Monday, June 06, 2005

Column on Linguistic Peccadilloes

A Few Linguistic Peccadilloes

Tibor R. Machan

English is my third language and as a speaker and writer I have always
appreciated receiving editorial help, just in case a faux pa has slipped
into some missive of mine. But even the best editors cannot be relied upon
to follow one?s strictures in some areas of the English language.

For example, I reject ?the reason is because? and insist on ?the reason
is that,? and not just for the sake of old fashioned form. The one?s about
what causes things, the other about what reason one has for thinking
something. They are not the same at all.

Then there is ?different from? instead of the corrupt ?different than.?
Something is different from a thing that isn?t like it, whereas when you
talk of ?than,? as in ?other than,? there need be no difference at all
just that the two things aren?t the same.

And, yes, I don?t at all prefer sentences ending in propositions,
although I realize this is sometimes unavoidable. Still, the fewer the
better, it seems to me.

Perhaps the most egregious mistake?indeed, malpractice?in contemporary
lingo is when people are referred to as ?that,? as in ?the doctors that?
or ?the Germans that,? instead of ?who,? as in ?the doctors who? or ?the
Germans who.? Talk about demeaning human beings! Talking about them as if
they were mere objects surely does that, but one can see how it may play
into the hands of, say, animal ?rights? advocates. Now and then I ever run
across references to groups via ?who,? as in ?the team who played us
tonight.? Not just bad form but politically corrupting, I say.

Of course, there are all those uses of ?lay? instead of ?lie,? as if ?she
lies me down to sleep? meant the same thing as ?she lays me down to
sleep.? This is from the likes of reporters and newscasters, lyricists
writing pop tunes, and public speakers everywhere. It?s really
annoying?the killing of a distinction that does in fact capture an
important difference.

Of course I have ethical and political objections to the widespread use
of ?we? when people talk about decisions they like but do not wish to
admit they alone support?as in ?We have decided to build a stadium in this
city.? No, it wasn?t at all we who did this but some of us, while we all
were made to pay for it through the insidiously misapplied democratic
method. (?We? is the favorite word of communitarians and other
collectivists since they pretend that they are speaking for everyone
within a community. They are not.)

At this point I am brushing up against the problem of essentially
contestable concepts?for example, ?justice,? ?love,? ?liberty,? ?rights,?
and so forth. These are perennially disputed, even if some have a far
better worked out version than the rest. Too much hinges on the meaning
that will be widely accepted, so people are fighting to get their version
into circulation all the time.

Take, as an example, ?public.? It is used innocently enough in such
context as ?there is a public phone over there,? meaning a phone that
anyone willing to pay may use, provided another isn?t using it just then.
But what about ?public? in ?public interest?? In this usage, of course,
corruption is replete because when one can identify something as being in
the public interest, one has prima facie grounds for getting government to
do something about it. Yet I am willing to bet, based on my years of
paying attention to this, that ninety nine percept of such so called
public interests are, in fact, the private or special or vested interests
of some, by no means of us all. (Environmentalists have gotten away with
this ploy forever, but they are by no means the only ones. In fact, the
only bona fide public interest is the respect and protection of individual
rights because those are something we all have in the very same measure
and so we all benefit from having them honored.)

I am also hard put to ever use the word ?selfish? in the way many do,
namely, as if it had to mean being cruel or nasty to others. But I
understand that centuries of bad ideas about the nature of the human self
have led to this. I, however, will continue to wage a war or proper
meaning here, because I am convinced that the self that one may be
concerned about is very often very worthy?so, I follow Aristotle in
endorsing self-love by, for example, those who are just.

Anyway, perhaps you too have something you find especially annoying, for
good reason, about how people use the English language. I think that one
need not be pedantic to stand up for using it right.

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