Commentary & Opinion
3:45 pm
Mon September 2, 2013

David Nightingale: On Language

Disclaimer: the following comments are about the English language, despite the fact that my training is only in the sciences. But to my mind, whatever language we use, we should strive to communicate. accurately.

On the TV I hear  'a criteria for such-and-such...' and 'a new phenomena...'; and in the newspaper (from a syndicated medical columnist) 'a bacteria has been discovered...'

These all make me wince: whatever happened to the standard dictionary words, criterion, phenomenon and bacterium?

My reliance on Webster's and my love of the works of so many American authors – from Mark Twain, J.D.Salinger, John Barth, John Updike, Faulkner, Hemingway, to T.S.Eliot, Robert Frost, Sylvia Plath – and countless others, makes me wonder what is happening in common usage today.

'Every pair are color-coded' (states a Wikipedia article); 'a team have arrived (ABC news)'; and 'what the cost of services are'. Ouch!!

'Irregardless' makes me cringe – but at least Webster's is kind enough to say it's a substandard word, or a humorous play on the word 'regardless'.

'Predominately', in the newspaper. The writer of course meant 'predominantly'. And then 'new innovation'. My-oh-my; does that mean a new-new thing? Isn't it new anyway?

I muse that some of this degradation may stem from the proliferation of both acronyms and texting (the latter being a trend that I don't especially care for, because a brief phone call is often simpler and easier,  and because the keys are smaller than my fingers.) Here's just one example: when recently my TV lost sound on many of its stations I began to think of repair, but after looking for a possible solution on GoodSearch I realized there was a button, called MTS on the remote. By pressing that button the sound came back. But what on earth does MTS stand for? Out of 67 possibilities, such as Microsoft Transactions Server, Maahad Tarfiz Sains (a Malaysian School) it appears to stand for Multichannel TV Sound. As the new language says – duh.

Another very common difference showing up between US English, Australian English, African English, Indian English and British English is 'off of'., which reminds me of a Russian cosmonaut, as in “Col. Offov entered the spacecraft”. The sentence “the red ball bounced off the blue one and then off the side of the billiard table ... is commonly written and heard now as the red ball bounced off of the blue one and then off of the side... However, I realize this may well become the new standard, as English continues to develop. Indeed, whole new words are appearing all the time, such as phablet and twerk.

Here's another squirm-inducing one: 'I could care less' instead of the logically correct 'I couldn't care less'. Break it down: I am actually able to care less means I do actually care, even if only a little. Put in the negative, and then you don't care at all. That surely is what people mean when they incorrectly say 'I could care less.'

There are so many. 'It wouldn't have any affect', instead of the correct it wouldn't have any effect. And, fewer vs less    Fewer , say Strunk & White, in their Elements of Style is essentially for numbers, such as fewer cups of coffee. And less pontificating, please.

Time is up. Like religions, which have evolved with so many different branches and splinter groups, we have ever increasing diversities in English.  MTS, LRC (Longitudinal Redundancy Check), HCI (Human Computer Interaction) I'd be happy to dispense with completely. But, as we communicate, let's use the rest of the language correctly.

Dr. David Nightingale is Professor Emeritus of Physics at the State University of New York at New Paltz, and is the co-author of the text,  A Short Course in General Relativity.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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