Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Hats Falling Down

I heard a three-year-old today complain to his mother that his hat had falled down.  It was an epiphany.  Now I understand what drives the usage mavens and letter-writers to say things like “25 words or fewer.”

I once read an article on how children learn language.  First they copy what they hear and so say things like, “My hat fell down.”

Then they learn RULES.  They learn that the past tense is formed by adding “-ed.”   Simple.  Except English is not simple.  English is full of exceptions, and the so-called rules don’t begin to encompass it.

One year in school they taught us “i before e except after c,” but that rule is violated all the time, which made me scratch my head because in those days I liked to follow rules, and yet I knew how to spell “weigh” and “neighbour.”

A friend of mine one time recited an extended version of the rule, which said, “i before e except after c, or when sounded like a, as in neighbour and sleigh.”

But that still doesn’t account for “weird” and “seize” and I believe a lot of others.

Nowadays the language experts and those they have cowed into submission go around saying that you must use “fewer” with all countable nouns.  So you have to say “fewer books” (sounds natural), “fewer than three books” (sounds barely okay, but a bit prissy), “three books or fewer” (who would say that if they didn’t think they were supposed to?), and “one fewer book” (oh God no, save us).

They have forgotten that the English language is full of exceptions.  The rule, or really just a rule of thumb, was to use “fewer” with countable nouns EXCEPT when mentioning a specific number.  So standard English would be “less than three books,” “three books or less,” and of course “one less book.”

Now that I’ve read Moby Dick I have one less book to read on my list of classics.  But sigh … the three-year-olds have taken over, and they want us to read one fewer book.  Soon they will want us to say we falled down or runned away.  After all, the rule says to use “-ed” to form the past tense.  Every three-year-old knows that.  Sigh.

Tuesday, 6 August 2013

On Not Being Kind

The other day I shared a link on Facebook of a commencement address by the writer George Saunders, who told the graduating class that the things he most regretted in his life were the missed opportunities to be kind.  His message was, of course, to be kind, but beyond that he sketched out a theory of why people aren’t always kind, and he settled on selfishness.

Which may be part of the answer, but I think there’s more to it than that.  There’s more different types of people than that.  I think it’s a mistake to think that everyone’s failure to be kind has the same cause.  Some people, for instance, are too shy.

Shy, you ask?  What does shyness have to do with kindness? 

Well, suppose you’re a shy person and you see someone who could maybe use a hand; you even think, they could use a hand; they’re struggling with that silly bus window which I’ve learned how to open; I could help them, be kind, be nice.

But then you think, Maybe they don’t want a hand.  Maybe they’d even be mortified if someone offered them help, as if we were saying, We don’t think you’re capable of opening a window. 

Of course, some people (not shy types) have a way of offering help.  “Oh, those windows are a real bugger,” they might say.  “It took me years to figure them out.  Here’s the trick.”

Or something like that, to put the other person at ease and show you’re not judging them.  And then you can help them and everyone is happy.

But the shy person doesn’t think of those things naturally, and they’re afraid of being rebuked for offering help.  Maybe their intentions will be misinterpreted.  That little girl that George Saunders wanted to help when they were both in school; maybe she would have shrunk from assistance from some boy she didn’t know.

Of course, the confident person might shrug such a rebuke off.  But the shy person might not.

And beyond shyness there’s sometimes just what the philosophers might call a category error.  Sometimes the person who needs help is in a category you don’t expect to have to help. 

In that post of mine about Passive Revenge, I didn’t expect to have to help the older boy who had given me a derisive nickname.  (I did help that time, but only because a person in authority told me to.  Which no doubt suggests all sorts of things which will have to wait till another blog post.)

One time when I was an undergraduate at McGill the History Department secretary, an imposing figure before whom I cowered, slipped on the ice while walking across campus.  I happened to be right there.  I froze, so to speak.  Others rushed forward to offer assistance, but I just stood there.

Not from pleasure; it wasn’t like people laughing at someone slipping on a banana peel.  It was a not being sure what to do.  Perhaps because this was an authority figure who I would never have thought of as someone needing my help.  Or perhaps because at that young age I had not learned how to offer help.  Or perhaps because of the shyness and uncertainty I’ve already mentioned.

People need to become more confident.  It’s not so much selfishness that needs to be overcome (well, maybe for some people; not you and me, of course).  Some people need to learn how to help, how to offer, how to follow their instincts, how not to over-think, how to tolerate rebukes if the person doesn’t really need help.  Some …