Friday, September 4, 2009

Sticks and Stones May Break My Bones...

...but words can make my head explode.

More and more often I encounter sentences that hurt me. It isn't a problem of poor grammar--though that can play a role. It isn't that the intention of the sentence is dumb, though the dumbness coefficient can be a factor. The kind of sentence that hurts me is one that is slightly off-kilter and makes me stop and think about what exactly what is wrong with it and ponder on what sort of person could say it without making their own head throb.

A simple example. There is a church not too far away that puts up "clever" things on a sign out in front. The most recent one proclaimed, "God opens doors no one can shut."

If the goal was to make me think, it succeeded. My first thought was, "Huh?" and that ought to have been enough. But the statement is the kind that nags at me because it lacks both symmetry and focus. If it were, "God opens doors no one else can open," I'd be fine with it. It's banal, but it has a clear message.

I guess I'd even be happy with, "Once God opens a door, no one can close it again," which is what I think the framer of the sentence meant, though it leaves me wondering if God can close a door God has opened. It would be pretty inconvenient in the Celestial Mansion otherwise. I mean, how would He let the dog out without the door remaining stuck open forever? Perhaps God has servants, and they can both open and close doors, so long as God stays away from the the doorknob. Presumably God has to be careful not to absentmindedly pop open the door for the mail guy, or the whole thing is ruined--nobody can shut it again, and there's nothing for it but to board up the gap with plywood and use the sliding glass doors out on the patio to enter and leave.

But the statement calls for a deeper metaphysical examination. If no one can shut it, how did the door get closed in the first place? I've hung a few doors, and I can assure you that they don't start off shut. You have to get things all lined up, and the pins hammered down, before you can do anything with them at all.

I can't believe that these are the thoughts the pastor wanted to evoke when the decision was taken to tell everyone driving down Baker Street in Costa Mesa that "God opens doors no one can shut."

Here's another, more screwed-up example--and I wanr you in advance that this one can cause lasting neuralgia. Until very recently, there were large signs in baggage claim at Honolulu International Airport which informed us that "Just because a bag looks like yours, it might not be." Let's say that again:

"Just because a bag looks like yours, it might not be."

Not only is that grammatically inscrutable, it appears to be asserting something utterly bizzare: Because that looks like my bag, it might not be my bag. The reason it might be somebody else's bag is because it looks like mine. So does it follow that bags that don't look like mine probably are mine? Is there an equally problematic corollary that states "Just because a bag doesn't look like yours, it might be" or, with somewhat better agreement between the parts of the sentence, "Don't assume a bag isn't yours just because it doesn't look like your bag"?

Why not just post a sign that says "Many bags mutate during transit. Assume nothing, trust no one."?

I don't see why they couldn't say something more straightforward, like "Many bags look alike. Please check luggage tags carefully." They might have considered a few alternatives before they had dozens of large expensive signs manufactured.

This problem of agreement between parts of a sentence not only stops me dead, it can hit me with real, physical force. The kind of yoga I practice (Bikram Yoga) was taught to all of the instructors by the originator of the system, who speaks English as a second language, and many of them tend to parrot his precise locutions. I can forgive being told to do something "with your exactly forehead," or even with "your both arms"; indeed, it's sort of charming.

But in one of the most strenuous of the balancing postures, Standing Bow (dandayamana dhanurasana), they occasionally encourage us by asserting, "The harder you kick, you can stay in this posture forever!"

The clause that prefaces this sentence demands agreement or contrast. I guess the original sentence was probably something like "The harder you kick, the easier it is to stay in this posture. Kick hard enough, and you can stay there forever!" But the way they actually say it, leaving the "harder" seeking a comparison word in the next part of the sentence, is enough that it sometimes knocks me right out of the pose. One of these days I'm going to fall down and injure myself, all because of that lonely "harder."

I'm not one of those Men Too Gentle To Live Among Wolves. I can survive and thrive in a world filled with unneeded apostrophes ("Apply now for Summer Job's!") or quotation marks for emphasis where they really imply sarcasm ('Try our "delicious" food!'). But ill-conceived sentences scar the actual tissue of my brain.

