Using the wrong word

Discussion in 'Linguistics' started by Oli, Apr 3, 2009.

  1. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    Messages:
    24,690
    I understand and respect the value of redundancy. I just don't find that prepositions provide very much of it. They serve as placeholders to help us parse a sentence. But the difference in meaning between them is so slight in most cases, and zero in many others, that the choice of one preposition over another rarely helps us solidify the meaning of that sentence if there's any ambiguity.

    As an IT professional I work with Indians every day, and the selection of prepositions in informal speech in Indian English is often almost haphazard. Yet it's extremely unusual for that to cause a misunderstanding--even in what to us Americans is a heavily accented dialect in which a little redundancy might actually be useful.

    I have often said, only half in jest, that the primary function of prepositions in English is to identify native speakers.
    You haven't convinced me of that. My continuous experience of understanding Indian English reinforces my conviction that in the overwhelming majority of cases prepositions carry no denotative meaning and are only grammatical markers. Distinctions such as that between "in the box" and "on the box" or "to the village" and "from the village" certainly arise, but not very often.
    Coincidentally, that's a classic example I often use to make my point. Please explain how you would describe that extremely subtle difference to a foreign student. And once you've done that, please craft a situation in which that extremely subtle difference is important.
    I seldom hear people say the entire phrase "unleaded gasoline." They usually just say "unleaded." Sometime in the 1980s, when cars requiring leaded gas were no longer manufactured in the Western countries and each year a greater portion of the population bought only unleaded gas, the phrase "unleaded gas" was shortened to "unleaded." It has replaced the noun "gasoline" in vernacular speech.

    The term has spread into other applications. I work in Washington DC, whose ancient water system has become legendary. There's a special faucet delivering near-boiling water for coffee or tea in the lunchroom, but I always bring in a cup of cold water from my Pur filter pitcher and heat it up in the microwave oven. People ask me why I don't take advantage of the convenience of the tap, and I answer, "I prefer unleaded."
     
  2. Google AdSense Guest Advertisement



    to hide all adverts.
  3. iceaura Valued Senior Member

    Messages:
    24,303
    As you might recall, I have already responded to the first there - difficulty in describing a nevertheless meaningful distinction is evidence of the value of the words. It takes paragraphs to replace them.

    And if you find the distinction between the continuous (in time) and the discrete (on time), between inside a space or extent and touching its boundaries from the outside, between appropriate for physical reality's demands and appropriate for an arbitrarily imposed schedule (and the evocation of a similarity or parallel of some kind between the distinguished boundary moments that make a schedule in time and the walls or bounds of a physical space), between meeting necessity and matching the number on a clock (one can be on time and too late simultaneously, in time without being on time, etc), and so forth, unimportant - OK. De gustibus non disputandum. You aren't a poet.

    As with on the bus and in the bus, on the box and in the box, on the case and in the case, on it and in it, and so forth, context will handle everything. You just need to provide enough context, extra verbiage, explanatory circumlocutions, and so forth. So as we lose the distinction between "on" and "in", we get back the discarded meanings by throwing in a few extra words - he was on top of the bus - and no problem. We have way more words than we really need, from this point of view.

    A vocabulary distinction between green and blue is not made in all languages. It is subtle, and difficult to describe without simply listing examples. There is a large grey area of confused usage. Offhand, I can't think of many circumstances in which the linguistic distinction between green and blue is "important", aside from the fact that they mean different things.
     
  4. Google AdSense Guest Advertisement



    to hide all adverts.
  5. Ophiolite Valued Senior Member

    Messages:
    9,232
    In time I should be able to do that, but if you expect it today I am afraid my other commitments will prevent me doing it on time.
     
