Michael Shapiro

As readers will see, this blog is written by someone who is a professional linguist and semiotician (specialist in sign theory) with a uniquely wide range of knowledge and experience in the humanities and social sciences. Since retiring from active university service in 2005, I have devoted myself to writing of all kinds, including fiction, and to public lectures at a variety of venues in the USA and abroad. In October 2017 I will be lecturing in China on language and linguistics at Beijing Language and Culture University and at Mongolia Technology University (Hohhut, Inner Mongolia).

For readers who are interested in availing themselves of my expertise and experience as a teacher and lecturer, I am available to tutor students who are preparing for various examinations (including the SAT, GRE, and LSAT) that test proficiency in the language arts. Initial contact with me can be established by e-mailing me (mms33@columbia.edu). Students wishing to get my help in preparing papers, theses, and dissertations are also welcome to contact me. I have a wealth of experience in this kind of work with students, including guidance in turning drafts of books into finished publications.

Lenition, Not Voicing

May 18, 2009

President Barack Obama’s idiolect has a phonetic feature that hasn’t been noticed in the public press, viz. the non-standard pronunciation of the verb congratulate and its derived verbal noun congratulation(s) with a “voiced” [ǯ] for standard “voiceless” [č] corresponding to the intervocalic letter t. (One heard it yet again today [May 17, 2009] in his commencement address at the University of Notre Dame.) This is actually a fairly widespread (mis)pronunciation. In effect, this is the process by which intervocalic fricatives (hissing and hushing sounds) that are “voiceless” in other positions are rendered with their “voiced” counterparts between vowels; thus the well-known pronunciation of greasy in Southern American dialects as grea[z]y.

There is an explanation, but it’s one that necessitates disabusing oneself of the established characterization of English as a language with distinctive “voicing” in its obstruent (= true consonant) system and facing the fact that English (like German and Serbo-Croatian, for example––or Japanese, for that matter, pace the conventional view––and unlike Russian) is rather a language with distinctive “protensity,” i.e., with the opposition tense vs. lax. Thus the series p, t, k, etc. is to be understood as being opposed to the series b, d, g, etc. as tense vs. lax.

Two of the features by which obstruents are distinguished in the languages of the world are voicing and this so-called protensity feature. They correspond to the traditional distinction between fortis and lenis sounds. (The more familiar modern terms are voiced vs. voiceless and tense vs. lax.) There are several phonetic properties that accompany the distinction between fortis and lenis sounds, such as the presence vs. absence of the vibration of the vocal bands, aspiration, and so on. All of these phonetic properties are in fact relevant in a general sense but not important to the particular phenomenon at hand, which is the lenition of an intervocalic obstruent, namely [č],  resulting in President Obama’s [ǯ]. The reason why it is a matter of principal importance to call this process by its right name––lenition––rather than “voicing” is that only then can we understand why it happens at all. (Note that orthography is helpless here as an explanans, since the letter t is “voiceless.”)

Noted in an earlier post was the fact of the neutralization of phonological distinctions in so-called positions of neutralization, whereby only one of the opposed terms appears in such positions and “represents” the opposition. Here, the obstruent that occurs between vowels is in just such a position, and the representative of the opposition between [č]and [ǯ]––the very one that distinguishes between, say, batch and badge––is what is conventionally called the “voiced” one, i.e., the latter. But calling it “voiced” is wrong phonologically, no matter how right it is phonetically, for the following reason.

The most universal realization of an opposition in a position of neutralization––in phonology as in all of grammar––is the so-called “unmarked” member of the opposition, which is defined as the relatively general or unconstrained member, its “marked” counterpart being relatively specific or constrained for the feature at stake. One could say that positions of neutralization are diagnostic––for native learner and analyst alike––in that they conduce to the evaluative designation of members of oppositions in terms of markedness, a designation that imparts sense to form and without which phonology and grammar would cease to be a coherent structure.

As a general matter, in languages with distinctive voicing in their obstruent system, the marked member of the opposition is the voiced (lenis) member, and the voiceless (fortis) member is unmarked. Contrariwise, in languages with distinctive protensity, it is the tense (fortis) member that is marked and the lax (lenis) one that is unmarked.

