Sunday, January 27, 2013

Language Matters

A few related items from my in-box:

1. "I lied, but only briefly,"  Manti T'eo reportedly said, according to a cable news headline I recently saw. Reminds me of being sort of pregnant. He was referring to a dead girl who never existed. Notre Dame should mandate a course in ethics and one in logic for this guy.

2. Speaking of logic reminds me that I keep hearing the phrase "begging the question" in the media when the speaker really means, "that raises the question" (of whether Hillary Clinton will run...or whatever).  To beg the question has a specific meaning in logic as a fallacy in reasoning, in this case assuming something to be true that needs to be demonstrated.  For example,  "Why do we let the city cheat us this way?"  First, the speaker/writer has to prove that the city is in fact cheating the people.
The broadened use of such a phrase, with no awareness of its essential meaning, often happens in language when phrases floating in the community soup get picked up and become trendy.  "Begging the question," for some reason, has become trendy.

3. A government economist quoted in the NYTimes recently declared that the budget bill passed by Congress is "no existential threat to the overall U.S. economy."  Did he need that word "existential"?  Does it add any meaning?  Did he or she mean, "real"?  Everyone who writes for the media or speaks to the press should read George Orwell's essay, "Politics and the English Language" once a year to remind themselves about meaningless phrases and the abuse to clear thinking caused by jargon.

4. I am tutoring a high school boy, who is now studying, week by week, a list of words for the future SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test) required by colleges. Without going into the usefulness of this test as a means of determining intelligence or academic skill, I can only say that the list of 20 words, which he commits to memory each week as if they were in a foreign language, are taken out of any context.  He does not see how they are used in sentences, and so they mean little to him.  I notice most recently the following words:  assiduous, penurious, recondite, and puissant--all very bookish, the last of which I associate with Milton's Paradise Lost (1667).  I can't recall seeing any contemporary writer using this recondite word (or that one either, very often). Why is the teaching of English in secondary schools not more enlightened?
 Brute memorizing, like cramming, can be done, but the learning value of such studying is limited. Why not relate the words to texts the students are reading?  Sound obvious?  It is!

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