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Strictly Speaking

Toxic Usage: Poisoned Expression


Here’s another legitimate, specific and limiting word that has been hijacked into misuse, simply because it is so short, punchy and evokes immediate fear and dread in listeners. Since news programs thrive on creating anxiety, they are unlikely to be scolded into correction, even when they are dead wrong. Misuse makes them wrong, and many toxins will make them dead. But a toxin is a poison that is evolved by natural selection in certain predators (snakes, scorpions, wasps, bees, ants, fish, lizards and spiders, plants, bushes, fruits and mushrooms) with one of two purposes: (1) either to incapacitate its prey, or (2) to make it inedible to animals inclined to prey on, and eat, it. If the substance, like phosgene gas, has not evolved by natural selection, it is not a toxin, and therefore cannot, by definition, be toxic. It can be poisonous, deadly, lethal and any number of other fairly applicable adjectives

But toxic?

Not on your life. In terms of communicating vital information, the narrowest and most exact application of a word is the most useful in evoking a correct meaning, and in seeking the appropriate remedy to a problem.

In writing contracts, lawyers use exact, commonly understood words to create a set of agreements between parties, one that the courts can easily interpret and on which they can consistently rule. In law, at least, a word cannot be claimed to mean one thing to one party and another to another party. If you’re puzzled as to what use should be applied where toxin does not, it’s poison.  Read More 
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As You Like It, or Not


Like has become the interjection of choice in today’s usage, the crutch sound without which every other sentence seems unable to limp into vocalization and perhaps proof irrefutable the linguists are right, that whatever comes out of mouths and passes lips ultimately depends on the inference and nuance machinery of the listeners.

But the echolalic use of “like” seems in some weird linguistic way to parallel the phenomenon of junk DNA, sitting within a genome as witness to hitchhiker or invading organism that came and saw, but did not conquer. Instead they just hung around to be useless.

Like is one of the junk DNA fragments of language, obligatory to prove that you have been hearing everyone else say like, and glomming on to be trendy, to belong, to disappear in sameness because real expression is too daring, too risky, too individualistic

The frequent use of like suggests that you cannot be liked unless you are using it, and will draw attention to yourself as a snotty egghead commie East coast liberal snob if you manage to connect a working train of thought to its vocal expression without once backpedaling into this word.

Saying like makes you recognizable as a person who doesn’t need to know the difference between like and as, since both produced similes and similes are cool, even if you don’t know that they’re similes any more than you know what synedoche means.

You know, like it’s like I don’t want to be so unlike other people who use like because nobody will hook up with me on Facebook and my life will be over. Everybody on FaceBook will dislike me because I’ve boycotted like and feel, like, you know, isolated and needing a good gun show to break out of it, dude.

It’s likeness we’re seeking, not difference.

If you’re different, I mean, like my God! Or don’t like my God. But at least think of it! Read More 
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Agreement in Number

IS ( + plural noun)

Structured language has evolved with mathematical underpinnings. Its parts of speech correlated to mathematical signs and equations. Used correctly, any communicative sentence is assembled in a self-checking way, like DNA encoding for synthesizing unique proteins, and for only those proteins required.

Current usage has become so casual that its mathematical checking program has collapsed. One of the most common and illustrative examples of this is the connection of the present tense singular of the verb to be (‘is”) with a plural noun. In contraction this might me “There’s some trees down the road.”

Problem: the singular “is” and plural “trees” are not in agreement in number. Correct would be “There are some trees down the road,” or “Trees are down the road a bit.” Technically the failure is in agreement in number between the subject and verb.

Correct language always provides certainty that an intended meaning is spoken or written by allowing the listener or reader to hear or see that singular subjects agree with singular forms of verbs, and plural subjects agree with plural forms of verbs.

If singular is preferred, it is handy to know that the trees may be clumped into groves, copses, lines, woods and forests. Singular predication is possible here, because these collective units are unitary. So "There's a grove of trees beyond the ridge," works.

In its requirements for agreement, English is both undemanding and informative but not tyrannical. Romance languages require agreement in number and gender between subject and predicate.

Rarely but occasionally English nouns have genders, but usually they are traditional and vanishing. For example, a ship was historically referred to as she. So, “She went down with all men aboard,” was not read, as in modern times is might be, “And a promiscuous woman she no doubt was.” Read More 
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Despite an inclination of word processing spell check to accept this usage, the thinking person will carefully consider the advantages of using a word that apparently hybridizes irrespective with regardless.