Consequently, those speakers who, like President Obama, have a lenited obstruent in congratulations, where the norm has its unlenited counterpart, are (unwittingly, of course) simply realizing the natural drift inherent in the sign function of all positions of neutralization by pronouncing the unmarked lenis sound for t. It just so happens that the norm in this case overrides the drift, but some speakers (probably from childhood) are nonetheless impelled by what the Germans call Systemzwang (“the systemic force”) to innovate in their individual grammars along lines that have the inherent potential of becoming the norm in the long run.

Even in this minute respect, one could say that the new president is only being true to himself as an adherent of the innovating variety of contemporary American English.



‘Head for’ vs. ‘Head to’

May 17, 2009

For some time now in American English, there has been a strong tendency to replace the traditional complement––here a postposition––after the verb head, namely for, by the formerly non-normative to, resulting in a contemporary vacillation between the two constructions. This variation can be used to illustrate many aspects of the entire process of change, each of which merits separate treatment.

Leaving aside all but the raison d’être, we can first compare the meanings of the alternating postpositions. To generally means ‘in the direction of’ something after verbs of motion, as in the prototypical go to, without, however, precluding the attainment of the goal of the verb. Hence, in a command to a child such as go to your mother, both the directional and the telic meanings are present: going involves both starting out in some direction and having a possible goal, although reaching that goal may not be explicit (as it is in go to school, to work, etc.). For after verbs of motion reverses the hierarchical relationship between directionality and telicity: in a colloquial American expression such as go for it, the directional aspect of for is completely subordinated by the meaning of attaining a goal.

In head for the telic aspect also predominates: the phrase not only means setting out in a certain direction (which is presupposed) but makes the attainment of a goal its primary content. It is in this respect that the phrase differs from head toward: the meaning of toward is essentially the same as that of to when they function as verbal complements. The difference is rendered explicit when the object is a quintessentially directional substantive, as with a compass point. Hence the contrast between head for the hills and head toward the east, with *head for the east being unidiomatic (cf. the complement-less head east).

From the point of view of linguistic structure, one might infer from the foregoing analysis that there is something about the semantics of the two postpositions that is at stake, specifically a difference of rank in the semantic syntagms associated with each of them. An analysis that trades in competing semantic hierarchies may not seem to constitute an explanation of the change from one syntactic pattern to another, but this is not strictly so. The nature of grammar is such that what appears in speech or is expressed can always be traced to underlying grammatical relations, which are semantic in their essence, as its cause.

But in the syntactic change discussed above, one unsatisfied with this type of intrinsic explanation might wish to speculate about causes inherent in the larger communicative situation. Although hard evidence is unavailable, perhaps the change has its transcendent explanation in the larger tendency within contemporary American culture to neutralize social hierarchies, i.e., to scant hypotaxis in favor of parataxis. With the encompassing social structure and its flux as a reference point, the change in grammar would find its place as a piece of worldmaking.

This kind of explanation may be extrinsic to grammar proper, but there is also no gainsaying that syntax connects with reality in just this sort of way. In the change at hand, to repeat, we would seem to have a leveling of hierarchy––parataxis triumphing over hypotaxis. The constituents being leveled in meaning are the two complements in conjunction with the two derived (figurative) meanings of head. Head participates with for in creating a compound meaning involving telicity by imparting its meaning/function as the locus of cogitation (thought, planning) to the phrase. When head combines with to, however, its contribution to the compound is limited to the aspect of directionality: setting out in a certain direction means having the “head” go first.



May 9, 2009

Contemporary Anglo-American readers and critics (but––nota bene––not Russian ones) have somehow been cozened into believing that any sequence of words arrayed in more or less isosyllabic stretches are to be taken as lines of poetry. Meter and rhyme are not required. All it takes to write a “poem,” therefore, is to label or declare such species of language “poetry,” and voilà! Accordingly, even the following––by an anonymous “author” (nomina sunt odiosa)––has been accepted at face value:

America, circa 2008

Two Jews, brothers, mother tongue Russian,
The older born in China,
the younger in Japan,
Sit in an Italian restaurant,
In Hollywood, on Vermont,
One eating spaghetti
The other carbonara,
Debating in English whether
Japanese has an adequate equivalent
For “Pyrrhic victory.”

This is very much the sort of doggerel––intended here as a caricature––that is blithely passed off in all seriousness as “poetry” in the English-speaking world (cf. The Writer’s Almanac, a particularly rebarbative offender). What no hip-hop “artist,” singer-songwriter, or jingle writer would put out as “lyrics” is routinely spooned up in Anglo-American poetry books and magazines as verse. And the reading public swallows it!

