Category Archives: Language

How Do You Say

After decades of watching people, I can share an obvious secret with you.

People don’t work to learn another language because it exposes us to our ignorance. It’s not because they’re lazy. They are nervous or scared. If you find someone who doesn’t fear their ignorance being on display as it diminishes, keep that person in your life. They are rare. All of us start from complete ignorance for every language. When we already know one before starting a new one, what we think we know trips us like an endless bucket of banana peels.

If you are lucky enough to speak English as a first language, trust me when I tell you that you won the lottery without purchasing a ticket. Please do everything in your power to forgive others as they struggle with the mess we’ve made of our language. Please take a second and consider that they’re using another language. I know that the necessity of needing to speak or write another language ADDS pressure to those in that position and adds difficulty. Whether it is the case for you, I’m an idiot if a proverbial gun is to my head.

Also, if your accent is remotely like mine, you might sound a bit weird. As the old joke says, the last thing you want to hear your brain surgeon say is, “Y’all are going to be alright.” I’ve butchered so many words that I should have a Dexter spinoff. One thing some don’t know about me, though, is that language is a melody that excites me, and when I find myself forgetting what once was at my disposal, I feel a bit of loss.

For language, all any reasonable person is going to ask is that you try. It helps to be able to laugh at yourself. People learning other languages is a joy to witness. There’s no better comparison than observing a child conquer something complex; mastery soon seems inevitable. Laughter and self-observance is a considerable part of a good learning plan.

Yes, people don’t take the time, that’s true. With a couple of other people before, I proved to them that a person could learn a LOT of another language by just learning one word a day. Like all learning, words begin to associate, stick to another, and create grooves in your brain that you might even realize have formed, in the same way lyrics fall surprisingly from your lips. You’ll soon learn phrases, insults, and wit. Anyone lucky enough to hit the milestone of laughing at a joke that isn’t directly translatable experiences a deep satisfaction at having done so. For me, I will never forget the abstract joy of telling my Sarge/Lieutenant On the Edge of The Prairie joke in Spanish.

Most of us only use around 800 different words a day. I’m not talking about Tiffany or Jessica, who seems to rattle off 800 a minute. They only use four different words, and two of them are both the word “like.” Sorry, Tiffany.

Truthfully, it is not the words per se that create difficulty for us. It’s the connecting words and the ridiculous verb tenses we allow in our language. If you can overcome your initial fear, you can communicate a lot of information using words as a toddler does. You don’t need the word “sublime” in your vocabulary during a typical day – nor do you need to master the future perfect tense, subjunctive or otherwise, in either English or the language you are learning.

I know there are people out there who have always toyed with the idea of another language. If you learn nothing else from me, please hear this: if I can get to a decent level of mastery, anyone can. Even if you only remember a few words, those few words will push your mind outside of its normal limits.

Never

“I say never never.”
-Lynette, a wise person

This a variation on the premise of the Trump Rule: Damn near anything is possible, so stop thinking otherwise.

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I thought I’d keep this one short, so you can ponder the grammar and significance of reading “I say never never” multiple ways.

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In the midst of this torrent of surprise and unforeseen circumstance, some of us have found means to engage our sense of morbidness and humor simultaneously.

I’ve always been more extroverted and loud as a Spanish speaker. One of my catchphrases is catching on. No one means any disrespect.

In fact, because we are in the barrel of this thing together, we’ve earned a bit of leeway from outsiders.

I created a shorthand way to say, “Hey, we’re above ground and working when a steadily increasing number of people aren’t.”

In Spanish, it’s “Los muertos no caminan.”

It literally means, “the dead don’t walk.”

I use it as a greeting, as a reminder – and honestly, almost as a tentative prayer.

Not all of us are going to see the end of this spectacle. None of us will be unscathed.

But we’re still walking with a bit of either optimism or denial.

Above it all, we nod and smile as we say, “Los muertos no caminan.”

I hope to see us all on the other side of this.

Grammar Police Tripping Themselves

ERRORS GRAMMAR KERMIT

As a bona fide imperfectionist, I’ve spent time over the last couple of years preaching the futility of the bulk of our spelling and grammar rules. I’ve observed many lashings regarding language. One reason I’m careful of such hypocrisy is that we all make spectacular errors. Even using a professional version of Grammarly, I have to laugh at some of the glaring bits of stupidity that amazingly went past my eyeballs. Given that our language is needlessly complex on multiple levels, it’s a bit outlandish to presume you’re not making errors.

