"Now" normally means "at present" when written. However, when spoken it often
serves as a pompous proclamation of whatever is to follow, similar to the
archaic "Lo". Its vocal phrasing often sounds like it lacks the comma after
Speak this phrase and note how it differs from the written one: "Now, it is
hard to survive in this complicated world." The written meaning implies that
survival was not always so difficult. The spoken meaning sounds like it was
something the speaker heard from a Burning Bush -- and the listener ought to
feel blessed by having this divine utterance passed on to him.
Spoken, the idea of "at present" is often stated as "nowadays". You never see
"nowadays" written, because it is not necessary to achieve this distinction in
The ubiquitous spoken "you know" is an apologetic placeholder that the speaker
uses to beg for time, so he can dredge up the next series of words to fill out
his initial thought. It is not meant to elicit a response -- except for
perhaps an acknowledging grunt, since the speaker is really using the phrase
as a plea to the listener to stick around while he stalls for time. A truly
vicious listener may elect to say "Yes, I do" following each such utterance.
In this sense "you know" differs subtly from "uh". People who use "uh" never
expect an interim acknowledgement from the listener, and are not nearly so
neurotic about the thought of losing their audience. "You know" is perhaps
closer to "like". The "like" placeholder is potentially a more enticing one,
as it tempts the listener to pay attention in the hope of hearing an
interesting simile or metaphor to follow. Unfortunately the speaker never
delivers on his promise.
"I want you to do this, like…now" is a bit more interesting and commanding
than "I want you to do this, you know…now". We are not likely to jump to the
task for someone who says "I want you to do this, uh…now." It sounds like they
are not entirely sure of the preferred timing of the task at hand - so why
should we be?
There are species of large beetles that cannot run in a continuous movement,
but rather only in a series of stoccato, go-and-stop movements. Scientists
have determined that the pauses in movement are necessary because the beetle
has limited brain capacity, relative to its large leg muscles. The beetle must
pause and wait for the next streaming packet of muscle activation signals to
fill its limited cache of brain neurones. The use of "you know", "like" and
"uh" are indicative of a similar process going on between the speaker's tiny
brain and his large throat muscles.
Written: "You know what I'm saying is true and will always be so." Or "What
I'm saying is true and will always be so. Do you know this?" (Answer required:
"Yes, I do know that.")
Spoken: "What I'm saying is true and, you know, will always be so." (No
specific reply is required. A grunt or a "uh huh" is sufficient to acknowledge
and reaffirm the speaker's corporeal existence. That is the kindest thing to
do for people who say "you know" incessantly.)
Are two "as" 's always necessary to formulate a comparison? So it would seem
from spoken use:
"I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not
gonna take it anymore."
"He was as nervous as a queer at a weinie roast."
"You're as useless as tits on a warthog."
"That horse is as far back as nuts on a cat."
Grammatically, I believe the
initial "as" is superfluous and improper -- but I've never heard it vocally
dropped by anyone. It seems strange in these modern times that people wouldn't
gravitate toward methods of saving precious exclamatory time. Especially
people who reside above the Mason-Dixon Line.
While we're at it, speakers never have to worry about confusion regarding
imbedded or trailing quotation marks. It seems that the listening centers of
the brain don't need 'em:
"He asked if it were necessary to use two 'as' 's."
"He said: "He asked: 'Is it necessary to use two 'as' 's?' " "
Communication can be extraordinarily efficient between two people who know
each other well. Here is a typical dinnertime conversation between a
long-married middle-aged couple.
She (sipping a glass of wine): "My baby sister makes me so mad! I don't know
if I like this wine or not, do you?"
He (reading the op-ed page): "It's OK, dear…"
She: "I don't know why she insists on dating that cheap, two-timing moron. It
was a little more expensive than our normal brand."
He: "You get what you pay for…"
She: "She thinks he'll divorce his wife soon…hah! Perhaps I should have poured
it sooner to let it breathe a bit."
He: "One needs to be patient…"
She: "Well, she's an adult and I guess she's perfectly capable of making her
own decisions. They have such a large selection, I had a hard time picking it
He: "Maturity is the key…"
She: "You know, she was the black sheep of our family. It's darker than the
usual wine, don't you think?"
