This week’s sermon is chiefly about false analogy, one of the major ills that plague (not plagues—the subject is plural, ills) our once reasonably healthy English.
Is anything more parlous than the state of our beloved mother tongue? Well, not mine actually, but at any rate stepmother tongue. It may be a kind of haughtiness, but I wince whenever I encounter an offense against grammar, spelling or pronunciation. If only it weren’t considered bad manners to correct someone else’s speech or writing, things would still be bearable; but nowadays, instead of thanks, you might get a punch in the nose.
Offenses are sprouting all over, but one of the most flagrant is the matter of “lie” and “lay.” True, this is an instance where language seems intent on tripping you up. We have not only the infinitives, lay and lie, to contend with, but also the past tense, lay. Laid and lain likewise challenge the standard lack of discrimination. Lie is in bad odor, too, because of its homonym, meaning to tell untruths, which we don’t want to do. To speak incorrectly, however, we don’t seem to mind at all.
The problem is false analogy. It is assumed that if something horizontalized is laid down, something that is horizontal, therefore, lays. Not so! And then there is also the sexual meaning, as in getting laid.
You might feel encouraged by hearing our generally ignorant television newscasters talk of bodies laying in the streets, that, at least after a nasty bombing, some recreational copulation proved restorative and thrived. And why not? Now that countless folks are unappetizingly stuffing themselves from food cartons on buses and subways, should not public fornication be just as acceptable and widespread?
Another, scarcely less glaringly faulty analogy is common as dirt everywhere, notably on TV: “groceries” pronounced, as if it were spelled “grocieries,” as grosheries. The poor misguided souls may even think they’re being refined, just as some deviants do when they say “with Bill and I” for “with Bill and me.” Genteelism, the great Fowler called it: saying something that sounds genteel (I) rather than common (me), but happening to be incorrect.
Still, where did the mispronunciation “grosheries” come from? False analogy with hosiery and glacier, which have an ie where groceries has a mere e. Similarly mistaken, based on misspelling, are the not uncommon “grievious” and “mischievious,” derived by false analogy from words like devious and previous, which have an i before the o.
Similarly false analogy obtains also in writing. Does a week go by in which you don’t read about someone “wracking” his brains about something? Now clearly the verb is meant to refer to self-torture, to being stretched on the rack. But because another bad thing, being shipwrecked or otherwise wrecked, has that w in front of the r, onto “racked” goes that initial w.
What it has to do with is parallelism, symmetry, yes, analogy. If being healthy is good, then the answer to “How are you?” may just as well (note: not just as good) be “I’m good.” But good is a moral value, or a matter of mood (a good feeling), or a practical matter (a flashlight is good for the household); it has nothing to do with wellness, i.e., health. You are well, in good health, and let someone else who respects you say that you are good. But, you may wonder, can’t “I am good” become accepted through popular parlance? Perhaps so, eventually, but not yet.
Much the same, by the way, applies to “great.” You are not “doing great,” however successful you are. You are only great if you are God, or if you are a leader of men and boastful about it. Otherwise, you reserve great for other people and their achievements.
Yes, good usage is a tricky thing, like navigating in shallow waters or among coral reefs. Notice: “among” rather than “between” when referring to more than two, the “tween” clearly coming from twain, which designates a pair. But because so much happens between two people or occurs between two latitudes or lies between two objects, between has become incorrectly preferred to among even where several or many are involved.
But let’s get back to more saliently false analogy. Because “consists of” is correct, it is assumed that “comprised of” must be too. Not so. Comprise, like comprehend or embrace, means for something bigger to include more than one smaller ones. So a standard tool box may comprise a hammer, tongs, a file, various screwdrivers etc. So,too, a string quartet comprises four instrumentalists; but eleven players do not comprise a soccer team, though it does comprise them. “Comprises” is often wrong; “comprised of” always. Would you say “included of”?
It would be nice if correct usage were always logical, as it sometimes is. Careful speakers will not say “Everyone must buy their tickets” but “buy his or her ticket,” or, risking fisheyes from feminists, simply “his ticket.” Yet this fine distinction between singular and plural has pretty much gone by the board. But then, grammar need not be, often isn’t, logical. If “other than” is correct, why isn’t “different than,” which seems to be derived from it? It simply is “different from,” only in England, sometimes, “different to,” albeit, I believe, frowned upon.
So rules require memorization. But what if you ignore them? Will you be punished or ostracized if you say grosheries or grievious
Good English is like good manners: not essential but estimable, and hence highly desirable. Wouldn’t you rather be polite and well thought of by properly brought up, educated people? A mere minority, you say? Certainly, but when all other minorities are respected and deferred to, why should one minority be an exception? In this matter, analogy is more than justified.