Linguistic Subscendence

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It is the end of the term, so my life consists of tall stacks of student papers, which I must read and evaluate.  A number of patterns – or maybe a better term would be grammatical de-patternings – have forced themselves on my attention.  There is, for example, the almost invariable “they” employed as the subsequent of a singular subject in a sentence.  A half-dozen of these, at least, appear in every four-page theme, even in papers written by English majors.  Twenty years ago, in a journal article, I referred to this as gemination – the one and only child miraculously becomes a set of twins.  Many among the English professoriate no longer bother to correct this, but I do, insistently.  While English is a latitudinous language in terms of its regularity, the logic of its pronominal system is rigorous.  Someone is, precisely, one, not two people or more.  Ditto anyone, everyone, and no one or none, the last being the contraction of its syntactic precursor in the sentence.  In the real world, neither a person nor the man can suddenly become they or them.  To write so, however, is surely to think so; and to think so is bad arithmetic even in the first grade.  It is perhaps not an unrelated fact that when I give my students the instruction to subtract the number of questions they answered wrongly on the quiz from the total number of questions and to post the result as their score – they reach that result with glacial slowness through grimacing, dull effort.

My wife, too, and a number of others have noticed, as I have, the phrase (reducing it to a formula for the purposes of representation): “X is based off Y” or its even less elegant variant, “X is based off of Y.”  This phrase now pops up ubiquitously in student writing.  The offense against basic visualization is deeply demoralizing.  Strictly speaking, “based off of” is entirely unvisualizable.  To what mental notion, then, might it refer?  In usage, it appears where a more competent writer than the specimen sophomore- or junior-level writer would write – let us say – “influenced by” or “derived from” or “characteristic of,” although you will rarely or never find those phrases in the run of student writing.  Perhaps it echoes the old slogan, “to rip it off,” but I have not heard that in the popular-culture forum since 1980.  I put it down tentatively to the success – that is right, the success – of American public education, the actual agenda of which is to produce young people who have no thinking skills whatsoever.  Grammar is a set, after all, of basic thinking skills, as in the cases of someone, anyone, everyone, and no one or none, none of which could announce its number more clearly.  If anyone had any idea where “based off of” originates, I should be glad to hear from him.

Back to the phenomenon of number.  I see sentences like the following one more often than I can count: “A ludicrous majority of people are not as well educated as they should be.”  The indefinite article in the singular and the noun in the singular together force the inflection of the verb, which should, as if I needed to stipulate it, also be in the singular.  A majority is… whatever it is, even, or rather especially, when it subsumes a plural people later on in the construction.  But then college writers barely know what a noun is, let alone a noun-phrase.  This error, by the way, does not confine itself to student writing.  In the past few days I have noticed it close to a dozen times in articles at The American Thinker, a fairly respectable “conservative” website.  This solecism probably results from mere laziness.  The verb accords itself  to a plural noun (“people”) that, while subsumed grammatically by the main noun of the noun-phrase (“a majority”), nevertheless occurs just prior to the verb, at which point the writer has forgotten about the majority and is only thinking about the people.  How progressive!

Every book is now a novel.  Aristotle’s Poetics is “an old novel by a Greek guy.”  Owen Barfield’s History in English Words, Cleanth Brooks’ Well-Wrought Urn, and René Girard’s I See Satan Fall like Lightning are all novels.  Actual novels – and poems and plays – are more often than not “pieces of literature,” an utterance almost unbearably vulgar.  The word story seems not to figure in college-student vocabulary at all.  Homer’s Odyssey, Virgil’s Aeneid, and Beowulf are alike “pieces of literature.”  Of course, they are all “based off of” something, in one case an “oral translation.”  A possible correlate of the disappearance of the word story is the inability of students to rehearse the events of the story that they have just now read in order as they happen in the story.  Likewise students seem unable to discuss items in chronological order, the simplest form of serial discursive order and one that would seem intuitively obvious.  They devote, first, a paragraph to Beowulf, second, one to the Aeneid, third, one to Hrolf Kraki’s Saga, and fourth and finally, one to the Odyssey.