He: "You can't tell a book from its cover…"
She: "She was always running around getting into trouble. I don't think I'll
buy this brand anymore."
He: "Experience is the best teacher…"
Dysfunctional Asynchronous Conversations
Of course, lots of marriages are doomed from the start if the husband cannot
properly deal with his wife's spoken asynchronous information packets. Let's
replay the above conversation to illustrate this:
She (sipping a glass of wine): "My baby sister makes me so mad! I don't know
if I like this wine or not, do you?"
He (reading the op-ed page): "Why is that, dear?"
She: "So I know whether or not to buy it again! It was a little more expensive
than our normal brand. I don't know why she insists on dating that cheap,
He: "It was a good choice…"
She: "I can't believe you would even think that, much less say it! He's a cad!
She thinks he'll divorce his wife soon…hah! Perhaps I should have poured it
sooner to let it breathe a bit."
He: "Better to cut the loss, I think."
She: "If you hate it enough to want me to pour it down the drain, then you do
the shopping next time! They had such a large selection, I had a hard time
picking it out. Well, she's an adult and I guess she's perfectly capable of
making her own decisions."
He: "Sound like a case of being incapable of making the proper decision."
She (sobbing): "That's not true! I'm perfectly capable of making the proper
decisions!" (Sobbing, runs from room.)
Like, uh, you know… how the rest goes.
"Lacunae" are passages in ancient written texts which have been obliterated,
lost, or are otherwise unreadable.
Good historians will represent them with a series of dots, as for example:
"The people of Shem, being righteous before the Lord,…the evildoers of
Bad historians will make history out of them:
"The people of Shem, being righteous before the Lord, [smote] the
evildoers of Aselot."
Hamsters originally lived in Palestine;
That was the only place they hid.
I don't know if any wild hamsters survive,
But it would please me to know that they did.
"The people of Shem, being righteous before the Lord, [prepared a feast
of succulent hamsters for] the evildoers of Aselot."
It’s Only An Apostrophe
Beginning in the late 1950’s, Federal, State and Local governments began to
pour billions upon billions of dollars into correcting perceived shortcomings
in the basic education of our American youth. You can probably thank the
Russians and their preemptive Sputnik satellite launching for that – although
the original motivation for the increased spending seems to have been
forgotten, as the dollars continue to pour into the schools long after the
demise of the USSR. Since many of these dollars are mine, I've quite naturally
maintained a close interest in the outcome.
I am rather sad to conclude, here at the dawn of the 21st
Century, that I might as well have flushed my hard-earned share of those bucks
down into my septic field. There, at least, some nutrients from the greenbacks
may have leached out, wound their way through the ground water, and gotten
sucked up by thirsty roots, therein to be used for improved tree growth. That
would have been much more productive than what actually became of them.
If you doubt my conclusion, consider a simple example: the abject failure
of our modern educational system to instruct and enforce the distinction
between the possessive form of "it" and the contractive form of "it is". Fifty
years ago, this was not an issue. Those aged, blue-haired elementary school
English teachers whom I remember so well did a flawless job of beating
grammatical truth into our terrified little minds. Back then, you never
saw such grammatical usages confused in printed newspapers, magazines, books
or advertisements. People were careful about these details and retained a
strong dedication to getting things right. The alternative was to
suffer the wrath of those blue-haired Medusae – a fate worse than Eternal
In stark contrast, today you cannot pick up a magazine or watch a CNN
screen blurb without running headlong into examples of grammatical sloth:
"White House says its ready to submit new education bill…" Or: "Senate
education subcommittee says it’s work is almost complete…"
There are a number of possible explanations. It may be that journalists and
other print media professionals have only just begun to realize that their
blue-haired nemeses did, in fact, die of old age a few decades ago. Their
ghostly apparitions have finally become so tenuous that they no longer hold
dominion over the living. Now it’s payback time -- and fragrantly flaunting
poor grammar is the new order of the day.
