Jewish World Review July 10, 2002 / 1 Menachem-Av, 5762
English as she is spoke
It has been said by someone other than me that no language that pronounces the word c-o-l-o-n-e-l, "kernel" is perfect. In spite of some flaws, English is a great language. It isn't easy, though. I write a lot of English and never stop running into problems.
It would be hard (difficult) to come to the United States from someplace like Korea without any knowledge of English and have to start learning it. How long would it be before you understood all the nuances of "pretty"?
- A recent newspaper story said, "The teachers asked the students to read the papers they had written." It isn't clear who wrote the papers -- the students or the teachers.
- It's easy to slip into redundancies. "Purchase price"? What other kind of price would it be? People speak of "the end result," as if some results were not the end.
- How come someone who writes a play is a playwright and not a playwrite?
- We use a lot of ungrammatical short cuts, which seem OK to me. We say, "I'll be home tomorrow." No one bothers to say, "I'll be at home tomorrow afternoon."
- When I write a sentence with a quotation in it, I put the period or the question mark that ends it after the last quotation mark but editors often change this. They put the period or question mark inside the final quotation mark. My question is, "Why"?
- In Don Marquis' delightful stories about archie and mehitabel, archie the cockroach typed everything lowercase, without any capital letters. He couldn't use capitals because, as a small cockroach, he had to dive headfirst at the keys to make them hit the paper. He couldn't simultaneously hit the key he wanted and the "caps" key, so everything archie typed including the united states of america looked like this.
Archie had an excuse, but there's no excuse for e-mail being spelled without a capital E. (For years I have objected to the newspaper policy of not capitalizing the word "president" when it refers to the President of the United States. Maybe the policy was established for newspapers by archie the cockroach.)
Written English is at its best when it's plain and simple. Henry David Thoreau said, "If one has anything to say, it drops from him simply and directly like a stone to the ground…he may stick in the points and the stops wherever he can get a chance."
I always liked that but Thoreau used "one" the first time, then a few words later in the sentence he drops "one" and goes to "him." Once you start with "one," you have to finish with it and I wouldn't ever start with it. It must have sounded less pretentious in Thoreau's time. Writing was more formal.
- It's wrong, but I routinely use the word "like" as a conjunction in place of "as" both in writing and speaking: "I write like I speak," not "I write as I speak."
- There are 10,000 phrases that may not be good grammar but which are too useful to ignore, such as, "He wants out."
- I never use "whom." "Who" suits me just fine for any occasion. I seldom use the subjunctive, either. I write, "If I was home…," not, "If I were home."
- There are English words that can be used to mean a dozen different things, even though the spelling never changes. The word "pretty" is an example. We all know what it means when someone says, "She's pretty." The meaning of that word becomes complex, though, when you say, "She's pretty pretty." It means she isn't beautiful, just fairly pretty. And it would be hard to explain to anyone who spoke another language what we mean when we say, "He's sitting pretty." (I seldom start a sentence with an "and" like that.)
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© 2002, TMS