Friday, 4 July 2008
Now that I have your attention, I’m sorry to disappoint you. This posting will not feature photos of men with large genitalia. Nor, however, does my title to refer to the bizarre and little-known punishment, confined it seems to Mel Brooks’ vision of the old American West, of hanging a horse for being a man thief. For that, you see, the phrase would be “hanged like a horse,” which is, my friends, the point of this posting.
Feeling a bit hazy? Don’t worry—you’re in good company. It seems that even the most literate of us kitties has trouble remembering that when a human being (or, presumably, another animal subjected to capital punishment or accidental death) is the object of “hang,” the proper past tense form of the verb is “hanged.” When is the last time you heard someone say, “He hanged himself”? Assuming you don’t work at a suicide crisis center, probably a while. But I bet you’ve heard “he hung himself” a time or three lately, nicht wahr?
Perhaps you feel this distinction is too trivial to merit mention. I admit that I do not have my usual reaction of gagging followed by a discrete spewing of projectile vomit when the humans of my acquaintance or in the media or both fail to make it. Yet I must fight against the slippery slope, that muddy slide that has brought us such indignities as “infer” for “imply,” “nutritional” for “nutritious,” and “paternalistic” for “paternal.” I mean, it’s bad enough to be accused of expending your energy reading another person’s mind when you are in fact using that precious commodity to convey, tacitly, some unpalatable fact or opinion. Perhaps Martin Buber’s formulation will help: I imply; thou infers.
Still, it’s far worse to be told that a particular food is merely “nutritional,” i.e. that it is food, when it is in fact packed with vitamins, minerals, meat, vegetables, and flavonoids. Ditto for “paternalistic”: “Paternal” is a beautiful word with a beautiful meaning; the –istic suffix is there to turn it into a distortion. Please let’s not lose that rather large distinction between fatherly and chauvinistically authoritarian. (Funny how you never hear “maternalistic.” Hmmm… I’ll let the feminists chew on that one.)
Speaking of chewing, it’s time for my dinner. Meowlicious AND nutritious!
Thursday, 19 June 2008
Miss Kitty Literate purrs with pleasure at many things: among them elegant use of language, a song well sung, prolonged massages, and the commentary of Pier Massimo Forni, professor of Romance Languages at
Last week, as I listened to the admirable Dr. Forni discuss his book with Diane Riehm, I was delighted to hear him cite “oversized portions of self-esteem” as one reason for the current crop of astonishingly rude people inhabiting every corner of society. And, as I pondered the linguistic implications of our cultural overemphasis on self-esteem at the expense of humility, and on entitlement rather than earned self-confidence, a cockroach of a sentence skittered across my consciousness:
“Are you okay with that?”
Sounds harmless, doesn’t it? But listen and look again. Look at the subject. Remember when the standard question was “Is that okay with you?” There is a world of difference in the reversal of subject and prepositional object, my friends. In the former case, the emphasis is on whatever you are asking the person to comment upon—a plan, a choice of restaurant, a wedding date, maybe even a situation requiring acceptance of a bitter reality. In the latter, you (or I) become the center of attention. The sentence morphs into an extension of “are you okay?”, an inquiry into a person’s state of being, not his or her opinion or reaction. Thus, with a simple switch of parts of speech, we have fallen into Narcissus’s pond, where nothing really matters but one’s own reflection. Such a construction is not only narcissistic, it also gives off the nostril-curling odor of victimization. Hmmm… narcissism and victimization—is it any wonder that such pervasive values turn up in the seemingly most innocuous turns of phrase?
So, please, dear readers, do yourselves a favor and return to the older construction, the one that puts you at a prepositional remove from the matter at hand. Not only does it sound better, it will make you feel better, for wouldn’t you rather toss off a jaunty or pointed “It’s (not) okay with me” than a cringing or wingeing, “I’m (not) okay with that”?
And if you think I’m picking the fly shit out of the pepper, then please feel free to express yourself, as the exquisitely polite Professor Forni puts it, through the art of finger puppetry.
Monday, 19 May 2008
I live in
*Credit for this one goes to my friend and recovering communication consultant Geary Cogsnest.
Wednesday, 14 May 2008
“Dave’s point seems to be around governance.”
“There was an analysis done around this.”
To continue that thought, are we just talking laziness here? Does it take too much energy to come up with prepositional phrases that actually describe what you’re talking about? Or is it a contagion? I don’t know. I’ll have to think around it.
Friday, 9 May 2008
A total digression: Today on Radio Lab, a science show on my public radio station, they profiled a researcher who discovered that rats laugh when they play and when they are tickled by humans. Incredulity on the part of the hosts ran through the piece. Why? Why are human animals so stupid about other animals? Of course rats laugh! Why wouldn’t they? (Though lab rats don’t have a whole lot to laugh about, which does make it kind of incredible that they still do.) Sorry, Aristotle and all other dominionists, we are no closer to the angels than any given mirthful rodent.
Monday, 28 April 2008
If you read the first blog you'll see a reference at the end to "hold your tongue," which was the old name of the blog. It turns out that someone else has a blog of the same name; hence the change. So the title goes, but the sentiment stays the same. Sorry for the confusion!
Hi. I’m Kitty Literate and I have a language problem.
Please do not think of this blog as a prescriptive grammar book or me as a stuffy schoolmarm shaking her finger at you every time you say “who” instead of “whom.” It’s about style, in all senses of the word, and about taking care of your tools. I chose “hold your tongue” for its double meaning: one, watch what you say (and I don’t mean censor cussing or slang or other wonderful, creative aspects of language); and two, hold your language dear.