Thursday, August 31, 2006

Comma Confusion

Lately, I've noticed a few different species of comma users. It interesting to see the way people misuse them. Let's take a look at some of the groups of comma abusers that you might encounter in the wild:

1. Overusers - This group is probably the largest group of comma abusers in existence. They sprinkle extra commas everywhere. When in doubt, they always drop in an extra comma.

2. Abstainers - This group shuns commas entirely. Their motto seems to be: when in doubt, leave it out. Also, when you're sure, leave it out. It is a bit jarring to see an appositive phrase naked against the word it modifies.

3. Guessers - These people are very inconsistent in their comma use. They can't quite remember the rules. Each sentence is a new adventure with them.

4. Conjunctioners - This is a rare species of comma abusers. A conjunctioner will isolate each and every conjunction in a sentence with commas. (We'll look at this below)

So, when should one actually use a comma? Let's look at the most obvious cases and keep things simple.

When to use a comma:

1. To indicate a pause - This is the raison d'etre of a comma. Anytime you want to indicate a slight pause, use a comma. For a full stop, use a period.

2. To directly address someone or something - Use a comma before the person or thing being addressed. (see the post "Goodbye, Vocative" for a more detailed explanation).

3. Before a negating conjunction - Do not use a comma with "and" or "or". Use a comma with "but", which indicates a negation or exception to the previous clause.

4. Before a modifier - The "which" in the previous sentence is a good example. It introduces a modifier (in this case, a clause). For an appositive phrase (another type of modifier), use a comma both before and after the phrase. Look at the following sentence. Jane's friend, Billy, eats marshmallows. "Billy" is the appositive phrase.

5. Before a verb in the present progressive - A verb in the present progressive ends in "-ing". This is sometimes incorrectly called the "gerund", but a gerund indicates a nominal form (not a verbal form). An example of this usage might be: Susan walked into the room, eating a handful of popcorn.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

The Words and the Bees

I learned a little Esperanto the other day ( What a great community and a very interesting language. Speakers of one of the Romance languages will find it easy to learn as the lexicon derives heavily from Latin (in a more recognizable, Italian form). I wondered why Esperanto had never really caught on as an auxiliary language (i.e. a language that can be spoken between two people with different native languages). I suppose it's due to the fact that French and English have often filled that role. But, that is a whole other post in itself.

One of the discussion forums had a posting about gender in Esperanto. French and English aside, this might be the real reason that the Esperanto community isn't larger than it is. No, not because of it's handling of gender. Because of posts like that one. So many assumptions made, so many linguistic misunderstandings.

Let's step back a moment and look at gender in a language. First of all, words don't have gender. Or, let me put it another way: words don't have gender. Gender is a biological trait. For reproduction. Words don't reproduce.

Most languages, however, arbitrarily call one group of words "masculine" (the group which has endings that match the word for "man" in that language). Another group will be called "feminine" (the group which has endings that match the word for "woman" in that language). Sometimes there's even "neuter" (for words that fall into neither category).

But, the words themselves don't have any gender. It's just a term for convenience. It helps us to identify that group of words. The actual term in Italian would be "genere" which means "type". Words don't have gender. Look at one with its clothes off sometime if you don't believe me.

Now that we have that out of the way, let's look at the poster's complaint. The idea was that Esperanto is sexist because a few words have the suffix -in- added to them to indicate biological femininity. Of course, it's just as easy to say that all words in Esperanto inherently contain the -in- suffix and that the omission of the this indicates biological masculinity.

Even readers of this blog (I'm assuming a certain amount of interest in linguistics) will probably find this very arbitrary and semantic. And that, my friends, is the point. Nit picking like this raises a barrier around your community. I could be wrong, but I'm guessing that these kind of assumptions and agenda pushing get in the way of the wider adoption of an interesting language.

Friday, April 07, 2006

The Common Era

This post addresses a question that I sometimes hear: what do BCE and CE mean?

CE (or C.E.) is an abbreviation for common era. The common era began roughly 2006 years ago with the year 1 (not 0). Thus, one could say that they were born in 1976 CE. This could be read aloud as "I was born in the year 1976 of the common era".

