The nature of things

My rental car astonishes me.  The doors lock by themselves when I pull out of the driveway, the windows come back up washed, the radio tells me what’s playing.  I finally get the jokes people were making ten years ago about cars that would make you breakfast.

I’m sure it’s been suggested before, but why doesn’t Toyota produce a car called the Retro?  It would look like today’s cars, and have all the features that are actually useful (I feel sure there must be some) but it wouldn’t do the things my rental does.  Because I can lock my own doors.  And I don’t want my radio to flash ANTONIO… VIVALDI…, since one of the pleasures of listening to KUSC is to test my knowledge of classical music.  Above all I want manually operated windows in case I drive into a canal and my electrical circuits stop working.

Another news item on the Welcome to the Twenty-First Century front.  My alma mater has subscribed to a program called Grammarly which promises to be able to check students’ writing better than their own computers, the advantage presumably being that it pops up a short grammar lesson every time it identifies a mistake (see? so it claims to be educating as it corrects, as if any student is going to read all that mush, come on).  But now get this.  One of the first sentences in the demo is, “The emphasis on nature, the supernatural, and superstitions were all part of Irving’s works.”  And Grammarly suggests changing “nature” to “the nature.”  Haw!

Check it!  See how many errors you can spot.  It’s quite fun.

Parsing, trees

jacaranda_treeI open China Miéville’s The City and The City with every intention of enjoying it. The first two sentences read:

“I could not see the street or much of the estate. We were enclosed by dirt-coloured blocks, from windows out of which leaned vested men and women with morning hair and mugs of drink, eating breakfast and watching us.”

Can someone parse that second sentence for me? Am I wrong in seeing that “from” as untenable? I ask Z, who says, “he doesn’t know how to put the windows in the blocks.” I agree, and I’m also sensing other, more grammatical clumsinesses. Can I trust Miéville enough to proceed?

June is the only month in which the weather in Southern California is identical with the weather in Southern Ontario: temperatures in the low seventies and grey skies. This is the first year I have flown home so late, the first year I have spent so much of June in California. I thus discovered “June gloom” for the first time – day after day of overcast skies in the land of sun. But I also discovered the jacaranda trees. To my mind, the two things go together. Could these amazing trees, these trees so beautiful they are almost tacky, show off as well in sunshine? I think the way their leafless purple glows as if to stand for the nostalgic distance itself could happen only against a background of grey haze.

Alumnus, esq.

At a series of recent talks I attended, one woman described herself as an alumnus of the college, and another put Esq. after her name.  Is this illiteracy or a blow at gender conventions?  I actually don’t know.

I’m sorry you feel that way

I propose an academic party game:  come up with the perfect title for the book you’ll never write but damn well should.  Mine is inspired by the revulsion I feel before those insipid people who say that everything they need to know they learned in Kindergarten;  it’s Everything I Need to Know I Learned in Kafka.  But Stanley Fish has written a book with an almost equally perfect title:  Save the World on Your Own Time.  I’m looking forward to reading it.

Meanwhile, I am fascinated by Fish’s recent scrap with AT&T.  It all begins, as he tells us here, with the operator’s opening sally — “With whom do I have the pleasure of speaking with?”  Fish points out with some pride that he does not at this point lose his cool but rather explains politely with whom she is speaking with, and with what she can help him with;  indeed he deals patiently with a fair amount of bureaucratic nonsense before he takes a gentle stab at correcting her grammar, begins to lay on a moderate amount of heat only when she claims that she has been instructed to greet callers that way and intends to continue to do so, and spazzes out completely only when he receives her final response: “I’m sorry you feel that way.”

Fish is then passed on to one of her superiors because of a snafu having nothing to do with grammar: she says the SSN he’s given her is different from the one on record.  Having sorted this out after a great deal of effort — the SSN he is giving is indeed the one on record — he raises the grammar issue again, describing “the unseemliness of a major corporation managing to sound pompous and ignorant at the same time.”  This time he is told that the kind of language he is using cannot be relayed to the proper authorities.

Who is the aggressor here?  If indeed the woman has been instructed by AT&T to answer the phone with this odious phrase, Fish has a right to claim he was assaulted first.  But when the woman makes the mistake about the SSN that forces Fish into the arms of her superiors, it suddenly appears that she is just an incompetent — and perhaps a vengeful one — in the style those of us who deal with corporations have come to know and love.  She has, in all likelihood, not been instructed by AT&T to say this at all, but rather something like this, something grammatical.  So she doesn’t know from grammar;  so it’s her fault — which means, I should say, that it’s the fault of her education — but the point is that it’s probably not the fault of AT&T and not the downfall of American culture either.  Fish needs to learn a little common decency;  he needs to have some respect for people not as well educated as he is and leave them the hell alone.  And she has told him as much, if he had ears to hear it.  The phrase “I’m sorry you feel that way” has a precise meaning.  It does not mean that anyone is sorry about anything, nor does it have anything to do with feelings.  It means: this conversation is over;  get out of my face.

On the other hand, there is the response from the superior, the one who claims that Fish’s language is at fault, that the words pompous and ignorant are intolerable words.  What emerges here is the idea that while bad grammar may or may not be a fault, criticizing someone certainly is.  In short:  it is worse to criticize than to speak badly.  This attitude is also there in the operator’s conversation stopping “I’m sorry you feel that way.”  She takes offense because she has been corrected.  To correct another person is something close to a sin.

I have been marking papers in the last few days.  I have been correcting people.  That is why this business has hit a nerve.

More words

They talk differently in California.  Eila says that her teachers say “two-thousand one” instead of “two-thousand and one.”  And my students pronounce aunt and Kant to rhyme with haunt instead of pant.