When decomposed to constituent parts, both of these words present meanings that are quite clear: (1) irrespective means without respect to; and (2) regardless means less regard, or without regard to.

Both irrespective and regardless mean that after considering a former point, it weighs less in the subsequent argument than it is purported to mean. By contrast, irregardless means without regarding a less regarded point. In other words, the derivative opposite of the two independent words that have fused to create it.

While no word is tagged substandard in the descriptive era, here is a word that reverses its intent mid-syllable, and turns intended meaning on its head. Among thinking people, its use is likely to be a social setback for the user. Read More 
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Measurement of 'Amount'


While striving to simplify and economize on all other expressions for quantity, the commonly used word "amount" – much loved by sportscasters – actually accomplishes the reverse.

“Amount” suffers from the ills that plague all attempts to create a product where one size fits all: in the mind of careful and curious listeners it leaves confusion rather than sharpening understanding or providing greater clarity.

If fair, one must concede that sharpening understanding or providing clarity by any commentary when the medium is primarily visual, and in which the viewer may mute the sound track and simply watch the game, is unimportant. But if true, it argues against the need for any talking heads between the images of the ongoing game and Johnny Sixpack and his lovely wife Marge and their three fidgety children, Johnny, Jr., Elmo, and Breakdance.

This admirable model of minimal commentary already exists with BBC sports coverage, where the announcers say only what’s needed to prevent somnolence in their viewers – to wit, as little as possible. Despite a British leader who, according to a White House statement had big cahones and was our staunchest ally in a misguided invasion of an ungovernable oil field, it remains unpatriotic to suggest that well-paid familiar faces should get six-figure salaries for keeping their mouths shut. By long-standing American tradition, they are expected to kill dead air, whether what they say makes any sense or not.

What else would a network do during times-outs, official reviews and half-times? Interpose the old test pattern with the politically incorrect Amerindian surrounded by converging battalions of hash-marks?

No. Here, before, during and after sports broadcasts with rating’s higher than Neilsen’s theme for Midnight Cowboy ever went, nonstop lips are expected to speak with almost philosophical splendor about both differentials (see deferential, which appears alphabetically after c, and therefore, after b and a, too) and amounts, without realizing not only that one size does not fit all, but that a word unsuitably large will result with your “a” for ass hanging out, and one too small with leave your proverbials in a fiercely uncomfortable squeeze.

And so the Goldie Locks rule applies: that you need something that is just the right size to fit the little girl, or, metaphorically, the situation.

The word “amount” collapses both from overreaching and underachieving. When a sports caster remarks on the “amount” of hair adorning a Samoan-Hawaiian-American football player. Here’s the ethnic gaffe. Samoan hair is glorified by its illusion of immeasurabilty, a celebration in pilation not just in symbolic length and stiffness, but in chaos, a Polynesian equivalent of the peaked dictators’ uniform cap, the one that is by design and intention always three inches taller at the highest point than the hat on the head of the joint chiefs of staff. Ergo, Samoans would object strenuously to having the amount of their hair discussed on nationally telecasted game, with as much right as they would to having any other measure of their manhood discussed.

But if – and only if – they captured and sedated a Samoan who was open to discussing said “amount” without first ripping off the announcer’s head and speaking to it in shouts, the question, as with any other thinking person would be, “What do you mean by amount? How are you measuring amount? Is it length? Or is it thickness? It is mass? Or is it volume in bushels? Are optical illusions in play when you estimate without accounting for color? And how can you assume, knowing that I come from a culture where hair is prized, that I wouldn’t try extenders or tie-ons, or apron wigs on the back to enhance the ‘amount’ of my hair? And how can you discuss the 'amount' of my hair with so little attention that your discussion of the ‘amount’ of my hair is likely to have on my family or girl friend? Finally, what amount – and here I mean cc’s of undiluted pure substance – of Halcyon do you think will be necessary once I recycle my own testosterone internally and watch the re-attachment of your nonstop mouth to your nonexistent brain?”

