Your Pain Is Our Pleasure
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August 11, 2009
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What bothers me—really bothers me—is intolerance. On this site we discuss the English language. One marvelous aspect of English is its variability, its malleability. English is spoken in all parts of the world, and it exists in standard forms (mainly British and American, but with others ascendant) and non-standard forms. It is a gross misunderstanding of the language to believe that non-standard speech equals ignorance. And it is intolerance to reject non-standard yet perfectly understandable phrases like "on tomorrow" as ignorant.
Is "on tomorrow" a "black thing?" Maybe, and maybe not. That is a question for linguists; it is interesting but beside the point. Is it grammatically wrong? No it is not wrong, any more than "on Tuesday" is wrong. Is "We'll meet tomorrow" more concise than "We'll meet on tomorrow?" Of course it is, just as "Tuesday" is more concise "on Tuesday." So what? Are we all suddenly Hemingway, with no room for rhetoric? I think not.
Regional variety is just that: variety. Enjoy it. Think of it as an unfamiliar spice.
Plus which—another non-standard phrase given currency by a certain Oxford-educated U.S. president—when you start talking about "otherwise successful black people" you risk expressing prejudice, and you invite it.
According to Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage, the use of the suffix "ess" to indicate feminine gender for occupations, particularly those traditionally thought masculine, has been debated for at least a century and a half. In the mid-nineteenth century, some American women argued in favor of terms such as "authoress" and "poetess," saying that these elevated the public awareness of women in these professions. This is essentially the argument Amanda makes. That the argument had some validity at the time is borne out by the backlash that occurred against such terms from the literary establishment—mostly male—in the latter nineteenth century.
But by the twentieth century the pendulum had swung, and the trend among feminists was away from "ess" in favor of the un-gendered noun, on the basis that gender is not germane to ability. But as Amanda's comment shows, the pendulum is still in swing.
The problem is that the un-gendered form is almost always also the masculine form, which leads to opposition from some men and from some women, though probably not for compatible reasons. Nonetheless, in most cases I find the un-gendered form preferable, if imperfect. To call Bette Davis a great actor causes no confusion, but to say Eileen Gray was a great architectess would raise eyebrows, at the very least. There are times when "ess" is a useful shorthand for identifying the gender of a person ("actress" remains one of the few relatively non-controversial examples), but in general, when sex is not relevant the gender-neutral form is better, even if it did once imply masculinity. Keep in mind that the reason a word like "engineer" ever implied maleness is that at one time women were denied the occupation; it no longer holds that implication. To begin to now differentiate between "engineer" as "engineeress" invites a new round of sexism.
Also similar to "court martial" which becomes "courts martial" when plural.
She had a wonderful sense of humor.
They had wonderful senses of humor.
Now about that "u" in humour....
Goofy makes a good point. I should have said that the best justification for keeping capital letters is legibility, for easier visual readability and because of the additional information capital letters impart. The reason English has them at all are, as I pointed out, historical.
The link in my last post doesn't work because of the parentheses. Here it is again:
The pronunciation of "ask" as "aks" is sometimes seen as a sign of ignorance, but it should not be. I found the following explanation online:
"While the pronunciation /aks/ for ask is not considered standard, it is a very common regional pronunciation with a long history. The Old English verb áscian underwent a normal linguistic process called metathesis sometime in the 14th century. Metathesis is what occurs when two sounds or syllables switch places in a word. This happens all the time in spoken language (think nuclear pronounced as /nukular/ and asterisk pronounced as /asteriks/).
Metathesis is usually a slip of the tongue, but (as in the cases of /asteriks/ and /nukular/) it can become a variant of the original word. This alternative version in Old English was axian or acsian, as in Chaucer's: "I axe, why the fyfte man Was nought housband to the Samaritan?" (Wife's Prologue 1386). Ascian and axian co-existed and evolved separately in various regions of England. The ascian version gives us the modern standard English ask, but the axian variant ax can still be found in England's Midland and Southern dialects.
