Category Archives: English Usage

Fishing for the Fellow under the Bridge

In my time writing and commenting on discussion boards and weblogs, I’ve run across a disturbing word: troll. Commentors are cautioned not to feed the troll, and anyone who expresses an opinion different from the majority’s risks being given that label. The term has two possible origins:

1. In Norse mythology, “troll” is a word used as a synonym for the Jötunn, the giants who are the equals and rivals of the Æsir and the Vanir. Readers of The Hobbit know of them as the monsters that confront Bilbo and the dwarfs before being tricked into staying out past dawn and turning into stone. Trolls also show up in the Harry Potter series. Then there’s the troll who lives under the bridge and eats travellers who try to cross.

2. The French verb, troller, means “to quest.” It’s used in English to refer to dragging bait through the water in hopes of catching fish.

The second of those is probably the origin of the term in Internet usage, since the offending commentor was someone who threw out silly or unrelated remarks in hopes of derailing the discussion, but it’s come to have both meanings, as seen by the idea of avoiding feeding said creature.

What disturbs me is the notion that a discussion must only be conducted by people who already agree on the main points. I’ve seen far too many cases of dissenters being called trolls for merely offering a contrary view. Our kind of society depends on a lively debate and a respect for the right of everyone to hold individual opinions. Yes, there are obvious cases of someone whose sole interest is to disrupt the conversation, but too often, moderators or participants label opposition as disruption.

This kind of attack is akin to the ad hominem fallacy. It’s directed at the person, while ignoring the points being presented. It’s also a sign of a small mind that is unable to address outside thoughts. I’ve said before that we get the society that we deserve. We shape that society by our participation in the marketplace of ideas. It should also be remembered that some of the Jötunn–Skaði, for example–live with the gods and are their friends. Odin himself consults Mímir, the giant guardian of the Well of Highest Wisdom. We dismiss trolls lightly at our peril.

News! News!

Regular readers of this weblog know that I have a good many opinions on a wide variety of topics. Occasionally, I’m even well informed on the subject. But it’s been brought to my attention that as a writer who is trying to get my work sold, some of what I put here may give offense to my readers. In fact, I can just about guarantee that something will offend everyone.

Now don’t get worried. I’m not going to change my ways. I’m just expanding–something like a Japanese conglomerate. Instead of making cars, cameras, and assorted crap, I’m adding a new weblog to my portfolio. Here’s where to find it:

English 301: Reading and Writing

The focus of that site will be exactly what the name suggests. I’ll discuss books that I’m reading, work that I’m writing, matters of grammar and style, and other such things. I may drift into music and movies, since I have no wish to be organized about it. In fact, it will be a lot like the composition classes that I teach, only freer in form. Politics, guns, silliness in the news, and all the other matters that catch my attention will continue here. Being free form, there’s likely to be some overlap, since I write about guns and enquire into the language about them and since English continues to be abused in public.

My hope is that my readers–you few, you happy few–will read and comment on both weblogs, but now you get a choice. There’s more of me, and who wouldn’t want that?

(The shifting in the Earth’s axis of rotation was from the collective raising of hands. . .)

Verbal Anachronisms

One problem that the writer of historical fiction faces is whether a word or a phrase existed in the time of the story. Some, alas, don’t care, and that lack of concern used to be tolerated. Chaucer, after all, gave us mediaeval knights fighting in the Trojan War in his Troilus and Criseyde, for example. John Wayne carried an 1873 Colt SAA and an 1892 Winchester rifle in many of his westerns, regardless of the year in which the story is supposed to take place. But there are at least a small number of critics–I include myself in that group, of course–who get into a fury when we see a nickel-plated M1911 in the hands of an Englishman in James Cameron’s Titanic. (Yes, it’s theoretically possible, but highly unlikely, and we’re going to pick that nit.)

But what’s a conscientious writer to do? Patrick O’Brian, author of the Aubrey – Maturin series, read everything that he could get his hands on from the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. That’s a good technique, but one that requires more time and money than many have.

Another approach is to buy a copy of the Oxford English Dictionary. This, of course, requires either a dedicated shelf or a magnifying glass (provided by the publisher, if you buy the small print edition). Or one could subscribe to the O.E.D. on-line. Any of those are also spendy.

Here’s the cheap bastard’s approach: The Online Etymology Dictionary

The sources for that site are good, and it’s free. It provides a quick way of checking whether your character can refer to a calculator at all and if that word names a person or a device when the conversation occurs.

Now heave away, me writers, and stow your words ship-shape and Bristol fashion.

The Oxford Comma Saves Lives

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the Oxford comma, here’s an illustration:

I bought chips, candy, and soda.

The comma before the and in that sentence is the Oxford one. I’m in favor of it, even though there are people in this world (including at least one whom I respect) who don’t use it. Today, however, I ran across a case in which using it may mean the difference between life and death. The following comes from the warning signs above the gas pumps at Sam’s Club in Rogers:

In case of fire,
spill or release

What comes after that message is advice to call 911 and other safety blather. But notice how as the quoted lines are written (and without a colon at the end), the message actually tells me to spill or to release fuel if a fire occurs.

A comma after “spill” would correct this glaring error in safety.

Spinning

It’s been tornado weather lately, which raises one point about the language that we use to describe that particular kind of wind. In my own experience, a tornado does not sound like a train. Trains have a heavy bass rumble and a high-pitched mechanical whine, along with the mid-range groaning. A tornado, by contrast, sounds like an industrial fan. That is, until it gets close, and the air pressure drops. After that, most sound is of crashing and smashing.

Here’s hoping that you only have to hear this in a movie theater.

Hau Du U Spel Dat?

