So two numbers walk into a bar, the number 10 and the number 11. Not having been in a bar before, they’re not sure what to do. The signs confuse them. They’re perplexed and they feel awkward, even embarrassed. They order a beer, more by accident than anything. The bartender looks at them and says, “Hey, are you two together? If you’ve been added together, then you’re 21 and I can serve you alcohol.”
The numbers were honest, though, and they said, “No, sorry. We are nonplussed.”
All right all right, sorry, that was bad, but it does get the point across at what nonplussed means.
Twice recently I’ve heard this word — nonplussed — used in a way that is entirely opposite of its actual meaning.
Nonplussed — which means confusion, bewilderment, or perplexity — is sometimes used to mean unfazed, not confused, not perplexed, not bewildered. This is the wrong usage.
I envision a suave, smooth-talking salesman who walks into the restaurant to meet a new client, orders his or her lunch, and then proceeds to spill the pitcher of ice water in his or her lap. The salesman is nonplussed, keeping his composure and barely indicating that anything went awry.
Beep beep beep, wrong, thank you for playing.
The Oxford English Dictionary says it is derived from nonplus, or ” a state in which no more can be said or done; inability to proceed in speech or action; a state of perplexity or puzzlement; a standstill“.
Words are our friends. Let’s use them carefully!
I love finding out about new expressions that have been around for a while but that somehow have escaped my radar. A friend of mine from church (Ann) wrote this recently and I loved it and thought I’d share it with others who may not have seen it before (or perhaps I’m the only one who somehow missed this growing up).
Researching this a bit … the phrase is now used in reference to persisting or persevering or hanging on until the very end, fighting until all the guns are fired and the supply of ammo is exhausted.
It also apparently is used — or was? – to refer to those party goers who are among the last two or three guests to leave … staying “until the last dog is hung.”
But what of its origins? (For some odd reason, ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas’ is going through my head at this moment, only the words are being changed: The puppies were hung by the chimney with care.)
Googling around, there are a couple of plausible stories that make sense, one more probable than the other.
There is speculation that out in the old West (back when men were men and all the cool guys could ride a horse, shoot a pistol, and play the tuba), the bad guys (cattle rustlers, bank robbers, stage coach bandits, and woodwinds) were referred to as dogs, and these “dogs” were sometimes subject to lynch parties that occurred outside of the general scope of the law. It’s conceivable that when a few such dogs were apprehended, the festivities (i.e., the hangings) went on until the last dog was hung.
My only real problem with that is that if dogs referred to people, then shouldn’t the operative word be hanged and not hung? Things are hung, people are hanged. But what if the person being hanged is referred to in a non-person euphemistic sort of way? Or is this even euphemistic?
Indeed, I think in our modern society people would get more upset at a “dog hanging” than a “criminal hanging.” I love dogs, but … anyway, I digress.
I can envision a scene like that below:
“Chester, I been gittin’ ready for this here lynching fer day ‘n night, and I is so glad that you is gonna string up this varmint. I is gonna stay and watch ’till the whole kitten kaboodle is done, until the last dog is hung.”
“Lester, I be ashamed of you. You just used hung and ain’t it the truth that you should’ve used hanged?”
“Chester, forgive this old cooter. Don’t tell Mama. She ain’t gonna take to it.”
“Lester, I be promisin’ I won’t say a word. Ain’t I told you afore, though, you gots to be careful how you use this speakin’ stuff.”
Okay, anyway, yeah, it seems unlikely that on the prairie frontier of this great land we would be so incorrect in our language. So that’s not the origin of the phrase.
Something I found, even more interesting, is that the Iroquois Indians — namely the Seneca tribe in the Iroquois league — used to celebrate the annual winter New Year festival by sacrificing an unblemished white dog. I won’t go into the details here, but the reference “until the last dog is hung” may very well be associated with this.
I also found speculation that “until the last dog is hung” may be analogous to one of my favorite phrases, “until the cows come home,” which I picked up in college (thanks Vic), and it generally means very late at night.
“Until the last dog is hung” refers more to the finishing of something, rather than the fact that it’s in the wee hours.
There are things in life that really are not worth fighting for, but there are things in life that are worth fighting until the last dog is hung.
