Tuesday, May 27, 2008

use of language - a dissection

WARNING - This is an entry that I'm figuring the majority of people who read my blog will want to skip because it's a topic that most people generally care not a whit about and find completely boring. "Who could possibly spend so much time thinking about something so stupid and trivial and mundane?" Yep, one of my idiosyncracies.

I have noticed a few peculiarities with my language that have struck me as being odd or that other people have brought up. I have recently come to realize that English is a fairly inconsistent language, but apparently, my use of it can be even more inconsistent.


I use the word "behaviour", which is actually the British spelling of the word, whereas most people probably use "behavior". OK, this is really weird - I'm so not used to writing the American spelling of the word that even in typing it above, I had to double-check to make sure that I spelled it correctly. I don't have a problem recognizing the word when it's printed, and it doesn't look weird with the American spelling, but my brain cells and finger muscles are just conditioned to add the extra "u". I'm not sure why I use the British spelling. I don't think I was taught to spell the word that way. Maybe it's a lingering remnant of my prior British citizenship.

The British connection does not, however, extend to my use of "color". In this case, I do use the American spelling, not the British spelling ("colour") which adds the extra "u" as well.

Though there doesn't appear to be an easy explanation for why there are two equal spellings of the word, I use the "theatre" version rather than the "theater" version. I have always thought it's another case of the British gene coming through, but my cursory search does not designate "theatre" as the specifically British spelling of the word. Both spellings seem to be used equally and interchangeably. It's possible that my choice of spelling is influenced by the fact that the spelling of the word (minus the various accents) in French (which I have taken) is "theatre", whereas for instance the spelling of the word in German (which I have not taken) is "theater". I think I do find that "theater" is the more common spelling used, and for some completely unsubstantiated reason, it seems to me that "theater" is used more for things like movies whereas "theatre" is used more for live performance venues.

No matter how many memory techniques I've used or tricks and helpful hints that people have tried to impart to me, I cannot for the life of me ever remember whether I'm supposed to use "stationery" or "stationary", so if I ever have occasion to need to use either of those words, I have to look up the spelling to make sure I'm using the right one. Or, as might be more often the case, I avoid usage of the word altogether and find some other equally appropriate word to use instead.

And yes, as much of a stickler as I can be about language, I am certainly not above making up words if the situation and need arise. I had a text conversation recently with a friend over some products that I had found and wanted to buy. The friend asked if I was going to limit myself to one of each. Well, there were a number of different individual products, so even if I was going to only buy one of each, that would still total a fairly large number. To convey that thought, I responded with "Yes, one of each, but there lots of eaches." So I had to ponder and try for a little bit to figure out how to spell the plural of "each" - was it "eachs" or "eaches"? Of course, that's an absurdity in and of itself since there is no such thing as the plural of the word, but the plurality was in fact what I needed to express, so I decided that the extra "e" made the word look better.

My most spectacular made-up word was "anti-religionism", which I used in a paper (not my thesis, I don't think, but I'm not entirely sure) in college. It may not be as made-up a word as I had previously thought since apparently, "religionism" is in fact a word, so wouldn't it also be a word to be against that? I had a friend at the time who was incredibly angry at me when I told him about it because he couldn't believe that 1) with my whole card-carrying spelling-and-grammar-police status, I would stoop to make up a word and 2) that I would use said made-up word in a paper that I was going to turn in for a class. I do not believe, if my memory serves, that my professor made any remark about my inclusion of that word.

Oh, and can I tell you that "pronounciation" is NOT a word?


There are two accepted pronunciations of the word "either" - you can pronounce it with either a long "I" or a long "E". There isn't one that's more correct or acceptable than the other, though I have encountered people who have insisted that the pronunciation they don't use is "wrong". I've always used the long "I" pronunciation of the word.

So what about its companion word "neither", which has the same two pronunciation variations? You'd figure that if you pronounced one word one way, you'd pronounce the other word the same way as well, right? Perhaps, except when it comes to me. Inexplicably, while I pronounce "either" with a long "I", I generally pronounce "neither" with a long "E" (though I do on occasion instead use the long "I" pronunciation, but not with any forethought or decision to do that). Go figure.

