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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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Linguistic Lithmus Tests

So like not me

Here's an expression as common as dirty, and about as helpful to meaning. It is said with the hope that those hearing it will automatically know what it is that pleases or displeases the speaker. Knowing exactly what the problem is requires Spock's Vulvcan mind meld.

It would be vastly more communicative if the speaker simply said, "I've never liked chartreuse or sweet drinks, so why would I buy a type of Gatorade that is both?" The problem a speaker has can be more clearly known by the use of a number of words like crass, tasteless, insensitive, rude, inappropriate or grotesque. Something that gives listeners a fair chance at grasping the objection immediately and specifically, or at least getting close.

The most troubling aspect of the proliferation of expressions like "So like not me," is that it is definitively self-referential. It expects everyone else to accept that the speaker is ultimately more deserving of understanding and sympathy than anyone else. There is a DSM code for self-referential people. Their chief characteristic is that they cannot see the world from other than their own preferences.

Better by far might be, for example, "John and I just don't have the same taste in art." This allows John his preferences and the speaker hers, projecting a mature recognition that people can differ, and that the speaker's need to have all conduct and expression relate to their standards is ego-maniacal intolerance. Read More 
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In scientific parlance, research came into usage to denote a process of structured inquiry involving experiments designed to test a hypothesis as part of a system designed to admit certain possibilities for further (not farther) consideration as theories, and in which theories remain until better theories appear, often as a result of new observations not embraced by existing theories.

In academics a distinction exists between a literature search, which means looking up what already exists in the scientific literature, and research. A literature search cites what is presumed to be currently known; research deals with what is not yet known, but which the researcher hopes that experiments will reveal. In short, research produces previously unknown data, facts or insights into the natural world.

Applying this narrow definition, the broader use of the word, as in research on the internet, attempts to dignify a process as more involved or structured or informative than the origin sense of the word intended. This is not a matter of evolution of language, but of devaluation of a rigorous process by extending the use to a highly informal one.

As regards research on the internet, unless restricted to peer-reviewed journals, the the process suffers from inclusion of material that is more often wrong than it is correct, and inclines toward separating the putative “researcher” from his or her hard-earned dollar.

At issue is the specificity of a word that is being stretched so that everyone with a computer can pretend to be a Ph.D. Even scholarly studies in comparative literature and history can’t be called research if the sources they turn up, however rare or forgotten or concealed, are already in existence at the time their search begins. Even so there are the matters of validation and reproducibility at issue with all matters where personal records, not instrumental readings, are cited.

The phenomenon in usage may be general. If another word were invented that were more demanding and specific and factual than the word research denotes or connotes, there would certainly be a word-grab to glom onto and deploy it in everyone’s arsenal of arguments, aiming, as the common australism puts it, to disclose, “the true facts.” Read More 
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Most is another one of those words that has spread out, amoeba-like, to consume another word or expression that more often applies better. Most is fine if you’re speaking of an unmeasurable quantity, such as attractiveness. Each year People magazine features a cover of the most attractive man alive, but it leaves some wondering, “attractive to whom?”

It is a good question since with each year the most attractive man alive changes.

So when no unit of measure is available for quantity, the word most is serviceable. When an argument can be fortified by reproducible measurements of standard units, the expression greatest number of, or volume greater than all other buildings combined, works better. It shows that you’re thinking about what you say, and not just falling into step with what’s being said. Read More 
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Mastication During Dinner


Not what you might think. Don’t chew on this one too long, because all is it means is to chew, even if, as with cows, it doesn’t lead to quick swallowing. Mutual mastication would require the presence of an extensive appetizer during osculation, as the latter word does not mean shopping for the right dress for the Oscars.

In order to create an impression of erudition, sports announcers try to stretch their expression using words they think fulfill their intentions. Often they don't. During the Sochi Olympics we were treated to one open mic that gave us, "Wow. The French relay went from austerity to fame!" I think he meant "obscurity." Austerity is a discipline he experienced in vocabulary. Later the same guy said, of the men's bobsled. "Here he makes a mistake, then tries to compound it." I have to wonder if he shouldn't have just stuck with "correct." And in the waning days of the Games, one commentator on (yes) NPR asked if the Russians intended to "dissemble" the venues after the Olympics. Here I'm guessing, "disassemble." At the UN they have simultaneous translation, one language to another. I wonder if there shouldn't be this service for sports events.  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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I Mean... You Know?


I have strayed from single words to common expressions, or combinations of words that appear in speech with such frequency that they have become virtually obligatory to entering the conversation, a prerequisite to acceptance. These expressions are the equivalent of passwords provided to guards at a military encampment in order to gain safe access to the shelter of the camp, its food, and its commanders.

Time to think.

Why start with “I mean” unless one’s normal pattern of conversing is to say things that are unmeant, and thereby insincere. And yet to begin with “I mean” communicates the possibility that any utterance made without the introductory words, “I mean” must be taken as insincere, and that unless prefixed by “I mean” the individual is speaking insincerely. And yet again, since the purpose of language is to communicate intended meanings, the use of “I mean” merely creates a larger suspicion that the speaker sometimes, if opening without this parenthetic bookend, is prevaricating, or being insincere.