BCE (or B.C.E.) is an abbreviation for before the common era. This is for dates that occurred before the year 1 CE. Remember that the year 1 CE was preceded by the year 1 BCE. There was no year 0. For example, one could say that the age of the great philosophers in Greece was around 400 BCE.

Basically, these abbreviations replace the religiously loaded AD and BC and are rapidly becoming the accepted usage. This change is quite welcome because:

1. Most people incorrectly placed AD after the year, where it is supposed to come before the year.
2. The historical person of Jesus (upon whom the old system was based) was actually born around 4 BCE. Thus, the entire system was miscalibrated anyway.

I hope that clears things up a bit.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Linguistic Balance

I've been thinking lately about the tradeoffs that different languages must endure. For any linguistic phenomenon, there is a balance. This is not to imply that the natural languages were created by some guy sitting in an office, or, worse yet, created by committee. But, over time each natural language displays certain linguistic traits.

Let's take a look at inflection. English is normally considered a not highly-inflected language (especially when compared with Greek or German, for example). But, some amount of inflection does exist.

The word "book" is a singular noun. How do we make it plural? By inflecting the word- in this case adding an "s".

Now compare this with Chinese (note- in this blog we'll take Chinese to mean Mandarin unless otherwise noted). Words in the Chinese language do not inflect. At all.

So how do we make a "book" into "books"? Chinese is able to avoid inflection through the use of small, modifier words. A contrived example might be translated as "many book".

Now, which method is better? To the Chinese, English's appended 's' is redundant. Look at this sentence.

There are three books on the table.

Given the word "three", do we really need that 's' to indicate that there is more than one book?

There are three books on the table.

What does that 's' give us that "three" doesn't?

On the other hand, in Chinese one is forced to use multiple words. In real life, we don't always respond to questions with complete sentences. Look at the dialogue below:

Person A: Did you want a book or books?
Person B: Books.

In this case, the inflected plural is more efficient. Here's the same, corny example translated from a hypothetical conversation in Chinese:

Person A: Did you want a book or books?
Person B: Many book.

A Chinese speaker is forced to use multiple words to reply to the same question.

So which is better? Neither. Like any linguistic "choice" each has its advantages and disadvantages. It's just fun to think about what those differences are.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Growing Symbols

I've been struck lately about the use of plants (specifically trees) as symbols in Mythology and Fantasy. I recently picked up a copy of Robert Graves "The White Goddess" at The Strand in Manhattan.

I've been busy lately, so I haven't had time to really start reading it in earnest yet, but I've flipped through it several times. Graves attempts to define a "grammar" of myth. He focuses primarily on the Celtic (and maybe UK-wide) myths and how they descended from the tree-based Germanic mythological tradition.

Graves goes so far as to offer tables and charts indicated the symbolic weight of the various types of trees.

His work has sensitized me to plants in literature. Thinking back, I've noticed that most of the works of fantasy that I've found truly effective have been seeded with plant references throughout.

When I was reading a novel over the weekend, I saw mention of a linden tree as part of the description. Why a linden tree, I wondered. Does it have some special significance? Why not some other type of tree?

Watch for plants (and especially trees) as you're reading this week.

Friday, February 24, 2006

Good is well

I've been busy this week, so today I'll write about a "classic" topic: "good" versus "well".

Some people think that these two words are interchangeable others are simply confused as to when they should use one or the other. Interchangeable they are not.

Good is an adjective. It modifies a noun. Only a noun.

That's a good painting. (modifies the noun "painting")

Well is an adverb. It can modify a verb, adjective, or another adverb.

How are you doing? I'm well, thanks.

In some situations (in modern usage), people use "good" instead of "well" to modify a verb- despite the fact that "good" can only modify a noun. Not only that, saying that "you are good" is a statement of morality and not well-being.

I asked some otherwise intelligent people about why there doing it and the replies average out to: everyone else is doing it. Is anyone else uncomfortable at that response? I hear jackboots marching down Maple Strasse in everytown USA. Everyone else is doing it. Indeed.

Of course, not everyone else is doing it. It doesn't cost anything to be correct in this case. The language is clearer. I urge each an every one of you to tell people that you are "well" and that things are going "well".

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Thinking in Tongues

I recently read an article supporting the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. This was refreshing. Too often I've heard people (always a person who speaks only one language, coincidentally) tell me that language doesn't affect thought.

