Archive for the ‘English language’ Category

I’ve been sitting here at home, pretty much self-quarantined since mid-February, wondering what I could do. I’m officially considered elderly (by everyone but me!); I have a compromised immune system; and these days, am dealing with a torn meniscus while I go through some cataract surgery and dental treatment that got delayed during the lock-down. Why the torn meniscus had to show up in the middle of all this, I don’t know – but a steroid shot in the knee has provided some relief, though I’ve learned that’s nothing you want to volunteer for lightly.
And yesterday, finally, I realized there are small things I can do – things I was already doing in the pandemic, but that now take on a new meaning and a new tone with our country exploding in pain. Among other things, I’m an online tutor for college students. We never see each other, but sometimes we’ll have live text chats or audio chats over the computer as we go through a student’s work. I never know who’s going to log on – the system serves universities all over the country.
Yesterday, one of my favorite students returned for a session. She has a fantastic sense of humor and we get along really well. As we were wrapping things up, I said, “I sure hope no one is making rotten comments to you just because you’re Chinese,” and she said thank you, and told me that was sweet. I realized the smallest of comments can go a long way.
No, I don’t know if a student who logs on is African American. I can pretty well figure out quickly if English is not their first language, but as for skin color – never quite sure unless they happen to say something. We aren’t allowed to ask or exchange any personal information. But in these very trying times, every so often I can figure out a way to inject a little extra kindness into a discussion or into my written reviews; I can inject a little extra encouragement, something positive in that student’s day. There are often lots of clues as to a person’s ethnicity and previous level of education. One of the advantages of not being able to see a student is that I can jump right over those clues and just plunge in, with the assumption that the student is a perfectly reasonable person trying his or her best to get an education and move forward in life. I assume it’s someone who can make a go of things given a little bit of hope.
So that’s my mission. I mean, I dearly love nagging people about spelling, grammar, vocabulary and punctuation; I get off on it. That’s my obsessive/compulsive side. But the sweetest rewards are when a struggling student – especially someone who plainly hasn’t had a good education until now, and who struggles with the language – says, “Thank you so much. You’ve really helped.”
And then what the hell does color matter? And why did it ever?

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As a general rule, I hate buzzwords.  The most recent one I hate is “authentic.” It’s nearly as bad as “organic,” the meaning of which has become distorted beyond repair.

The rise of “authentic” – an “authentic” message, an “authentic” story, and so forth – seems to have come into popular use about the same time as the cries of “Fake media!” have emanated from the White House. I suppose it must reflect a desire to express what is real, to get at the heart of a matter, to write and received messages which are verifiable, real and true. My dictionary defines “authentic” this way:

Authentic: 1. Authoritative; reliable 2. Of undisputed origin; genuine

Synonyms: True, verifiable, real, legitimate, authorized, accredited

One problem is that if you have to keep saying you send out only authentic messages, that you only speak with authenticity, then you begin to sound as inauthentic as they come. It comes under the heading of Shakespeare’s “The lady doth protest too much, me thinks,” in the play Hamlet, which, in our common usage, has come to indicate someone who does not speak with sincerity. In my own way of putting it, you have to turn over every stone – i.e., anytime someone makes continuous, repeated statements about who they are, what they believe or what principles they uphold, turn over that stone and look on the other side. It then no longer surprises you when the man who rants against homosexuals turns out to have a male lover; when the woman who decries abortion has had one herself; when the coach entrusted with inspiring and training children turns out to be abusing them.

If you are going to use the word “authentic” or any of its synonyms, you’d do well to use it in conjunction with research you have done, or something you’ve observed. Portraying yourself as authentic should be unnecessary. Somewhere in your reputation should be an acknowledgement by other people that you are, indeed, an authentic person – someone whose word is verifiable, someone who is real and genuine.

We stress those things a lot in the field of public relations. Many of us in the field have the initials “APR” after our names, which means that we are Accredited in Public Relations. We have had to pass a grueling test as well as an interview by three judges to earn this distinction. It means we are authenticated in our profession; we’re the real deal, we’re not practicing on a fly-by-night basis.

There’s an old saying in PR that can be applied to anyone, anywhere: Never fall for your own publicity. If you do, you risk losing a strong sense of your own reality, your own authenticity. While it’s good to put your best foot forward, it’s unrealistic to believe that’s the whole story. If you want to be authentic, be like the Velveteen Rabbit – let life rub off the rough edges and stay real.

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It seems to me that, as this excellent article from CNN suggests – http://www.cnn.com/2013/01/31/politics/gun-language/index.html?hpt=hp_c1  – the heart of the gun control/gun rights argument might lie in the issues of whether or not we have control over our own lives.  As the article correctly points out, our individual rights are something that we cherish as Americans.