You are. We notice.

I’m throwing a caution flag at people who nitpick irrelevant errors of presentation.

I had a list of examples to include with this post. I opted to forego it though, in part because those wearing the badge of grammar police seldom have a light-hearted sense of humor about it.

As for me, I don’t mind when people point out I’ve made an error. They’re going to need a lot of free time though, given the volume of my nonsense and my lack of regard for errors when I make them.

P.S. It’s All P.S.

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People sometimes ask me why I named my original blog “P.S. Parenthetically Speaking.” It currently resides at my own website, xteri.me

First, if you’re reading the written language, it’s safe to skip over anything contained inside parentheses. (Weirdly enough, if you’re doing math, the portion inside the parentheses is vitally important.) My blog was designed as a ‘take it or leave it’ valve for my life. I’m not curing disease or mapping the most efficient economic system in my posts.

Second, ‘P.S.’ is an afterthought and also able to be skipped without too much harm to the content. When letters were the rage, a ‘P.S.’ in a personal letter usually contained fond sentiments or a personal note to close the letter.

Third, most adults can’t spell the words parenthetically, parentheses, or daiquiri. (The last word, in particular, and especially if one’s been imbibing.)

Finally, I liked the idea of someone attempting to speak parenthetically. I’m not sure if this would entail them making wide arm brackets as they spoke. One of my fascinations with language is the disparity and complexity of the written language versus the spoken one. We spend much more of our lives speaking than we do reading or writing; yet, we’ve allowed our language to be our master.

P.S. Language doesn’t need to be difficult.

The Etiquette Practicality Exception

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I still see many posts about manners and etiquette. One of them that invariably makes the lists: “Always use a person’s last name until you know them well enough or they say it is okay to use another.”

Pure manure.

One big problem with etiquette is that it’s based on past customs and behavior. Additionally, across cultures, countries, and societies, etiquette demands vary wildly.

It’s hard for some people to imagine, but there are quite a few people whose entire legal name consists of one name. Also, it is no social faux pas to have trouble attempting to remember or pronounce many of the world’s names. We should stop beating up on one another when no malice was intended, even as we botch names in our daily lives. Some names are akin to a mouthful of consonants and live crickets.

The ongoing attempt to insist that there is a single method of etiquette and politeness is absurd and almost bigoted. If you live inside a regimented or closed society, perhaps it is possible to assume that there might be one infallible way to ensure you’re behaving according to a particular imaginary list of societal demands. Otherwise, it’s a rodeo out there in the world.

Using a person’s last name requires you to know whether they’re married, male or female, and a couple of other variables. (Unless you’re a barbarian and saunter around calling people strictly by their last names, such as “Johnson!” or “Gonzalez.”) Ms., Mrs. ma’am, and Mr. are not the simple labels they once were.

Whether the older generation agrees or not, we’re changing the way we use titles and pronouns – and in ways they never imagined. It’s presumptuous to assume we know the other person’s pronoun or marital status. As I rapidly approach dinosaur status myself, I find myself needing to learn new manners and ways to extract my foot from my mouth. I strive to stop thinking that I ‘know’ the rules that are emerging in life. I don’t, precisely because the rules are a moving target.

We’re all equal. Using a person’s first name does not reveal a lack of respect or an overdeveloped sense of familiarity with the other person. It does, however, demonstrate that we are capable of unilaterally agreeing that a person’s name is, in fact, the label with which they identify. If the person in question wishes to be called an alternate name, they should politely say so. It would also help if people stopped using names as vanity devices or as ammunition in conversations. It’s worth noting that it’s bad form to call someone by a different name or label after they’ve asked you to use another one in their regard.

If we are introduced to someone as ‘Mark Hemmington,’ the only other argument to be made is that we should address them by their full name. That’s a bit unwieldy. Why not insist on using their entire legal name, even if it an absurd array of three, four, or five names? I’m one of the smart ones. I have two names, both spelled phonetically, and only have a surname from necessity. My name is the same in public, on my birth certificate, and on my identification. I don’t use nicknames, titles, or further naming devices to confound those around me. Some people indeed use some rather base nicknames in my regard; that’s another issue.

