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Sunday, March 15, 2009

Words and More, "Lesson" 2

Among the hundreds of thousands words in this crazy language we call “English,” there are hundreds ready and willing to trip us up at every turn. In this edition of the exploration of rascally words, I’ll expose more of the tricksters.

Some of the problems lie with an accumulated laziness of speech patterns, which seem to get worse with every passing generation. Others, as was pointed out before, are just snares in their own right, waiting to trip the unwary or careless.

To start with, lets examine a word having to do with facts: data. Notice I said ‘facts,’ in the plural That is ‘data.’ However, its singular form seems to be falling into disuse. A single fact is datum. “This datum.” “These data.” Awkward though it may sound, those are the correct forms. Thank our Latin section of language roots for that.

Let me digress for a moment. The problems people have with English are in large part due to it’s being a “bastard language.” English is descended mostly from Germanic roots, if we go back far enough in the etymology, but it has also borrowed heavily from French, Spanish, Italian, and Latin. The French, Spanish and Italian are all of Latin descent themselves. As a group, these are the ones often referred to as the “romance languages.” Coming down from their origins, then, modern day Italian remains nearest to its Latin roots, Spanish is next in line, and French has strayed the furthest away. With all this mix-up, and the Germanic roots, there is the compounding problem of attempting to apply Latin grammatical rules. No wonder people get aggravated trying to learn our spellings and usage!

The Germanic languages are themselves a far-reaching variety, including: Norwegian, Swedish, Faroese, (of the Faroe islands) Danish, Yiddish, Dutch, Afrikaans, Flemish, Frisian, and of course, modern English and German. Of these languages, many have themselves borrowed from others, complicating things even worse.

With that out of the way, let’s move on with the discussion of just-plain-wrong usage. Blame it on today’s public school system. There are plenty of errors made even in print media, and people in those professions should certainly know better. I think proofreading has gone by the wayside.

A prime example often seen is this: “Advanced tickets now on sale for xyz event.” Wrong! Advanced means at an accelerated or higher level, as in “Sally was in the advanced placement English class,” or, “John has taken his guitar playing skill to an advanced level.” To obtain ahead of time, however, is to do so in advance. No ending “d.” So, the advertisement should read, “Advance ticket sales for xyz event available through such and such a date,” or, “I learned in advance about the test questions.”

“Of” is a frequently over-used and mis-used word. Consider this example: “Harry is a friend of Emily’s.” Incorrect, because the “of” is simply not needed. Instead, the correct form would be one of the following two choices: “Harry is Emily’s friend,” or “Harry is a friend of Emily.” The first example is wrong because it uses a double-possessive. By using the apostrophe and ‘s’ with Emily, it’s already been established that the friendship “belongs” to Emily…the “of” duplicates this indication.

Next up is the shade of difference between responsible and reliable. These words do have similar meanings, but not the same meaning. It is this subtle difference that can cause a world of separation in the final meaning of the statement.

For example, a person I knew years ago constantly used this pair incorrectly. If something went wrong at work, but was not within her job description, she would say, “I’m not reliable for that.” Wrong, because ‘reliable’ means trustworthy, able to be relied upon to carry out one’s duties or follow through on a promise. Responsible, on the other hand, is the word she should have used. Responsible means able to stand on ones’ own and do what is expected without supervision. In your job description, there are certain duties which you are expected to carry out. you are responsible doing your job properly. You are not responsible for a task which falls under someone else’s job description.

A responsible adult is a reliable person. This is not a redundancy; the words are so similar in meaning, that ‘reliable’ even appears far down the list of definitions of ‘responsible’ in the dictionary. That said, there are real distinctions in how they are used, and for most purposes, it is best not to consider them as synonymous or interchangeable.

Now, some further irritating plural forms. Just how maddening is a language which assigns the plural of mouse as mice, and yet the plural of moose is still moose, and not ‘meese’? As most children learn from Dr. Seuss, “one fish, two fish…” ..fish and fish are both plural and singular. Once the Dr. Seuss story moves on to “…red fish, blue fish…” we are now dealing with fishes. The plural remaining the same as the singular applies only to fish of all the same type. As soon as there are different kinds of fish involved, it becomes ‘fishes.’ If you have 10 goldfish in your aquarium, you have 10 fish. If you have 5 goldfish and 5 betas, you now have 10 fishes. With a fair amount of regularity, we hear the phrase, “all the fish in the sea.” To be absolutely correct, however, it should be, “all the fishes in the sea.”

The next item on today’s list falls strictly under lazy or careless pronunciation. I doubt that there are very many people who actually do not know the correct word. I refer to folks saying, “supposably” (no such word), when they mean, “supposedly.” There are not too many problems with understanding the definition:

most of us understand that ‘supposedly’ means “expected,” “in the ideal sense,” and “if things work as they should.” “The bus supposedly arrives at 10:00 a.m.” “He supposedly cleaned his room.” Maybe so, and maybe not. There is an “iffy-ness” to this word. In point of fact, it would be better to say, in the first example, “the bus is scheduled to arrive at 10:00 a.m.,” and in the second, “he was supposed to have cleaned his room.” Tricky, subtle shades of meaning.

Finally, I will move into the restaurants. What will you have to drink? Cold tea with ice cubes added? How often do you hear an order for “ice tea,” (which usually comes out sounding like “eyestee”) .. instead of the correct, “iced tea.” Granted, this one takes conscious thought to say correctly as it involves a “hard stop” to make the break between the words so they do not run together as one. Not impossible, however.

Be careful with the language! The more difficult the language, the more care must be taken, and the more diligent its speakers must be. Subtle variations and mispronunciations do matter. Fistfights and worse have been started over something said the wrong way; and on a global level, so have wars!

There’s the bell. Class dismissed!

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