This English Is a Hard Language

Or is it just old age setting in?

I’m a native speaker and generally a good speller, having gotten my K-12 education before the liberal reforms of the 1960s ruined everything in public education.

But just today I’ve already had to look up two words to make sure my memory was correct.  The first was pastime.  I couldn’t convince myself that it wasn’t pasttimePast-time I knew would have to be some kind of adjective, so I threw that out.  The second was acquiescence.  I just couldn’t remember if there were a c after the s, which I confirmed there is by going to dictionary.com.

The point here is that I can, as i age, see more clearly why people have a hard time with this language of ours.  Fortunately, we now have resources at our (keyboard) fingertips to help us out.  Maybe some memory-enhancing pills would help as well.

Turn Off the Lights on Your Way Out

The headline is a non pre-sequitur, whatever the term for that is, but my subject is light, in a way anyway.

My penpal in Taiwan, who is also an English teacher and whose grammar (learned as a second language) is infinitely better than most native Americans, even college graduates, was perplexed when I used the phrase “[tag]lightbulb went off[/tag].”  She thought it should be “lightbulb came (or went) on.”  Made sense.

That got me thinking, so I scoured the Internet for about 10 minutes (figuring that was about all the subject was worth) to find the derivation of the phrase, but I failed.  The best I could conclude was that it derives from the days of those old flashbulbs that would definitely go off in a flash, thus leading to the phrase “lightbulb went off,” indicating a flash of realization.

Anybody got a better idea of the roots of the phrase?  If you do, please post a comment.

Could Of, Coulda: Avoida

Now it’s perfectly okay for [tag]Marlon Brando[/tag] to bemoan that he “coulda been a contender.”  People (some, a lot sometimes) speak that way, and that was a line in a screenplay.  Verisimiltude counts.

However, the construction could of, which some/many native users of English think is the correct verb form for could have, needs to be banished forever and corrected immediately.  I don’t care how much “I could’ve been somebody” sounds like “I could of been somebody,” folks, that’s just bad English.

Speaking-wise, who cares?  But when this usage starts popping up (alongside other abominations like thru) in college-level writing, the alarm clocks should be going off.

Is anybody teaching proper English usage in the lower twelve grades?  Put another way, is anyone paying attention to what’s being taught?  I’d have to sit through several K-12 classes to get a good read, but I bet most instruction never gets much past, “Never start a sentence with because,” which of course isn’t even a rule in English.

I think I just answered my own questions.

Media Hyperbole: ‘Worst Ever’

I was a little curious as to how the collective American media could pounce upon phrases such as “worst school tragedy in American history” so quickly and so effortlessly.  Probably, the only point of comparison was Columbine, and that made the 33 deaths at [tag]Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University[/tag] the “worst ever.”

Now, my target here is the media.  I in no way intend to belittle the tragic consequences of one man’s shooting rampage.  What gets me is the felicity of judgment and nonchalance with which those reporting the event immediately determined it was the “worst ever.”

As it turns out, a man named [tag]Andrew Kehoe[/tag] slaughtered 45 Michigan school children in 1927 using homemade bombs.  Now, those who said “worst school shooting ever” would be on more solid ground.  However, I think the whole intent of using the superlative worst in any configuration was to sell the news rather than objectively report it.  That’s my beef.

Media literacy rule:  Whenever you read or hear a [tag]superlative form of an adjective[/tag] being used, ignore it.  They’re selling you just like a used car salesman does with “the best 1999 Chevy you can find.”

Department of Understated Statements

In the tragedy that consumed [tag]Virginia Tech[/tag] on April 16, leaving 33 dead bodies on campus, I was glued to the TV like anyone else who had the time to do so. I even watched a whole press conference, during which [tag]Security Chief Wendell Flinchum[/tag] said in answer to a question:

"It was probably one of the worst things I’ve seen in my life."

When I heard this, I didn’t think too much about it, but when the same quotation appeared in the newspaper the next morning, I stumbled a bit when I got to it.  The understatement of it all suddenly hit home.  If this were "one of the worst," what’s the worst?  Unless Mr. Flinchum served in Vietnam, and he looked too young for that, it’s hard to imagine he’d ever seen something worse. Anyway, the point here is just that it’s very hard to speak during a crisis because of all the emotions, stresses and challenges. I have no intention of making fun of the gentleman, just to point out how words can escape or confuse the best of us in the heat of a tragedy.

Cold War Turns 60 Today

The actual Cold War, which pitted the U.S and Soviet Union in a battle for global political supremacy, is reputedly dead, but the term itself was fashioned 60 years ago today.

I teach both communications and history classes to college students, and I’m always shocked at a) the poor English skills and b) the historical ignorance.  Few even know who Dwight D. Eisenhower was, let alone the [tag]Cold War[/tag].

Anyway, it was financier and presidential confident Bernard M. Baruch who coined the term that swept the world for the next half century while he was speaking at the South Carolina Statehouse on April 16, 1947.

Goodbye to Don Imus (and Free Speech?)

If you’re one of this site’s many visitors from a country other than the United States, you may not even know who [tag]Don Imus[/tag] is.  In fact, I barely know who he is other than that he’s a just-fired talk show host.

I’ve had students who say they listen to Imus all the time, but my total exposure to the man amounted to probably less than 30 seconds.

Why is that?

Read more

NotPhrase Off Of Needs Eliminating

With [tag]baseball season[/tag] upon us, one of my favorite (not!) NotPhrases is back in constant use, to wit:

“There goes a line drive off of the bat of Joe Baseballer.”  Or, “He just got a hit off of pitcher Sam Flamethrower.”

I’m here to reaffirm that off of is not just redundant but incorrect.  How about, “There goes a line drive off the bat of…” and “He just got a hit off pitcher…”?

Of course, these are jocks and sports announcers using this construction, but a lot of people hear “off of” and think nothing of it and even use it themselves as a consequence.

Just stick to off, as in, “Get off my back with your lousy English.”

To Bork, v.t.; To Sosa, v.i.

During the Supreme Court confirmation hearings over Reagan nominee [tag]Robert Bork[/tag], Democratic venom and personal assassination got so ugly that the word bork became a transitive verb.  “Let’s bork Alberto Gonzalez,” one might hear some in Congress saying today.  The meaning is to destroy the reputation of said person, whether it’s based in fact or not.

Now, in light of all the baseball steroid scandals here in the U.S., I’m proposing a new verb, though this one is intransitive but also named after an individual, that person being ex-Chicago Cub [tag]Sammy Sosa[/tag].  To sosa means to cheat, whether by steroid use, corked bats or any other means possible, primarily in baseball but in any sport–and in life in general by extension.

Come to think of it, sosa could also be a transitive verb.  “I sosaed the IRS,” one might say, or even, “I sosaed the odds.”  Folks, let’s sosa our way to fame and fortune like our epinonymous hero.

Say it ain’t sosa.”