I don’t mean disrespect if I fail to use an expected title. It’s more comfortable as a society to accept a default of no harm or ill will intended.

I don’t kneel to royalty and don’t consider a senator or president to be anything other than an elected employee we collectively chose to do a job as our representative. Judges are legal experts, not demi-gods of virtue. Police aren’t officers; they are public servants whose dangerous and complicated jobs give them the authority and responsibility to keep us safe. Anyone in those professions who angrily demand conformity or obedience in regards to their title needs to remember humility as a virtue.

I have learned to distrust anyone with a reverence for titles.

I don’t call my personal physician “Doctor.” Financial transactions don’t require an element of inequality. I’m thankful that doctors are well-trained and able to help me. I’m paying for that service – and it is their job. Until the day we call all occupations by their respective vocational title, I think it’s objectionable to anyone to demand the title before their name. Carpenter Joe. Plumber Jim. Teacher Jill. All trained professionals. We need doctors desperately, but we also need people to pick up our trash, fix our vehicles, and keep us from drowning in sink water.

As always, I don’t expect my arguments to be perfect. I don’t defend these ideas with a fiery passion. I do, however, know there’s a strong element of truth running through the points I’ve made in this post.

As a person with a peculiar name and an aversion to bending a knee to titles, I watch in keen observation as society struggles with our out-dated naming conventions.

Hanlon’s Disposable Razor

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Worse than an assassin is the self-appointed gatekeeper of humor.

Humor, one of the most authentic human emotions, often treads in the mud.

My sense of humor lurches into the darkness and dwells there. I’ve uneasily enjoyed much of the social fire through the years, watching as people without any real intention of cruelty are publicly drawn and quartered for something they’ve said, or for an action that violated someone’s norms for humor. “Well, that isn’t funny!” Often, they are right. It wasn’t funny. But it wasn’t intended as an attack. It was just stupid or poorly stated. Most such humor harms another person’s sensibilities and those things they find to be sacred. As someone smart once said, “You can tell who is really in charge by what you can’t make fun of.”

Hanlon’s razor is a saying that reads: “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.”

Here’s my take: Hanlon’s Disposable Razor: “If no actual harm was done, never insist that you know the mind of someone who said or did something in jest. Accept an apology, but watch for a relapse.”

Given freely, humor should always be first interpreted as an imperfect and fluid expression of a shared human emotion, rather than a malicious attack on one’s viewpoint. In the larger scheme of human interaction, humor seldom produces observable harm. Weirdly, it often produces anger in the mind of the beholder, an anger that is often disproportionately harsh in comparison to the expression of a badly-worded or executed attempt at humor.

Even though we know the above to be true, we often jab humorously at funerals, cancer, parents, patriotism, sex, and just about every other possible thing common to people. All of them will wound people in the wrong place and at the wrong time.

Age has taught me: sooner or later, we all face the guillotine of error.
Some people seem to stand guard adjacent to the guillotine and wait for perceived breaches of humor and intent.

Because people so often bring their own arguments to these thoughts, it’s important that you understand that my comments bend more toward passive humor, such as when one person sees a billboard written in humor and becomes angry or the refrain is, “I don’t find that humorous.” I’m not pointing my finger at interpersonal humor.

Distrust anyone who is righteous and quick to anger in the face of humor.

Absent evidence, it’s unwise to assume that the accused had ill intent.

The volume of the objection doesn’t always coincide with the magnitude of the offense.

Like all human interaction, mistakes are going to happen.

Given that mind-reading is still out of our reach, it’s wise to take a look at the context and the totality of whomever and whatever you’re about to rail against.

And remember that no matter who you are, you’ve said and done some vile nonsense to other people.

P.S. Once, when I was telling a version of this, someone said that I should call it the “…But Did You Die?” rule. Perspective.

This Language Is Yours To Use As You Wish

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I’ve had people ask me what makes you think you’re a grammarian?
My simple answer: “…the same thing that makes all other self-proclaimed grammarians.” Who makes dictionaries? What makes a ‘word?’ While I’m no expert on English, I’m a lover of words in multiple languages – and certainly, someone who spends an extraordinary amount of time with words dancing in delight inside my head. They are not my enemy, even when I bend them in uncertain ways.

My only enemy in language is the obtuse and illogical insistence that our language has ever reached a finished state. English is a mutt of a language and we are its barking dogs. We all share in its ownership and therefore bear some ability to shape it.

