Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Monday, July 28, 2014

Monday, June 16, 2014

I Wonder How You Will React

re·ac·tive

  • showing a response to a stimulus. "pupils are reactive to light" 
  • acting in response to a situation rather than creating or controlling it.
    "a proactive rather than a reactive approach"  
  • having a tendency to react chemically."nitrogen dioxide is a highly reactive gas"
I hardly ever hear the word "reactive" any more.  People are using the word "reactionary" instead.  Yet they have different meanings, and we need to keep both.

A reactionary is a person who holds political viewpoints that favor a return to a previous state in a society.  If you live in the U,S. and you want to go back to a time when "women knew their place," you're a reactionary.  (Not a conservative: that would mean wanting to keep things from changing,  Going backwards is a change.)

Being reactive, on the other hand, is not political.  It's a character trait.  If you say things like "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" and "Don't borrow trouble," you're probably a reactive person. 

"Reactive" can also describe the way one responds to a changing situation.  Right now, the U.S. is responding to the crisis in Iraq in a reactive way.  In 2003, the U.S. took the initiative.  This should tell you that waiting to see is not always the worst policy, and intervention not always the best.


Using "reactionary" when you mean "reactive" confuses the issue.  Very progressive people can have knee-jerk responses to things.  Right-wingers can plan for years in advance.  We need to keep the words that let us say so.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Do You Know What I Mean?

Languages change.  If you need any evidence, sit down and read Shakespeare.  When was the last time you burst out with a good "Zounds" or "Alackaday"?  

Then there's all the cliche phrases, like "fight fire with fire," "too much of a good thing," and "wear your heart on your sleeve." 

The thing is, they weren't cliches when Shakespeare wrote them.  They were fresh baked, still warm from the oven. Billy the Bard may be the first one who ever said them. 

Languages change, and meanings change with them.  But as the way we write and speak evolves, do we ever lose shades of meaning?  Do some things become harder to say, perhaps harder to think?  What's your opinion, gentle reader?

Excited about prepositions

For most of my fifty-six years, when people were looking forward to an event or when they wanted to express enthusiasm about something that was already happening, they'd say "I'm excited about" the event."  When they wanted to share someone's joy, they'd say to that person, "I'm excited for you."  For example:

I'm excited for my son, who has been accepted at a very good college. He is excited about their theatre and computer departments.

In the past five years, I have seen more and more instances of "excited for" being used for events.  It seems to have spread geographically (from the midwestern U.S. to the coasts) and generationally (from Generation X and Millennials up to Boomers like me). 

It sounds strange to me, but it doesn't upset me.  I know what the other person is saying in all but the most rare of cases.  The words are doing their work.

You might say that the distinction is important because being excited for another person is a laudable emotion: it helps make friendships and social relationships stronger.  Being excited about an event is a personal taste, and reducing everything to personal tastes would be a great loss to us as individuals and as a society. 

But I don't really think that people are losing empathy for one another because they say "for" when I would say "about."  If social bonds are fraying, language is not the cutting edge of the problem.

  
Taking an interest in language

Here's an example that worries me more.  "Uninterested" is fading from the language, in favor of "disinterested."  They used to mean two different things, and the difference is still important and useful.

As Mignon Fogarty, Grammar Girl, explains:

An uninterested person is bored, unconcerned, or indifferent: a disinterested person is impartial, unbiased, or has no stake in the outcome.  If you're on trial, you want a disinterested judge.
In our contentious, litigious culture, being able to say "disinterested" and know that people will understand you seems like a major benefit.  You might say that we have other perfectly good ways to say "disinterested": for instance, "impartial, unbiased, or has no stake in the outcome"!  Yet it still seems useful to me to have one word that pulls all these strands of meaning together. 

Otherwise, people will think you mean "he can't be bothered" when what you really mean is "he can't be bribed."

Plus, language may change but texts remain as written.  I can see the day coming when "disinterested observer" may cause as much confusion and sniggering as "gay apparel" does now, because the meanings of the words have changed.

Where do you draw your line in the sand? What makes a traditional usage worth fighting to keep, and when should we "be like the times" (as Shakespeare's Richard III would say)?

An uninterested person is bored, unconcerned, or indifferent; a disinterested person is impartial, unbiased, or has no stake in the outcome. If you're on trial, you want a disinterested judge. - See more at: http://www.quickanddirtytips.com/education/grammar/disinterested-versus-uninterested#sthash.U3zipOCI.dpuf
An uninterested person is bored, unconcerned, or indifferent; a disinterested person is impartial, unbiased, or has no stake in the outcome. If you're on trial, you want a disinterested judge. - See more at: http://www.quickanddirtytips.com/education/grammar/disinterested-versus-uninterested#sthash.U3zipOCI.dpuf
An uninterested person is bored, unconcerned, or indifferent; a disinterested person is impartial, unbiased, or has no stake in the outcome. If you're on trial, you want a disinterested judge. - See more at: http://www.quickanddirtytips.com/education/grammar/disinterested-versus-uninterested#sthash.U3zipOCI.dpuf
An uninterested person is bored, unconcerned, or indifferent; a disinterested person is impartial, unbiased, or has no stake in the outcome. If you're on trial, you want a disinterested judge. - See more at: http://www.quickanddirtytips.com/education/grammar/disinterested-versus-uninterested#sthash.U3zipOCI.dpuf