Monday, September 10, 2012
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.
PASSIONATE IMPACTS ON YOUR BEHALF
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.