Using the wrong word

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

  1. StrangerInAStrangeLand SubQuantum Mechanic Valued Senior Member

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    -=-

    That's quite a concern for Pamela & I.
     
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  3. parmalee peripatetic artisan Valued Senior Member

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    Returning to the subject of the "useless preposition" in informal speech: I find that even in more academic contexts, the preposition often conveys little and is likewise frequently interchangeable.

    The term (phrase?) "thing-in-itself" (or "thing in itself") is a fine example. First of all, Kant coined the expression "das Ding an sich". This literally translates to "the thing at itself" or "the thing on itself," but it reads best as "the thing in itself" and is sometimes expressed as "the thing of itself." ("das Ding von selbst" might translate as "the thing of itself;" of course, it can also be translated as "the thing by itself.")

    Do "the thing in itself" and "the thing of itself" (or "the thing 'of itself'") convey the same thing? Yes and no. In philosophy at least, they are used as often interchangeably as they are used to communicate very different things: "the thing in itself" essentially means "the thing, intrinsically," while "the thing of itself" can mean something akin to, um, "the thing for itself." (If that makes any sense.) How does one know what the writer intends? Context. The preposition itself (how about the preposition in and of itself?) conveys very little.
     
    Last edited: Jul 20, 2009
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  5. iceaura Valued Senior Member

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    Actually, as even your sketchy examples make clear, "no".

    What you need is a category of examples of the two words commonly interchangeable - so that you can show us the interchange, and demonstrate the equivalence of the two terms in a broad category of usage.

    I predict you will have difficulty {of?}that task.
     
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  7. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

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    "With" is the preposition that is normally used to complete that idiom. But "during" gives it a fussy sort of precision, "in" never raises an eyebrow, and these days (at least in America) "on" has become the universal meaningless preposition that slides comfortably into almost any sentence. If a foreign student substituted "about," "for," "over," "around," "to" or even "of," his meaning would not be impaired. As I have suggested before, perhaps the major purpose of prepositions in English is to identify foreign speakers.

    Only a handful of prepositions might really impede communication, such as "between," "beyond," "upon," "into" and "without." But notice that those are all fairly recently coined compound words that exist only in English. They carry considerably more meaning than most of the ancient proto-Germanic prepositions that you'd also find in German, Dutch or Swedish.
     
  8. parmalee peripatetic artisan Valued Senior Member

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    Perhaps I should not have stated that the intended meaning can only be deduced via context. When written as "the thing of itself," the meaning is typically the same as "the thing in itself"; when written as "the thing 'of itself'," the meaning is different. The different meaning is conveyed through the use of quotes.

    By the way, did you mean to write "What you need is a category of examples of two words ..."? Or did you mean "the two words"?

    edit: I'm assuming that you did mean "the two words." Just google "thing in itself" and "thing of itself" and you will find countless examples in which the two are used within the same paragraph and are used interchangeably.

    How about another "sketchy" example? This one's an obscure neologism that hardly anyone uses. "Ready-to-hand" and "ready-at-hand" (from the German "zuhanden"). They both mean the same thing: the state of a thing in use, independent of theorizing about it.
     
    Last edited: Jul 21, 2009
  9. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

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    I don't think I've ever seen or heard anyone use "to hand" as an idiom in English. "At hand" is something I have at least encountered, but it's pretty obscure. We usually say "on hand." Once again, almost all of the time, almost all English prepositions carry almost zero meaning.

    German prepositions are no better. We both get ours from the same source: proto-Germanic. However I don't think German has been as creative as English with the coinage of new ones like onto and toward, much less the coopting of other parts of speech to serve as prepositions like inside, absent, down and regarding.
     
  10. parmalee peripatetic artisan Valued Senior Member

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    Like I said said, that example derives from a German neologism and is rather obscure. However, I think -- as you've noted -- that much better examples can be gleaned when translating from German to English: excepting those "special" prepositions (beyond, between, without), most are virtually interchangeable in the translation process. What does vom/von mean, for instance?

    Edit: Oh, and my point was that even in academic contexts in which every single word is of crucial import, the prepositions often convey very little. The example of "zuhanden" comes from Heidegger, and English-speaking critics will often use both "ready-to-hand" and "ready-at-hand" in the very same paragraph.
     
    Last edited: Jul 21, 2009
  11. iceaura Valued Senior Member

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    I have never heard "on", and the fussy sort of precision of "during" is a different meaning than "with" - closer to "in", farther from "of".

    The prepositional distinction between continuing and completed action, extended or bounded area, and the like, is common, and certainly not meaningless, in English expressions. By the better speakers and writers, it is always intended. With the better speakers and writers, it is always intentional.

    A native speaker would be able to cover for him most of the time, depending on context, but a translation program that converted all those uses to one term or phrase of another language, and then backtranslated, would produce clownbox gibberish a fair share of the time.
    I have, in Ohio and Minnesota rural as well as literature. Ready to hand and ready at hand are not quite the same thing - that latter is even more rare: the emphasis would be often on the "prepared" nature of the thing, rather than its proximity. I don't know which Heidegger intended, if either exactly, but they have not the same meaning.
    So far, you have attempted to illustrate this with examples in which the differences in meaning were fairly obvious to a quick native speaker - and glaringly obvious to most native readers. This business of being able to allow for (not: "allow", "allow with", "allow in", etc) aberrant uses by foreigners is not at all indicative of there being no differences to handle in that context - the created context of "foreigner" itself often changes the meaning ( say, by removing puns and jokes and most complex implications).

    If a foreigner at lunch asks you for an American peculiarity he has come to admire - a "penis butter and jelly sandwich" - most Americans would have no trouble comprehending his meaning. They would take a different meaning from their brat sibling - might even refer to a mayo and side pork sandwich, in my childhood.
    That doesn't mean they are interchangeable in English. It means that the German word doesn't fit any one given English term, Heidegger was careless, or the translator has a tin ear. That is one reason why translations are deficient, and educated people need the languages of their field. If you don't speak German well, you are at the mercy of the translator there. If you have an unreliable translator (as when speaking with a foreigner not fluent in your own language) you have to do some work.

    Simple example: like the word for blue/green in many languages (Japanese, IIRC). Sometimes you'd translate it into English as "green", sometimes "blue", and in metaphorical uses often another word entirely (shadowed, watery, soft, near, far, vernal, autumnal, etc? I reverse-borrow from English, not speaking Japanese, for examples). That does not make all those words interchangeable, or even synonymous.
     
    Last edited: Jul 22, 2009
  12. parmalee peripatetic artisan Valued Senior Member

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    Actually, that second meaning of which you speak -- at least in Heideggerian parlance -- is more commonly expressed as "present-at-hand," from the German "vorhanden." (Please note my qualification -- in colloquial speech it may very well be "ready at hand.")

    Philosophers are paid good money (or they were) to formulate ridiculous neologisms that have very limited application.

    I very much agree that one ought to know the language of one's field. Working from translations often yields a very muddled rendering of the author's ideas. Oddly, the philosophy departments of many North American universities do not require proficiency in foreign languages -- even at the graduate level.
     

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