Skip to content

Don We Now Our Awkward Syntax

November 30, 2010

Gentlemen, behold: Our Daily Beard’s 200th post!

One of the two or three things I find myself doing more often than most people is contemplating suffixes and participles. This can only be a result of the dead-language studies that turned me into the Titan of Industry you know and love today. Back when I was a teacher I would make wild proclamations to my students–quotable tidbits of 8:30-a.m., no-sleep, humanities-nerd wisdom like “Words will define themselves for you if you let them.” And for the most part that’s true, especially in the artificial world of scientific terminology, which follows a creationist linguistic model rather than an evolutionary one.

But it was precisely because of my etymological passion that I was kind of useless at teaching that class. Somewhat reasonably, I was expected to follow the textbook and say things like “As the textbook indicates, –al and –ent are adjectival suffixes. Words with those endings are adjectives.” But are they really though? Let’s test that:

Torrents of rain were falling.

The manual needs to be rewritten.

A current sucked the animals under.

I’ll have the special, please.

My students never, ever noticed this type of shit, but I always did, and it made me feel like a dirty liar. Although I knew I should just leave it alone, I inevitably started backpedaling and giving yet another mini-lecture about how language is fluid and we verb nouns and noun adjectives all the time and here are 400 examples that don’t fit the pattern and do you see what’s happening? They started as the part of speech indicated by the suffix, but then they evolved into another down the road. (What’s the date today? Would you like to date me? We could swing on a swing!) Isn’t it awesome? You can watch a language develop, you guys! Linguistic Darwinism! It’s so–

Q: Will this be on the exam?

A: No, the exam will be the usual 20 multiple choice, 20 fill in the blank, and 20 short answer questions, plus 3 bonus points for drawing or writing something entertaining for the teacher so she doesn’t go mad with boredom grading 90 multiple choice/fill in the blank/short answer exams.

Q: Then why are you saying it? Just to be confusing? You know that 50% of the people in this room are ESL students and 90% of the people in this room are in science programs and you’re just making life harder for them, right?

A: But it’s so worth it! Augh! When will I find a place in the universe?

Q: Just teach the class. Nobody’s interested in your profound sense of social alienation.

True story. But now that the 2006 fall quarter is over I can relax and be myself. So, suffixes and participles. I think we don’t realize how flagrantly incorrectly we use them. The -ing and -ed endings should indicate present ongoing active action and past complete passive action respectively. The suffix -er indicates that something or someone is the agent or doer of a particular action.

Tons of English words are basically running around with a leg for an arm and an arm for a leg.

“Sucker,” for starters. As in, I’d like a cherry sucker, please. Obviously, this delicious sweetmeat should be called a sucked. It is the object, not the subject, of the sucking. And before we’ve begun to eat it, we should really call it an about-to-be-sucked–in Latin, suckendum–but English doesn’t have special gerund endings.

Fun fact: when we call someone a sucker, as in You’re a sucker if you agree to edit that manuscript for free, we are using it correctly, if not politely, in that it is in fact the subject of the term who’s doing the sucking.

And “building.” The -ing suffix is all wrong for that word. Both the tense and the active sense of the word are completely boo-urns. It should be called a built.

“Writing,” in certain contexts, makes equally little sense. Kate is writing is a fine and true sentence. But Kate’s writing contains too many profanities–not so much. Same problems as “building.” We ought to call actually-existing text written, not writing. Someone should break into J.D. Salinger’s house to steal and publish all the written. Now that’s a sentence a grammarian can be proud of.

Speaking of “text”–that word literally means woven. Awesome, right? “Context” = woven together, “subtext” = woven beneath, “pretext” = woven overtop, etc. The whole thing of abstractions originally having had literal meanings is a topic I can’t get enough of. Also pretty stoked about the idea of written language as tapestry, which poets were using long before the Latin language made it explicit. (Nice metaphor, Romans! High five!) Anyhow, the point here is that the word “texting” makes zero sense. “Text” is an anglicized version of a past participle (Latin textus) and then we stick a present-active participle suffix on top of it ’cause we don’t know shit about word endings anymore.

This might be the nerdiest blog post of my blog-posting career. Will it help if I mention I’m not wearing any clothes and I’ve got big plans to drink at least four rums tonight?

The second of those claims is true.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. January 2, 2011 6:51 pm

    Well hello-

    I stumbled across your blog recently, more or less or not at all by accident, and thought that I might say one small thing after reading this particular post.

    Not all of your students were entirely vapid nor ambivalent towards your occasional etymological tangents. I took your class as a scientist (an affliction from which I still suffer), but I was pleasantly surprised by your discussions and genuinely interested in the points you were trying to make. I had naively hoped that the class was going to be more like that in general, but I suppose the curriculum required a certain dry austerity.

    Anyway, I just wanted to thank you for a more pleasant 8:30 hour in Bloedel than it otherwise might have been. And lest you think I’m creepy: I was recently going through some old school work, came across your syllabus and remembering how much you hated your program, decided to glance online to see if you had managed to escape. So perhaps a tiny bit creepy, yes. Sorry about that, welcome to the the internet I suppose… I have relinquished my anonymity as penance.


    • Kate permalink*
      January 3, 2011 8:07 pm

      Oh wow, the universe never fails to surprise me. This would have been such an impossible situation even ten years ago. Amazing. Former students finding me online is something it never even occurred to me to worry about / hope for.

      I didn’t mean to typecast my students–hope it didn’t come off that way–the Q&A above was mostly directed at me… I could tell from the exams that there were a few in each session who were picking up what I was throwing down, and those sparks of interest were definitely appreciated. Overall though I felt this ongoing self-consciousness that I was teaching in a useless and/or self-indulgent way. I was also constantly bothered by the fact that I couldn’t give more energy to teaching because of the various other demands on my time and brain. Four years and several drastic life changes later I’m about to start an ESL instructor diploma program (tomorrow morning, as a matter of fact–yikes…), so I guess the Meanhag Legacy of Ridiculous Teaching will continue in 2012. I hope my word origin obsession will at the very least make me better able to explain why words are spelled and used the way they are. I give nothing but the maddest of props to anyone who has to learn English as a second language. Can’t even imagine it.

      There was a general intro to etymology class, CLAS 201 or something. That’s probably what you wanted. (It’s certainly what I wanted…) Job-wise, science is a way better path, so good for you for getting on it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: