Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Abhor a bore

Responding to my letter to the Orangeville Banner about abhor , Don Hayward writes,

Dear Editor,

The English language is a twisted thing as exposed in Doc Reynolds letter of Sept. 26. (Columnist, and many others, misusing abhor.)

His exploration of abhor was enlightening and humbling, but it strikes me that he missed a few points. For instance, abhor is pronounced somewhat like "a bore" once the H has been scared out of it. There is plenty around Dufferin to scare the H out of things, especially in an election year. As well, abhorred should not be confused with similar sounding phrases such as "I have a bored hole in my head." (This to go along with the normal ones already there, I suppose.).

However, lest the condition of my head makes me abhorrent to you, let me quickly change hats. Abhor is the evil twin to adore, something we are all familiar with. For instance, the one who adored us in first year Humber College abhorred us a year later, or vice versa if you ended up married.

Doug, your next assignment is to use the word synergy. That should draw Brett out again. Keep it up guys, my television is broken and these are words worth knowing.

Don Hayward,


It's also a bit like adhere, with a backwards b. Kinda makes you feel unglued.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Quite worthy

My aunt, who I greatly respect and whose company I very much enjoy, and I were hashing out the consequences of Geoff Pullum's latest Language Log post the other night, when somehow we got around to the question of quite.

"Unneeded", my aunt said. "At least in writing. Back when I was editing, I would remove it whenever I encountered it. People asked what we'd put in to replace it, and I would ask them what they put in to replace the cobwebs when they swept them from their corners." (I'm going from memory here.)

I had to disagree.

Brian Garner, in Garner's Modern American Usage elucidates the differences in meaning between British and American uses, but declines to opine on quite's utility despite having no such qualms about other words, such as very, which he describes as
"a weasel word. This intensifier, which functions as both an adjective and an adverb, surfaces repeatedly in flabby writing. In almost every context in which it appears, its omission would result in at most a negligible loss."
I'm not sure whether Garner actually sees a difference between quite and very, simply hasn't noticed quite, or had reached his word limit for his book. At any rate, to my mind, there is quite a role for quite. As the 405th most common word form in written academic English, clearly it's got something behind it. But maybe that's only the mediocre writers. How about the greats?

Well, Bram Stoker's Dracula has just shy of 100 instances of quite including,
"I begin to get new lights on certain things which have puzzled me. Up to now I never quite knew what Shakespeare meant when he made Hamlet say, "My tablets! Quick, my tablets! 'tis meet that I put it down," etc., For now, feeling as though my own brain were unhinged or as if the shock had come which must end in its undoing, I turn to my diary for repose. The habit of entering accurately must help to soothe me."
Speaking of Shakespeare, the bard thought quite worthy enough to redouble in Hamlet.
O, what a noble mind is here o’erthrown!
The courtier’s, scholar’s, soldier’s, eye, tongue, sword,
The expectancy and rose of the fair state,
The glass of fashion and the mould of form,
The observ’d of all observers,–quite, quite down!
And it is not limited to fiction, Charles Darwin, in laying out the foundations of modern biology, wrote,
"In considering the Origin of Species, it is quite conceivable that a naturalist, reflecting on the mutual affinities of organic beings, on their embryological relations, their geographical distribution, geological succession, and other such facts, might come to the conclusion that each species had not been independently created, but had descended, like varieties, from other species. Nevertheless, such a conclusion, even if well founded, would be unsatisfactory, until it could be shown how the innumerable species inhabiting this world have been modified, so as to acquire that perfection of structure and coadaptation which most justly excites our admiration."
And of course, going through old e-mails from my aunt, I found numerous instances of quite.

So, should it stay or should it go? In my readings, I have certainly found places where quite adds little, but often it conveys something that is lacking without it: degree.

But, if I am wrong, and quite and very are to be ditched, should we not also get rid of all degree qualifiers--altogether, absolutely, completely, entirely, fully, perfectly, thoroughly, totally, utterly and wholly dispose of them? Regardless of how badly we may wish to use them? How bitterly disappointed we might be to see them go? How deeply we would miss them? Or is there a distinction I'm missing? Perhaps this was why Garner just focussed his attack on 'very'; it was bid to weasel his way off the slippery slope.

Many vs. a lot

Over on the ETJ list, Nick M. says that his student was marked wrong for answering "Yes, I have many teachers," to the question, "Do you have many teachers?" Nick wonders if there's some grammar rule that he's missing.

No, grammatically, "I have many teachers" is fine.

Stylistically, however, it is rather stilted, with 'a lot of' being preferred.