There is no argument from anybody that the English language is ever evolving, changing to fit the needs of those who seek to communicate in this language. New words get created, for better or worse, and that’s all fine and dandy. We can argue until the cows come home whether it’s good or bad that the word “host” goes from being a noun to also being a verb.
What’s more tragic, in my humble opinion, is when a word that used to mean one thing has its meaning change — or lost — over time. The word enormity is one such word.
In the old days, enormity meant something horribly wicked, something devastatingly evil. An enormity was a dreadful, heinous crime or immoral act. People could talk about the enormity of a Hitler or a place like Auschwitz. The enormity of a person, the enormity of a situation — that really meant something.
Unfortunately, these days we often (or usually) see enormity (incorrectly) used as a noun form of the adjective enormous. We see enormity being used (incorrectly) as a synonym of enormousness.
An elephant may have enormousness, but I seriously doubt that an elephant has enormity.
When Hurricane Fran whipped through central North Carolina back in 1996, its enormousness was overwhelming. It was huge. But it was not evil; it did not have the characteristic of enormity.
I remembered a passage from Ayn Rand’s novel, Atlas Shrugged, that uses the word enormity. I did a quick google of enormity so that I could get the exact quote, and it’s interesting what I found. Two separate articles, each discussing Atlas Shrugged, use enormity incorrectly.
One writer says: “It is a piece of work that had to have had an amazing amount of shock value when it was first released (if one could get through the enormity of its size) and has remained a modern classic.” Enormity is being used to describe the size of the novel (yes, it is quite large, but it has enormousness, not enormity).
The other misuse comes from a Cliff Notes excerpt:
Ayn Rand presents Galt as a man of epic proportions. She stated that the goal of her writing was the presentation of an ideal man, and that goal is reached with the figure of John Galt. He is a man of prodigious intellectual gifts — a physicist who brings about a revolution in man’s understanding of energy, a philosopher who defines a rational view of existence, and a statesman who leads a strike that transfigures the social systems of the world. Two characteristics make possible the enormity of his intellectual achievements. One is his unique genius. The other is a trait that men can replicate: his unswerving rationality.
There is certainly an enormousness of achievements of character John Galt, but there is not an enormity.
The quote I was trying to find is in the excerpt below. I had always thought that Rand was referring to the evil inherent in the narrow thinking, the close-mindedness, of the enemy.
Rearden stood motionless, not turning to the crowd, barely hearing the applause. He stood looking at the judges. There was no triumph in his face, no elation, only the still intensity of contemplating the enormity of the smallness of the enemy who was destroying the world. He felt as if, after a journey of years through a landscape of devastation, past the ruins of great factories, the wrecks of powerful engines, the bodies of invincible men, he had come upon the despoiler, expecting to find a giant – and had found a rat eager to scurry for cover at the first sound of a human step. If this is what has beaten us, he thought, the guilt is ours.
I had long thought that Rand was using enormity correctly there, and that she was playing with the words enormity and smallness. However, read the quote below, where (I believe) she’s clearly using enormity as an attribute of size. In this clip, she’s providing the introduction to a book by her fellow Objectivist.
The ineffable monster destroying the world is not an entity but a vacuum, an absence, the emptiness left by the collapse of philosophy. In that lightless emptiness, mindless men rattle frantically, bumping into one another, seeking desperately some way to exist on earth-which they cannot find without the tool they have discarded. This leads to phenomena such as Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia, as Dr. Peikoff demonstrates.
If you do not wish to be a victim of today’s philosophical bankruptcy, I recommend The Ominous Parallels as protection and ammunition. It will protect you from supporting, unwittingly, the ideas that are destroying you and the world. It will bring order into the chaos of today’s events — and show you simultaneously the enormity of the battle and the contemptible smallness of the enemy.
Rand should have used enormousness there.
Words are fun — but words are important. Let’s use them correctly.
It’s 6:30 on a Friday morning and I’ve been awake for a couple hours. As I lay in bed, I found myself thinking about the Grammar Police. Now, when I first introduced the Grammar Police into the Aunt Ruth stories (I Laid an Egg on Aunt Ruth’s Head), I thought it was humorous, and probably justly so. Imagine being arrested for saying something incorrectly.