In American English, the /aks/ pronunciation was originally dominant in New England. The popularity of this pronunciation faded in the North early in the 19th century as it became more common in the South. Today the pronunciation is perceived in the US as either Southern or African-American. Both of these perceptions underestimate the popularity of the form.
/aks/ is still found frequently in the South, and is a characteristic of some speech communities as far North as New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Illinois and Iowa. It is one of the shared characteristics between African-American English and Southern dialects of American English. The wide distribution of speakers from these two groups accounts for the presence of the /aks/ pronunciation in Northern urban communities.
So in fact, your colleague is correct in calling /aks/ a regional pronunciation, one with a distribution that covers nearly half of the territory in the United States and England."
The pronunciation is common enough to have engendered a very old joke:
Somebody asked Miss Lizzie the time of day. Said she: "I don't know, but I'll go and ax Father."
That was current humor in 1892. Still not funny, really.
The question is interesting, but I would reverse it: Why does English have lower-case letters? Most of the letters used in English derive from the Roman alphabet, which was entirely upper case. (The terms upper case and lower case derive from movable-type printing, and refer to the physical location of the racks—cases—where each set of type was located.) Lower-case letters derive from script, and predate printing.
According to Wikipedia: "Originally alphabets were written entirely in capital letters, spaced between well-defined upper and lower bounds. When written quickly with a pen these tended to turn into rounder and much simpler forms, like unicals. It is from these that the first minuscule hands developed, the half-unicals and cursive minuscule, which no longer stay bound between a pair of lines."
The key script was Carolingian miniscule, which was "developed as a writing standard in Europe so that the Roman alphabet could be easily recognized by the small literate class from one region to another. It was used in Charlemagne's empire between approximately 800 and 1200," again according to Wikipedia.
The convention of capitalizing the first word in a sentence appears to have been part of Carolingian miniscule from the start. I don't know when the practice of capitalizing certain words—nouns, mainly—developed, but it used to be much wider in scope. Writers as recent as Jonathan Swift commonly capitalized all nouns; the same is true of the American Declaration of Independence. I suspect that the purpose was improved legibility, particularly in hand-written documents. English has largely abandoned capitalized nouns, with specific exceptions, such as names. German, on the other hand, still capitalizes all nouns.
The reason English continues to retain capital letters is primarily legibility. Words written in lower-case letters, with their varied sizes and shapes, are indeed easier to read than words written in all-caps. But capital letters add a layer of information to the writing, signifying sentence starts, names, titles, and proper nouns. The current trend away from capitalization is driven largely by email and particularly by texting. In the latter, shifting between cases is cumbersome; in the former it is simply laziness. If you find it cumbersome to capitalize, be glad you're not writing German.
In the phrase "please be advised" the adverb "please" is "used as a function word to express politeness or emphasis in a request" (M-W Online). In the sentence “Please be advised that patrons must wait till the train has come to a complete stop before crossing the yellow line” the word "please" does not negate the word "must." Rather, "please" adds emphasis to "be advised," and does not refer to the rule of which the passengers are then advised.
I think John was essentially correct in his initial response. "Grammar Girl" gives this explanation of hanged and hung:
"It seemed a little curious to me that there would be two past-tense forms of the word hang that differ depending on their meaning, so I did a little research and found out that in Old English there were two different words for hang (hon and hangen), and the entanglement of these words (plus an Old Norse word hengjan) is responsible for there being two past-tense forms of the word hang today."
She also says that "hanged" is the proper term for a past execution. I concur. Not that using "hung" in that sense would be a punishable offense, but the distinction is still a useful one.
I won't help you in a cliché hunt, or a simile search. Why do you want to write that way? Unless you are a songwriter in need of a rhyme (cold as ice—sacrifice, e.g.) you should be striving to avoid the hackneyed phrase (such as "hackneyed phrase") like, well, the plague.
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