Category Archives: Grammar/Usage

Times are changing. We are not.

I saw the subject line of this post on a billboard north of Houston some time ago, advertising a local church, and I’ve continued to think about it since, in terms of the differences between the labels “conservative” and “liberal.” These terms are incredibly loaded, of course. But I want to discuss them first before remarking on the sign further.

I tend to think of “conservative” as a philosophy that rejects change for change’s sake, a sort of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” variant. Certain ideals, government structures, cultural values, etc. are seen as needing preservation in their present state. This philosophy is not opposed to ANY change – just change seen as unnecessary, destructive, or rushed. Change is recognized as inevitable, but in need of careful management and review. This philosophy naturally leads to a brand of individualism that ironically undercuts itself; you are free to be an individual as long as you toe the value line.

Likewise, I tend to think of “liberal” as a philosophy that sees certain kinds of change as being artificially slowed by conservative stances when they need to be sped up, even in the face of majority rule that disagrees. It’s not a ‘change for change’s sake’ philosophy, either, but change is viewed as less of a threat and more of an opportunity. This philosophy naturally leads to egalitarianism, which favors the whole over the individual.

I should note that neither of these philosophies is inherently democratic (and both are vulnerable to charges of utilitarianism.) Democracy is yet another philosophy that insists issues should be resolved through some kind of majority vote that is determined through representatives of the people, whether by election, lot, or some other method. Democracy, in other words, is built to subsume conservatism and liberalism.

Back to the sign – “Times are changing. We are not.” This is beyond conservatism, which recognizes that change is ok if controlled, and into the realm of fundamentalism. As Karen Armstrong and others have noted, fundamentalism is an inherently modern philosophy; it does not try to preserve the past as much as demand a return to a past that may or may not have actually existed. As such fundamentalism requires the presence or perception of liberal-style change or it has no casus belli. Fundamentalism sees itself as an island preserve trying to hold the line against a jungle of chaos. It professes, even, a special, timeless, immunity to change. Change may even be characterized as cyclical and passing, something to be weathered until a future time.

The reason I like the sign so much is that it’s so vague and yet simultaneously quite specific. It’s a church advertisement, complete with a black and white photo of a white-haired man I assume is a leader in the church; therefore, the change referenced is almost certainly religious/theological in nature, even though it is not identified. As such, it is ALL religious/theological change of any kind. Furthermore, the verb in the second sentence, ‘are not,’ is also curious. It is not ‘will not’ or ‘can not’ or ‘have not’ or even ‘are not changing’ or ‘are not going to’ – it is the non-specific present ‘are not’. The verb in the first sentence is progressive, describing a process still occurring; if ‘changing’ is simply reduced from the second sentence, the sentence has the irony of having a progressive verb describe the absence of change.

Someone decided – a minister, a group of deacons, a church support organization, etc – to put up this sign and pay for it. Its message is therefore not trivial to them. And yet it is independent of history. Assuming it’s a Protestant organization of some sort, by definition the congregation’s values stem from the Reformation, which certainly qualifies as a pretty big religious change. So the sign’s claims must be more historically short-term, namely “Times are changing. We are currently advocating a religious worldview dating to year X that holds Y and has no current plans to deviate from its beliefs, unlike everyone else.” The colorful history of Christianity does not allow the sign’s claim; churches can seem to be bastions of non-change, but the plethora of versions of the religion that have exploded in the last few hundred years undercuts this claim. Religion is not immune to changes, whether temporary waystations want it to change or not.

However, the appeal of the sign remains to those who want to believe change can and should be held off, which is where fundamentalism and conservatism start to blend together. I could critique liberalism in the same way, as it can be pushed into a ‘change for change’s sake’ mode that is equally illogical.

Wise Men Still Seek Him

Saw this on a church sign this morning; it’s yet another ambiguous entry due to compression. Does it mean:

a) Contemporary wise men through history, like the ‘wise men’ of Matthew 2:1 (in Greek, the ‘majoi,’ some sort of magicians or astrologers from the east, perhaps Zoroastrians), seek Jesus just like the magi did, though in a more spiritual than physical sense;
b) Similar as a), but physically – wise men are literally hunting in modern-day Israel and the West Bank for Jesus like the magi did;
c) Similar to a) or b), but only contemporary wise men, not throughout history;
d) A criticism of contemporary ‘wise men’ – they’re STILL seeking him? Give up already, dudes;
e) ‘Him’ lacks an antecedent and may be anyone, perhaps even a concept like a masculine Wisdom.
f) Only ‘wise’ men still seek him; the rest, apparently of mere average or lower intelligence, do not;
g) Wise women don’t or can’t seek him, unlike men.

The ambiguity of signage

I spent a lot of time when driving (and I have done a lot of driving in the last two weeks) looking at signs. A great deal of them momentarily confuse me as they can be interpreted several different ways.

