Define your Words Carefully

rogersgeorge on March 16th, 2017

Here is the lead sentence of a two-part article written by someone I generally respect. His material is thoroughly researched and clearly explained. However, I think he’s being a little too editorial here, pushing the boundary of meaning for effect rather than to convey information. At least he’s honest enough to describe in advance how he’s redefining the word.

I encounter so many myths and misunderstandings about rising sea level, in effect lies.

The article goes on to explain and correct some common misunderstandings. But to be a lie, a misstatement has to be deliberate and have the intent to deceive. Since he doesn’t name names, I don’t think he’s justified in calling them lies. I think most people who hold these incorrect positions are uninformed or misinformed, with no intention to deceive. In fact, that’s pretty much what he says as he redefines the word.

Harrumpf.

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Five Kinds of Bad Words

rogersgeorge on September 7th, 2016

This comic, Tina’s Groove, made me think of today’s post:

I was going to write about four kinds of bad words, but then I thought of a fifth. So here are five types of words that ought never appear in expository writing. (Yet I’m going to mention examples of these, and this post is expository. I guess using them as examples isn’t the same as actually using them. (This conundrum reminds me of Gödel’s proof, part of which proves that contradiction is inherent in all logical systems.) But I digress.)

Profanity. Profane is the opposite of holy. Profane means something like “having nothing spiritual about it.” We call profanity “four-letter words,” “Anglo-Saxon,” obscenities,” “dirty.”  Well, lots more euphemisms than those four; Google them if you like.  The strength of a profane expression is in how unacceptable in polite company the word is. In fact we have a whole vocabulary of profane expressions designed specifically to express different degrees of shock value, apparently to match one’s degree of disgust with one’s degree of politeness. The latest one, I think, is “Oh snap!” Pretty hard to connect that with anything dirty. We call these mild forms of profanity “minced oaths,” by the way. Apparently there’s a word for everything!

Oaths, also called swearing.  Yes, these terms are frequently used interchangeably with profanity, but there’s a technical difference. You swear an oath. Technically an oath is a type of promise in which you either call down some penalty on yourself if you’re not telling the truth, or you call on a higher authority to witness that you’re telling the truth. The verb is “swear,” and the noun is “oath.” These are oaths that you can swear:

  • Cross my heart and hope to die, stick a needle in my eye
  • By Jove!
  • I swear on my mother’s grave!
  • …so help me God

Real, conscious, sworn oaths aren’t necessarily bad, but they generally aren’t appropriate or necessary for explaining things, either.

Curses. A curse is a wish that harm will befall someone. (Or something. You can curse your computer, for example.) You can mince curses, too. You can say “Go jump in the lake,” or “Go to h-e-double toothpicks,” or “Why don’t you take up residence in Tophet?” Some curses aren’t quite obvious: “Just wait until you have teenagers!” My favorite curse is “I hope your grandchildren take up motorcycling.” I mutter it under my breath when someone in a car tries to kill me. But I don’t use curses when I explain something.

Insults. An insult is a way of telling someone that they are distasteful. The westerns of yesteryear were pretty creative with their insults. “Why you no-good yaller, lily-livered skunk, you” comes to mind. Shakespeare was pretty colorful with his insults. In fact I recall a website where you can construct your own in his style. Here’s another with referenced quotes. The best insults are ones when the insulted person doesn’t realize they’re being insulted. “I highly recommend you to my mother-in-law” has been used on at least one occasion. Some insults are unintentional or ambiguous, or intended to be humorous, so take care not to take offense easily if you think someone has insulted you. When you explain something in writing, you won’t insult someone by making it simple. They can always skip over that part.

Lies. You know what lies are, and lies come in degrees same as everything else listed in this post. The key is the intent. If you want someone to believe something that’s not so, it’s a lie. Being incorrect isn’t lying, but it’s a good idea to be correct or give fair warning about the possibility of error. Saying something that isn’t literally true isn’t a lie if it’s, say, a figure of speech, or understood to be humor. I guess parental exaggerations fall into this category: “I hope your face doesn’t freeze like that!” I’m a technical writer by trade, and I tell people that “I tell the truth for a living,” and every statement in this post is the truth. Except one.

Another Lie-Lay Post

rogersgeorge on March 11th, 2016

I’m cleaning out my saddlebags, and this two-year-old goody turned up. If you read this blog with any regularity at all, you probably have the lay-lie problem down pat, but here’s a comic about it, so I’ll share.

Pickles

The strip is called Pickles.

Remember, lie is intransitive. That means you can use it all by itself. Lay is transitive, which means it has to have a direct object. When you go to bed, you lie down. You can lay your head on the pillow, though. Lay the stick on the fire. Now it lies on the coals. So far so good.

So far this has all been in the present tense. The problem is when we get to the past tense. The past tense of lie is lay! So you have to watch the context to figure out the tense. For example,

Yesterday he lay on the couch all day.

Doesn’t sound right, does it? Lots of verbs put a –d at the end for the past tense, and we’re used to hearing that, so we tend to put a -d on the end of lie, but lied is already taken! it’s the past tense of lie meaning to tell an untruth, as in the comic. Maybe the solution is to try use the past progressive:

Yesterday he was lying on the couch all day.

Or the past perfect,

Yesterday he had lain on the couch all day.

Lay isn’t so bad. Its past tense is laid. There’s that -d to make a past tense verb:

He laid his head on the pillow.

Practice, and you’ll get the hang of it. Jot yourself a note and tape it to the wall where you can look at it whenever you want a reminder.

Lie Lay, Lain. Lie on the bed.

Lay Laid, Laid. Lay your head.

Maybe you want to sleep on it.

 

PS: Wouldn’t you know, Pickles had a follow-up:

A teacher gets it wrong, then right

rogersgeorge on January 20th, 2014

Two essentially unrelated Luann comics, except they feature the same two characters, first in 2006, the second in 2007. First, Miss Phelps gets one of my pet peeves wrong:

Luann

“Lies” happens to be correct. However, she catches the error in the next comic:

Luann

And, to answer Mr. Fogarty’s question in the first strip, the future was considered to be behind us by the ancient Greeks. They pictured us as moving backwards through time, because you can see the past, but you can’t see the future!

Yet another comic about grammar

rogersgeorge on December 28th, 2013

Last time I featured a curmudgeon who likes to correct certain mistakes in others’ grammar. Another battle that we curmudgeons are going to lose is using lay and lie correctly. LAY is TRANSITIVE, people! Harrumpf. You always should lay SOMETHING down. When you stretch out on the bed, it’s LIE down. See? No direct object. Harrumpf again.

So this guy in Speed Bump (Dec 21, 2013) got his revenge. Too bad he’s not around to enjoy all the grammarian teeth grinding he’s causing, and I wonder what he had to pay the monument guy to engrave his tombstone that way.

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I’ve mentioned this pair of verbs more than once in the past, by the way. Alas, my dear sweet wife does not belong to my grammatical camp.