Bottom line, before or after bottoms are kicked for imprecision: “amount” has its uses, but they are limited. It should be reserved for conditions or emotions or anything else that by its nature cannot be quantified, because units of measure are impossible: love, hate, fear, happiness, delight, remorse, shock, depression, etc. When units of measure do exist for expressing something, even hair, use either the word “quantity” or use the appropriate unit instead of amount: length, thickness, weight, volume, number of curls per unit of length, number of live hair roots or follicles per square root of area. And if this seems, at the end of all the measuring, that it might seem pointless or trite or boring and irrelevant, it might also follow that attempts to measure an athlete’s presence in a field of sport by other than his (or her) play does not, even as measured by the desire of the audience, really add anything that improves on the BBC’s traditional measured silence. Read More 
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Speech, Social Image and Intelligence, Part 2

Until the publication of Webster’s Third International Dictionary in 1960, lexicography was organized proscriptively, not descriptively. To the benefit of clarity in communication, words had definitions. If you looked these definitions up, you wouldn’t make the mistake of using “insipid” when you meant “inspired.”

Under proscriptive lexicography, one’s use of language could be taken as a social class distinction. And it was. Individuals interviewing for corporate positions were not just expected to dress and walk well, and to know Emily Post, but to have exactly the right word at the tips of their tongues, because, after all, the tongue is not all that far from the brain.

But when lexicography’s organizational principle changed from proscriptive to descriptive, previous notations such as “substandard” and “vulgar” were dropped. The words were take to mean things according to the way that the greatest number of people used or misused them, whether or not that connected to previous definitions. An era emerged, and is emerging, where it meant less whether spoken expressions made sense than it did whether the speaker seemed to believe that they did, and dared anyone to question the underlying meaning. There is, in the end, no sense in asking a speaker to repeat what has been said if it made no sense the first time around.

The result of dragooning and conscripting words into a diffracting farrago of misperceived intentions was a proliferation of new usages that destroyed the specificity that previously empowered the English language. Like a drunken orgy of noise, it kicked open a gate to cacophonous stand-up comics where anything uttered meant anything imagined, and where “whatever” defiantly demands, “What difference it could possibly mean?”

In other words (by whatever definition) it welcomed nonsensical oxymoronic words like “irregardless” and laid out a carpet for carelessness and misusage that made the expression of intellect socially stigmatizing. Implicit in a lexicon organized on the frequency of a word’s use is that it no longer has to connect to its linguistic roots, or to decompose into parts that formerly provided indelible clarity.

A growing preoccupation with computer technology has certainly conspired to undermine clarity and eloquence. And here it is not simply the clutter of jargon, where invoking a sufficient string of buzz words in a muddled context can confer the illusion of expertise. It is that the spell checkers were exalted to the status of expert grammarians, whereas – despite the vaunted power of computer memories – all spell check programs suffer from three recurrent flaws:

(1) they are vastly underpopulated, reducing the power of the program to serve as an educational tool, or to elevate the IQ of young users;

(2) they include words that were being applied incorrectly, or neologisms like Sarah Palin’s “refudiate” and “squirmish,”

(3) they are imperfectly edited, which is to say that they contain spellings that (irrespective of meaning) are not only wrong, but display that the compiler has no training or knowledge in how phonemes are conventionally arranged. A specific example from Word Perfect’s spell check, which has graduated from version to version without correction, is advising that “kidnaped” is the proper spelling for “kidnapped.”

Charging down the information superhighway approaching t the speed of light, you will find the suggestion that if you are forced to be succinct, you can Tweet your way to brilliance. Not so. Consider a genuinely brilliant expression of human anguish, Hamlet’s soliloquy on existence. Listen to it performed, spoken. Hear the nuance in the pauses. And now think about how you can Tweet the same thing.

You can’t.

Compression is something employed at the tailgate of a garbage truck to get all the rubbish to stay in place until they can unload it at the dump. Expression and meaning require range. They don’t require the glossolalia of Melville, but you’ll never get there via Beavis and Butthead.

Enough said.

Now it’s time to listen. Because making a case that language is decaying to tribal noise requires some attention to what is being said, and being said often, as well as what is not being said. It requires analyzing the equivalent of what in 1826 Ludwig Andreas Feurerbach reprhased from Anthelme Brittat-Savarin 1826 original as the German, “Der Mensch ist, was er isst: “We are what we eat.” In language, in speech, in communication, we can never express in speech without correct use of the appropriate words.

If your mind is fed from at an early age by a cornucopia or rich, meaningful words, you digest these in your mind, understand them, and use them. If on the other hand you are fed lexicographic junk food, your mind will be malnourished. It cannot summon or deploy what it does not know. Read More 
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Speech, Social Image and Intelligence, Part 1


By alternating compression and rarefaction of a transmitting medium, sound waves can be propagated from a source. If these waves reach a detector capable of converting these patterns into recognizable patterns, information can be communicated. This requirement is a most generalized one, and allows for sounds generated naturally by living species into either air or water to reach other members of their species, or of other species who are hunting them or seeking to hide from them.

