Grammar Guru: Needless or needlessly?

Last week, 9 out of 11 chose “take a break” over “make a break”. In German “Let’s take a break” is “Machen wir doch mal eine Pause.” When pairs of words in different languages are very similar but have different meanings, they are called “false friends”. Similar collocations (or word partnerships) don’t always mean the same thing, either: We can “make a clean break“, e.g. at the end of a relationship, to keep things from getting messy when the love is gone (wörtl.: einen glatten Bruch machen, eindeutig Schluß machen). “Make” changes the meaning of the phrase completely.

This week, decide which two sentences are correct:

  • Many emails are needless.
  • Many emails are needlessly.
  • Many emails are written needless.
  • Many emails are written needlessly.

Asimov deconstructed

What Is Intelligence, Anyway?

by Isaac Asimov

What is intelligence, anyway? When I was in the army, I received the kind of aptitude test that all soldiers took and, against a normal of 100, scored 160. No one at the base had ever seen a figure like that, and for two hours they made a big fuss over me. (It didn’t mean anything. The next day I was still a buck private with KP – kitchen police – as my highest duty.)

All my life I’ve been registering scores like that, so that I have the complacent feeling that I’m highly intelligent, and I expect other people to think so too. Actually, though, don’t such scores simply mean that I am very good at answering the type of academic questions that are considered worthy of answers by people who make up the intelligence tests – people with intellectual bents similar to mine?

For instance, I had an auto-repair man once, who, on these intelligence tests, could not possibly have scored more than 80, by my estimate. I always took it for granted that I was far more intelligent than he was. Yet, when anything went wrong with my car I hastened to him with it, watched him anxiously as he explored its vitals, and listened to his pronouncements as though they were divine oracles – and he always fixed my car.

Well, then, suppose my auto-repair man devised questions for an intelligence test. Or suppose a carpenter did, or a farmer, or, indeed, almost anyone but an academician. By every one of those tests, I’d prove myself a moron, and I’d be a moron, too. In a world where I could not use my academic training and my verbal talents but had to do something intricate or hard, working with my hands, I would do poorly. My intelligence, then, is not absolute but is a function of the society I live in and of the fact that a small subsection of that society has managed to foist itself on the rest as an arbiter of such matters.

Consider my auto-repair man, again. He had a habit of telling me jokes whenever he saw me. One time he raised his head from under the automobile hood to say: “Doc, a deaf-and-mute guy went into a hardware store to ask for some nails. He put two fingers together on the counter and made hammering motions with the other hand. The clerk brought him a hammer. He shook his head and pointed to the two fingers he was hammering. The clerk brought him nails. He picked out the sizes he wanted, and left. Well, doc, the next guy who came in was a blind man. He wanted scissors. How do you suppose he asked for them?”

Indulgently, I lifted by right hand and made scissoring motions with my first two fingers. Whereupon my auto-repair man laughed raucously and said, “Why, you dumb jerk, he used his voice and asked for them.” Then he said smugly, “I’ve been trying that on all my customers today.” “Did you catch many?” I asked. “Quite a few,” he said, “but I knew for sure I’d catch you.” “Why is that?” I asked. “Because you’re so goddamned educated, doc, I knew you couldn’t be very smart.”

And I have an uneasy feeling he had something there.

I had the pleasure of reading this with my university students last week as an example of a definition essay. As we were working through it, it dawned on me that this little essay may be perfect for the classic TEFL essay in terms of its structure and length, but it also contains the core of the scientific method, from considering the issue in context and explaining its relevance, to venturing a hypothesis (“don’t they simply mean”), introducing the sample (“For instance”), running the experiment (“Well, then, suppose…”), presenting the results (“consider”) and sumarizing the successful outcome (“Because you’re so goddamned educated”). A gem.

How I learned Latin… and French

Since I grew up bilingual in German and English, Latin was the first foreign language I learned. My dad taught me Latin when I was 5, using the Nature Method, a book of texts featuring a family with kids my age on up, talking about everyday life, with a brother beating up on his little sister etc. My dad read it to me just as I was becoming an avid reader myself, so I actually started reading Latin in addition to English and German. I cherished our Saturday mornings together, my weekly Latin lesson was when I had my dad all to myself. There was grammar, too, at the end of each story, and I liked being able to solve those logical puzzles, and there was poetry, which I’ve always loved. So there I was, a 5 or 6 year old, reciting Ovid’s love poems. I loved anything romantic and sensitive, so it was great.

Perhaps you’ll think “How precocious!” but it wasn’t at all. I was a totally normal little girl, with dolls and stuffed animals and a head full of dreams, and doing Latin didn’t turn me into some monster. It was just something I enjoyed. When I got Latin in 7th grade it was a cinch for me, because I’d got the basics, and it was fun to have a subject I was always good at.