  6. Google AdSense Guest Advertisement



    to hide all adverts.
  7. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    Messages:
    24,690
    Most people aren't. And few people can understand poetry any deeper than the lyrics to a pop song. It's been estimated that more people write poetry than read it, at least in America.
    Once again, I'm not saying that prepositions never have meaning to add to a sentence. I'm just saying that their usefulness--their value per syllable--is extremely low. Prepositions and articles between them probably account for the fact that (by my own measure and on the average) it only takes seven syllables to express in Chinese what takes ten in English or French.
    Excuse me, but "on the bus" is already synonymous with "in the bus," a phrase you'll never hear in this country unless the subject is something on the order of a bomb or a boa constrictor. If I mean that something is on top of the bus, I have to say "on top of the bus," using two nearly useless prepositions and a noun to express a relationship that I can express clearly in blissfully preposition-free Chinese with two one-syllable nouns.

    My point is not that there is no meaning there; my point is that the meaning is poorly expressed by prepositions and Chinese does it better with nouns and verbs.
    Obviously it's not important to the people who have no words for it. It's much more common for a language to have words left over from the Stone Age that no longer serve any purpose, than for it to lack words that its speakers need. They invent those pretty quickly. If those people in New Guinea (or wherever you're referring to) one year suddenly need to distinguish between blue and green, you can bet they'll have words for them soon enough.
    That use of "in time" is rather disingenuous since it isn't the common one, and it's also rather bookish. Nonetheless the "in" could easily be replaced with "after" and the sentence would then make a lot more sense to a foreign student. What's the difference between, "I hope we arrive at the concert on time," and, "I hope we arrive at the concert in time"--the more common colloquial use of the construction?
     
  8. Ophiolite Valued Senior Member

    Messages:
    9,232
    On time refers to arriving at a specific time. In time refers to arriving at any point up to a specific time. The distinction is useful.

    Your claim that the usage is 'rather bookish' may well be correct, but is completely irrelevant. Communication takes place in a wide variety of contexts, including the academic, of which the bookish is a subset. It is still English. It still conveys nuances of meaning.

    Ah, but you objected earlier to a 'very subtle' distinction. Subtle distinctions are what separate humans from other primates, separate the intelligent from the average, separate the particular from the mundane. Subtle distinctions define our humanity, so I intend to nurture them.
     
  9. Repo Man Valued Senior Member

    Messages:
    4,955
    I don't think I ever hear people say "unleaded gasoline". What I do hear on a regular basis on news reports about gasoline prices are reporters saying something like "the price of unleaded regular hit a new high today". And I find it grating because it is so redundant. Along the lines of "P.I.N. number". Just say regular, or even better, specify the grades of gasoline by their octane rating. Referring to something by what it doesn't have in it only makes sense if there is a danger of getting the wrong kind by mistake. It makes sense to specify that you want decaffeinated coffee, or non alcoholic beer, because most versions of both contain caffeine or alcohol. Leaded fuel is long dead.
     
  10. iceaura Valued Senior Member

    Messages:
    24,303
    But that example is one in which the distinction has been lost - in which English has approached the Chinese ideal of rigid word order and inevitable ambiguity. You need those extra words because in that particular expression the preposition has begun to fade out of the language, lost its meaning - the example illustrates the value of the preposition, not its superfluity.

    In non-degenerate English, as we see with "in the box" and "on the box", prepositions are just as efficient in this situation as Chinese, and apparently (from people's descriptions) more flexible. "The in box", "In the box", "in box" "box in", "in {interpolated expression of arbitrary length} the box".
    As far as they know, can record, can become easily aware of, or can easily discuss, anyway. Do you want the benefits of language or not?
    Bullshit. Even a vocabulary rich language like English is full of holes that have to be talked around and dealt with at fair inconvenience. Any teacher can supply examples - it's one of the more plausible recent explanations for the racial gap in school performance, in the US: black kids are showing up with smaller and less applicable vocabularies.
    More people read poetry than program computers, in this country - and recognition of such "subtleties" as the difference between on time and in time is far more common than poetry reading. It's really pretty ordinary, and the language without such distinctions would be crude and imprecise - and inelegant, no small factor.
     
    Last edited: Jul 7, 2009
  11. StrangerInAStrangeLand SubQuantum Mechanic Valued Senior Member

    Messages:
    13,162
    -=-

    Using an before words beginning with a consonant sound.
     