In application, this concept allows extension of vocalization to be applied beyond air and water into electrical impulses traveling through telegraph or telephone wires, or into electromagnetic signals for WiFi units, or to radio telescopes generating longer frequency electromagnetic radiation reaching out toward other possibly inhabited planets.

When vocalization is patterned and organized, it can communicate information vital to the safely and survival of a group. As mentioned, arboreal monkeys emit a series of noises that embed warnings to their troops: unmistakably distinct shrieks for eagle, or snake, or leopard. Sometimes the capacity for generating and detecting sounds can assist packs in hunting their prey, as in echolocation used by creatures as diverse as bats and dolphins, or specific early human sounds that might have indicated “down there” or “left” to a group tracking mammoths or mastodons.

In every case where information conveys an advantage to survival, communication has evolved, even when it involves no sound at all. Ants leave scent trails to guide their nest mates to food, and bees perform elaborate dances to guide their kind to the best sources for honey. And while it is true that experiments with other primates has revealed a capacity to use computer key-languages like Yerkish to express wishes, feelings, hope, intents, and even pleasure, these experiments have not yet established what for now appears to be a uniquely human ability to create infinitely embedded complete thoughts by extension from a single starting point, or referent.

It is this ability, illustrated by the human capacity to extend, potentially ad infinitum the children’s story, “The House that Jack Built” that has allowed Noam Chomsky to calculate that the human brain lacks an adequate populations of neurons and synaptic connections to perform this linguistic feat by recall alone. Unless the verse following “that lived in the house that Jack built” is always and forever predictable and repetitious, and unless it always appears invariant in the same order and place in the march of the story, then an argument is admitted, reductio ad absurdum, that the human mind contains within it, and beyond the mathematically limit of its number of connections, an inherent biochemical program for creating and expressing thoughts, a very efficient natural machine that lacks any limitation on novel expressions.

Communication is the basic requirement for human intellectual growth. Language of some form is its means. This does not mean that the language needs to be articulated sounds. But it does mean that some system must assist the advancement of conception and expression within the brain to include others who may assist in the creative process or transmit its method to future generations. Many human individuals born deaf learn sign language and achieve as well as fully as speaking people. The undergraduate population at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C. is exclusively deaf. This does not mean that they cannot be trained to speak; it simply means that they cannot hear sounds. But in fact, deaf people have a distinct advantage over normal hearing people in at least one theater of communication: scuba diving.

Most scuba masks and regulators are without pick-up mikes, leaving hearing people stuck with a minium number of hand signals for “Are you okay?,” “I’m out of air,” or tapping on a watch crystal to indicate “Time to ascend.” By contrast, deaf people arrive underwater with a full range of complete communication signs to enrich their experience. Yet both deaf and hearing people, not to mention blind people, need to acquire some form of linguistic expression before they are nine years old, or they will never speak at all.

In a royal determination to discover the “natural language of man” Frederick of Prussia sequestered a nursery full of infants (a word that means, literally, as “without language”) to be cared for by nurses, to be fed and changed, brought toys, played with, hugged, kissed, but never spoken to. Eventually, the monarch was convinced, in that way that too many powerful strong-willed individuals are convinced, that one of these children would discover the spark of spoken expression, and things would take off from there, settling the question.

It isn’t clear what he expected. Probably fluent German, or perhaps Esperanto, a perfectly regular invented language that enjoyed a brief popularity during the early twentieth century. But what emerged instead from these children, despite Frederick’s sustained expectation, was a collective lifetime of silence. Unstimulated by any language, individuals will not spontaneously generate their own.

On the face of it, this result seems to stove in the keel off of Chomsky’s idea of neurally embedded language, but in fact it simply imposes a caveat. Language is not simply a neural manifestation alone. It does not arise by a genetically programmed germination of a primal, tangled nexus of language cells growing slowly from an individual’s birth until they connect with the tongue, mouth and vocal cords. So, what is it?

The development of language in individual humans is a profoundly social phenomenon. Both nature and nurture are required. No one would agree with that more, or more eloquently, than a person who could not originally speak. Or see. Or hear. Her name was Helen Keller and she fought a losing battle of obstinance against a teacher and disciplinarian as unyielding in her devotion to instruction as Helen was to rebellion and riot against her isolating handicap.

