or “madam,” but often, in the less upscale shops, by “love,” “dear,” or “mate,” depending on one’s gender and age.

The English language, like every other, is beautiful, and I’m happy to see it enriched. Some usage, however—and this is purely my opinion—impoverishes it instead.

“What can I get you guys?” asks a 19-or-so year-old waitress of a gray-haired female friend and gray-haired female me. I aspired to be a guy—not that the word was current then in the U.K.—when I was about nine and measured my success in life by the difficulty of the trees I’d climbed, the scabs on my knees, and the fact that I’d taught myself to pee standing up (did I really tell you that?) and produce a piercing whistle with two fingers. But I eventually reconciled myself to being a girl, and since I went to the trouble, I would really prefer not to be addressed as a guy at this stage in my life.

“Thank you,” I say to the checkout clerk at the supermarket as he or she hands me my receipt. “No problem,” is the reply. Having not realized there was potential for a problem when I put my purchases on the belt, I am relieved to know I didn’t cause one. I also wonder what happened to “you’re welcome.”

“It literally frightened me to death,” says someone recounting a close shave in traffic. “And when were you resurrected?” I want to ask but don’t. “Literally” seems to have become a synonym for “metaphorically.”

Don’t even, like, get me onto “like” because whenever I hear it, I’m like, “That’s so, like, lame.” Remember when “go” was a synonym for “say”? (So I go, “Blather, blather, blather,” and she goes. “No, blather, blather.”) “Like” is more multipurpose than “go” and may take longer to die, but I hope it will eventually fade away as “go” seems to be doing. There’s no call for it. In the one instance, “like” is an unnecessary punctuating noise (the equivalent or “er” and “um,” which aren’t exactly foundations of the English language); and in the other, it replaces—for some people—a number or perfectly serviceable ways to express verbal communication.

“Like” is a juvenile word, but my generation isn’t exemplary. We have our own annoying space fillers. “It’s basically a matter of economics.” Does “basically” really add anything? Occasionally, yes, but more often than not, no. Then there’s our predilection for verbosity (something I used to think more characteristic of American English than British, but now I’m not so sure): “At this point in time, we would like you to fasten your seatbelts, stow your tray tables, and and return your seatbacks to the full upright position.” Have we forgotten that the less pompous word “now” exists?

And my current love-to-hate cliché, which originated in the U.K. and found its way over here: “At the end of the day … .” Anyone reading this who knows me personally, please shoot me or otherwise put me out of my misery if I ever utter that phrase.

At this point in time, I’m, like, basically signing off.

Grammatically speaking: I

November 26, 2006

grammar.jpgI’m managing editor of a magazine. In the real world, that would mean I’d sit in a corner office and watch my underlings edit copy. In the world of the U.S. government (and especially as a contractor), I sit in a cubicle—okay, it’s decent-sized and has two windows—have no underlings, and do most of the copy editing myself. As I blue-pencil manuscripts, I try not to be a hidebound prescriptive grammarian (someone who says how we should talk versus someone who describes how we do talk) because I am increasingly irritated by people who decree that the way the English language was 30 or 40 or 50 years ago (or whenever they were growing up) is how it has been and ever shalt be, world without end, Amen.

Language is a living and evolving thing. It’s not frozen in time, though every era spawns people who think it is. What we say today, perfectly correctly, was possibly scorned as ignorant beyond measure in the past; and what Mrs. Grammar-Oracle decreed when we were in first grade may well be something artifically imposed at some point on the language, of which the likes of Chaucer and Shakespeare (shame on them) were ignorant because it postdated them.

For example, Mrs. G-O said not to split infinitives and not to end sentences with prepositions. Greater writers than you or I (see above) did both all the way up to the 18th century, at which point it was determined that if you wanted to appear educated, you modeled English on Latin. So various Latin rules were imposed upon the English language.

You can’t split an infinitive in Latin: “to go” is any number of things depending on whether you want to go forth (exire), to (adire), over (transire), up (subire), around (circumire), in, out, away, off—you get the picture. But however you want to go, there’s no way to put the adverb between the “to” and the “go” because it’s all one word. So forget “to boldly go.”