  12. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    Messages:
    24,690
    Such as "An historic moment?" That's a relic from the Middle Ages, when our language was assimilating whole boatloads of French words. H is silent in French (e.g., hour, honor), but not in Latin (e.g., herald, human) or Greek (e.g., hexagon, homonym). The problem is that many Latin and Greek words came down to us through French, so we were ambivalent about whether to pronounce the H. British scholars were generally fluent in all three languages--in fact most of them still are.

    "Historic," which is of Latin origin via French, is a peculiar compromise: We pronounce the H, but we use the indefinite article that's supposed to precede only a silent H. If you've ever heard anyone say it out loud, it usually comes out "An 'istoric moment" as if it were Cockney dialect.

    I accept both forms when I'm editing.
     
  13. StrangerInAStrangeLand SubQuantum Mechanic Valued Senior Member

    Messages:
    13,162
    -=-

    In the USA the H is pronounced much more often than not. If the H is pronounced, AN should not be used. In writing, AN should not be used with words which are usually pronounced with the H. An hour. A history.
    I don't accept an historic moment. It is ridiculous.
     
  14. Oli Heute der Enteteich... Registered Senior Member

    Messages:
    11,888
    In the UK, depending upon the age of the speaker, I've regularly heard (and seen)
    An historic moment &
    An hotel.
     
  15. StrangerInAStrangeLand SubQuantum Mechanic Valued Senior Member

    Messages:
    13,162
    -=-

    Are they prononcing the H?
     
  16. Oli Heute der Enteteich... Registered Senior Member

    Messages:
    11,888
    I've heard it done, with no sense of embarrassment whatsoever.
     
  17. StrangerInAStrangeLand SubQuantum Mechanic Valued Senior Member

    Messages:
    13,162
    -=-

    Every time I've heard or read the eleventh hour to represent the latest time something could be done, they should have said the twelfth hour.
     
  18. iceaura Valued Senior Member

    Messages:
    24,303
    I'd take it because it's less awkward to pronounce.

    "A historic moment" is a hangup in the throat, and for those of us who read in a sort subliminal torrent of latent vocalizations, clumsy to read. I even start to try different "a" sounds - long, short, schwa - trying to make it flow.
     
  19. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    Messages:
    24,690
    There are two meanings of the term "nth hour." What you're thinking of is a period of elapsed time. In this paradigm the first hour is the sixty-minute span between noon (or midnight, an interpretation that's never selected) and one o'clock; so the eleventh hour is the sixty-minute span between ten o'clock and eleven o'clock.

    But there is an alternate and older meaning from the era before clocks as we know them were invented, one more appropriate for sundials. An "hour" is simply a time of day. The "first hour" is what we call one o'clock. The twelfth hour is what we call noon or midnight, and the eleventh hour is what we call eleven o'clock.

    In that paradigm "the eleventh hour" is your last chance to do something because the twelfth hour will be the end of the day. (Or the end of the morning, but it's never interpreted that way because it has no sense of urgency.) The eleventh hour is any time whose written expression begins with the characters 11:
     
  20. tuberculatious Banned Banned

    Messages:
    987
    sometimes i use the word love when i mean hate.
     
  21. Enmos Staff Member

    Messages:
    43,184
    Is that when you're applying sarcasm ?
     
  22. tuberculatious Banned Banned

    Messages:
    987
    no, it is when I am avoiding conflict.
     
  23. StrangerInAStrangeLand SubQuantum Mechanic Valued Senior Member

    Messages:
    13,162

    I am well aware of the mostly archaic use of the word hour in English. In Spanish, it's "What hour?" rather than "What time is it?" & they say "This hour" when we would say "Right now".
    The majority of people absurdly think the 11th HOUR is the last HOUR. HOUR as in a period of 60 minutes. That is the main problem.
    You must be kidding. Or was that a typo? Any time which begins with 11: is within the 12th hour, except 11:00.
     

Share This Page