Monday, September 10, 2012

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts. You are free to agree or disagree with him.


            I do not have to be told this obvious truism.

            Excessive concern for the niceties of language is often a sign of having too much time on one’s hands. Often it is also a sign of old-fart-dom. Those old dears who write to the press protesting against split infinitives, a mistake which I am inclined to repeatedly make. Those who howl when you have a preposition to finish up with. Those who get annoyed when you write a series of statements without a main verb. And those who say you cannot begin a sentence with “and”.

            I am aware that language is a living and constantly-changing thing, and that “rules” of grammar are descriptive rather than truly prescriptive. They describe  how language happens to function at a given time, but they are subject to change. Therefore, I am further aware, those things against which I protest today may very well be tomorrow’s accepted usage.

            In case I do not know these things, there are two powerful forces to remind me.

            First, all English teachers, tertiary and secondary, have given up on teaching grammar. To the great impoverishment of teenagers’ sense of, and understanding of, language, it is now considered “not done” to teach parts of speech (nouns, pronouns, prepositions, conjunctions, articles, verbs, adverbs etc.). Indeed, should one do so, one would be decried for teaching an outmoded and inadequate grammatical system. Bright young tertiary teachers of English fall over themselves to be “permissive” and to tell us that there are no rules, only accepted usages.

            Second, those who decry or rebuke some current usages have the habit of tripping over their own tongues and making egregious asses of themselves. In a recent newspaper column, a wealthy columnist decried the poor linguistic skills of bureaucrats and government officials. Well and good, except that he spoke of the “evolvement” of such poor usage. Obviously evolution had passed part of his brain by, and people who live in glass houses etc. etc.

            But in spite of all this, I still have an urge to register a protest against some sloppy usages. At the very least, sloppy usage shows the speaker’s or writer’s ignorance of current accepted norms, even if he or she is on the way to establishing new ones.

            First horrible specimen. The creeping misuse of “on behalf.”

            Last week the evening news showed me a New Zealand judge sentencing a sex offender. As she passed sentence, I was surprised to hear her say “These were callous acts of sexual predation on your behalf.

            I immediately thought “Well I hope they got the guy who actually did them, then”.

            Correctly used, “on your behalf’ means “in your place” or “instead of you.

             “He could not attend the family funeral, so his son went on his behalf.”

            “She could not read all the books she discussed on her radio show, so a researcher read them and wrote notes on them on her behalf.” Etc. Etc.

            If acts were committed “on behalf of” the defendant, it would mean that somebody else did them for him. I assume that what the judge intended to say was “These were callous acts of sexual predation on your part”, which is a fancy way of saying “done by you.” But this ignorant misuse of “on…. behalf” has become very widespread. I surmise it is because it sounds tone-ier than “done by you” etc. And because some people don’t know the clear difference between “on your part” and “on your behalf.”

            Second horrible specimen. The way “impact” has been turned into a transitive verb.

            Once upon a time, “impact” was used almost exclusively as a noun, unless it was deployed in a literal physical sense (as in “impacted wisdom teeth” and the like).

            Using it as an abstract noun, we would ask such questions as “What sort of impact did it have on him?

            Then journalists, and those foolish enough to imitate them, began to use “impact” as an intransitive verb, and started asking “How did it impact on him?

            Then they turned it into a transitive verb, “How did it impact him?”

            I think this ignorant usage is now firmly established, so there is no point in my attempting to halt it.

            But whenever I hear that “he was impacted” by something, I have mental images of him in a car-wrecker’s crusher.

            Third horrible specimen.  Not so much a misuse as a horrible overuse.

            It’s that wretched word “passion”.
            Of course the meaning of the word has changed over the centuries.

            Once it meant simply the ability to feel sensation and hence to suffer pain (as in “the Passion of Christ” – a phrase which baffles those who know only more recent uses of the word).

            Then it came to mean tremendous agitation of spirit, including anger. (“When told that the free market didn’t really work, the monetarist flew into a passion.”). Often enough, that agitation of spirit was amorous, erotic or sexual. (“They exhausted their passion by lusty and prolonged love-making.”)

            Then it came to mean what is now its most commonly accepted usage, that is, something all-consuming and all-absorbing for an individual. To have a passion for setting the world to rights or doing good or whatever it may be.

            The trouble is, this last meaning is now being routinely abused to mean “having a strong interest in something”. Or even just “having an interest in something.”

            “He has a passion for gardening. She has a passion for macramé.”

            Do they really? Well if they feel that strongly about those harmless hobbies, please take them to a psychiatrist.

            Teenagers are advised to “follow your passion”, which seems to mean “pursue activities that interest you” or even “develop your abilities”. Personally, while I do think there is a place for saints and visionaries, I do not want to live in a world peopled by people who are that enthusiastic or that passionate.

            I console myself with the thought that this overuse of a useful word is just a passing fad, and that it is the type of linguistic hyperbole that soon burns itself out.