But, having seen my kids take on the self proclaimed Grammar Police role in my household — and having been issued a few citations recently by these same officers — I think it is time to distinguish between Grammar Police and Grammar Gestapo.
In the United States, the police officer has the duty of protection and enforcement; he (or she) is a friend; and philosophically the intent of a police officer is to encourage and promote reasonable behavior and safety. That’s why you don’t get a speeding ticket for going 56 mph in a 55 mph zone. Yes, technically it’s speeding, but the offender is still going “reasonably close” to the limit, by some definition of reasonably close.
That being said, I think it is important to establish that the Grammar Police Department needs to have the same type of role. The encourager, the helper, the friend — these roles will promote correct English faster than a more Gestapo-like officer who whisks away the offender, beats the living daylights out of him, and then places him back in society, expecting him (the offender) to be happy with his now correct grammatical wherewithal.
In other words, all you erstwhile Grammar Police out there — be gentle! Go easy on those who didn’t grow up knowing the difference between Hopefully and “I hope that” …
Let’s save the brutal beatings for things that really matter (like conjugation of irregular verbs).
Ring! Ring! Ring!
I reached over with my right arm — eyes still closed, as it was sometime in the wee hours of the morning and I was rising from the depths of a marvelous dream where people lived in a world of regular-only verbs — and I waved my arm around, but I couldn’t find the phone.
Ring! Ring! Ring!
I extended a bit further over the edge of the bed, and THWOP! I fell out and landed on the floor. I did, however, find the phone.
“Hello?” I answered.
“Nauseating Nephew! Well it’s about time. I must say, your delay in answering the phone was a bit annoying to myself, especially considering the circumstances.”
“Circumstances? Wait, before you start anything … what was the part you said about myself?”
“Wait, isn’t that what I said?”
“No, you said, ‘Myself’.”
There was silence on the other end of the line, and then I heard a thud thud thud.
“Aunt Ruth, what’s that noise?”
“Oh, I’m just hitting myself in the head with a large book.”
“For being so stupid as to call you in the middle of the night, forgetting that that’s when you enjoy talking about English grammar stuff.”
“Well this is your lucky evening, isn’t it then?” I smiled to myself.
“Now, what were you saying about myself?”
“Well, dear Auntie, it’s like …”
“Don’t call me that, remember?”
“Oh right. Sorry.”
“Keep going, please.”
“All right. You said — and I quote this — ‘annoying to myself.’ That’s not what you should say.”
“Why not? You are indeed annoying sometimes.”
“Oh, I don’t doubt that. But that’s not how myself should be used.”
“‘Okay, fine then, good night.”
“Wait, Auntie — Aunt — Ruth. Don’t you want to hear how to use it correctly?”
“No, not really.”
“Do you want to come over for lunch tomorrow — or today, whatever day it is?”
“Well, I’m kind of busy today.”
“I’ll be shoving bamboo shoots up my fingernails.”
“I made a batch of baklava last night.”
“I’ll be there. Noon?”
“Noon. But first, I’ll only let you come over if you listen to the rest of this dialog on using myself.”
“You drive a hard bargain, Mister.”
“May I continue?”
“Yes you may.”
“All right, Aunt Ruth, it’s like this. You don’t want to use myself and its friends — himself, herself, oneself, and all those kinds of words — when the simple pronoun would do.”
“Would do what?”
“Would suffice. You’re distracting me, Aunt Ruth. Let’s keep going.”
“All right. You were saying …”
“I might say that something is annoying to me, or annoying to him, or annoying to her, but I wouldn’t say that it was annoying to myself, or to himself or to herself.”
“When, then, oh Neanderthal of Nuance, how should myself be used?”
“Well, I can think of two general cases that will cover most of your actual need — reflexive and emphatic.”
“May I go now?”
“Hang in there. Now, the reflexive is something like this: I hurt myself, I fed myself, I hit myself in the head with a hammer.”
“I think you hit yourself too hard, nephew.”
“I’ll ignore that for now. Okay, and the other case — the emphatic — is when the pronoun is used for emphasis, like this: I myself can do this, I myself cooked the dinner, I myself ate a gallon of ice cream last night.”
“Wow, that sounds good.”
“The grammar explanation?”