By contrast, here are two sonnets (no comparison intended) written four hundred years apart, the first by Shakespeare, the second by a twelfth-grader for her school’s literary magazine:


Or you survive when I in earth am rotten,
Or I shall live your epitaph to make,
From hence your memory death cannot take,
Although in me each part will be forgotten.
Your name from hence immortal life shall have,
Though I, once gone, to all the world must die:
The earth can yield me but a common grave,
When you entombed in men’s eyes shall lie.

Your monument shall be my gentle verse,
Which eyes not yet created shall o’er-read;
And tongues to be, your being shall rehearse,
When all the breathers of this world are dead;

You still shall live, such virtue hath my pen,
Where breath most breathes, even in the mouths of men.



The architect is ready to begin;
All plans are laid on tables in her mind.
A streak of crystal marks her tiny chin,
And wispy hair is blown back by the wind.
The small pink hands work quickly, stirring sand;
They shape the fragments of a day gone by
And make new forms the old can’t understand,
Although the past will never really die.
A castle of illusions quickly grows;
It towers high above the rippling sea.
But, though it is invincible for now,
Soon swirling eddies down it by degrees.
What once shone so intensely in the sun
Now with the somber shoreline becomes one.

Only where there is craft is there art.


Issues ≠ Problems

Change in linguistic usage can be motivated by a variety of factors, including a concomitant change in ideology or value system. With respect to the latter, the ubiquitous contemporary American substitution of the word issue for problem is a good case in point. The increasing tendency to avoid problem in favor of issue is a sign of an ideological change in values whereby nothing is judged to be inherently problematic or in need of correction on its face. So is the frequent recurrence in public discourse to the word challenge instead of problem. In this attitude that underlies the word usage, everything pertaining to the social or personal sphere is potentially unproblematic and automatically amenable to repair in the long run, hence one encounters only challenges rather than problems. Consequently, for instance, there are no longer any health problems, only health issues, and one has issues, not problems.

Fortunately, this delusionary forma mentis––a failure of thought––cannot intrude into the mathematical sciences, since such obfuscation is systematically rooted out as the enemy of clarity, hence of solubility and, ultimately, of truth.


Molière Redivivus

May 8, 2009

I had taken my shirt and jacket off in expectation of having the sutures removed from my back. There was a knock on the door, and a young woman of the usual plumpish bespectacled type wearing a white smock entered and introduced herself as a fourth-year medical student. We shook hands.

She glanced at my file and announced that the result of the biopsy was negative: the tissue sample they had taken two weeks before was benign. When I inquired about the abrasion on my right cheek that had impelled me to visit the dermatology clinic in the first place, she informed me that it was a lentigo, which she mispronounced with stress on the first syllable. I realized, of course, on the model of impetigo, known to me through acquaintance with my grandchildren’s occasional skin problems, that the stress was on the penult and that it rhymed with Sligo, which I had visited once upon a time.

“The team will be in shortly,” added the fourth-year medical student and exited the roomicule. I was left to cool my heels shirtless, in the usual fashion of such momenta medica.

Soon there was another knock on the door, and a woman doctor, a resident who had originally taken the biopsy and sutured the wound, entered, likewise dressed in a white smock, followed by the fourth-year medical student and two male doctors in civvies. This was evidently the aforementioned “team,” and they were making their rounds. Having taken up positions behind me, they all inspected my back simultaneously.

The woman doctor looked cursorily at the file and confirmed the original diagnosis. Then she announced that the “team” would go out to confer about what they had observed. “This is what they used to call a consilium,” I remarked to the fourth-year medical student, who was bringing up the rear as the group exited. That flotsam of Russian vocabulary had suddenly swum up into my cortex and produced the Latin term. Her opaque smile signaled total incomprehension.

Soon the resident and the fourth-year student reentered the room, without the male doctors. “It’s a morphea scleroderma,” intoned the  resident, “and if you want to have it removed you can come back in two weeks.” I declined but pursued the matter of my cheek. “What about the lentigo,” said I,” putting the stress on the proper syllable with its Sligo rhyme. “How did it come about?”