Then, in 9th grade, we got French. I couldn’t get my mouth around the sounds. I didn’t hear the difference between the vowels. Several other classmates were already fluent, and I was a bit frustrated not to be able to join in the fun. Our teacher obviously adored those few fluent speakers, and I remember kind of switching off in class. The texts in our book were a total bore. Then our teacher got sick, and we had substitutes and then no teacher and then finally another teacher came who started drilling us, and I got one bad grade after the other. At the end of 11th grade I was one unhappy girl, and flunked the grade.

I was so fed up with my school and the whole situation that I went on a diet, lost 15 pounds and decided to change my life. I was 16 and making good money babysitting, so I saved up all my money and bought myself a ticket to France. Burgundy, Auvergne, Province:  I was there for two blissful months, working with French youth to restore old castles and churches. It was great living in a community with people just a little older than me. I naturally fell in love with a French boy, and finally got some useful and real phrases to say. So, to make a long story short, I came back fluent in French. Oh, incidently, I had top marks in my report card from then on. But frankly, I couldn’t have cared less. School was over for me. I knew I could learn, I knew I could make it in life. And I knew that school was simply in my way. Life happened after school.

So there. That’s probably why I became a teacher.

Grammar Guru: make/take a break

Every single visitor who did the “used to” poll last week got it right – congratulations! “I’m used to getting up at 6. And you?” (talking about my habits) is sometimes confused with: “I used to get up at 5, but now I sleep until 6″. So I used to do something that I don’t do anymore.

This week’s grammar guru poll invites discussion. What would you say here: “We’ve done enough for the time being (=for now). Why don’t we make/take a break?”

That takes the cake

A few days ago I said that a presentation “takes the cake“, meaning it was great. Now I just saw that Macmillan defines “take the cake” like this:

take the cake

to be the worst, most shocking, or most annoying example of something
I’ve heard some ridiculous excuses before, but that takes the cake.

Isn’t it interesting and strange how a phrase can be used ironically to mean the opposite? In German I would say “das schärfste sein”, “den Vogel abschießen”. Depending on the context, your tone of voice and your relationship to the people you are talking to the meaning will change. Irony is one of the defining types of communication … in my life, at least. In fact, I didn’t even realize I was being ironic. It’s interesting to see that the Urban Dictionary only lists the positive meaning.

About the Urban Dictionary: Founded in 1999 by college student Aaron Peckham as a parody of the dictionary, urbandictionary.com features definitions written by people from all over the world. Since then, Urban Dictionary has been cited in court, in graduation speeches, and by countless news media outlets, including CNN and Time magazine. Aaron listens for the newest words and phrases in San Francisco, California.

So if the Urban Dictionary meaning is the ironic one and it is so widespread, when does it stop being ironic? Hey, and why doesn’t Macmillan allow for both meanings? Could it be an American English/British English thing, too? Must ask Vicki Hollett about it, she’s Learning to speak ‘merican.

Gender matters

Lera Boroditsky discusses her research on differences in gender stereotypes in HOW DOES OUR LANGUAGE SHAPE THE WAY WE THINK? (www.edge.org, June 12). She asks “Do the languages we speak shape the way we see the world, the way we think, and the way we live our lives?” She thinks they do:

In one study, we asked German and Spanish speakers to describe objects having opposite gender assignment in those two languages. The descriptions they gave differed in a way predicted by grammatical gender. For example, when asked to describe a “key” — a word that is masculine in German and feminine in Spanish — the German speakers were more likely to use words like “hard,” “heavy,” “jagged,” “metal,” “serrated,” and “useful,” whereas Spanish speakers were more likely to say “golden,” “intricate,” “little,” “lovely,” “shiny,” and “tiny.” To describe a “bridge,” which is feminine in German and masculine in Spanish, the German speakers said “beautiful,” “elegant,” “fragile,” “peaceful,” “pretty,” and “slender,” and the Spanish speakers said “big,” “dangerous,” “long,” “strong,” “sturdy,” and “towering.” This was true even though all testing was done in English, a language without grammatical gender. The same pattern of results also emerged in entirely nonlinguistic tasks…

Look at some famous examples of personification in art — the ways in which abstract entities such as death, sin, victory, or time are given human form. How does an artist decide whether death, say, or time should be painted as a man or a woman? It turns out that in 85 percent of such personifications, whether a male or female figure is chosen is predicted by the grammatical gender of the word in the artist’s native language. So, for example, German painters are more likely to paint death as a man, whereas Russian painters are more likely to paint death as a woman.”

Note: But did grammar come before culture? Can’t believe that. You’ll find “she” used in English for boats and tools, abstractions (except God), cities and countries, the Church … and the army. Never thought about it, but it’s “die Armee”! Do you know a language where the army is masculine?

Found through Azra Raza’s post on 3quarksdaily.