The teacher’s name was Annie Sullivan, and she introduced Helen, slowly, to the world around her, not by waiting to see what language Helen might spontaneously produce, but by guiding her through a dark, silent world that terrified and confused her. Eventually Helen Keller learned to read by braille and to vocalize language, becoming an inspiration for disabled persons, an eloquent spokesperson for special education, and one of the most admired, recognized, celebrated and awarded people in the world.

Helen Keller’s parents were rich. And impatient. They didn’t mind paying Annie Sullivan to sacrifice her life for their daughter, but this kind of 24/7 care is unavailable through public school systems. Nevertheless, Helen Keller took that one great leap for humanity by establishing that a combination of intelligence and stimulus are essential to mastering language, and to providing that person with the tools for emerging as a fully functioning social individual, expressing her own potential to its maximum.

Somewhere between Frederick of Prussia’s strict but cruel scientific experiment and Annie Sullivan’s determined triumph over a rebellious young girl are a few sad cases of individuals reared by misguided parents who failed detection by social services systems. These include a boy in Los Angeles locked away from birth in a closet who was never spoken too, but who overheard fragments of speech. Words or phrases only, faintly and infrequently, through his door. And a young girl in Russia who was put out in shed because her parents wanted a son. She was fed with the dogs, slept with them, and fell into a quadrupedal gait, adopting some of the social conventions of canines, like licking to groom. Both of these children were discovered and rescued, then committed to what was hoped might be a remedial course of linguistic advancement. They did not want for resources or attention.

The national and international media followed the story – until, as with all media stories, another story of greater interest supplanted it. But in the end, for all of the efforts of authorities and academics, these two children – while exhibiting a delight at the stimuli of an open world and learning many words – could not advance to the Chomsky threshold of exploring those infinitely embedded verses within The House that Jack Built. Their capacity seemed to hit some kind of cognitive wall at the ability to recognize and identify objects by the correct noun, and their ability to express their basic desires, such as seeing a glass of lemonade and saying, “Want.”

As regards the consequences of acquiring language for human development, there seem to be well characterized requirements, the sine qua nons not just of expression, but of developing advanced analytical thinking. The first is being taught language, and using it in social, often familial contexts. As mathematician and philosopher Jacob Bronowski observed, “I began life speaking Polish. It was my native language. Today I remember not a word of Polish, but if I had not learned a language then, I would be without one now.”

One of the greatest novelists in the English language made the same trek. Joseph Conrad, author of Heart of Darkness and The Nigger of the Narcissus, spoke Polish as a first language, then forget it entirely. This is another fact in favor of Chomsky, also a Pole. Language is not accumulated word-by-word and strung together as necessary; it is a neural machine that can be reprogrammed as long as the original wiring is properly stimulated and developed by a certain age.

The second consequence of language is that individuals who are exposed to a large range of expression and large vocabulary are provided a linguistic tool kit with which they can say exactly what they mean, because they are not limited by the absence of specific nouns and verbs.

English provides a wealth of range in its specific and accurate nouns and its vivid, invigorating verbs. In households where complex conversation leaps back and forth at the dinner table, and where books line the walls, and where education is valued and rewarded, the children not only perform better in school, but they are better able to perform better in school.

In other words, despite the belief that an individuals IQ is a fixed part of their birth package, the data shows quite irrefutably that children with larger working vocabularies have higher IQs than socially comparable children with smaller vocabularies, even when the samples contain members from the same family. So it is not just genetics and nurture, it is about curiosity and initiative.

The third consequence of language is that its usage is often taken as a sign of intelligence and disciplined thinking, whether or not that assumption is otherwise verified. In other words, perceptions that are real are real in their consequences. More attention is likely to be directed to an individual who measures their words carefully and modulates presentation than is to a person who is always stumbling over malapropisms. Probably in an attempt to “connect” to the average voter, former President George W. Bush descended into such a tangle of linguistic baboonery that it wasn’t clear whether his real calling shouldn’t have been a stand-up comedian. By counterexample to Helen Keller, Bush miraculously graduated from Andover, Yale and Harvard Business School without any apparent ability to forge a coherent thought into words. And the lesson from this is fairly easy. Don’t talk dumb unless you want to be regarded as dumb. Read More 
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