“The lentigo,” she said, repeating the incorrect initial stress, “is probably the cumulative result of exposure to the sun.” “I see,” said I. She then deftly removed my sutures.

“Would you object if I took a photograph of your back?,” asked the dermatologist. “I’d like to have it for the record and to show my colleagues.” “No, I wouldn’t object,” I answered, whereupon she took out a digital camera and snapped it. I saw the flash out of the corner of my eye. Exeunt the two female medicos.

Putting my shirt and jacket back on, I exited the clinic and entered the hall with its quaternion of elevators. One of the male doctors who had examined me, a youngish man in a sports coat, sporting the right sort of Hollywoodian chevelure, entered the elevator with me. “It was like a scene out of Molière,” I said, smiling. Of course, I had misremembered L’Amour Médecin, with its squadron of doctors, conflating it with Le Malade Imaginaire, where a doctor explains that opium is a soporific due to its virtus dormitiva (‘dormitive virtue’). Molière’s doctor was subsequently made the target of derision in the philosophy of science as the utterer of a fallacy but was defended by my hero Charles Peirce, who pointed out the pragmatistic validity of his definition. My memory of Peirce’s discussion had doubtless conjured up the allusion to Molière.

The doctor said nothing. His look of total incomprehension as we descended punctured the afflatus I was feeling at my literary mot juste. My shoulders slumped. We both got off the elevator on the ground floor and walked toward the exit.


Pleonasm and Other Linguistic Hypertrophies

May 6, 2009

All linguistic variety, including social and dialectal differentiation within a given language, is necessarily the product of historical changes, some of which are still in progress at a given point in that language’s development. Members of a speech community use such innovations to signal a variety of messages, such as “stronger meaning,” “group solidarity,” “greater intimacy,” or their opposites. Innovations can be motivated not only by strictly linguistic reasons but by systems of values that also apply to aspects of human behavior beyond speech. Particularly frequent in present-day American English are spontaneous grammatical innovations that redundantly repeat, duplicate, or extend elements of their traditional normative counterparts without any apparent gain in communicative content. Pleonasm is the most familiar category of such hypertrophic forms––the medical analogy is completely apposite here and is deployed advisedly––some of which have in fact become part of the norm. A rational explication of such changes rests on the key assumption that any novel expression, apart from the content invested in it by grammar and pragmatics, has a specific value––or connotative content––by virtue of being different from a traditional expression with the same grammatical and pragmatic content. But in a more abstract sense such changes are ultimately to be explained as instantiations of broader cultural and ideological values.


When one speaks of values as a determinant of linguistic changes, many small examples come to mind, for instance (1) informant vs. informer, where the older and traditional second variant is being replaced by the first. Note that the two suffixes differ in length, and that the newer variant displays the longer of the two. This means that the older variant, informer, has taken on a pejorative value and hence is to be avoided.

Or take the common practice of dropping the article the before specifying persons by their class membership, as in (2) [Ø]commentator Tom Goldman vs. the commentator Tom Goldman. Here the values-oriented interpretation suggests that Americans who habitually drop the article have incorporated the attitude summarized by the formula “you are what you do.”

Another common switch in values accounts for the replacement of the traditional treatment of class designations as inanimate, when referring to them with the relative pronouns who and what, with a focus on their human membership, resulting in the occurrence of who rather than which, as in (3) companies who vs. companies which; cf. “The computer who tracks the standings . . .” (John Feinstein, sports commentator, N[ational] P[ublic] R[adio],  “M[orning] E[dition],” 11/30/07). This is paralleled by the difference in grammatical number between British and American English when referring to mass nouns, as in (4) the family/cabinet are vs. the family/cabinet is.

When one hears examples like

(5) “marquee issues” (unidentified male commentator, NPR, “All Things Considered,” 1/10/06 – discussing Alito confirmation hearings)

(6) “The internal conflict between Fatah and Hamas may get equal billing with the struggle against Israel.” (Eric Westervelt, reporter, NPR, “ME,” 5/22/06)

(7) “. . . before helping other customers [instead of ‘passengers’] with their oxygen mask.” (Continental Airlines in-flight safety announcement, 7/7/06),

the attitude of the speaker towards the content of each utterance dictates the choice of words. The very serious matter of confirmation hearings for a nominee to the Supreme Court of the United States is being treated as if it were merely an entertainment or show business (“marquee issues”), as is the terrible strife resulting in numerous deaths in the Middle East (“get equal billing”). In the last of this triplet of examples, there has been a subtle shift in the way the airline personnel regard their human cargo: instead of focusing on their status as “passengers,” they are now addressed as producers of revenue (“customers”).