“No, the ice cream.”
“Now, why did you call in the first place, my dear aunt?”
“I … oh dear, I’ve forgotten. May I go now?”
“I guess so. I need to get some sleep myself. Baklava at noon?”
“Me too, Brute’. Baklava at noon?”
“It’s Greek to me.”
It was noon on a Thursday in mid-November when I found myself standing with a burlap bag in Central Park, waiting for my friends to chase the dreaded Snipe toward me, at which point (according to the plan, as described by my friends) I would bag the beast and become the hero of the city. At least, that’s what my friends had told me at midnight, only twelve hours earlier.
Anyway, so there I was, awaiting patiently — my friends had also said this snipe hunt could take up to twenty-four hours — when I felt the ground rumble beneath my feet. At first I thought it might be an earthquake, but I dismissed that when I astutely realized that the rumbling was in a regular pattern: thud, thud, thud, thud … well, you get the idea.
Glancing in the direction of the thuds, I saw from afar a giant blob of jello entering the park, running through a self-formed tunnel of onlookers who were cheering and applauding. I whipped out my binoculars to get a closer look, and much to my surprise I discovered that the giant blob of jello was really a short, plump jogger. In fact, it was Aunt Ruth!
A police car, lights flashing, was following Aunt Ruth at a safe distance, and Aunt Ruth was headed toward a banner that read, “FINISH: NYC Marathon.” Using my mental acuity and a little bit of high tech number crunching, I was able to deduce that Aunt Ruth was finishing the New York City Marathon in a time of Eleven Days four hours two minutes and some odd seconds.
Being a fine physical specimen myself, I raced over to the finish line. It was over one hundred yards away, but still I managed to reach my targeted destination in just three minutes.
“Aunt” … (huff huff) … “Ruth,” I huffed and puffed, “I didn’t” … “know that” … (huff puff puff) … “you were a” … (huff huff) “runner!”
“Why, it’s my nauseating nephew! How are you? You don’t look so hot. Have you been running for the past eleven days too?”
“Uh, no. I was standing over by that tree, waiting for the dreaded snipe to come my way.”
“The dreaded … oh dear,” she said with a sigh. “We’ll have to talk sometime. But first, since the crowd is expecting it, I’ve got a song to sing.”
“Yes, I promised them that if they waited for me at the finish line, I would sing for them.”
I glanced at the crowd. There were probably two thousand people standing there.
“What song is it you want to hear?” asked Aunt Ruth.
Someone in the back of the crowd yelled, “Freebird!” Aunt Ruth chuckled.
“Listen, I’ve got a song for you all. I’ve had eleven days to practice it, and I think I’m ready. Mike, please?”
Someone handed her a microphone, and a karaoke machine began playing.
She stepped to her left; she stepped to her right; she clapped her hands; and she wiggled her hips. It was gross but intriguing in a bizarre kind of way. Then she began singing.
“I finished on a Thursday when my legs were tired;
I runned runned runned runned, I did ran ran.
I never thought that I could be this wired;
I runned runned runned runned, I did ran ran.
Yeah, my legs were tired; Yeah, I was really wired;
I runned runned runned runned; I did ran ran.”
“Whoa, wait a minute, stop!” I shouted, simultaneously pulling the plug on the karaoke machine.
“Why, what’s the matter, rancid relative?”
“What’s the matter? What’s the matter?”
“What happened, oh spoiled leaf on the family tree?” she asked, apparently a bit perturbed at my interruption. “Did you swallow a parrot?”
“No, I didn’t. Aunt Ruth, you can’t say, ‘runned runned runned runned, I did ran ran.’ That just doesn’t work.”
“First of all, the past tense of run is not runned; it’s ran.”
“Ran? I thought with verbs you doubled the consonant and added ed at the end.”
“Not with irregular verbs like run.”
“Run is irregular? Well tell you what. Send it out on a marathon, and before it gets across the Tappanzee Bridge it won’t be irregular any more.”
“Never mind. So what should I be singing?”
“Well, if you want to incorporate your running adventure with the “Da Do Ron Ron” song, I suppose you could say, “I ran ran ran ran, I did run run.”