I know that there's an "m" and two "p"'s in "pumpkin", but oftentimes, I will pronounce the word "punkin". I think I use that pronunciation more for slang purposes when talking to friends, whereas I will use the correct pronunciation if talking in more formal terms, though admittedly, I rarely have occasion to use "pumpkin" in formal discussions.

One major pronunciation error that I am completely aware I make and am wholly ok with concerns the word "picture". If I want to see someone's photo, I will ask to see their "pitcher". If I want someone to take a photo for me, I will ask them to take a "pitcher". And no, I'm not referring to the baseball player on the mound throwing the ball or what you might pour a liquid like iced tea from. For some reason, I'm just not willing to correctly pronounce "picture", and it doesn't seem to matter if I'm just talking informally to friends or more formally at work or otherwise. I know I haven't always pronounced it that way - I know I used to pronounce it correctly. And I have no idea when or why my pronunciation changed. I don't think I picked it up from anyone else. Maybe I'm just lazy, and it requires less effort to say "pitcher" than "picture". So in case I ever ask to see your "pitcher", please don't offer to show me one member of your baseball team or a glass container - unless, of course, in the context of what I'm saying, it's apparent that I actually *do* mean one of those.

One pronunciation issue that has come up repeatedly has to do with the dessert item "sherbet". Though I'd never had occasion to either spell the word or really see it in writing, I'd always pronounced the word as "sherbert". It was then pointed out to me that there was only one "r" in the word and that I was pronouncing the word wrong. I'd been pronouncing the word that way because that's what I'd always heard it pronounced, and the correct pronunciation of the word just sounds weird to me. However, I'm now finding evidence that "sherbert" is acknowledged as an alternate spelling/pronunciation of the word, and the alternate spelling/pronunciation might have British roots, so there goes my British genetic heritage making its presence known again. Of course, the regular spelling of the word begs the question of why it's pronounced the way it is and not pronounced "sher-bay" since "sorbet" is spelled and pronounced similarly.

I happen to love the Broadway musical "The Phantom of the Opera", but I was particularly tickled by one word - "written". The Vicomte has received a letter that he believes has come from the owners of the opera house and asks "Isn't this the letter you wrote?". One of the owners responds with "And what is it, that we're meant to have wrote?", to which the other owner corrects him with "written". For rhyming value, the word needed to be "wrote", but the grammatical correction is thrown in there right afterward, which sent me into a fit of giggles.

trivia question

I heard this play on words on a radio program that I regularly listen to, and it did take me a second to figure it out, but I was intrigued and amused once I did. Obviously, it's much more an audio joke, so it wouldn't work nearly as well if I just spelled everything out, so I'm going to do this a little differently than I heard it. In the sentence below, the words/phrases in quotes each represent a word that means the same thing as the sentiment in quotes. Both words are spelled exactly the same except that one word has one additional letter at the beginning. What are the two words? (I hope that makes sense. Again, once you figure out what the words are and say them out loud without thinking of their spellings, I think the peculiarity comes through much better if you mistakenly take the meaning of the sentence on face value rather than for its grammatical qualities.)

You can't "massacre" someone without "an expression or appearance of merriment or amusement".


Andrew said...

"This is an entry that I'm figuring the majority of people who read my blog will want to skip because it's a topic that most people generally care not a whit about and find completely boring. "Who could possibly spend so much time thinking about something so stupid and trivial and mundane?" Yep, one of my idiosyncracies."

I love language and talking about language. So I loved this entry. Next time we're waiting for our respective spouses to get out of small world (or whatever) we can talk about "theatre" vs. "theater" if you want.

Cindy said...

You'd love the group dinners where we sit around reading the wet-naps to figure out if the instructions are grammatically correct, and it leads to a 10 minute discussion. :)

JeffG said...

I'd be surprised if Andrew hasn't been involved in those wet-nap discussions at some point.

I really enjoyed this post too, but I think you already knew that I was also a bit nuts about this kind of thing. One of these days, I should see how long a blog post I can write up about the proper use of the word "unique".

Loki on MC said...

I thought I was the only one who said pitcher instead of picture, drives my husband crazy.