For example, on a fast food restaurant, “FOUR MEALS FOR UNDER 4.” Does this mean:

a) They have four meals, each priced under $4?
b) Four meals are available together for a price less than $4?
c) They have four meals for those under 4 years of age?

The answer is almost certainly a), but how do I know that? Genre. I know fast food restaurants group foods together in meals for a flat rate, and $4 seems rather low for four meals, unless they consisted of frozen bean burritos. However, it does seem possible that they might be launching new meals aimed at children, but 4 years old seems an odd cutoff date, and there is no ‘those’ or ‘children’ after ‘for’, giving the preposition a easily discernible object. Likewise, ‘FOUR MEALS, EACH PRICED UNDER $4’ or ‘FOUR MEALS TOGETHER FOR UNDER $4’ would help.

Even simpler signs are also potentially ambiguous. ‘SPEED LIMIT 35’ might seem straightforward with its implied ‘THE SPEED LIMIT IS 35 MILE PER HOUR’. But what if the verb is not a dropped IS, but SPEED, an imperative? Then there appears to be a limit to how many vehicles can speed, which is 35, or, perhaps, that you are required to speed, but can go not faster than 35. Some speed limit signs helpfully post both a minimum and a maximum speed – ‘SPEED LIMIT 55 MINIMUM 45’ or delineate by type of vehicle, as in ‘SPEED LIMIT 65 TRUCKS 55,’ but either way, there is a lot of verb reduction. ‘THE SPEED LIMIT IS 55 MILES PER HOUR AND THE MINIMUM SPEED IS 45 MILES PER HOUR’ requires a rather large sign to be readable at speed, but the compression leads to ambiguity. Note I’ve assumed MPH rather than KPH.

What about the ultimate compression in road signage, STOP? Is this an imperative that means ‘STOP IMMEDIATELY’ (the adverb makes it clear STOP is a verb) or an noun that simply exists (‘A STOP IS HERE’)? There are such stops, and there noun-ness is confirmed by adjective use (BUS STOP), although BUS can be a noun itself, making STOP again an imperative. Since buses do stop at bus stops, the sign can handle either interpretation.

Not the method, but the presence

What bothers me about this piece on exam cheating is not the method used by Caveon; it’s the presence of the company as a private for-profit doing the job of teachers. The article doesn’t discuss the ethics of this situation at all, though it sometimes  implies such a critique is forthcoming.

American educators have had to play games with academic book publishers for well over a century; if you accept a book for your course, it eases the teaching task greatly but also restructures it in ways that are not easily controllable, even if you use a ‘teach against the book’ pedagogy, which is great for graduate students but doesn’t always work well with undergraduates. As such, the publishers and their authors can very easily end up ‘teaching’ courses. If it’s a good, well-organized book that matches your teaching style, great; sometimes, though, the selection is limited.

In general, l am suspicious of any for-profit intrusions into academia and the secondary school system that may replace functions usually performed by teachers; this is one of the reasons I refuse to use services such as Turnitin. If a student manages to plagarize their way through my course without me detecting it, shame on me; it’s my job to be able to discern differences in student writing ability and style over the course of a semester. If I couldn’t do that, I wouldn’t be able to teach writing, let alone estimate the effects of my efforts.

The exam genre is a bit different, though. I’m not sure what I would do if I worked in a field that always measured student success by exam. Probably it would involve individualizing each exam, perhaps by rearranging questions, introducing subtle changes in calculations, and keeping enough complexity to make a text message answer difficult. That’s a lot of work, though, both on the grading end (unles I wrote a program to sort out the differences between each exam to streamline grading) and on the explanatory end if I wanted to go over the exam with the students afterward (something I do regularly in my grammar class that partially measures students by exam, but I can’t recall ever having a professor do so in any subject when I was a undergrad).

a slow way to the asylum

There’s a billboard on the way home from work that drives me crazy every time I see it – it’s been there for at least a year or more, an advertisement for some sort of online job search, and consists of the following:

What is the better decision?

  • Having the job you want
  • Desiring a job

This astounding display of semantic nonsense works its voodoo on me like I was a 1970’s supercomputer gone sentient; my mental reel-to-reel machines start spinning uncontrollably, tape and punchcards eject randomly, and then there is a minor explosion, followed by smoke and metallic wheezing.

Having the job you want is not a decision. It is a state. I could decide to get a job, surely; I could even decide that I want a job, even. But I cannot decide to be having a job. I could diagram such a sentence – it’s not ungrammatical – but it would be laughable. There is something very off-putting about having an infinitive as a direct object that in turn has a participle as its object, surely, but it is even more off-putting to claim that possession of a job is a mere decision to be made by the job-seeker.

Likewise, desiring a job is not a decision. I can desire a job; I can, also, desire to have a job. But I can’t decide to desire a job. Either I desire a job or I don’t. It’s like asking someone to decide to be breathing.

