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.