At first glance, this is a clean, comfortable statement. If language doesn't affect thought, then there is no reason to spend all of the time and effort learning a foreign language, for example. It also fits well in the French and American ideals of equality. Denying that the language we speak affects the way we think protects us from the possibility of linguistic nationalism by claiming that the effect of a specific language is superior to that of another.

The objections to Sapir-Whorf have been given slight approval by the linguistics professors at MIT (though their reasoning tends to be very heavily Western-only, excluding other languages that would contradict their theories) and this is probably one of the reasons that I still hear these objections.

The problem is that it's not true. Language profoundly affects the way we think. Anyone who has been immersed in other cultures will know what I'm saying. Anyone who speaks multiple languages well enough to think in them and dream in them will know what I'm saying. People who have studied a language in school and are at a conversational level may or may not understand what I'm saying.

My wife and I often have certain types of conversations in a specific language. It not only feels more natural, it fits the conceptual model and tone of what we are trying to express. This is not to say that we couldn't express the same concept in English, for example. The question is how much word wrangling would be necessary to accomplish the same task.

A language does not emerge fully formed out of the vacuum. It carries weight and power of a culture's years with it. Its idioms and idiosyncrasies reflect and subtly transmit that culture along with the actual words and phrases that we utter.

In the end, it is good to be proud of one's native language, but a tragedy not to be able to think in others. It's like the world's best painter having only green paint. Sure, he can express any artistic concept on the canvas, but imagine the possibilities if wasn't constrained by monochromatic thinking.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Today's Object Subject

Today we're going to talk about subjects and objects. I've noticed that people who speak only English sometimes have difficulty with this concept- so it's worth a review.

English, like most languages, possesses several types of pronouns. The simplest are subject pronouns. A subject pronoun is a placeholder for a "real" noun and is the subject of the verb. In English, the subject comes before the verb and nearly always at the beginning of a sentence.

English Subject Pronouns:

youyou all
he, she, itthey

Now, the word that takes/receives the action of a transitive verb is the object. An object can either be direct or indirect. A direct object receives the action of the verb without the need for any intervening prepositions (functioning as case markers). An indirect object has the action of the verb done on its behalf: to it or for it.

English Object Pronouns:

youyou all
him, her, itthem

Let's look at a few example sentences.

I (subject pronoun) speak.

I (subject pronoun) hit him (direct object pronoun).

He (subject pronoun) speaks to me (indirect object pronoun).

This is fairly straightforward. The problem is that "me" has gotten a bad reputation. Somehow "I" appeals more to the common man and sounds superior to the mundane "me". Schoolteachers contribute to the stigma, perhaps not making the distinction clear to their students.

It is fine to use "me", but not as the subject of a sentence.

It is fine to use "I", but not as the object of a sentence.

The confusion seems to occur most frequently in compound subjects and objects, so let's have a look at some examples.

Harry and I chastised the monkey. ("I" is used here because it is part of the subject of the sentence).

Harry chastised the the monkey and me. ("Me" is used here because it is part of the object of the sentence).

If you hear someone incorrectly using "I" as an object, ask them if they would still use it outside of a compound object. They might (for some reason) feel comfortable saying: You can send the documents to Bill and I. But, they probably would feel awkward uttering the phrase: You can give the documents to I.

They should feel uncomfortable and, perhaps, a little ashamed at the abuse of the perfectly good object pronoun "me".

Monday, February 06, 2006

The Real American Heroes

I was thinking yesterday about the real American heroes. The word "hero" is taking a lot of abuse lately. It has been abducted for political purposes, and forced into meanings for which it was never intended. The end result is that the word has less weight when it appears in a sentence. When used properly it might confuse rather than impress the reader.

The heroes I have in mind and those who went on the hero's journey. Characters, perhaps based upon real-life people, who have become larger than life. These characters become types upon which we can model aspects of our own lives. This is the classic definition of a mythical hero.

So who were these heroes? Do the names Pecos Bill, Paul Bunyan, and Johnny Appleseed mean anything to you? (Not to mention more attributable literary heroes such as Huck Finn or Rip VanWinkle).