I’m getting bloody tired of seeing (sp) placed in on-line comments after words that are more difficult to spell correctly. I understand misspelling a word without noticing. We all type faster than our internal spell-check from time to time. What is just plain laziness is when a person knows that the word is likely spelled with the wrong letters, but can’t be bothered to look it up.

In the future, dear readers, when you see (sp), understand that it means “slovenly person,” and feel free to respond accordingly.

Whose Story Is It?

The other day, I ran across a word that drives me nuts:  herstory.  In the opinion of some, the subject of history derives from the English pronoun his and is thus hurtful to half the population.

This, of course, is nonsense.  The word history comes from the ancient Greek historia.  It meant a method of knowing.  The word itself is grammatically feminine, as were the terms for the arts and sciences generally.  It certainly has no relationship with English pronouns that are of Germanic origin.

Cuteness in thinking never resolves any problem and is best to be avoided.  May Clio save you from such lapses.

Fry Him in Oil!

Nancy Hatch, writer of the Spirit Lights the Way weblog (see the Blogroll to the right and down) reminded me in a recent post (http://nrhatch.wordpress.com/2011/03/15/loosening-the-chokehold-on-language/#comment-17452) that I have yet to vent my fury on this video:

It’s Stephen Fry’s response to those of us who are concerned with how language ought to be used.  He calls us pedants.

Now, if by pedant, he means that we’re teachers (the etymology of the word), I’ll accept his label.  However, I believe that he means the more modern usage of someone who picks at nits in the field in question.  Of course, if nits aren’t picked, they become lice, but unfortunately, lousy language fails to make far too many speakers itch.

Fry wonders if we pedants froth with joy about what he calls “verbal freshness.”  But look at the examples that he uses.  He names uninterested and disinterested as words that we understand, even when a speaker misuses them.  A disinterested person is someone who is impartial with regard to a particular subject, while someone who is uninterested merely does not care.  That’s a difference worth noting, and it’s indicated by one of two prefixes.  If we lose the distinction, we end up needing a lot more verbiage to express our meaning.  Or imagine if the members of the Securities and Exchange Commission declared themselves to be uninterested in financial dealings on Wall Street.  That would be cause for alarm, whereas a claim to be disinterested makes us merely doubt their veracity.  Notice that Fry used two words, sensuous and sensual, that have a similarly important difference in their meaning.  He meant both of them and used them correctly.  But if we didn’t have those two words with their individual definitions, he would have needed to use many more words to make his point.

He mentions the claim that good grammar indicates intelligence and clarity of thought.  Not quite.  What the proper usage shows us is that the writer or speaker cares enough about language to look up words to find the right one, edit out errors, and seek the best way to say something.  That has nothing to do with how bright the person is, but rather indicates the person’s responsibility.

Of course, poor Bill Shakespeare gets trotted out, as always whenever anyone wishes to defend sloppy language.  In this case, Fry is gleeful about how the Bard used nouns as verbs and did many other things with English that would get him into trouble in a pedant’s class.  This requires a general and a specific response.  In general, as I say in my own classes, any student who can write on the level of Shakespeare may feel free to ignore any number of rules, and I won’t notice.  Those who can’t achieve that greatness had better pay attention to good grammar.  This kind of argument is the equivalent of a first-year piano student who points out that some great jazz pianist broke rules.  Breaking rules is not what makes a writer or a musician great, and those who drool in homage over rule-breaking are missing the years of obedience that the great person had to practice.

But look at an example of the conjugated nouns in common use today.  Text is particularly ugly, especially in its attempted past tense form of texted.  There is no need for that word as a verb.  We’ve been sending messages to each other for a long time.  Why do we need to use one word in a lazy way when we aren’t actually doing anything new?  Laziness is exactly the problem.  If I have my telephone in hand and am typing a message, it can take a moment to find the correct word for my action, but it’s my duty to find that right word.  Yes, it takes time to check the dictionary (a good dictionary, not one of the modern permissive examples) for a definition or spelling.  Sometimes that pause is just what is needed to get one’s thoughts in order.  But why is it that those who whine about having to do a little work are listened to?

Contrary to Fry’s comments, I’m not opposed to playfulness, creativity, or variety in language.  I love puns.  I have no fundamental objection to the word ain’t.  (Double negatives do annoy me, though.)  One of the things that I enjoy about the speech of the masters of Southern American English is the rich usage of imagery.  Take a phrase like “finer than frog hair.”  That’s clever.

Since Fry uses Picasso as another example of someone who joyfully broke rules, I’ll use him as well.  What I’m arguing here is that we need Picassos of language, but not Pollocks.  Pablo Picasso lived an exuberant life and created brilliant new art, while Jackson Pollock was a drunk who made what looks like a pile of drop cloths.

There is rightness and wrongness in language, contrary to what Fry claims.  Would he tolerate a gardener who mowed half of his grass and then walked away?  Would he accept a plumber who called having both hot and cold water taps pedantic?  Creativity and sloppiness are not the same thing, and I’d be pleased if the advocates for the lazy would fail to act like the ones whom they praise and not get around to tearing down the English language.

How Far Is Too Far?

Yet again, we visit sloppiness in the use of our language.  On the news yesterday (15 March 2011), I heard the term light-year used incorrectly.  You, my good readers, likely have heard the same sort of thing.  Someone will claim that widget X is light-years ahead of widget Y in development or style or whatever other desirable quality is being discussed.

This, of course, is wrong.  A light-year is always and only the distance that light travels in a vacuum in one year.  That’s about six trillion miles.  Light-year is not a unit of measuring time, nor does it indicate a level of advancement.  If you cannot measure the characteristic in question with inches, you cannot use light-years to measure it.

It’s language, Jim, but not as we know it. . . .