A shift in value is not the only matter at stake in discussing pleonasm and other hypertrophies. The latter term is apt because of its medical connotations, since a linguistic hypertrophy is not merely an unwarranted enlargement or bloating but an error, a failure of thought, hence akin to something somatically abnormal. While linguists rarely acknowledge the importance of outright error in language change, the histories of all languages are littered with such cases. Here are some recent ones:

(1) “I’m picking you and I.” (John Feinstein [?], NPR, “ME,” 5/24/93); cf.  “And those two deaths bound you and she together indissolubly for life.” (P. D. James, Shroud for a Nightingale [New York: Popular Library, 1971]: 278)

(2) “He was far more conversant in Islamic jurisprudence than in matters of the heart.” (Andrea Elliott, “Tending to Muslim Hearts and Islam’s Future,” N[ew] Y[ork] T[imes], 3/7/06: A1)

(3) “Their effort is geared at getting out the vote . . .” (Cokie Roberts, commentator, NPR, “ME,”  6/5/06)

(4) “The cup is half-empty, the cup is half-full . . .” [twice in the same interview] (Kevin Starr, State Librarian of California Emeritus, NPR, “Talk of the Nation,” 11/29/07)

The last example is particularly revealing because the speaker doesn’t realize that the locution depends on a transparent container––glass––but for which no liquid could be observed to be measured.


Here is a broad range of hypertrophic examples by category, with commentary when appropriate:


(1) “There was a moment back in 2002 when . . . [opening sentence]” (Caryn James, “Aniston Agonistes: Good Girl, Bad Choices,” NYT, 6/5/06, p. B1)

(2) “But none has gone quite so spectacularly to the bad as John Amery, the elder son of Churchill’s old friend and wartime Secretary of State for India, who ended up being hanged for treason in 1945. Back in 1949 Amery was one of the subjects . . . (John Campbell, “Nasty and Short,” TLS, November 18, 2005)

(3) “back in January” – said in February (unidentified man, viva voce; cf. [way] back [when])

The almost de rigueur contemporary insertion of back before temporal expressions headed by such words as in and when is an innovation in American English (and perhaps in British as well) and an instance of hypertrophy when the time referred to is relatively proximate, not distal.


(4) “The days when blue-collar work could be passed down the family line, those days are over.” (Gay N. Chaison, Prof. of Labor Relations, Clark Univ., quoted in NYT, 11/19/05, p. B7]

(5) my sister-in-law, she . . . [possible interference from Romance langs.]


(6) irregardless         (7) begrudgingly         (8) harken back

(9) informant [vs. informer]                        (10) prior to [instead of before]

(11) “‘He is entirely correct [instead of “right”],’ Mr. Cheney said on Tuesday at Fort Drum, N.Y., referring to Mr. Lieberman.” (NYT, 12/10/05,  p. A1)

(12) “upspike” – on the model of uptick (unidentified woman interviewee, NPR, “ME,” 5/31/06)

(13) purchase [instead of buy]      (14) incorrect [instead of wrong]

(15) academia [ instead of academe]      (16) usage [instead of use]

(17) “For the past 88 years . . . when public sentiment against Germany was at a feverish [instead of “fever pitch”].” (Jim Robbins, “Silence Broken, Pardons Granted 88 Years After Crimes of Sedition,” NYT, 5/3/06, p. 1)

(18) “Clinton will be adjudicated by . . . ” [instead of “judged by”] (William Bennett, “CNN Today,” 12/26/97)

(19) “Can I importune on you for an extra ticket?” (male theater reviewer, viva voce, Los Angeles, 6/4/06)

IV. EXCESSIVE REPETITION [three instead of two – said without emphasis]

(20) day after day after day  (21) side by side by side  (22) step by step by step

(23) “ran down and ran down and ran down . . . ran up and ran up and ran up . . .” (Allan Sloan, commentator, NPR, “Marketplace,” 6/5/06)

V. PLEONASM (NB: standard and semi-standard pleonasms, e. g. friend of mine, advance planning, prior experience, component parts, close scrutiny, etc.)