It all obfuscates the simple truth that our language does not have a governing body. Everything you know about the certainty and spectacle of language is based on the falsehood of having an overriding authority that dictates correctness. No such thing exists. Even if it did we would most likely ignore it. Usage determines correctness no matter how much you cluck about it or violently disagree. It is always been that way and it always will. The language we use today will not be the same as that used in 100 years. Correctness will adjust to the wear-and-tear of our assault on it.

I’ve had many people ask me about my status as an authority on language. My authority is the same as anyone else, except that I had an epiphany. I listened as 4 English experts disagreed on a basic idea regarding a simple expression, one which other languages do entirely differently. At the end of the table, another lover of language leaned in and asked those arguing, “But was the meaning perfectly clear in its expression?” The experts were flummoxed. “It seems to me that you’re confusing objective with process.”

The entire framework is an illusion. That many people read my derision of the self-proclaimed authorities on language and nod their heads in agreement with me doesn’t merely demonstrate that a lot of people hate the stupidity and structure of our language. It’s also because they recognize the truth of my message. And the same way that people realized they don’t need an intercessory to engage with their creator, we also aren’t in need of an external authority for language correctness. It’s our fault that we’ve allowed our written language to be so ridiculously arcane and complex. We can have deep universal and human conversations, even technical ones, without any need for spelling or punctuation – the customary nonsense that is demanded of us when we put pen-to-paper. The snobbery of grammar nerds is appalling precisely because they don’t recognize their own ignorance even as they protest and trumpet that they alone know the correct usage.

Language, spelling, syntax. All these things are evolving and moving targets, much like the wrinkled brow of the self-avowed expert on language.

Language is a living animal. Anything so fundamental to human expression doesn’t need years of study or advanced comprehension of ridiculously complex rules riddled with imaginary exceptions. It needs sanity. Almost all of our language is used informally and verbally.

While it’s amusing to some to feel versed on the English language, the greater truth is that our set of rules for its usage bear no resemblance to the purpose of language: communication and expression. We are all equally and preposterously ignorant for allowing language to be a burden on its users. Many see “Your welcome” and see it as a sign of ignorance. I do as well, except the ignorance is in the eye of the accuser. Those who use “your” instead of the contraction “you’re” are going to win the battle. You just don’t know it.

Likewise, I empower anyone reading this to stop heeding the grammarians as he or she attempts to correct you. It’s perfectly fine to define usage as ‘purist,’ because no one follows all the rules and most of us routinely butcher most of them without consequence.

My agony is in recognition of the hypocrisy on the part of my fellow humans. We’re all wrong – and always have been.

We own the language. All of us, even if it curls your eyebrows to understand.

The Joy of Lexicography – TED

 

What Makes a Word ‘Real’ – TED

Endergong and Exergong (New Words)

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I’m creating two new words for the English language today.

Are they necessary? No, but neither is “philtrum,” which is the line or cleft between your nose and upper lip. (To the tubercle of the upper lip, to be ridiculously obtuse and exact.)

Luckily for me, the litmus test for word inclusion in our shared collective English language is that there isn’t one. Yes, usage determines inclusion, but a word is a word the second that any meaning is attached to it, even if it doesn’t thrive.  Even “callipygian,” which is an artful way of describing buttocks that won’t get you punched in the epiglottis.

As Douglas Adams once paraphrased, it’s this kind of fact that generally pisses people off.

An endergonic reaction is one in which energy is absorbed and an exergonic reaction is one which results in energy released.

My two new words are these: ‘endergong’ and ‘exergong.’ Words which terminate in “gong” are gorgeous words. Perhaps if the movie had been titled “Gong With The Wind,” it might have fared even better with the general public. We’ll never know. And no, we frankly don’t give a damn.

An ‘endergong’ is someone who requires or takes in more energy than he or she adds to the social fabric.

An ‘exergong’ is someone who adds more to the social fabric than he or she consumes.

The implication is that exergong is a more positive word, characterizing positivity, freedom, and openness. You feel happier with exergongs surrounding you.

An endergong is someone who sulks at the table, complaining about everyone and everything, even the free beer you just handed him or her.

You’re welcome.

P.S. If you don’t like the words, please send a postcard to the American Society For Language, which is a non-existent organization that won’t read whatever it is you have to say about it.