Friday, April 8, 2011

False Analogy

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.


  1. I sher agrees wid evrything here said by Mr. Simon who knowes what he talkin about unlike so many philistitinies who know nutting bout nothin at all.

  2. While John Simon is right about the need for proper grammar in the academia and certain social settings, playful or loose grammar can be original, fun, and creative in other settings. In fact, the rich development of language would not have been possible without people fudging and playing with the rules. As in evolution, most mutations in language are harmful or useless, but some really stick and add extra zing and color.
    And in certain philosophical circles, a 'creative' kind of grammar and terminology can lead to new ideas. Much of German philosophy is unreadable--or so I'm told, and I believe it because they remain unreadable even after being translated into English--, but they are supposed to have opened up new doors of thought.

    And does poetry always play by the rules of proper grammar?

  3. "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."

    My head spins. I guess I'm just a layman when it comes to grammar.

  4. I welcome, solicit, demand corrections to what I write. More: welcome, solicit, demand improvements. Don't mind getting slapped around a bit. Serves me right.

    But in speech, no. Everyday lingual yin yang -- complementary opposites interacting as part of a dynamic system -- I'm all for. Improper and proper. Eliza Doolittle and Henry Higgins. Mark Twain and Henry James. Does it go too far? Yes. Often. And thus replenishes language by stretching, breaking, annihilating boundaries.

    Opposed, however, to playground speech breaching academy's door into the classroom. No; bolt the door shut. Proper English, written and spoken, should be taught and students rigorously tested through high school. Then our great universities will render them illiterate again, burden them with ten years' debt, release them to join the unhappily indentured masses. Beware: we are in danger of the world (China, especially) speaking better English than we do. Ain't right, damn it!

    Included a few obvious boners above to test people. No need calling me on them, Pauline. And a confession: had to check spelling of "complementary." Always forget if it's "i" or "e." No, I'm not asking for a compliment.

  5. “groceries”

    Given what most American eat, it should be called 'grosseries'.

  6. "But in speech, no. Everyday lingual yin yang -- complementary opposites interacting as part of a dynamic system -- I'm all for."

    Yeah, me too, but there are certain social setting where you should talk more properly, especially around a certain class of people. One can HANG OUT with friends, but one has to watch one's manners at a dinner party. My guess is John Simon hangs around the haute-sort-of-people, and so he expects them to be a bit more articulate and proper.

    Of course, sometimes being proper can get in the way of being articulate or expressive. Properness calls for a certain form and rigidity while expressive articulateness calls for flow and motion.

  7. Flow and motion, Pauline? It's down the hall on the right.

  8. I heard that in Russian, for one to mean "I didn't do anything", he must say "I didn't do nothing" in order to be grammatically correct.

    But that doesn't mean nothing.

  9. "Flow and motion, Pauline? It's down the hall on the right."

    What? Did I say 'dump and hump'?

  10. Pauline, think you should kiss kiss bang bang this website goodbye for the night.

  11. On the grosheries pronunciation, I admit I have been guilty of that all my life. As to the logic of it, perhaps there's some rubbing off from words like "facial" and "racial" and "atrocious" and "specious" and "special" and "ancient", etc.; where the errer remains obviously heedless of the "ci" that makes the difference -- which, in turn, could be due to the fact that there are precious few non-"ci" "-cer" words rendered into "-cery" and -"ceries" forms: Who says "pacery" or "paceries", or "macery" or "maceries" (or even "macer" for that matter)? And while "tracery" and "traceries" may be used ever so rarely, the millions who have to shop obliterate the relatively few who notice or work with gold leaf or wrought iron.

  12. What happened to my "Okkident" post? Was there an accident...?

  13. A classic interview from the '90s, recently placed on the internet:

  14. Thanks for posting that link to that interview with Simon, noochinator. In that interview, Simon goes into the general subject of various actors and directors disliking him (either indiscriminately, or based upon whether he gives them good or bad reviews).

    I had always heard that the food-thrower in the steak tartare incident was Robert Duvall, and now I learn that it was Sylvia Miles.

    One thing the interviewer did not ask Simon is whether he has ever dug in, and given extra twists to, his critical knife with a bit more verve perhaps than usual when reviewing a particular actor (or director) who may have insulted or slighted him in some unacceptable way. I recall wondering this when years ago I read his review of Mrs. Brown and it dawned on me as I finished digesting that review that Simon had performed the remarkably deft feat of reviewing a movie without once mentioning one of its key actors – Billy Connolly. I don’t know Connolly personally, but there’s something about him that makes me think he can be something of an arrogant ass – flaunting the worst sort of arrogance: the sort that reflects a smugly hypocritical mission to pillory or deflate what is (wrongly) perceived to be arrogance in others.

    My imagination then ran away with me (or trotted briefly ahead of me across a half acre of meadow) to conjecture that at some social event or party or something Connolly had said something egregiously discourteous if not vulgar to Simon (or to or about Simon's wife), who then got back at him deliciously by writing a relatively good review of a major movie in which Connolly was a major player, without once mentioning Connolly’s existence in that movie!