Even rearranged – “Having the job you want is the better decision” – provokes a mental BSOD. Cannot compute! It’s the English language counterpart to nails on a blackboard.

On big fucking deals

Yes, the new health care law is, in fact, a big fucking deal.

Fresh off a grammar class yesterday, though, I have to point out that ‘a fucking big deal’ would make the relationships in the noun phrase a bit clearer. ‘Fucking’ seems to be modifying ‘big’, not the other way around; otherwise, Biden is talking about a ‘fucking deal’, which doesn’t sound that great, and a ‘big fucking deal’ suddenly becomes not big at all.  In fact, a ‘fucking deal’ has probably escaped the mouth of more than a few Republicans lately.

I’m back from 4Cs, and while I had fun with the style workshop and the panel I spoke at on scholars in other fields that do rhetorical work (I talked about Mark Goodacre and the recently passed Michael Goulder), I continue to feel estranged and separated from the overall comp studies vibe. Once again, I found myself going only to panels on rhetoric and religion, or on some style or tech comm issue. It may be that I feel this separation because I’m no longer teaching comp, and the issues of such classrooms  no longer seem as pressing or intense as they once did.

In other words, rhetcomp isn’t a big fucking deal to me right now. I wonder if this is how English folks outside rhetcomp feel. I’m pretty sure the second I stepped into a comp classroom the urgency would return and I would feel the same way that I did back in ’04 when I taught my first comp course, but you can’t go home again, not really. Besides, in many ways, the classes that I teach now allow me to deal more directly with rhetorical issues than FYC ever did.  More on this later.

Out of the mouths of babes

It appears the tide is turning against the Heenes, and that the literal meaning of boy’s remark is increasingly likely. I wouldn’t have been surprised if it turned out the other way, though. As with adults, kids can answer questions in a rather tangential fashion.

For example, I was talking to a neighborhood kid the other day, a year or so younger than the “balloon boy,” and I asked him, in a purely non-accusatory and joking way, if he was the one who’s been feeding push pops to my dog through my backyard fence. Keep in mind that the boy was consuming a push pop while I asked him this and habitually rides his bike over and over past said fence.

He responded, a trifle defensively, “I didn’t have one last night when they got out of the fence.”

Now that’s not what I asked him at all. To understand his response, you have to know that H and I recently rescued an odd yet inseparable pair of dogs straight out of a Pixar movie  – a pit bull and a Chihuahua – and had stored them overnight in the backyard until we found their owner the next day. Apparently the dogs had gotten out of our fence sometime that night, though, and the neighborhood kids had rounded them up and secured the gate. I knew this story before I asked him this question, so I knew he had misinterpreted my query, which was about my dog – my single dog, a boykin spaniel, who is usually the backyard’s only occupant – who I have discovered carrying around the still-sticky remains of a push pop in the backyard.

I’m still impressed by how he realized his possession of a push pop implied some sort of guilt by association, and he countered with a statement that is, as far as I know, truthful, yet did not deny any past acts of nefariousness – not that I care that Kara is getting push pops in the slightest.

You said we did this for a show

The little boy who was not, after all, lost in an errant homemade balloon came up with a zinger in an interview the other day. “You said we did this for a show.”

What this line means depends quite a bit on how  ‘show’ is understood. If it means ‘show’ in a general sense of ‘putting on a show,’ then the entire affair may be a hoax. However, if ‘show’ means a specific ‘show,’ such as the TV program the family has participated on in the past, then the boy’s confusion is far more innocent; he thinks he messed up an important shoot for a TV show.

There are two more complications when parsing this sentence. The first is the past tense verbs ‘said’ and ‘did’ – both are very unspecific about when the boy was told ‘this.’ Before the balloon left? After? Just before the interview?  The second complication is ‘this’: What is the antecedent? The entire balloon incident? The interview that was going on at the time?

English can certainly lack preciseness. My instinct is the boy used some unfortunate syntax – stuffing a vague relative clause into the object slot of ‘You said’ – that has been interpreted rather freely to implicate his parents. The next few days will tell.

You don’t get my ninja skills

While eating in the UHD cafeteria today (see last post) I saw a student with a T-shirt that said, “You don’t get my ninja skills,” and I wondered about how the verb “get” should be parsed. There are five different possibilities that I came up with immediately:

1) I will not waste my ninja skills on you.
2) I will not impart knowledge of my ninja skills to you.
3) I have ninja skills, and you will not be acquiring similar skills anytime soon, from me or anyone else.
4) My ninja skills are intrinsic and you cannot take them from me.
5) My ninja skills are beyond your comprehension.

There are two questions that are central to understanding here. One is whether or not the verb is active or passive, and the second is the nature of the  ninja skills in terms of transferability. I’m fairly certain 5) is the intended meaning. I should have asked him.