Student writers — and the writers behind the Sheldon Cooper character on the TV sitcom The Big Bang Theory — think that the old Saxon phrase willy-nilly means “at random.”  In fact, it means “against one’s will.”  Thus, “It falls to him, will he or nill he.”  Sheldon also believes that moot means “irrelevant” or “already and incontrovertibly settled.”  Its actual meaning is, “debatable.”  Thus the Constitutional and moral validities of Title IX are, precisely, “moot.”  And it ought to be mooted.  It turns out that Sheldon and his writers are not nearly as smart as they think they are.

Hillary Clinton, the former First Lady, is not yet the predecessor of Melania Trump.  Alas, Hillary is merely a precursor of Melania in that station.

“End of the term”?  We are, in any case, knee- deep in the Kali Yuga.  And the sergeant says, “Move on!”

18 thoughts on “Linguistic Subscendence

  1. Pingback: Linguistic Subscendence | @the_arv

  2. I have some sympathy for students who use they as a singular pronoun. Most were not taught grammar, but all have seen what happens to a poor wretch who has offended his blue-haired English teacher. When writing for the harpies that roost in the University, I am often daunted by the challenge of threading my way between the Scylla of Grammatical Solecism and the Charybdis of Political Incorrectness.

    I think you may be on the right track when you link “based off of” and “rip off.” In both cases, the visual referent has to do with lifting something and taking it away. I’d suggest that “off” also serves to indicate that the connection between base and superstructure is not tight. “Based on” might seem to suggest a formal relation of premise and inference. “Based off of” therefore means something more along the lines of “suggested to my not very critical mind by my hazy memory of.”

    I’ve also noticed that just about any book is now referred to as a novel. My students refer to voyages and travels as novels. It may be that the word novel has come to mean any book a teacher forces one to read that is not a textbook. Here again there is a certain primitive logic, since, for most students, reading a book is a novel experience.

    • Dear JM — I too have sympathy for the students, just not for the sentences! But yes, “based off of” suggests tenuousness or severance, as though, in their dimness, the badly educated had a deep insight about post-structural (so-called) thinking. I have often thought that Derrida, for example, was verily “based off of” Husserl. The figure of Socrates in Aristophanes’ Clouds is definitely “based off of” the actual Socrates. And numerous statues of Confederate heroes are nowadays totally “based off,” as everyone here at The Orthosphere well knows.

      According to postmodernism, while difference is everything, there is no real difference between one thing and another, so why bother to differentiate between fiction and non-fiction? It’s all good, dude! (Tom)

      PS. When I’m at Larry’s bar, I want my pint-glass of Guinness to be based on the counter, not based off of it. The latter would be a waste of good beer.

      PPS. Here’s one for a geographer. The old special-effects film Krakatoa East of Java was “based off of” a true event.

      • Interestingly, I had a different immediate reaction to ‘based off’. It put me in mind of the old English legal phrase, ‘uttering of base coin’ – which is base both because it is low, unfit, and (dare I say) vulgar, but also because it is ‘based off’ the King’s sovereigns.

      • Bryan @ The B52’s song “Lava” destroyed the geographic knowledge of the East Indies for an entire generation.

  3. Pingback: Linguistic Subscendence | Reaction Times

  4. To be fair to the students, some of these grammatical errors are introduced by autocorrect in Word. I often find Word prompting me to “correct” my correct usage of a singular verb to agree with a singular collective noun. What’s maddening is that sometimes Word takes the initiative and makes the “correction” without my having noticed, my eye and mind having already moved on in the sentence. And such mistakes are notoriously hard to catch in proofing.

    Autocorrect just did this to Tom: He typed “JM” and autocorrect said, “Oh, he meant to type ‘Jim.'”

    Autocorrect is mostly beneficial, I suppose. Nevertheless I loathe it. Spell check, too. It’s devilish. It can’t learn, e.g., that “manger” is a normal English word, and there seems to be no way to teach it. So I can’t make the squiggly line under the word go away. Drives me nuts.