My fear is that these names don't mean anything to the average (or even extraordinary ) person under thirty. This isn't automatically a bad thing. Perhaps they have been superseded by newer heroes (it's always difficult when metaphors harden and become rigid entities unto themselves and cease being organic metaphors).

But, I hope that these heroes and their stories are preserved. Surely their ghosts still walk the streets in modern cities like Austin, Phoenix, and San Diego.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Furry Spirits

At a business lunch this week in Manhattan, the conversation turned to the upcoming Chinese New Year's celebrations. We were eating at a Chinese restaurant after all. It turns out that the new year actually began last Sunday, but the celebration to kick it off will be this Sunday.

Throughout the rest of the day, my brain turned to the question of solar cultures versus lunar cultures. The Chinese year is lunar. The Western European calendar that we use is solar. The American Indians used a lunar calendar, but their Aztec neighbors to the south use a solar one. The Greeks used (until very recently) the lunar calendar.

The cultural differences and patterns that might be found contrasting the lunar and solar calendars will have to wait for a future post.

The second thought was "The Year of the Dog". Assigning a metaphor to the year is interesting enough, but I love that it is an animal too. In Pennsylvania, tuxedoed men consulting a groundhog oracle to predict the weather. And here on Wall Street, one is bullish or bearish.

crystallizing the core traits of an animal is a facile and useful way to create a target metaphor for humans. Throughout the ages it has proven a more effective of encouraging behavioral patterns than any unattached and high-minded idealism. Better to attach to a readily recognizable animal spirit (which represents the primary traits of that animal). Most people can easily identify themselves with such a metaphor and use it to attempt to guide the behaviour, feelings, and responses in a certain direction.

Friday, January 27, 2006


One of the most difficult questions concerning the English language is which case of pronoun should follow "than".

Technically speaking, the nominative should probably be used. This is because the pronoun is actually the subject of an implied verb. Let's look at an example:

I was more surprised than he. (Notice "he" in the nominative as a subject pronoun).

The verb "was" is implied.

In modern speech, however, this is rarely used. "Than" is almost always followed by the accusative (the object case) of the pronoun. There is no grammatical defense for this usage unless we suppose the existence of superpronouns.

I suggest that anything following "than" in this type of sentence is actually the object and should be in the accusative. This superpronoun encapsulates the entire implied clause (subject + verb).

I was more surprised than him. (Here, "him" is a superpronoun which stands for the implied clause: "he was".)

Note that this issue is transparent for proper nouns because their accusative and nominative forms are the same and we don't notice the case.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Perseus at the Met

This weekend, my wife and I visited the Greek Antiquities wing of the Met (the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City). It's easy to miss because you have to go left from the main entrance instead of forging directly ahead.

Last time I visited, I didn't find that wing until the very end of the day and my head was already throbbing with the discord of European Impressionist followed by Asian Art, African, Mexican, Early American (including a breathtaking collection of Tiffany glass), Modern Art (some Warhol and that giant, autumnal Jackson Pollock). Considered by most people to be one of the top three museums in the world, it certainly packs a punch.

This time we were wiser. We entered the building and immediately headed left. We limited our taste of the museum's treasures to a double helping of Hellenic history.

I loved the ancient coins. They weren't spectacularly round, but the image of Athena's owl is hauntingly like the Greek one Euro coin of today. Plus ça change...

The armor from the Bronze Age was also amazing. One can picture the fellas from theIliadd screaming up the beach toward the walls of Troy wearing those very items. The yseemed very lightweight when compared to Medieval armor- so they probably had both better mobility and less protection. The feats of Achilles, Ajax (the greater), and Hector certainly seem plausible. A heavy throw of one of their spears could pierce their enemy's armor.

Finally, we saw the magnificent statue of Perseus triumphantly holding aloft the head of Medusa (the only one of the three Gorgon sisters to not be immortal). The statue was actual by an Italian sculptor of the Renaissance, so it wasn't nearly as Hellenic as the previous exhibits, but the story of Perseus still rippled from the stone.

In the story, Athena had given him a special sack for transporting Medusa's head, but the Italian has him waving the thing about like an autographed picture of Zeus. Now that I think about it, that might acutally be Perseus. Petrified by his own stupidity. But, it probably isn't.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Time Keeps On Tricking

I've been thinking about time (no, not Chronos specifically) in relation to myths (and other "stories").