Yet “I mean” is at best uneconomical. Junk phrase. Tribal noise.

As a more economic alternative, why not just say what you mean without prefix?
After what is claimed to be meant is uttered, there comes the closing bookend, “you know?" Not offered as a genuine interrogative, which would require a pause expecting a response, “you know” is often thrown down more like a gauntlet, as if to challenge the audience to disagree, or as a means of asserting that no other conclusion is possible from the assertions bookended between “I mean” and “you know.”

“You know,” could be better acquitted as respectful conversation if it were used the way that the Japanese use the same phrase in their speech. In Japanese it is slipped in at the end of a train of thought as, “You know?” Then there is, after and during eye contact, waiting for the listener to nod or shake their head. Disagreement is possible. The course of conversation can be diverted, or a point returned to with Richard Feynman’s famous, “How well do you know that fact?” Or, “Isn’t it equally true that...”

Here’s the distinction. The purpose of tribal noise is concealment, to melt in and be accepted. The purpose of language is communication and exchange of ideas. Progress depends upon the understanding of words with well grounded meaning, or interpretations that leap cultural hurdles to clarify parochial similes. An example of this latter intent would be the United Nations interpreter who made the English phrase “Like carrying coal to Newcastle,” into the Arab equivalent, “Like carrying sand to the Sahara.” She did not translate, word-for-word, but her choice better communicated the intentions of the English delegates to Arab ears. She did not add either “I mean,” or “you know.” The pace of simultaneous translation does not afford the luxury of meaningless excess.  Read More 
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Hopefully, A Guide to Useage


As currently used to open a sentence, hopefully fails utterly in communication not only because it assumes that the listener has the same hopes as the speaker, but because, in a complex world where opposition may occur, an adverb should be directly associated with a verb, coming either before or after it

So one may say “She trained hopefully,” in that hopefully describes her training, not, as often now, after the pronoun I (Hopefully, I). And yes, training can be other than hopeful, in that hope may not characterize the process of training. It may better or more accurately be motivated by revenge, ambition, envy, a quest for recognition or equality, a feeling of responsibility to teammates, the nation, or even an appetite for pain.

Hopefully has become an introductory conversational noise intended to disarm criticism and to enlist support and understanding, rather than to provide a convincing launching pad for effective arguments.

Strange as it may seem, hopefully does not necessarily imply benevolence or a hopeful outcome for all. Hitler hopefully attacked Russia, betting that he could overrun Moscow before winter. Certainly he hoped this, and certainly he attacked with this hope, but neither his hopes nor the associated actions left any hope whatever for the poor Russians, who had misguidedly signed a nonaggression pact with Germany not a year earlier.  Read More 
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Good, Bad, Ugly and Confused


Contrary to what common American usage would suggest, good is not the same as well. But this distinction may make little difference when the trend in usage is to destroy more exact meanings by vocal subsumption. Good is the opposite of bad, a word that retains medical meaning, as well as “bad” referring in contemporary urban connotation to the admirably desirable if not always effective practice of impulsive confrontation. As mentioned earlier, bad can be good, suggesting that good can be bad.

But here’s the problem. The identity of opposites, as in the collision of particle with antiparticle, destroys the possibility of being exclusively and unconfusingly either one thing or its opposite.

With greatest clarity, good as opposed to evil (a word that the British apply with charm to unlikable odors) is a moral condition. Favorable moral conditions may be sought by high churchman seeking beatification, but it would be a deadly sin – vanity – to imagine that one could refer to a question, “How are you?” by answering, “Good.”

On the other hand, one can claim wellness. Well is the word sought by those asking the question, “How are you?” Well means healthy (not healthful). Except for lethal hidden cancers creeping at snails paces inside us, self assessment can extend beyond a self-deception about robust health by referral using thermometers to body temperatures, heart rates, blood pressure (via home cuff), athletic endurance and such subtleties as skin color, or conversely pallor. In past ages it was said, “He doesn’t look well,” and be perfectly understood. These days are heard the words, “He doesn’t look good,” and it could be anything from pallor to the performance of a running back on Monday night football, but rarely for Karl Rove. He doesn’t appear to be morally sound; he lies to his closest allies in order to protect his own position in the primate hierarchy.

It is well (for everyone’s blood pressure) that we exit this discussion at this point, while still trudging alongside Diogenes, reigniting his legendary lamp with Duracells claimed to be better than EverReady’s, every step of the journey still seeking an honest man, one who would never hold forth on the matter of his own goodness. In the end, only God can make that call. Which makes it so sad that humans often seek it by self-declaration, refusing a reconsideration by higher authorities who use stop-action video replay to overturn the call made by the players in a game of life where it not only counts to be good, but is even better to be better, and pays best to be best.

In such a game it is impossible to say that there is no conflict of interest – and commensurate doubt – whenever we reply to “How are you?” with “I am good.” Why is it that not even Eli Wallach and Lee Van Cleeve have dissented by denying it, by responding, “I am bad,” and “I am ugly.” And you wonder why Diogenes still makes the effort. So do I. It’s a good question. Read More 
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