Alternately, the answer might be hiding inside a demographic quirk: Upon
the demise of the Old Ones, there was simply no new crop of blue-haired
English teachers ready to assume their role. After all, those old biddies were
truly ancient when we baby-boomers were subjected to their wrath, and,
forty-plus years later, none of us are yet even now quite that age. So
there has been several decades of biddie-less English grammar instruction
Considering the lack of respect children pay to young and middle-aged
teachers today, it is small wonder that we suffer from grammatical lack. I
personally rather prefer this scenario, because it harbors hope for the
future. At the End of the Day, the biddies will return. What goes around comes
around – although, in this case, the blue-haired coming-around has been
postponed for a long, long time.
Words We Need
The English language is wonderful in that it has always been free to adsorb
and encompass the entire ouvre of all other languages in the world.
Despite this, there are notable cases where there are no existing words – and
presumably never have been – to needfully describe certain common human
experiences and states of being.
For example, when I schedule an upcoming meeting at my workplace, I
sometimes err in connecting a date with its applicable day of the week. In
these (unfortunately proliferating) "senior moments", I am apt to request
presence at a meeting for "Wednesday, 3/27" when 3/27 actually falls on a
Thursday. Some recipients of the meeting announcement then wryly ask in what
year in the meeting is supposed to take place. This happens so often -- and I
am reminded of my mental error so frequently by my co-workers -- that I felt
compelled to ascribe a name for the behavior. Being unaware if there was one
already out there, I coined a term for this kind of error and defined it
publicly as a type of "chronosynaptic dysfunction".
One colleague dared to suggest that I check to see if Pfizer had a drug for
this particular malady. I replied: "I will call Pfizer yesterday and try to
Since then, I have warned them all that any future complaints or reminders
about my chronosynaptic dysfunction will guarantee their inclusion on my List.
Are All Nouns Verbs in Disguise?
There are many proto-verbs out there, skulking around in the aether,
unheard since the formation of human language. Recently, some of them have
dared to inject themselves into our conscious, audible world. It happens when
we turn our ears aside in a moment of sensory inattention.
I feel compelled to "message" this insidious intrusion to you, as a warning
that no noun is sacred anymore. They are all fair game, prone to be squeezed
at any moment into double duty at the same pay. Unfair as it seems, this
tendency seems to be a logical byproduct of corporate "rationalization". (I am
thinking now of the word "downsize" -- itself a new verb that seems to be some
sort of a twisted, mutated progeny of two perfectly respectable non-verbs.)
Any number of nouns have lost their labor dispute recently. The noun
"email" hardly got out of the gate before it broke down.
The other day, a work colleague of mine sent an email that actually
tortured a preposition into becoming a verb, thusly: "…I am asking the
to’d people…". That colleague was a younger fellow -- and I suppose we all
know that Youth will not suffer wastage of neither breath nor key stoke.
Demographically speaking, the population of prepositions is huge indeed, and I
am sure the inhabitants of that particular word set were mortified to see what
happened to their brood sibling. Nevertheless, the virus of verbalization runs
rampart, and I would not be surprised to see the prepositional bastion utterly
overrun in the near future.
This barbarous incursion of verbs may have enjoyed some of its recent gains
with the invention of computers and computer software. In the halcyon
pre-computer days, I remember that we were able to establish programs, to
develop programs, or even to write, define, or implement programs. I do not
remember us "programming" programs.
But it did not start there. Surely, there was a time when the U.S. Signal
Corps did not signal their message, but rather sent it or conveyed it. The
capacity for absorbing these (signal) affronts to basic nounness may have been
limited in times past, but it has always existed in some measure. So it also
was that a simple, solid "implement" could grow legs and take off like a
gazelle, verbically speaking, early on in the game.
Even when some nouns continue to hold the fort, they are treated with utter
disdain. Take "word" for example. While the usage is not completely unknown, I
have rarely "worded" a concept or experience. I have written words,
constructed (I thought) pleasing combinations of words, edited words -- even
tried to make words sing. But I never "processed" them until recently. And to
me, that act denigrates words to the level of processed cheese. Pity the poor
word, that it should be subjected to such disrespect!
I look for a time when it will rebel.