“Wait a second there, young man. I understand the ran ran ran ran part — that’s the past tense of run, after all, as you so adeptly pointed out to me — but why did you say, ‘I did run run,’ when run is the present tense?”
“Well, it’s like this. Is your comfy chair around? It’s time for a grammar lesson.”
Aunt Ruth made a gurgling noise.
“Aunt Ruth, pull your finger out of your throat. This isn’t that bad. I promise.”
“Promise? You promised last week that you’d make me a great tuna salad sandwich, and do you remember what happened?”
“Well yeah, I, uh …” I stammered, blushing.
“Go ahead, my erstwhile cousin chef, tell the crowd about the sandwich you made.”
“Okay, okay, it’s not that big a deal. I just forgot to remove the tuna from the can.”
“Yes it’s true,” she said triumphantly. “I ate a picture of Charlie Tuna before I knew what was happening. Now, do you really promise the grammar lesson won’t be so bad?”
“Well, no, I guess I can’t make that promise. But may I try?”
“Yes you may, my nit-wit nephew.”
“Okay Aunt Ruth, it’s like this. The verb do can be used as an auxiliary verb. Namely, you can use it with the infinitive form of other verbs to create the indefinite present and indefinite past tenses of words.”
“The … what?” she said, turning pale.
“Don’t worry about what it’s called, but it’s something you can use to emphasize that you indeed did do something.”
“So what should I say?”
“Well, for the indefinite present, you could say, ‘I do run run run,’ and for the indefinite past you could say, ‘I did run run run.’ Your pick.”
She sighed and rolled her eyes. Turning the karaoke machine back on, she broke out into a rendition of Freebird that soon had all of Central Park singing along.
That’s my Aunt Ruth, and oh she did sing!
Though I have lived in various parts of this great land, I am not sure if this topic is one of regional interest or if it is pervasive throughout the English speaking world, and I am interested in any thoughts on this. Namely, I am curious about the use of the past participle in the simple past tense case.
Take a look at the verb see. This conjugates as see (present tense), saw (past tense), seen (past participle), seeing (present participle). I see the leaves today; I saw the leaves yesterday; I have seen the leaves before (present perfect); I had seen the leaves before (past perfect); and I am seeing the leaves now.
Now, before anyone starts thinking that I am picking on him or her, let me be the first to say that I am seeing this phenomenon in my own household. I can’t blame the local public school system; we are homeschooling our kids. We are the school system. I also can’t attribute it to lack of reading (under the premise that a well read student will inherently speak and write correctly) because my kids have a voracious appetite for reading. Not only that, but they’re not reading junk; they are reading one work of great literature after another. They still get it wrong, sometimes.
Okay, so back to the topic. Recently, from two different events, I heard the word seen used as the past tense of saw. That is, I heard this: I seen it.
Of course, our speech patterns develop in the families and towns and cities where we grow up, and most of us (me included) don’t realize we are in error until somebody points it out to us or we make a conscientious search of our own dialog and writing to grade ourselves, I guess.
The irregular verbs in English — and there are many — can be confusing because they are so, um, irregular. Look at these sets of irregular verbs in their present / past / past participle / present participle forms:
present, past, past participle, present participle
run, ran, run, running
lie, lay, lain, lying
lay, laid, laid, laying
swim, swam, swum, swimming,
bring, brought, brought, bringing
see, saw, seen, seeing
drink, drank, drunk, drinking
We see cases where the past participle is the same as the past tense (laid and laid, brought and brought); we see cases where the past participle is the same as the present tense (run and run); and we see cases where the present, past, and past participles are all different (lie, lay, lain; swim, swam, swum; see, saw, seen; drink, drank, drunk).
Probably the thing to do at some point in your life is to find a list of irregular verbs (those lists are easy to find on the Internet) and go through each one, making sure that what you see is what you have been using.
My kids do not have a problem with see / saw / seen / seeing, but drink / drank / drunk / drinking will get them every time. Specifically, they use the past participle as the past tense (“I drunk it” instead of the correct “I drank it”) and they use the past tense as the past participle (“I have drank it” instead of the correct “I have drunk it”).
How do we get past this? It’s not really a matter of just pointing it out — I’ve tried that, in my role as Grammar Policeman at home. I just need to drill it into the kids more.
