Sunday, October 17, 2010

English Rules

"Pay attention!" the English teachers say.  Our language has rules -- lots of them.  We must adhere to them at all times lest we invite misunderstanding.

Take adverbs, for instance.  They're simple and consistent modifiers-of-verbs.  If you quickly run to the store, then you're quick about going.  When you carefully drive up the twisting dirt road, you're full of care behind the wheel.  If you barely made it to the library before it closed, you arrived naked.  If you hardly finished your vegetables, you mashed them to bits with a hammer.  More to the point, if you see a used item for sale in hardly used condition, you can count on its having been used (perhaps very) hard.  It's clear that every adverb modifies its verb in the same way every time.  Simple.

Let's move on to something just a bit more complex, shall we?  Word choice is important -- there is always one best word, and you must be sure never to use an incorrect word.  Of course, meanings run on a continuum between the best word and the worst.  You might think there is no single worst word possible for any other, but there is.  It's called the opposite.

We'll use opposites to illustrate the danger of not choosing the best word.  Suppose we want to say that Tom was speedy, fleet, rapid, swift; Tom was fast.  The opposite is that he was motionless, tied-down, secured, static; Tom was fast.  Or for another example, that the CEO's motives were clear, obvious, visible, plain to see; the CEO's motives were transparent.  The opposite is that they were occluded, hidden, concealed, invisible;  the CEO's motives were transparent.  You can clearly see the peril of not choosing the best word.  Those sentences with the opposites in them really stick out like hardly used thumbs, don't they?

English is scarcely simple, even though there's plenty of it; English is devious, cunning, treacherous, crafty -- English is slippery.

And fun too.