However, I have to wonder – again, in keeping with the article’s focus on the power of words – if the issue of control is interpreted very differently for some of us than it is for others.  I’m specifically thinking that, as a woman, control over my own life involves a whole different set of decisions than it may involve for men.  Many, many years ago – decades ago – I was in a highly restrictive marriage, where I was literally told, in these specific words, “What’s yours is mine and what’s mine is mine,” and “I don’t like you seeing those people; you need to stop.”  One evening when a girlfriend and I got adventurous and cut my long hair to chin length, the reaction was complete disapproval because, after all, he said, “I’m the one who has to look at you.”

So control over my own life, to me, has meant the ability to make personal choices about my life.  It’s meant being able to support myself (and for several years in there, my children) and control my own finances; it’s meant choosing when and where I go out, and with whom I will associate; it’s meant following my own career path because it’s fun and I enjoy it; it’s meant being able to go to a movie or the symphony or some other spare-time activity without risking stern disapproval.

Then there are the larger issues for all women: do I take the chance of having a great time with friends in a bistro or a bar until 2 a.m. when it closes, and walking even a block down a darkened street at that time of night?  Do I take the risk of meeting a stranger online and agreeing to a date?  I am certainly more afraid of the violence some men show toward women than I am of guns.

The CNN article says, “…Americans don’t like the idea of the government ‘controlling’ many of their decisions.”  In my life, as woman, the government hasn’t been the main problem.

However, it is for men.  I believe (you may disagree, of course) that men’s need to control comes partly through biology – they are, after all, hard-wired for some of this – as well as the roles we have assigned them in most societies of being providers and protectors.  I also believe that many men feel out of control a great deal of the time by the forces governing their lives, and that they might trace many of those forces back to the government (correctly or not).  Losing a job during this long recession, for example, has made many a man feel helpless and inadequate when it comes to providing for his family.  Many young men in the urban areas of our country feel helpless when it comes to needing a sense of home, a sense of belonging, a sense of community – and they therefore turn to gangs and to guns as a way of being in control.

There is also another anthropological point of view I hold about this, which we almost never talk about: while it’s completely obvious when a girl becomes a woman – her biology tells her so – it’s not so obvious when a boy becomes a man.  In many, many other societies, there are traditions of initiating young boys into manhood.  They are often very harsh traditions involving the ability to endure pain as well as the development of skills for hunting and the like.  But once initiated, a boy is celebrated as a man.

We have nothing in this country that celebrates our boys becoming men; we don’t even celebrate what it is to be a man, unless it’s on the violence of the football field (I watch the game, too, but you have to admit it’s violent) or through the violence of war.  That’s how we seem to define and celebrate manhood in this country.

Young boys and young men need strong physical activity; they are hard-wired for that, too.  I raised one son and I have four grandsons.  We know this; we know it’s why young boys are “fidget midgets” in elementary school and can barely sit still.  We know they need to test themselves; we know they need to be supported and celebrated and to have a strong definition of what it is to be a man – a definition that means something besides violence.

Why don’t we do this?  Why do we then wonder why so many young men feel so out of control?  Why aren’t we celebrating men’s special mental, emotional and physical strengths, their special goodness, and their special kindness?  Why are we constantly viewing television commercials that portray men as the biggest dumbbells who ever walked the planet?

We have a lot of growing up to do as a society, and it seems to me that one of the key places to start is in creating a path to manhood for our boys, celebrating and welcoming them when they get there.  Perhaps one of the consequences will be far less need for the false sense of control that guns provide; perhaps the right to own a gun will become much more proportionate to the right we all have to live in a society that has not become an armed camp.

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I’ve hammered my online students about their grammar, spelling and punctuation to the point that I’m sure they’d want to throw spitballs if we were in the same room together.

This book review and the author’s responses – http://bit.ly/hAwofG –  make me cringe.  This poor misguided author self-published her book and apparently waited for the accolades to roll in.  What she got instead was a reviewer  speaking the truth and asking her to face reality, which she seems either unable or unwilling to do.  She still swears by the quality of her writing.  The fact that her many e-mails in outraged response to the reviewer display even more typos and even more examples of bad grammar and bad writing just compound her original errors.  I end up wondering why on earth she would subject herself to such humiliation rather than crawl back into her home, work on her writing skills for a few years, then try again.

I’ve always thought that to write is to open a vein in your arm and let it bleed – in public.  You have to be ready, and brave; you must have something so finely crafted that even if people don’t really like it, at least they can’t tear it apart based on the most fundamental aspects of sentence structure and clarity.

I’m very gratified to read some of the responses to this author; certainly there are still people out there who care about the language.

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