And since Latin is a case-marked language, nouns have different endings, depending on whether you want of say “of,” “to”, “for,” “from,” or “by” the noun of your choice and whether said noun is singular or plural. Sometimes there needs to be a preposition in front of the noun but not always. The Latin language is constructed so that you can’t say “the house I came from,” but you certainly can say it in English and everyone did until the 18th century twits told them not to. Winston Churchill reputedly said something along the lines of its being nonsense “up with which I will not put.” He had a point. Do you have a problem with “I’ll turn the light off” as opposed to “I’ll turn off the light”? Then stop fussing about prepositions at the end of sentences and get a life.

I still have unshakeable prejudices, however. I recognize that “I was laying down” is so widespread that, even though currently nonstandard (as we politely say for what we used to call bad grammar), it’s well on the way to becoming standard English. But I don’t like it, and I will probably continue to say “I was lying down” and eventually be considered incorrect or pedantic in the new grammatical order, just as I am sure many people are shocked by my “error” when I say “Put it in a memo to Mr. Big and me.” I can’t resign myself to “… to Mr. Big and I” because it’s just plain illogical. If we dispense with Mr. Big, can we put whatever it is in a memo and send it to I? I’m fighting a losing battle though. I work with a bunch of professional editors, almost all of whom wouldn’t feel any reason to apply the blue pencil to “Mr. Big and I.” I find that very scary. Obviously my desire not to be a prescriptive grammarian goes only so far.

The price some of us pay for picturesque

November 20, 2006

Before I begin this shameless bid for sympathy, I want to make clear that I’m not advocating that every walking surface be covered with more-level-than-level concrete, just that in historic areas, you watch your step.

I hobbled back to the United States in July with a stress fracture to my foot, without a doubt brought on—or brought to fruition—by large amounts of walking on the cobblestone streets of old Lille. And now I am recovering from an encounter with Old Town Alexandria, where the charming brick sidewalks are uneven and the metal grates they place around trees (presumably to discourage dog poop) tend to shift out of place.

I took a friend, visiting from England, to lunch in Alexandria on Saturday. Coming back to the car after lunch, I tripped on one of the dog-deterrent metal grates and fell straight forward. It was one of those surreal experiences that happen very fast (too fast for me to even put my hands out to try and save myself) yet also happen in slow motion so that you can say to yourself on the way down, “This can only end badly.” As it did. My chin met either the sidewalk or the metal grate—I was too dazed afterwards to know which—with my full weight behind it. I bit my tongue on both sides, broke a tooth (a back one fortunately), cut my chin (dramatic amounts of blood but a small cut), got assorted bruises here and there, and pulled a muscle (I assume) near my ribs.

I was incredibly lucky. I don’t know how I didn’t break my jaw or my nose or my front teeth. I don’t know how I didn’t knock myself out. An older or a heavier person might not have escaped so comparatively lightly. I was also lucky that someone was with me to pick me up and mop up my bleeding chin—thank goodness there are still old-fashioned people like me who carry cloth handkerchiefs!

My jaw is not back to 100 percent functionality so right now I am living on mashed potato, mashed banana, applesauce, yogurt, ice cream (my excuse for the latter is it feels so good on my swollen tongue), and whatever else I can purée in the blender and slide into my mouth on a teaspoon. I feel as though I should be in a highchair being spoonfed.* I was three years old when my late mother fractured her jaw and had it wired shut for six weeks. I don’t know how she stood it. They knocked out a tooth so she could eat everything through a straw, which probably explains why she hated soup for the rest of her life. No blenders in those days, so it must have been a dreadful production to prepare food. At least I can eat thicker mush, but even so, after a mere 2.5 days, I crave crunch, especially celery and corn chips.

I will be interested in the response I get (if, indeed, I get one) from the person on the Alexandria City Council under whose wing sidewalks fall and whom I e-mailed yesterday.

I leave you with this thought from my sometimes eccentric (see footnote) but usually practical mother, “Pick up your feet and watch where you’re walking, for heaven’s sake. How many times do I have to tell you?”

