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A wise to the word

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By John Pawlak

Time flies like an arrow, but fruit flies like a banana. A play on words? A play about words? May I have a word with you about your play? It doesn’t matter if you hear what I say. It only matters if you hear that I said what you may or may not have heard. Understand? No? Good!

  Let’s face it, language is confusing. Language is a truly horrible way for people to communicate. A large branch with thorns sticking out of it is a far better conduit for conveying one’s true feelings. But unless your are extremely careful with choosing the correct sized thorns, your adverbs and adjectives can start looking like participles and prepositions, and your bloodied friends won’t really know what you’re trying to say.

  And so we are resigned (if not consigned) to using English to express our thoughts. Other languages are no better. Languages such as Japanese, German, Korean and Turkish put the verb at the end of the sentence. That totally ridiculous is. Clearly in America, this certainly a problem for most people would be.

  So why is English so frustratingly difficult to speak good (well, that is)? And why do so many people choose English as their primary language?   Perhaps they just find it amusing to frequently split infinitives? Or maybe they like the incorrectly usage of adverbs? Personally, I’ve always enjoyed seeing people dangle their participles in public.

  Well, English is what it is (whatever the meaning of the word is is), and despite its failings we somehow manage to survive daily conversations.

Consider the frustration experienced by people learning English, having to differentiate between to, two and too. Simply put, there are two too many toos to use. If one buys four tutus for two dancers, one has two too many tutus for two tutu dancers too.  Does our head hurt yet?

  And then there are those annoying little rules that we’re taught but no one follows. For example, you are not supposed to use a preposition to end a sentence with. As Winston Churchill is reputed to have said, “That is a rule up with which I will not put!”

  Advise one to get advice. Did the effect affect him? Lie down and lay your head on the pillow. Eat a Sundae on Sunday. He was thrown on the throne. Peek at the mountain peak. He showed real flair by lighting a flare. Enough!   

No one should be allowed to say these aloud.

Homonyms. Synonyms. Pseudonyms. Antonyms. Endonyms. Odonyms. The English language is full of whatchamacallitnyms.   

And rules, rules, rules. Rules about rules and rules about how to sometimes break the rules. For example, “i” before “e” except after “c.”  But the science of species is sufficient to break that rule breaker.

  Now really, what do these rules have to do with the price of beans? Do bean counters really care about the cost of beans? Why does English have an obsession with bean economics and ignores rutabagas?

  Okay, I know ... I digress ... but digressing is a grammatical construct in English. If people stayed on topic, life would be pretty boring. When you meet a friend and you ask, “Hey, what’s happening?” –  he can take the next

15 minutes talking about how his dog is in heat, his son is failing chemistry, he finally finished one of those darn sudoku puzzles, how he discovered yet another use for duct tape ... or he can be terse and simply say, “Dude, it’s a gerund! Duh!”

  What got me thinking about the insanity of language was an article about how English had acquired its one millionth word.   

First of all, I found it surprising that someone out there was keeping count (get a life). Secondly, the millionth word isn’t even a word (which isn’t surprising given that “duh” is a word). The article stated that “Web 2.0” is the millionth word.  My math training tells me that this is two words ... well, one word and a number actually. Other so-called words like “carbon footprint” are also invading everyday language. If someone leaves a large carbon footprint, do they wear size 20 carbon boots?

  It makes perfect sense that many people want English to be designated as our national language.   Why confuse people with so many different languages when we can confuse them with just one? English is the world’s champion of confusion, the leader of lexicons, the peak of perplexity.

  But I don’t profess, or confess, to being one to regress when I digress (and sometimes precess, though that kind of makes me dizzy). What I mean to say is that I don’t really mean to say anything. And that’s the beauty of English, the short and long of the short of it.

John Pawlak teaches math at Los Alamos High School. His answer to the question that is asked of all New Mexicans is …“red.”