When I read War and Peace, I was amazed at Tolstoi's ability to move the "lens" from the very high level (politics, historical trends, truths of human existence, and large scale troop movements) to the very detailed (what the girls we wearing to the opera, initiation rituals, the fabulous costumed sleigh ride). Deftly moving between these two levels allowed him to inject the story into us in a way that would otherwise not be possible.

Mythological (and Fantasy) tales do the same thing with respect to time. The magnifying glass of the narrative moves down into everyday details of the protagonist's life (often birth or childhood conditions) then sweeps upward through some leap of time. The lens then refocuses on the details of the protagonist's life once again.

Lately, I've been reading one of Grimm's Fairy Tales each night (the brothers collected 210 of them, after all). I've noticed that the tales almost always make a significant time jump one-third or two-thirds of the way through the story (depending on the type of story). The jump always moves approximately a half generation or the time necessary to go from being a baby to a (mostly) grown person.

The time shift occurs one-third of the way if the character is active (i.e. must perform an heroic quest). The shift occurs two-thirds of the way through the story if the character is passive (i.e. something happens to the character such as a rescue or a transformation). Obviously this is not exact, but rather a rough observation.

Great fantasy novels always span a generation. Usually, we follow the son or daughter of a previous protagonist through their adventure.

The Greek myths always involve at least a mention of the character's parentage and, often, the character's children are involved.

It's surprising how few modern stories employ this device given its illustrious track record.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Cyclopean Tower

I've been thinking about the lighthouse as a mythological symbol. The fire on the hill, the flash of light that that warns one of danger in the blackest night.

The references that come to mind are mostly modern, however. The early sections of Joyce's Ulysses, where Stephen and Buck are living in the martello tower (not exactly a lighthouse, I know). They Might Be Giants song Birdhouse in Your Soul which talks of killing off Jason and "countless, screaming argonauts" instead of keeping the beaches "shipwreck free".

Is it simply the idea of the tower? Or is there something specific and special about the one-eyed tower overlooking the rocky waters?

I would be interested if anyone else could provide examples of the lighthouse as a mythological symbol.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

S's Rules (The Possessive in English)

People who only speak English often get hung up on the minor differences between the British "dialect" and the American "dialect" of the language. True, a few words are spelled differently and many words are pronounced differently, but communication is not a problem. When I lived in Europe, I was sometimes in a room with English speakers from half a dozen countries and we had no difficulty communicating- not even a little bit.

Compare that with the situation in some other language. People who speak other languages (in addition to English) know what I'm talking about. Sometimes the differences between dialects from city to city are so extreme that communication is difficult (if not impossible).

Therefore, it came as a surprise to me to find no clear, definitive rule about 's in the English language. Despite the absence of an Academie Anglaise, one can almost always find a clear consensus on the basic rules of grammar and usage. Occasionally, one will discover that a rule differs slightly between England and the States, but each side will have a single, clear rule. Not so with apostrophe s.

In school, I was taught the overly-simple rule that any word (whether singular or plural) than already ends with the letter s, simply appends an apostrophe to indicate the possessive. But, upon further digging, the rules (from both sides of the pond) seem to agree up to a point.

Let's see where the rules agree:

1. Any singular noun that doesn't end in "s" or an ess-sound appends an 's to make it possessive.

2. Any plural noun that doesn't end in "s" or an ess-sound appends an 's to make it possessive.

3. Plural nouns that end in "s" take only an apostrophe to indicate possession.

That, unfortunately is where the agreement ends. We're left with the final case: a singular noun ending in "s". Some sources indicate that proper nouns take only an apostrophe and all others take the full 's. Other sources say that only "historical" proper nouns use the apostrophe and all others take the full 's. Some sources even state the dubious rule that all singular nouns ending in "s" take the full 's.

The best rule (the one that most closely resembles current usage and (correct) historical usage) is the following:

4. A singular noun ending is "s" take either an apostrophe or the full 's depending on whether we pronounce the word with an added syllable or not.