* My mother had her weird moments and spoonfed me not with the boring “This spoonful’s for Daddy, and this one’s for Uncle Bob” or that thing about airplanes going into hangars, but by making each spoonful a stop on the Trans-Siberian railway. I was an extremely finicky and reluctant eater and so I got lots of practice and could (though not now) recite them all, in order, at the age of two.

Walking in a buried city

November 9, 2006

When Vesuvius erupted on August 24, 79 (CE), Pompeii, a vibrant city of around 20,000, as well as nearby Herculaneum and Stabiae, were buried in volcanic ash. We have an eyewitness account of what must have been an experience terrifying beyond measure. Pliny the Elder, who was commanding the Roman fleet stationed in the Bay of Naples, saw it happen. Alerted by his sister to — as his nephew writes several years later to Tacitus — “a cloud of unusual size and appearance,” Pliny decided to set sail with the fleet for a closer look and to rescue as many people as possible. In fact he, himself, perished on the shore. “When daylight returned on the 26th, two days after the last day he had been seen,” writes Pliny the Younger, “his body was found intact and uninjured, still fully clothed and looking more like sleep than death.” The cities remained buried until excavations began in 1748.
I’d seen pictures and documentaries, looked at Web sites, and read the guidebook. I’ve stood on Hadrian’s Wall. I’ve seen the stunning Pont du Gard. I’ve seen Roman remains and amphitheatres in England, France, Yugoslavia, and Italy. But nothing could have prepared me for the reality of Pompeii. You’re not seeing just one building or structure (however impressive); you’re walking along the streets of what was once an entire Roman city. You’re going into houses people lived in and shops where they bought food—complete with intact mosaic counters and deep tubs that would have held olives. You’re seeing the sidewalks they walked on and the public water fountains, fed by an aqueduct system that is surely one of the wonders of engineering, that they used on a daily basis. You’re touching stones they touched and looking at frescoes they commissioned as decoration for their villas.
And everywhere you look, you know that you are seeing what was, for so many terrified people, the last thing they would ever see. I found it breathtaking and very moving.

Signs of the times

November 7, 2006

You have to wonder about people when it’s necessary for the owner of a little shrine on the outside of a building to post this sign. It says “This is a holy altar, not a public lavatory.”

Here are two much nicer signs. The first is for a shop in Sorrento selling candy and products made from the celebrated local lemons. The second is outside a fishmonger’s shop in Amalfi.




Vedi Napoli e poi muori*

November 6, 2006

We arrived by train from Sorrento late in the morning and made our way to the cathedral, only to be chased out after 15 minutes by the custodian. The churches in Naples close between noon and 4 PM. Since we’d planned to catch the train back to Sorrento at around four, that ruled out church visits. We decided to plan the afternoon over lunch.

Given the short amount of time we had, we decided that a tour on the open-top double-decker tourist bus would be best. We’d cover much more ground than under our own steam. The bus stops at points of major interest, and the last-but-one stop was close to the station, which was very convenient.

Naples, I think, must be city that takes getting to know—unlike, say, Venice, which captivates immediately. I’ve read that Naples is magnificent and have friends who love the city, but the little I saw disappointed me.

We felt perfectly safe—aside from the traffic, which doesn’t stop for pedestrian crossings but simply weaves around those crossing the road—but as we were walking towards the station to catch the train, something odd happened.

A trio of children of about 11 started following us. They weren’t street urchins. They were well-dressed (possibly even in school uniform), on their way home from school. The ringleader kept at us, “Scusi, signora. Scusi signore.” I ignored him because I knew from experience that if I turned round and told him to get lost, he’d start imitating me and would be even more persistent. After about half a block, he came closer, slapped me quite hard on the back of the head, and then all three little monsters ran off laughing. I wasn’t hurt, but I was taken completely by surprise.

Something similar happened to a friend of mine in Florence several years ago: She told a little girl who was begging to leave her alone, and the child hit her and ran away. It’s something you don’t anticipate. In England or the United States, young kids might give you lip, but they wouldn’t hit an adult.
*See Naples and die, a phrase attributed to various people, including Goethe.