    • Nevertheless I loathe it. Spell check, too. It’s devilish. It can’t learn, e.g., that “manger” is a normal English word, and there seems to be no way to teach it. So I can’t make the squiggly line under the word go away. Drives me nuts.

      Amen! The other day I wrote “animated” and it posted “antiquated.” In the particular forum one can go back and edit his own posts. Trouble was I didn’t notice it until the next day, whereupon I did go back and make the correction. But I do know I proof read the post for misspellings and all prior to posting, and I missed the auto correction entirely. Sometimes I think our minds see what we want them to see, as opposed to what is actually there.

      • A reference in one paper to Les Miserables “by Victoria Hughes” is undoubtedly an example of Spell Check inveigling the keystrokes. In deference to Spell Check, however, it will underline a “they” that does not match a previous “he” and so too verbs that fail to match their nouns in number. Students pay no attention to Spell Check. The idea that they should pay attention to it is foreign to them because the idea of grammar is largely foreign to them. Let me make it clear that I blame K-12, not the students directly. Bad prose is nevertheless a socio-cultural problem. It impedes communication and therefore impedes business. Twenty years ago in Michigan when I was researching my report on Declining Standards at Michigan Public Universities, one of the facts that I discovered was that Michigan business spent something like a billion dollars a year retraining newly graduated holders of the baccalaureate in the fundamentals of basic English communication, including grammar.

      • Let me make it clear that I blame K-12, not the students directly.

        Perfectly understandable. It is very tempting to lay the brunt of the blame for this failure at the feet of the (failing) K-12 public education system; but on the other hand, it seems to me teachers in the public education system are given an almost impossible task. The problem is of course compounded by the time they get to you.

        If their parents and other close guardians (grandparents, aunts and uncles and so forth) are themselves indifferent to the importance of proper grammar, it stands to reason (or so I tend to think) the youngsters in question would also be so disposed. As a general rule, I mean.

        I don’t know how many times I’ve been castigated by an adult family member for correcting a nephew or a niece in his/her misappropriation of the terms in question, but it goes by the name legion, if that is any indication. Apparently I am simply ‘behind the times,’ and as such exercise an undue (and unwanted) authority in such matters. Such informative missives do not prevent my continuing to offer correctives when I know to do so, but there you have it in any case.

        It is also a BIG problem that many of these kids come from broken and/or blended homes, which makes the problem of trying to give them a proper and effectual education ten times more difficult at the very least. The “broken” and “blended” aspects of all of that tend to be, in my experience, multi-generational extending to the third and fourth generation of those who hate the Lord but maintain nevertheless that they love Him and His word. …

    • Kristor: In fact, in my haste and distraction, I did indeed intend to write “Jim” and so wrote it. I have corrected it to “JM” courtesy of your observation.

  5. In some cases, the use of a plural pronoun is a perfectly acceptible example of synesis,(σύνεσις ) in which a which a form, such as a pronoun, differs in number but agrees in meaning with the word governing it, as in “If the group becomes too large, we can split them in two.”

    One finds it used by the best authors, even in inflected languages, such as Greek and Latin.

    Better, surely, that a student should be able to identify a synesis, rather than invariably avoid it.

    • Thank you, Michael. Synesis is a stylistic choice available to masters of rhetoric of the highest order. Supposing that students first mastered their prose at the fundamental level and then developed something like a personal style, it would be appropriate to introduce them to synesis although that figure, while appropriate in Attic Greek, is a bit foreign to Anglo-Saxon. The problem is that due to their abysmally inadequate education before they arrive at college, students are simply not at the level of mastery where figures like synesis would be useful — or even meaningful — to them. If I were to present you before the class and you explained synesis to the students — eloquently, as I imagine you would — the only two things that they would take away from your lecture would be that it is “okay” to follow “the man” with “they” and that Dr. B has simply been harassing them “based off of” nothing. Sincerely, Tom

      • “[T]hat figure, while appropriate in Attic Greek, is a bit foreign to Anglo-Saxon.”