(24) “share . . . in common”  (Donald Rumsfeld, Secy. of Defense, Press Conference, CNN, 4/15/03)

(25) share . . . similar . . .        (26) exactly right       (27) continue on    (28) equally as

(29) “The ability of the Congress to be able to . . .” (James Sensenbrenner, NBC, “Meet the Press,” as heard on NPR, “ME,” 5/28/06)

(30) “. . . add some additional policemen to patrol . . .” [twice in the same utterance] (Mark A. R. Kleiman, Prof. of Public Policy, UCLA, KPCC.FM, “Zócalo,” 5/28/06); also heard on KPCC.FM: “receive a receipt;” “receive a warm reception”

(31) “With graduation ceremonies coming right up around the corner . . .” (Joel Rubin, Los Angeles Times, interviewed on KPCC.FM, 5/24/06)

(32) “previous precedent” (unidentified male law professor, Northwestern Univ., NPR, “ME,” 1/10/06)

(33) “two minutes twenty-five seconds left on the clock” (Frank Deford, commentator, NPR, “ME,” 12/7/05)

(34) “Moussaui . . . intentionally lied . . .” (Anne Hawke, reporter, NPR News, 4/3/06)

(35) “But far too many seemed to be innocents or lowly foot soldiers . . . ” (Editorial, NYT, 3/8/06, p. A26)

(36) It is simply that simple.” (Sen. Diane Feinstein, quoted in NYT, 1/25/06, p. A16 – also heard on NPR)

(37) “I for one would have very strong opposition to any kind of star chamber proceeding that’s held in private.” (eadem, quoted in NYT Magazine, by William Safire, “On Language,” 1/17/99, p. 18)

(38) “The one statistic that keeps China’s leaders up awake at night is . . . ” (Andy Rothman, stock broker, NPR, Marketplace, 1/16/06)

(39) “As we advance ahead timewise . . .” (Bob Stokes, weather forecaster, The Weather Channel, 10/25/99)

(40) “Each  video contains two 1-hour episodes on each video.” (attributed to Columbia House [home-video mail-order company], by William Safire, “On Language,” NYT Magazine, 7/18/99, [p. ?])

(41) “Currently as of now we have spent . . .” (Rep. Jerry Lewis, “Newshour,” PBS, 7/27/99)

(42) “My other fellow senators . . .” (Sen. Robert Bennett, “CNN Saturday,”  1/23/99)

(43) “. . . four straight days in a row” (stock broker, viva voce, Manchester, Vt., 1999)

(44) “. . . also received cash payments as well.” (unidentified news reader, “World Today,” CNN, 1/24/99)

(45) “. . . increasingly more violent.” (John W. Slattery, letter to the editor, NYT Magazine, [?/?/]99, p. 14)

(46) “Obviously I’m stating the obvious.” (lawyer, viva voce, Manchester, Vt., 6/6/06)

(47) “Kissinger and Putin met at Putin’s country dacha.” (Daniel Schorr, commentator, NPR, “All Things Considered,” 6/7/06); cf. “shrimp scampi,” “PIN number,” etc.

(48) “. . . to move progress [in the Serbia – Kosovo negotiations] forward . . .” (Emily Harris, reporter, NPR, “All Things Considered,” 7/24/06)

(49) “‘It was like, “Oh, my God, we’re on the cusp of something big about to happen“,’ Mr. Washington said.” (Diane Cardwell, “Daring to Believe, Blacks Savor Obama Victory,” NYT, 1/5/08, p. A1)


(50) absolutely            (51) great, tremendous, terrific, awesome, etc.

VII. DEICTIC ADVERB ([out] there, here)

(52) “There’s a real world out here where people are offered . . .” (Ruth Lewin Sime, letter to the editor, NYT, 6/5/06, p. A22).

(53) “There’s a lot of sadness here.” ([in a context where the place has already been stipulated] attributed to Jamie Dettmer, director of media relations, Cato Institute, in “Columnist Resigns His Post, Admitting Lobbyist Paid Him,” NYT, 12/17/05, p. A15)

(54) “Where’s your heart rate at?” (female fitness trainer [with a B.A.], viva voce [speaking to a client wearing a monitor], W. LA, 6/5/06); cf. “What’s your heart rate at?”