But there are three words I have never known how to pronounce.  Geyser, paean, and Vercingetorix.  Sometimes I find out how to say them but I always forget right away.  (This also happens to me with the rules of cricket.)  When I write papers for delivery I am careful not to use these words.

Acorn, allotment, almond…

…ash, bacon, beech, beetroot, blackberry, blacksmith, bloom, bluebell, bramble, bran, bray, bridle, brook, buttercup, canary, canter, carnation, catkin, cauliflower, chestnut, clover, conker, county, cowslip, crocus, dandelion, diesel, fern, fungus, gooseberry, gorse, hazel, hazelnut, heather, holly, horse chestnut, ivy, lavender, leek, liquorice, manger, marzipan, melon, minnow, mint, nectar, nectarine, oats, pansy, parsnip, pasture, poppy, porridge, poultry, primrose, prune, radish, rhubarb, sheaf, spinach, sycamore, tulip, turnip, vine, violet, walnut, willow.

What do these lovely words have in common?  They were all excised from the latest edition of the children’s version of Oxford Dictionary.  The web version of the article that describes the omissions has received hundreds of comments, all of them critical and a great number apocalyptic.  I am so depressed by the article and so heartened by the comments that I don’t know whether British civilization is coming or going.

Use and reference

The word “mention” has all but dropped out of the English language, replaced by the word “reference.”  When I tell my students that the use of “reference” as a verb is an odious neologism, they are at a loss for a word that might replace it.  That they cannot reach into their minds for the phrase “refers to” is maybe unsurprising; it makes sense that to learn the verb “reference” is to forget the verb “refer.”  But that “mention” is no longer in their repertoire appalls me.

What will they think when they come across the distinction, made by linguists and semioticians, between “use” and “mention”?  They will get it, sure.  But will they be able to conjure with it?  Will they see how far they can run with it?

But perhaps in 20 years all books that refer to that distinction will have been revised in the new argot.  Now they will reference the distinction between “use” and “referencing.”

Comments on reality

The real problem with three people sleeping in one bed isn’t so much congestion as that the person in the middle doesn’t need blankets — she’s already hot — and that means that one of the people on the sides is at some point in the night deprived of blankets as middle-girl flips them left or right.

The real reason I like the Scathing Online Schoolmarm, Margaret Soltan, isn’t so much that she reports on scandalous injustices in North American universities (that’s the scathing part), as that she corrects, in square brackets, the grammar, style, and diction of the passages she quotes (there’s the schoolmarm). It’s windmill-tiltingly charming, and her edits are pretty solid.

The real intention behind the “descriptivist/ prescriptivist” distinction in Grammar Studies isn’t clarification but obfuscation. All descriptions are prescriptive. All prescriptions are descriptive. Bill Walsh is right that what’s really going on—always—is a grammatological version of George Carlin (baruch hashem) on cars. Anyone going faster than me is a maniac. Anyone going slower than me is a moron.

The real irritation in my morning spam filter isn’t the ads for penis enhancements but the messages that say “you look like an idiot oona_eisenstadt.” I realize that the mark between my two names means I shouldn’t take this personally, but it still makes my heart sink.

Chess and stuff

I check my spam filter every day, because at least once a week I find something in there that’s not spam. Lately, in among the cheap rolexes and male enhancements, there’ve been a bunch of messages titled “you said we can talk.” This makes my teeth itch every time. Like I need this recrimination? Honey, I might have said we could talk but, if you can’t get the grammar right, you can forget it. I don’t know how to say it plainer than that.

Last night we watched Guy Ritchie’s Revolver. It’s rubbish, as I’m sure you all know. We watched it because it professes to be based on chess. Z pointed out afterwards that he’s seen many movies (and read many stories) that make this claim, and none of them gets chess right. The main sign is that these texts portray experts as taking a game to a checkmate that comes as a surprise to the other player. According to Z, real chess games never get that far: they go until both players can see that one is in a losing position — no surprise, and never checkmate. He has a lot of other criticisms as well, but says they’re too technical.

I’m at a hiatus on my article. All the revisions are done, and 29 footnotes are in place. I’m only waiting on one book being sent by my secretary, one article being sent from the editor of a journal in England, and one being sent by the editor of journal in California. I’ve found that in these days of immediate electronic access interlibrary loan is going to hell in a handcart, and it’s easier just to write the editors of obscure journals and beg them to copy something and shove it in the mail.

Stuck in my ways

A while ago, in a sympathetic attempt to dampen the fire of my zealousness for grammatical exactitude, Meg recommended I look at Language Log. I’ve looked now, and I find it is indeed rife with assurances that there is no problem, grammar is alive and well, and technology does not make people stupid. Two cheers!

The language loggers care about some things more than others. One post argues that it doesn’t matter that the distinction between its and it’s is being eroded by text messaging, because that distinction is not important. Another post takes very seriously the distinction between contemptuous and contemptible. So we know where the loggers draw the line, and can take some comfort from the fact that they do indeed draw one. But nothing is going to convince me that text messaging teens, even as they scorn the difference between its and it’s, understand the difference between contemptuous and contemptible. If either of those words has ever been text messaged, I’ll eat my hat.

I don’t care much about its and it’s. (Actually I do, but let’s pretend that I don’t.) But I am pretty sure that many aspects of grammar and diction are suffering erosion, and I don’t think texting, with its demand for short forms and clichés, is helping. I’m interested and delighted by the finer points of grammar discussed at the Log, but in my everyday life I’m deeply distressed at the increased number of emails I get asking me to “respond to Professor A or myself,” or “come to dinner with B and I,” or agree that “none of us have ever done C”–and of course I could go on forever. Is all this a matter of linguistic evolution? Am I wrong to regard these errors as contemptible?