It all depends on how you read it

February 27, 2007

Every so often, I come across signs that (through no intention of their authors) entertain, frustrate, perplex, or annoy me. I blogged about one such in November of last year. On my way home tonight, I stopped off at the grocery store and came across this one in the parking lot.

It was 10:20 PM and I was really tired, and when I’m in that state but trying to function normally, things tend to become a little surreal. That’s probably why I was never tempted to do hallucinogens—I could achieve the same effect simply by staying up late. When I was in my late teens and early twenties, that meant 3 AM. These days, it’s a good bit earlier.

So tonight, my chemically unassisted mental picture was of a parking space where customers could tether the kid so that shopping wouldn’t be accompanied by wails of “But I WANT … !” uttered as the embarrassing short person lay on his or her back and drummed heels on the floor in the cereal aisle.

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.