Rebirth of Reason


Machan's Musings - A Few Linguistic Peccadilloes
by Tibor R. Machan

English is my third language and as a speaker and writer I have always appreciated receiving editorial help, just in case a faux pas has slipped into some missive of mine. But even the best editors cannot be relied upon to follow one’s strictures in some areas of the English language.

For example, I reject “the reason is because” and insist on “the reason is that,” and not just for the sake of old-fashioned form. The one’s about what causes things, the other about what reason one has for thinking something. They are not the same at all.

Then there is “different from” instead of the corrupt “different than.” Something is different from a thing that isn’t like it, whereas when you talk of “than,” as in “other than,” there need be no difference at all, just that the two things aren’t the same.

And, yes, I don’t at all prefer sentences ending in propositions, although I realize this is sometimes unavoidable. Still, the fewer the better, it seems to me.

Perhaps the most egregious mistake—indeed, malpractice—in contemporary lingo is when people are referred to as “that,” as in “the doctors that” or “the Germans that,” instead of “who,” as in “the doctors who” or “the Germans who.” Talk about demeaning human beings!  Talking about them as if they were mere objects surely does that, but one can see how it may play into the hands of, say, animal “rights” advocates. Now and then I even run across references to groups via “who,” as in “the team who played us tonight.” Not just bad form but politically corrupting, I say.

Of course, there are all those uses of “lay” instead of “lie,” as if “she lies me down to sleep” meant the same thing as “she lays me down to sleep.” This is from the likes of reporters and newscasters, lyricists writing pop tunes, and public speakers everywhere. It’s really annoying—the killing of a distinction that does in fact capture an important difference.

Of course I have ethical and political objections to the widespread use of “we” when people talk about decisions they like but do not wish to admit they alone support—as in “We have decided to build a stadium in this city.” No, it wasn’t at all we who did this but some of us, while we all were made to pay for it through the insidiously misapplied democratic method. (“We” is the favorite word of communitarians and other collectivists since they pretend that they are speaking for everyone within a community. They are not.)

At this point I am brushing up against the problem of essentially contestable concepts—for example, “justice,” “love,” “liberty,” “rights,” and so forth. These are perennially disputed, even if some have a far better worked out version than the rest. Too much hinges on the meaning that will be widely accepted, so people are fighting to get their version into circulation all the time.

Take, as an example, “public.” It is used innocently enough in such context as “there is a public phone over there,” meaning a phone that anyone willing to pay may use, provided another isn’t using it just then. But what about “public” in “public interest”? In this usage, of course, corruption is replete because when one can identify something as being in the public interest, one has prima facie grounds for getting government to do something about it. Yet I am willing to bet, based on my years of paying attention to this, that ninety-nine percent of such so-called public interests are, in fact, the private or special or vested interests of some, by no means of us all. (Environmentalists have gotten away with this ploy forever, but they are by no means the only ones. In fact, the only bona fide public interest is the respect and protection of individual rights because those are something we all have in the very same measure and so we all benefit from having honored.)

I am also hard-put to ever use the word “selfish” in the way many do, namely, as if it had to mean being cruel or nasty to others. But I understand that centuries of bad ideas about the nature of the human self have led to this. I, however, will continue to wage a war on proper meaning here, because I am convinced that the self that one may be concerned about is very often very worthy—so, I follow Aristotle in endorsing self-love by, for example, those who are just.

Anyway, perhaps you too have something you find especially annoying, for good reason, about how people use the English language. I think that one need not be pedantic to stand up for using it right.
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