            But as long as it’s being used I will sneer at it, just as I continue to sneer that those who still do not know the difference between “uninterested” and “disinterested”.

            I’m quite passionate about these things.


  1. Hi Nick,

    Just so you know, not all university teachers of English have given up teaching grammar. At U. Otago, various of my colleagues and I teach papers in Effective Writing, Essay & Feature Writing, and Creative Non-fiction. We would like to assume that all our bright young students are in possession of the secret knowledge of nouns and verbs, apostrophes, etc., so that we can attend to higher-level language issues, but bitter experience has taught us that we cannot. Admittedly, the situation is now better than it was a few years ago. Some students have apparently been at schools where this stuff was taught, and it does give them an edge. But such knowledge is not general, so we do end up "teaching" these things. Not knowing any grammar of the language one speaks (or writes) is like having a well-stocked toolbox and not knowing the names or functions of the tools. No one would like to see the teaching of English in schools reduced to Spelling and Grammar (as it apparently was in the Bad Old Days before, say, the 1960s -- a myth, I suspect), but English is often treated as a subject with no real core content, beyond self-expression. Grammar is very practical. I tell my students, that if you do learn and understand these things, there will be less excuse for certain kinds of smart people to think you're stupid. And why be vague when you can be precise?

    Paul Tankard

    Dr Paul Tankard
    Senior Lecturer, Department of English
    University of Otago
    P.O. Box 56
    Dunedin 9054, New Zealand

    Ph. BH. + 64 3 479 7724

    Webpage: http://www.otago.ac.nz/english/staff/tankard.html

    1. Glad to hear that you and some others attend to these matters, Paul, but as you say, this is not general practice. Obviously I do not disagree with any of the points you make and I too think it is sheer mythology to imagine that in the "bad old days" secondary school teaching of English consisted only of grammar and spelling.
      I remember in primary school (in the late 1950s) I was taught that a noun was a naming word and a verb was a doing word and an adjective was a describing word and so on. Hopelessly inadequate as a real description of grammar, of course, but at least a simple guide to forms that could be built upon later. But by the time I began as a secondary school teacher of English (in the mid-1970s), the grammar book we were given to teach was a repulsive volume jointly written by Brown, Brockett, Bowley and others, which taught some horror called "transformative grammar" and was filled with confusing chatter about pre-modifiers, post-modifiers etc. etc. I think teachers quickly became confused with it (not to mention their classes) and it was shortly after this that grammar books were tossed aside and the veil of ignorance began to descend,

  2. One might question why it has to be the job of an English teacher to teach grammar. It could just as well be taught by the French teacher or the Maori teacher or the Japanese teacher or even the computer-studies teacher. Given that we speak a grammatically primitive language, a kind of 11th century creole, English is not a terribly good example to demonstrate the value of grammatical analysis to your teenage charges.

    1. Sorry, Herr Germanophile, but this is not a very logical comment. I am fully aware that English is essentially a combination of a Saxon-German base with a Latin-Norman-French overlay (merci, Guillaume le Conquerant); but then, seen in those terms, EVERY language is to some extent a creole (all living languages have their origins in a coalescing of two or more earlier languages). English is as "grammatical" as any other language in that it has its own norms - and its own exceptions to its own norms. It's as good for teaching grammar as any other language. As for your rhetorical question about why teaching grammar should be an English teacher's job (and by the way, I am not currently a teacher of English) - the simple answer is, as you should know, that Anglophones are notoriously reluctant to learn other languages, so they are certainly not going to be taught grammar by any other sort of language teacher. And none of this solves the burning issue of how we deal with idiots who do not know how to use "on behalf of" and "impact" and "passion".
      Yours in High (but actually rather artificial) Dudgeon [but at least not in Middle High German]

  3. My experience of learning a couple of foreign languages other than English has been that it has increased my own appreciation of my indigenous English grammar and that it is by no means rigid. For a start knowledge of a foreign language disabuses you of the idea that somehow there is a "grammar that is universal and found in all languages". Grammar is at best a description of function but there can be usage conventions in one language that you do not find in another. For example in Swedish, Danish and Norwegian the definite article is after a noun and is part of the word and for non-Scandanavian students requires its own linguistic description and explanation.
    Also one can challenge the notion that grammar is correct because it is logical, or the idea that "one language's grammar is more logical than another'". It is ammazing how all languages manage have their own variations and be logical in terms of themselves. Amazingly, too, that common usage can introduce exceptions which defy the logic of perceived or descriptive rules. How many of us say "It is I" in conversation?

    1. Ah, passionate ... Grant Smithies devoted a whole column to the word in the Sunday Star Times a while back, mourning its loss and arranging its funeral.
      Then there's the ominous rise of: 'a slither of cake.' But two recent examples from the Olympics particularly caught my attention:
      'Did she podium?' and 'I heard that two kiwis medalled on Tuesday.'
      Meddled with what?