The use of the adverbial phrase out there is particularly interesting because it betokens some sort of “avoidance of placeless existence,” if one may call it that.


(55) “The reality is is [that] . . .”    (56) “The fact of the matter is is [that] . . .”


One could easily think that some of these hypertrophies arise from a need to be explicit, to repeat for emphasis, but a close analysis reveals that this is not so. They are all examples of redundancy and tautology. Pleonasms always exhibit a broadening of boundaries, and it is undoubtedly true that boundaries are among the most unstable of linguistic entities, more liable to shift (metanalysis) over time than other such units. But a stereoscopic view of the entire variety of cases where an enlargement has occurred reveals what is at bottom a failure of thought in a “culture of excess.” Linguistic hypertrophy may, in the final analysis, be particularly true of the grammars of historically marginalized groups in society, for whom literacy and education have only recently become as common as among the traditional elites. It would be tempting to speculate that pleonasm and other hypertrophies in speech and writing are––in their aspect of characteristically displaced boundaries––a linguistic manifestation of an unstable social identity.


Backing into the Past

April 30, 2009

Over the last decade or more, what used to be the standard manner of referring to events in the past by designating their dates in a prepositional phrase is being replaced by a longer form whereby the word back is inserted before the preposition regardless of the proximity of the past event to the speech event. Here are some recent examples:

(1) “There was a moment back in 2002 when . . . [opening sentence]” (Caryn James, “Aniston Agonistes: Good Girl, Bad Choices,” The New York Times [henceforth NYT], 6/5/06, p. B1);

(2) “The author of seven other books, she was a fellow at the library when she first got the idea back in 2001, on 9/11″ (Patricia Cohen, NYT, 2/14/08, p. B9);

(3) “back in January” – said in February (unidentified man, viva voce; cf. [way] back [when]).

(4) “Back in the seventeenth century, the original text had been registered for publication as” (Jonathan Bate, Soul of the Age (New York: Random House, 2009], p. 341)

The last is a particularly telling example. The context is entirely localized temporally in the seventeenth century, i. e., all the events are dated to that time, making the use of the word back utterly otiose. Moreover, it is from a contemporary British author (a university professor at that), showing that this linguistic feature has taken hold cisatlantically.

One hears such examples constantly on the radio and from ordinary speakers; moreover, the preposition in question can be on or during as well as in (back on Thursday, back during the war). And whereas the appearance of back was formerly conditioned strictly by the remoteness of the past event relative to the speech event––a form of emphasis––now the emphatic meaning is apparently being neutralized: the appearance of back is becoming obligatory regardless of the degree of proximity of the past event.

How to explain this development? One more or less speculative explanation comes to mind.

This new––habitual but redundant––use of the locative adverb back with designators of time could be motivated by what might be labeled the avoidance of placeless existence. A past event is by definition no longer existent in the same sense as a present event. This fundamental “non-is-ness” of a past event makes its designation unstable, and thereby in need of extra temporal determination. The most routine way in which all languages fix or anchor time expressions, with their quintessential instability, is by localizing them through the use of words denoting space. Accordingly, the near-obligatory extension to non-emphatic contexts of the emphatic word back before prepositional phrases as a designator of remoteness in time in contemporary American speech may be yet another example of what is clearly a general grammatical tendency.

Michael Shapiro

Fatuity and the Phatic

April 6, 2009

If one is a regular listener to NPR News and the BBC World Service, for all the Americanization of the British source one is still struck by the differences in the way that the readers/hosts on the BBC deal linguistically with reporters by way of their closing acknowledgement of the latter’s reports. Unlike their American counterparts, who trip all over themselves to thank each other, the BBC hosts either say nothing or limit themselves to repeating the name and location of the reporter, occasionally thanking them ex parte (i.e. without waiting for or expecting a response). This is as it should be. After all, courtesy is totally out of place in such exchanges. The reporters are only doing their job, and thanks are not in order. This utterly fatuous misemployment of the phatic function is tantamount to a worker on an assembly line thanking a fellow-worker for passing along an item.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition defines phatic as “Of, relating to, or being speech used to share feelings or to establish a mood of sociability rather than to communicate information or ideas.” The habit of NPR on-the-air personnel’s exchanging the phatic tokens “Thanks,” “You’re welcome,” “My pleasure,” etc. is a kind of linguistic perversion of the speakers’ status and roles. This kind of aporetic speech reaches grotesque proportions when, for instance––as was heard recently––an NPR reporter is thanked by the host for a report on the death of victims of a mass murder and responds “My pleasure.”