To show how permanent the damage is, I'll leave you with one more, which I first saw in a menu at a Zippy's restaurant in Hawaii...back in 1979. Beneath a picture of an unusually extragant ice-cream sundae was a description that began "An illusion of grandeur!"

That's a true gem. In fact, that's screwed up in too many ways to discuss. And in only four words.

Come to think of it, even though I promised that would be the last one, now that I'm off on Hawaii, I can't resist mentioning the sign at the University of Hawaii Computing Center that warned "No smoking, beverages, food, and pets." If there is anywhere on earth that ought to know the difference between AND and OR, it is a university computer center. "IF (Huge) AND (Gray) THEN (Elephant)" is standard computer logic, "IF (Huge) OR (Gray) THEN (Elephant)" will tell you that you have an elephant when you are looking at a mouse.

I was often tempted to stroll in the door with a lit cigarette, a Coke, and a dog. According to the sign, I wouldn't be breaking the rule.

But I knew how this would be received. Some surly computer center employee would have tossed me out, and when I explained the literal meaning of their sign, they would have snarled that I could understand what they had meant.

Well, you know what? The fact that people can probably puzzle out what was meant ain't enough.

God can answer questions no one can ask.


Frances Garrood said...

I know it's not quite the same, but the one that really gets to me is (for example) "he was sat at his desk". Did someone pick him up and put him there? Was he placed in position by a forklift truck or a hoist? Of course not. He was SITTING at his desk. He did it all by himself. This has passed into such common usage that I'm afraid it will soon be acceptable.

Oh - and another nice one. A friend, of her small daughter: "she has mayonnaise with everything. That's her little faux pas." Again, not quite the same, but worth mentioning.

And I do mind about apostrophes.

Janet Ursel said...

Ah, this also occurs in amateurish translations. I remember being in a restaurant in Quebec many years ago that had a bilingual menu, to cater to the tourist crowd. The English side was almost incomprehensible, and I had to read the French side to find out what they were really offering. Food names just don't bear word-for-word translating. Thus shepherd's pie became Chinese pastry (that was a faulty word-for-word, to add insult to injury). I'm sure the tourists were astounded to find their "pastry" made of ground beef and mashed potatoes.

And the apostrophes irk me too. I've just run out of the energy to get incensed every time. Like earwigs, they have not gotten any prettier, but I kill them more dispassionately.

Frances, I've never heard "he was sat at his desk". I can offer you the condolence that it has not become a world-wide pandemic. Haven't heard faux pas misused like that either.

Frances Garrood said...

Janet - I think 'faux pas' was a one-off. As for 'sat', maybe this is an English thing, but I've read it and heard it everywhere, including upmarket publications which ought to know better (and my children, ditto).

Tim Stretton said...

I am not sure whether "Get arms like Michelle Obama", on the front of a health and fitness magazine, means exactly what the author thinks it does...

David Isaak said...

Hi, Frances--

"..was sat...?" Like Janet, I confess I've never heard it until now. In some parts of our great land, they use "done" as a weird past-tense intensifier ("He done sat down and went right on talking..."), but not just "was." (Hawaiian pidgin uses "when" to form the past tense-- "I when go" = "I went".)

Was sat. That's truly odd.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Janet--

Chinese pastry?

I blame the New York Times for the apostrophe problem. Once their house style decided it would be "the 1960's" rather than "the 1960s" and that people would be convicted of "multiple DUI's" rather than "multiple DUIs", they threw wide the doors to an interpretation that said, Hye, it's a plural, it needs an apostrophe, and in no time at at we had "cat's and dog's." (Little signs in front of houses that said "The Smith's" didn't help either.)

Dave Barry once wrote that the apostrophe now apparently means, "Watch out, an 's' is coming!"

David Isaak said...

Hi, Tim--

"Get arms like Michelle Obama"? You're kidding.

Frances Garrood said...

Re 'sat' - there must be someone this side of the Atlantic who feels as I do? As for 'he done sat down and went right on talking', I love it!