Friday, 15 March 2013

The War Against Error

When I first saw the title of If you need to explain why it's wrong... (a blog post) I suspected that it was another case of ellipsis-abuse, and meant 'If you need to explain why, it's wrong'. But I was wrong. The unexpressed (ellipted) conclusion was ' what sense are we using the word wrong?', or - more radically - ' can we say it's wrong?'

The title of the post was suggested by an experience that the blogger describes at the outset: 
Do you know what the word ambivalent means?
A student of mine was very pleased to be able to catch me out with this word. I had assumed it meant "not particularly bothered", but apparently it doesn't. I had a hunch about this word so I asked four of the native speakers sitting with us what they thought. Three said they had no idea and one said she thought it meant something similar to what I had thought. 

This student got me thinking; when no one knows the so-called 'correct' meaning, how can it still be considered correct? Likewise, if a language rules exists but no one follows it, is it still a rule?
As a matter of fact I do know what ambivalent means; by guessing on the basis of ambidextrous and co-valent (from a half-remembered chemistry lesson) I can see that it means more than not particularly bothered. But I also know, from studying the history of languages, that historical mistakes play a big part in the meaning of words now. My own post told the intriguing story of how a bat (an 'owl-mouse') became a 'bald-mouse' (Fr chauve-souris); but the unarguably correct word for 'bat' in French enshrines that mistake.

At the end of a recent discussion here (pay special attention to the thread title) I posted this correction:
I missed this first time around. It's such a commmon (make that 'commmmmon') mistake that I've become de-sensitized.

Millenium, if it existed ('These are the only ones of which the news has come to Hahvard/And there may be many others but they haven't been discuhvered') would be an element with the atomic number 1,000. A period of a thousand years is a millenNium.
Another discussion in the same forum involved some ritual posturing about the meanings of {yawn} infer and imply. The final (or maybe I should say 'latest') post pointed to this dictionary definition, which gave these four definitions:
1. To conclude from evidence or premises.
2. To reason from circumstance; surmise: We can infer that his motive in publishing the diary was less than honorable.
3. To lead to as a consequence or conclusion: "Socrates argued that a statue inferred the existence of a sculptor" (Academy). [BK Sic - I've no idea what that is; I suppose I could have brushed it under the carpet with an ellipsis, but I thought I'd let you share my confusion.]
4. To hint; imply.
What's a girl to think? Meanings 1 and 2 are the inverse of meanings 3 and 4. The dictionary comes to the rescue with a Usage Note:
The use of infer to mean imply is common in both speech and writing, but is regarded by many people as incorrect
Errors happen, and they play a role in the evolution of language. I know that. In Darwinian evolution (if you'll excuse the excursus), a faulty copy of the gene for neck growth - I'm over-simplifying here of course, but bear with me - gives a proto-giraffe a tiny advantage in the Acacia-leaf-gobbling Stakes and thus makes a longer neck more likely to feature in the next generation. But given my run of  the human genome I wouldn't swap a few As and Cs for Gs and Ts at random on the off-chance of causing a fitter mutation. I prefer what I know works.

The same goes for language. There are some 'mistakes' that are well on the way to being incorporated into 'the standard language' - whatever that is; but I will not knowingly make them. I am a prescriptivist in descriptivist's clothing. But I'm not sure I understand how it's possible to be anything else if you love language.


Notes from the word-face
Yesterday I broached the -EU-s. As I did much of the work 18 months ago, in preparation for my ELton 2012 submission, this digraph shouldn't take long; I just have to 're-purpose' it, as they used to say in the tech-writing world, and reformat it. But, barring cruel strokes of fate, release 2 of  When Vowels Get Together should happen next month. And in the dimmer and more distant future, there may well be an ELTons 2014 submission of the whole thing
* Update 2013.04.05: It's here.

Update: 2013.10.02.15:55
HeadFooter updated
Update: 2015.12.02.22:05 – and again:

Mammon When Vowels Get Together V5.2: Collection of Kindle word-lists grouping different pronunciations of vowel-pairs. Now complete (that is, it covers all vowel pairs – but there's still stuff to be done with it; an index, perhaps...?)

And here it is: Digraphs and Diphthongs . The (partial) index has an entry for each vowel pair that can represent each monophthong phoneme. For example AE, EA and EE are by far the most common pairs of vowels used to represent the /i:/ phoneme, but there are eight other possibilities. The index uses colour to give an idea of how common a spelling is, ranging from bright red to represent the most common to pale olive green to represent the least common.

I'm thinking about doing a native iBook version in due course, but for now Mac users can use Kindle's own (free) simulator.

Also available at Amazon: When Vowels Get Together: The paperback.

And if you have no objection to such promiscuity, Like this

Freebies (Teaching resources:  
Nearly 50,000 views and 9,000 downloads to date**. They're very eclectic - mostly EFL and MFL, but one of the most popular is from KS4 History, dating from my PGCE, with nearly 2,700 views and nearly 1,100 downloads to date. So it's worth having a browse.)

** This figure includes the count of views for a single resource held in an account that I accidentally created many years ago.

No comments:

Post a Comment