That reminds me. I have been developing a set of worksheets that can be used in conjunction with my book, I Laid an Egg on Aunt Ruth’s Head. I’ll add a section on irregular verbs. Look for it soon.
In this day and age of generational differences, when it seems as if it is so difficult for families to maintain an openness and frankness in discussing anything among parents and children, I am proud to say that we have that freedom of expression in our family. That is, if a child doesn’t understand something or wants to know more about how things work, well, all he or she has to do is ask.
I write this, just having come out of the car after taking my youngest daughter to a friend’s house for the evening. As we pulled onto the highway, my daughter turned to me and asked, “Dad, you’ve always said we can talk about anything. That’s still true, right?”
“Of course, dear,” I replied. “What’s on your mind?”
“Well Dad, it’s like this. I know the past tense of buy is bought. But what about the past participle. Dad, all my friends are saying boughten (or bought’n). But that can’t be right, can it?”
First, I thanked my daughter for coming to me when she questioned her friends’ beliefs, instead of just buying into such grievous errors.
“Darling daughter, oh girl of grammar who is growing into an Empress of Eloquent Elocution, the past participle is the same as the past tense in this case, or bought.”
“Oh Dad, I’m so relieved. I knew I could rely on you.”
And with that, it’s time for a commercial break. Suffering from irregularity with your verbs? Try AuntRuthGrammar.com. It’ll keep you going.
We all know about the Can versus May wars, knowing when to use can or may. And if we don’t know about that, we can find out more in the book I Laid an Egg on Aunt Ruth’s Head. Right? Right.
What about Can versus Could?
Here is my understanding on this topic. I humbly will offer the opportunity to anyone out there to second guess me, though. Tell me where I’m wrong. This (English) is one heck of a complex language, and it does evolve over time. Point out the errors of my ways, oh readers, and I’ll be forever grateful.
That being said, here’s how it works. Let’s look at an example.
First, look at the present tense. I can run a mile in about eight minutes. That is the present tense, of course. That means that if I go outside today and run in the neighborhood, I will be able to run a mile in eight minutes or thereabouts. If a dog is chasing me, I perhaps can run faster. If I have a dessert in the oven and need to get home before it burns to a crisp, I also can run faster. If I know that Aunt Ruth is awaiting me on my front door step with two of her Christmas fruitcakes, I can run slower — in fact, I may run the other way and never return.
Now, look at the past tense. I could run a mile in about eight minutes. That is the past tense in normal usage. That means that at some point in the past, I was able to run a mile in about eight minutes. It makes no claim as to whether it was a good day for a run or a bad day for a run. It says nothing about whether I was running on pavement or in sand or in mud up to my knees. All it says was that at some point in time I had (emphasis on past tense had instead of present tense have) the ability to run a mile in eight minutes.
Okay, so what did we see? First of all, in the general case, could is the past tense of can. Can you? I can. Could you yesterday? Yes, I could. Can you tomorrow? Yes, I can tomorrow. Could you tomorrow?
What? Could you tomorrow? I don’t think so.
Well, that is, unless you’re talking about the subjunctive case: “If I could …”
Now, if you ask around today, you’ll see statements that make the point that you use “could” not only as the past tense of “can,” but also in place of can if you mean a weaker sounding statement … somehow “I can eat a plate of pasta” sounds stronger than “I could eat a plate of pasta.”
In grammar books of old, the present subjunctive for the Potential Mood uses: “If I could …” Just for comparison, the Emphatic Mood is: “If I do …”; the Progressive Mood is: “If I be …”; the Contingent Mood is: “If I might …”; and the Obligative Mood is: “If I must”.
Are you still with me? I think I’m asking this question because this question is one that may have lost its relevance over time.
My point is that although there may be subtle distinctions between these words, they really are not interchangeable — or at least they weren’t intended to be that way.
Orally, I hear can and could interchanged all the time, with no regard for the subtleties and nuances. In formal writing, I’m sure there are those who care and there may be areas where it is important.
Wait! Of course it is important! If we allow the grammatical lines and definitions to get hazy, we lose the precision (or risk losing it, anyway) of the language we hold near and dear.
I contend that can and could are not interchangeable. In the subjunctive, could should be used (if I could); and in general, could is the past tense of can.