        I belong to a generation that had little or no formal training in English grammar; our schoolmasters assumed we would pick it up from our Classical studies.

        We occasionally dipped into Fowler’s Modern English Usage and were drilled in the correct usage of “shall” and “will.”

  6. I’m thankful that the only student compositions I face at the end of the current term are in a language in which these questions of gender and number do not take these forms–though there are plenty of other traps into which students routinely fall. When I do teach courses requiring compositions in English, I begin the semester warning students never to use that awful but increasingly common locution “based off of,” explaining that in standard English it is “based on,” which is a syllable shorter and makes sense. (“Based off of” suggests deflection, as in “bounced off of,” as if it’s no longer there.) In spite of my warning, I still see sentences like: “This phenomenon was based off of Confucianism.” As for the use of “they” to refer to a singular antecedent, I no longer bother to correct that. I used to, but students always protested, saying that their high school English teachers told them it was now acceptable because it’s gender-neutral, and it became tiresome to swim against that mounting wave.

    • Dear Roger — At least your students include the word phenomenon in their vocabularies. I have described previously my determination to expose students to Owen Barfield’s beautiful book History in English Words, which I ask them to read. My main reason is that I want to give them a sense of the range and differences in register of English vocabulary. I hope, of course, that the words that Barfield discusses will work their way into student writing. It happens only rarely. Mind you, students can give definitions of Barfield’s specimen words when I request that information on a chapter quiz, but they seem rarely to internalize even the smallest part of Barfield’s generous lexicon. Not caring whether one increases his reserve of words or not goes in parallel, to be sure, with not caring whether one adjusts his prose to the not-all-that-difficult rigor of English grammar.

      Language is an index of its society in any number of ways. The same students who have limited vocabularies and only the most casual sense of grammar are also extremely free and profuse in their employment of profanity, including the women, and including the f-word. A friend of mine works on the non-academic side of campus, supervising the structural maintenance of the dorms. He is on campus more than I. The other day in the bar, I mentioned the ceaseless usage of four-letter words by so many students, especially female students. Now the friend spent eight years in the army, rising from a recruit to a sergeant. Bad language is hardly foreign to his experience. As soon as I made my remark, however, he agreed with me how shocking and unpleasant it was to hear students, especially the coeds, talking like sailors. Far too many faculty members also make free with profanity in their verbal interactions with students either in the classroom or in consultation in their offices. (I have the cringing suspicion that these people think that using such language makes them appear “cool” to their captive student-audience. I should not let myself get started concerning “cool.”)

      It is as easy, it strikes me, not to swear, as it is not to affix “they” as the subsequent of “the man.” What is missing, is the will to do so, or the noetic perspicuity to see how ugly one or the other really is and avoid it thereafter. Sincerely — Tom

  7. Rhetocrates, Brian D. Finch, & JM Smith:

    On counterfeiting and inflation: I believe that in the European tradition, should the king be found guilty of “debasing the coinage,” or “coining,” he would justify his own ouster by the outraged kingdom.

    On geography: When MGM re-released Krakatoa, East of Java, they re-dubbed it simply as Krakatoa.

    On geography: When I teach my “Western Heritage” course, as I did this semester and will again next semester, I make use of one of the most useful books known to me, Penguin’s Atlas of Ancient History. Colin McEvedy, the author of the Atlas, has brilliantly arranged his presentation so that a map representing the Mediterranean basin and a swatch of the surrounding world (stretching to Scandinavia in the Northwest and to India and Central Asia in the East and Southeast) appears on the right-hand page and an accompanying text on the left-hand page. The same map repeats throughout, but each map represents the state of civilization at a given moment in a chronology that begins with the Early Bronze Age and ends with the barbarian invasions.

    At the beginning of the semester, I throw on the classroom screen a blank version of this map and casually ask students whether they can identify it. About half fail to recognize the Mediterranean basin. Two thirds are hard-put to identify any of the outstanding features — such as the boot of Italy, or the Baltic and Black Seas. Part of my didactic agenda is always, then, to give rudimentary instruction in the geography of Europe, North Africa, and the Near East.

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