Saturday, May 12, 2007


Sometimes I have trouble with English, too

Perhaps we shouldn't be too surprised if newspapers are shrinking or folding and people are communicating in text messages with no capital letters, numbers for words, and no punctuation. English is a world-wide language, can be difficult, and each culture puts its own slant on it. I use English all the time, and sometimes I struggle. (I have a problem overusing adverbs and parenthetical statements.) Yesterday I was reading Terry Teachout's theater column in the Wall Street Journal (you can see part of it here on his blog). I don't do theater, although I did see a matinee in New York about 50 years ago, but I like to keep up. Please don't misunderstand; he's a superb writer, but I'm out of practice. It's like reading some of the old research articles from the 20s or 30s in JSTOR--it's good exercise, but tiring. Maybe it's my age, or the age we live in age in which we live. I was exhausted by my own pauses: read, reread and ponder the meaning. I knew the idioms and phrases weren't critical to the sense of the essay, that he was just enjoying being playful, but still. . . I love words, language and meaning, and it shouldn't be so difficult. For instance:
    "not excluding," does that mean "including?"

    "repays careful watching," does that mean you get back the time if you pay attention?

    "a couple of much-admired revivals not with standing," does that mean yes, the play has had revivals that were good?

    "it goes without saying," I know that means "I'm going to say something you'll agree with, but I'm saying it anyway," but . . . it's still confusing to say you're not going to say it and then you do.

    "an actor who sings not a singer who acts," would mean one is better at cross over than the other?

    "can't be anything other than gorgeous," means very pretty, but why do so many of our idioms use the negative to be positive? Do Greeks or Cambodians do this? Probably, if they speak English.

    "would that this tale were something other than an ordinary celebrity vehicle," What do you call that construction of, "would that. . .were. . .other than"? Future pluperfect past something?

    "deliver the goods with postage to spare," must mean it's beyond successful, but I'm not familiar with the phrase. Is it theater English? New Yorker English? An idiom from his school days? Pony Express?

    "so transparent as to be but invisible" I'm sure this construction has a name (so . . .as to be . . .), but it's been a long time since English class.

    "a pair of golf-playing straw businessmen in bespoke suits" Yes, I did have to look up "bespoke" which is past tense of "bespeak" which is a British tailoring term meaning you choose the material. And I know a straw man is something made up to knock down. But strung together (a play about African Americans), I'm a bit confused.


JAM said...

It never ceases to amaze me how many problems like this slip by the editors. On a blog like mine, I can understand; I'm great at math and only decent at English, but even I know better than to make some of the mistakes you illustrated here. Plus, I have only myself to proofread and in the end, only a handful of people read it, so, no big deal.

It IS a big deal though if these things make it to print, supposedly written by professionals.

Norma said...

I don't think his are mistakes, just expressions not well known to the ordinary folk with just a master's degree and living in the midwest. I just get confused.

Anonymous said...

Interesting column! I think what happens with writing is that people feel they need to use flowery language to appear intelligent.

Honestly, if people just wrote what they meant instead of consulting their thesaurus for every word, perhaps we could read newspapers again.

Also, I always thought that "not with standing" was all one word.

To me, a singer is always an actor. That's why concert can also be called a performance, because the person on the stage isn't the same as the person off the stage. I would think it easier for a singer to go into acting than for an actor to get into singing (think Jennifer Lopez, although I think she's somewhat sketchy at either).