For example, we say Chris-ess house (Chris's house). We pronounce the extra syllable, so we write the full 's.
But, we say Achilles- heel (Achilles' heel). We do not pronounce the extra syllable, so we write only an apostrophe.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Iphigenia in Tauris

This week I read another of Euripides' plays- Iphigenia in Tauris. It's interesting because the action of the play takes place several years after the events of "Iphigenia at Aulis", but the play itself was written nine years earlier.

Again I was amazed by Euripides' modern style and the ease with which a modern reader could relate to a drama written over two thousand years ago.

Even though it's not chronological, I'm glad I read the plays in this order. It was nice to see Iphigenia have a chance to do a scene with her brother, Orestes, when he was old enough to respond.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Wa Wa

For some reason, one of the biggest challenges a westerner faces when learning the Japanese language is that of postpositions. Many languages (including almost all Western languages) use prepositions.

Prepositions are words that precede a noun (or clause) and indicate it's case. Some languages indicate case by appending (or prepending) syllables to a word. Most modern languages, however, have done away with these case endings and use prepositions instead. An example of this would be using "of" or "'s" to indicate the genitive case.

Japanese, on the other hand, uses postpositions. These particles often serve the same funtion as prepositions. The difference is that postpositions come after the word which they modify.

One would think that simply moving these little words from their position before the noun to a position after the noun wouldn't pose a problem. But, for some reason, it does.

One particle in particular doesn't have a good English equivalent. The particle "wa" is, in my book, the grand champion of Japanese particles. Roughly translated, "wa" might mean "as far as ___ is concerned", but this doesn't show it's true power.

Wa is incredibly useful because it introduces a topic. This is so efficient that I wonder why more languages don't employ this tool. My wife and I use wa as shorthand when sending instant messages or email messages to each other. With two words, the topic is established and can be elaborated.

This post wa I hope you enjoyed it.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Iphigenia In Aulis

Recently, I stumbled upon the film Ιφιγενια (made in Greece during the late seventies). It was an excellent opportunity to practice my Greek (it was spoken in Modern Greek, but subtitled in English- thankfully). It was also an excellent opportunity to experience the Modern Greek interpretation of the story.

After reading Euripides' play (upon which the movie is based), I was amazed at how closely the film followed the ancient playwrite's text.

It was great to see all of our old friends before their charged arrival at Troy. It made Achilles' refusal to fight seem less petulant and more understandable. After all, Agamemnon had already "offered" his daughter to Achilles in marriage only to have it be a ruse to lure Iphigenia to Aulis for the sacrifice. Perhaps Achilles grew tired of having Agamemnon take women from him. Thus, when Briseis was claimed by the king after the initial Trojan battles, Achilles stormed back to his tent and refused to fight.

But, we're not talking about Achilles and his rage. We're talking about Iphigenia. Euripides wrote the play in 405 BCE and yet it resonates beautifully with the modern audience. I stopped myself several times during the reading of the play and thought: the words I'm reading were penned over two thousand years ago. For two thousand years these characters have done this tragic dance. Even then, it was an old story- from the Bronze Age. When I think about the inspiration and entertainment that these stories still bring, the connection with all of the generations of humanity that have gone before...but, I digress.

It's easy to see the parallel with the Old Testament story of Abraham preparing to sacrifice his son, Isaac. But, it's also easy to spot the fundamental difference between these two stories of a father sacrificng his beloved child. Abraham's task is a test of faith. Once he passes this test, the sacrifice need no longer occur and a ram is killed instead. Agamemnon, on the other hand, does not face a test of faith (though he does briefly question the motives of the oracles). Agamemnon faces the far less spectacular choices of: the fortunes of his house against the fortunes of Greece, the impotence of one man against a mob, and indecision and second guessing that a man must endure when faced with a horrible situation.

My wife thought that Agamemnon displayed some of the onerous characteristics of the Ogre Father of various myths and stories, but I disagree. Here was a man forced to choose between his country and his daughter (he went back and forth on this decision throughout the play). He was forced to choose between his eldest and most beloved daughter and the rest of his family. Remember, Iphigenia's sisters were back at the palace and the mob threatened to return and destroy Agamemnon's house if he did not make the sacrifice to appease Artemis. Once the winds began to blow, they could unbeach their ships and vent their lust for battle on the Trojans.

Iphigenia's speech at her father's knees was moving and almost flew from tragedy to pathos. Euripides wisely focused on "what" was happening and not "why". He focused on "how" it was happening and how it affected the lives and emotional states of those involved. Only Iphigenia's mother was truly absorbed by the motives- her sister's infidelity. (Remember that Clytemnestra and Helen were sisters).

One last thought for the moment: knowing the Greek myths, I can't help but feel that perhaps the biggest reason for the drama being endured by Agamemnon was not Helen's betrayal of Meneleus when she ran off with Paris, nor Euripides newfound patriotism in Greece as a whole (and not just Athens), but rather Agamemnon's slaughter of Atremis' stag. Yes, I know that the episode is mentioned and given as the impetus for the specific sacrifice, but Euripides was still a man of his time. We have seen time and again that major mythical sin was overstepping the bounds appropriate for a mortal, even though he be a hero. Agamemnon overstepped those bounds for a single moment, but the gods see time differently than we do.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

PBS Show About Myths

A few weeks ago I found a program on PBS called "In Search of Myths and Heroes". That particular episode attempted to the trace the origins of the Arthurian legends. This week's episode dealt with Jason and the Golden Fleece.

I don't know if this is a regular program or simply a few hour-long episodes, but they are really terrific. The host exudes a genuine enthusiasm for the subject matter and the lady reading excerpts from the stories makes the words live and breathe.

It's refreshing to see myths and legends being tackled with both awe and skepticism. I would highly recommend the show to anyone interested in the subject of Mythology.

Here in New York City, the program airs on WLIW (PBS).

Six Persons Are A Group Of People

I don't mean to come off as a Grammar Nazi (or the Usage Police), but here's another abuse of the language that has been bothering me of late: persons vs. people.

When talking about a specific number of individuals, we use the plural of person. For example:

one person, five persons

This should look familiar. It is the normal use of the plural in the English language.

However, English (like many other languages) has a strange word that, although singular, refers to a plural entity. In the case of Italian, the word is gente. In the case of English, it is people.

They were a proud people.

In this case, people means a collection of individuals which are being grouped together because of some common characteristic. It behaves like a normal word with a plural form too.

The various European peoples prepared for the change.

But, people can also be used in different way. It can also refer to a collection of individuals. Isn't this persons' job? In this second, always plural, usage of the word people, it refers to an unspecified number of individuals.

I saw six persons standing by the road.
I saw a group of people standing by the road.

Most of you will correctly note that the above usage seems almost awkward. That's becuase, in modern usage, people has almost completely taken over this function from persons- except in the legal field.

This is fine. It's natural for a language to undergo change. It's also nice to remind ourselves of where we've been linguistically and what is technically correct. That way our usage decisions will be concious and not accidental.

Here's the nit. It seems that some people have gotten wind of this usage of persons in legalese and, in an effort to sound as pompous and officious as possible, have begun using persons to refer to an unspecified number of people. On the same day, I'll see "official" signs using both words in the same way.

What can I do but sigh? It might be annoying, but it's still not as bad as what these same people have done to 'I' and 'me'. That, however, is fodder for another post.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Goodbye, Vocative

I come not praise the vocative, but to bury it. That once mighty case of address, cut down in its prime by the informality of email.

In elementary school, I was taught to begin the composition of letter with the phrase "Dear Person,". That's 'dear' + the recipient's name + comma. Dear is an adjective that modifies the noun. They cleave together and form a single unit. The comma which follows indicates that I am addressing the recipient. Voila. The vocative case. Hey, you. Hi, Dad. Hello, dear friend. Good riddance, blue serpent.

Alas, "dear" sounds archaic at the top of an email. Now we are left with the hip, eworthy greeting "hi". Simple? One swaps the word "hi" for "dear" right?

Wrong, fool. "Hi" is itself a greeting that requires the vocative. In other words, it must be followed by a comma. It does not form an adjectival phrase to be followed by a comma. That was the function of the now semi-defunct "Dear Person,".

It may seem harsh, but I use this as a quick 'test' of the sender whenever I receive an email message. Failing the test doesn't indicate that the sender is stupid (it is a common mistake) or that the content is not worthwhile. It does, however, indicate that linguistic prowess will not be found.