Pragmatically, it is both redundant in it's repetition of "(I) have many teachers" and uncooperative in it's failure to provide a shred more information than the surface form of the question requires. A more pragmatically appropriate answer would be something like, "Eight, if you can believe it."

Arnold Zwicky undertakes a quick survey of 'much' vs. 'a lot' over on Language Log. I think the issues around 'many' are quite similar; indeed, Zwicky touches on them in his explorations.

Can you say, "a lot of bunk?"

Over on the ETJ list, a member writes, in part,
I was brought up in a midwest family where "a lot" meant a piece of ground, and not "many". Different generation grammar usage?...

We also learned that "Can I go to the store?" brought the answer "Yes, you can, ...but you may not."
No doubt, the parents thought they were "protecting" the language (or perhaps the children). There is, however, absolutely no grounds for this except the false idea that words have only a single sense. Clearly they don't. The Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English gives 31 senses of work and that's just the verb. Lot similarly, if less spectacularly, has a number of common senses; I wonder what the father would have called a parcel of articles offered as one item in an auction? Can, too, has multiple uses, including ability, requests, possibility, and permission.

Merriam Webster's has this to say:
"Can and may are most frequently interchangeable in senses denoting possibility; because the possibility of one's doing something may depend on another's acquiescence, they have also become interchangeable in the sense denoting permission. The use of can to ask or grant permission has been common since the 19th century and is well established, although some commentators feel may is more appropriate in formal contexts. May is relatively rare in negative constructions (mayn't is not common); cannot and can't are usual in such contexts."
So, is it a generational thing? Only in the sense that younger people rarely think to inflict their linguistic preferences on others. But if the question is whether this has changed, indeed, it has, just not within the lifetime of the father. Lot in the sense of a large number goes back to at least 1812 which is not all that long after it was first attested in the meaning that the father prefers.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Refuting anti-translationist propaganda

Over on the TESL-L mailing list, Mert Bland, Dean of Graduate Studies at CBU (That's Central Buganda University, not Christian Brothers University), is making his same tired claims about vocabulary teaching. One of my responses, which garnered a lot of positive response, is reprised here:

The folks who buy into the anti-memorisationist agenda tend to be the same who hold anti-translationist ideologies. Yet the arguments they marshal in their attempts to rationalise these extreme positions do not bear scrutiny and, to the extent that they are true, can usually be applied equally to learning vocabulary without the L1.

Take, for example, the recent claims by Mert:
"no concept in the the target language is a direct translation of a concept in the native language."

First of all, this is simply false. Admittedly, some words will not overlap well. However, to the extent that any two native speakers of a given language share a common understanding, the meaning of the vast majority of nouns, verbs, and adjectives will be the same in translation. For example, 'book' will have a one-to-one translation in almost every major natural language.

Anti-translationists will say "gotcha! What about book used as a verb, as in 'book him for murder'?"

The *noun* 'book' will have a one-to-one translation.

"Ha!" say the anti-translationists. "My concept of book includes electronic books, while that of pre-industrial hunter-gatherers in the Amazon rainforest does not." To which we calmly reply, "nor does that of my grandfather, though he is a native speaker of English."

Not only is the argument false, but even if one were to imagine it to be true, it is only relevant if we take the position that it is best to fully and accurately specify the meaning of a word when teaching/learning it. Yet, clearly, here, translation does a better job--not the straw-man single-word translation example being bandied about here in the form of English 'leg' to Japanese 'ashi', but the use of the L1 to translate AND explain the word. English synonyms and paraphrases will typically be only as good as, and likely worse than the L1, and are almost sure to be less comprehensible to many learners.

Mert goes on to argue:
We try to bifurcate the languages, completly separate retes. This can't be done if individual vocabulary items are tied together in the two concept clusters.

This takes a very naive view of the brain and attempts to make arguments based on ideas that even neurolinguistic experts are unclear about. It also conveniently ignores the fact that after the teacher spends 10 minutes gesticulating, explaining in English, and searching for props, the students will finally go, "Aha! He means (L1 word)." This activation of the L1 translation is almost certainly automatic and unavoidable in most cases, yet it is just what this teacher was trying to avoid.

Mert also makes the point that "A connection once made is hard to break; these things tend to fossilize."

If this is true, then it is a good reason to make sure the connection is the correct one by using the L1 and not a mistaken guess about what a given pantomime means. If it is false, then there is no reason to think that the gradual changes and refinements of a meaning that accrete with exposure to the word in multiple contexts will be any more difficult if one starts with an L1 connection than if one could somehow begin with a pure, non-linguistic concept.

(Please note that I'm not arguing that teachers should be experts in the L1s of all of their learners, just that they should allow the L1 its place when possible.)