The (We)evil of Banality

April 1, 2009

34. Particularly Odious Locutions

On the same page; at the end of the day; give back, reach out, step up, step down, move on; out there, in place; the bottom line is, the fact is, the reality is is that; the whole nine yards, the whole ball of wax; do the math, pay the price, connect the dots, bite the bullet, stay the course; twenty-four seven; blessed, driven; quality time, bad guys, tipping point, poster child, level playing field, slippery slope; on board; going forward; best/worst-case scenario; wake-up call, skill set; from the get go; comfort zone, learning experience, learning curve; (I have) issues; on board, in harm’s way; quite simply; closure, put it behind me, get on with my life; if you will, if you like; speak truth to power; empower, empowerment, empowered; gender, gendered; that said, having said that; you’re correct; absolutely; exactly right; thanks for taking my call, thanks for having me, thanks for asking.

35. Fatuity Is The Bane Of One’s Existence

Fatuity is the bane of one’s existence. Pure posh-lust suppurates from the mouths of the publicum. Their skill set includes connecting the dots before getting on board and staying out of harm’s way. The tipping point comes when they are about to step up or step down––going forward, of course. It is very important to have closure and get on with your life––put it behind you, if you will. That said, at the end of the day, quite simply, the reality is is that they’ve done the math––which is always a good learning experience––so they can move on. Empowerment––especially the gendered kind––is a slippery slope, but if you can get into your comfort zone and stay the course, you’ll end up being the poster child for all those who’ve heard the wake-up call. They have no issues.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO (excerpted from the author’s book, My Wife the Metaphysician, or Lady Murasaki’s Revenge, pp. 83-84)

In a Shambles

March 1, 2009

The investor Warren Buffett is famous for his financial acumen, but this astuteness does not seem to extend to his command of English phraseology. In this respect, his omission of the indefinite article from the phrase in a shambles repeats a ubiquitous error, as in the following excerpt from Mr. Buffet’s recent letter to his company’s shareholders:

“We’re certain, for example, that the economy will be in shambles throughout 2009 –and, for that matter, probably well beyond – but that conclusion does not tell us whether the stock market will rise or fall [emphasis added].” Warren E. Buffett, Berkshire Hathaway Inc.: Shareholder Letters, 2008 (February 27, 2009, p. 4).

It is instructive to be made aware of the origin of the phrase in question. Here is the relevant entry in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (2004):

pl. n. (used with a sing. verb)
a. A scene or condition of complete disorder or ruin: “The economy was in a shambles” (W. Bruce Lincoln).
b. Great clutter or jumble; a total mess: made dinner and left the kitchen a shambles.
a. A place or scene of bloodshed or carnage.
b. A scene or condition of great devastation.
3. A slaughterhouse.
4. Archaic A meat market or butcher shop.
[From Middle English shamel, shambil, place where meat is butchered and sold, from Old English sceamol, table, from Latin scabillum, scamillum, diminutive of scamnum, bench, stool.]
Word History: A place or situation referred to as a shambles is usually a mess, but it is no longer always the bloody mess it once was. The history of the word begins innocently enough with the Latin word scamnum, “a stool or bench serving as a seat, step, or support for the feet, for example.” The diminutive scamillum, “low stool,” was borrowed by speakers of Old English as sceamol, “stool, bench, table.” Old English sceamol became Middle English shamel, which developed the specific sense in the singular and plural of “a place where meat is butchered and sold.” The Middle English compound shamelhouse meant “slaughterhouse,” a sense that the plural shambles developed (first recorded in 1548) along with the figurative sense “a place or scene of bloodshed” (first recorded in 1593). Our current, more generalized meaning, “a scene or condition of disorder,” is first recorded in 1926 [emphasis added].

Considering the existence of phrases like in disarray and in decline––NB the abstract substantives!––it is clear that the myriad speakers (and writers) who drop the article from in a shambles are simply allowing the analogy of such phrases to hold sway over the entire class of phrases denoting the condition, including ones involving the figurative use of a concrete substantive where the indefinite article is de rigueur. But the innovation remains an error nonetheless. Catachresis? Yes. Imperfect learning? Yes, of course.