Sunday, May 27, 2018

Get active

Among the elementary advice you'd give to someone who wished to learn to write well would be to use the active voice and not the passive.

The reason is that we process sentences "verb first". In the sixties there was a conflict between those who believed that we actually formulate sentences by building out from the verb and those who believed we use a more structured approach. Although the structured approach "won", there's good evidence that we work "verb first". Active sentences prove quicker to parse and anecdotally we know how hard passive sentences can be to work through.

It's actually quite hard to precisely define the passive in traditional ways. In the passive the subject experiences the action of the verb, rather than performs it.

He hits the boy.
The boy is hit by him.

You could consider it a "topicaliser" (we know that English loves to topicalise!). This is because English, like many languages, likes to put the most salient information in the sentence, after the verb, first. We call this "fronting" when we're discussing adverbs or adverbial phrases.

In fact, I'd argue the passive is an "ergativiser". I know, your head just exploded. I'll explain.

First of all, let's talk about two concepts: "marking" and "inflection/agglutination". Marking is simply a means languages use to show (usually) that words with related meanings have different functions. We generally consider that the words are stored in a sort of "dictionary form" and then marked for function. It's easy to see this by example.

Dog
Dogs

The plural ending /s z/ is added to words to make them plural. It "marks" the plural.

fire
fired

The simple past ending /t d/ is added to weak verbs to make them past. It "marks" the past. (Before you go off, yes, this is also the marking for the past participle. For historical reasons, it's the same ending: originally the participle was prefixed (as it is in German) but the prefix was lost.)

Marking does go a little deeper than that.

mark
marked
unmarked

Here we can see that it's a question of relation. "Marked" is marked from "mark", but "unmarked" is marked from "marked". It can also be considered marked from "mark" but it's generally easier to understand as a binary opposition because this is how marked forms are nearly always used, and how the concept was introduced.

Second, we can look at inflection (or agglutination in agglutinative languages -- same idea really but whereas in inflection you change parts of a word to show its function, in agglutination you add bits on).

For example:

amo
amat

Generally, in Latin we consider that the "stem" has "endings" and "amo" and "amat" are marked for first and third person present tense. This is actually a different type of "marking" to that we've already discussed, and consequently linguists often use a different word for it.

Let's compare "amo" with "amavi". The first means "I love" or "I am loving" and is the present tense. The second means "I loved" or "I have loved" and is the perfect tense.

So verbs can be inflected, or marked, for person and tense.

One of the more interesting things in languages is ergativity. In this, we say the following: subjects of intransitive verbs are marked the same way as objects of transitive verbs.

Woah.

What's a transitive verb? Well, that's actually quite easy. It's one that is done to something or someone else. Contrast "take" with "breathe". You can't breathe somebody. And you can't just take. Breathe is intransitive (never has an "object"); take is transitive (has an object). Some verbs can be both: "eat" for instance.

Look at these two sentences:

I breathe.
I take him.

At a deep level, the verbs can be thought of as "action of breathing" and "action of taking". Subjects are seen as connected with actions. So in ergativity, these two sentences are seen as "there's an action of breathing and I undergo it" and "there's an action of taking caused by me and he undergoes it".

It's a bit different from how we conceive of it but it does make sense.

Now it just so happens that the distant ancestor of English, proto-Indo European was a "split ergative" language. In the past tenses, it was ergative. This means verbs were conceived differently when they were in past tenses.

So how do you "ergativise" a verb in English? Let's look again at an active vs a passive.

I kiss the boy.
The boy is kissed by me.

Usually, a grammarian type will tell you that the passive uses the "past participle" of the verb "kiss". It's actually really unfortunate that we use that terminology because if we were taught at school what "kissed" is, we'd understand a lot of English grammar much more readily. Remember what I said: it is a historical coincidence that the "past participle" and the "simple past" are the same word. They have converged with time.

So what is "kissed"? It is a "verbal adjective". It describes the "action of kissing" as a state rather than a process. There are two types of verbal adjective in English: the present and past participles. The present participle describes actions as continuing; the past participle describes them as complete. Here is somewhere that the technical terms are much more useful for the linguist. They ought to be called the "imperfect participle" and the "perfect participle" because in fact they have nothing at all to do with "tense". They are marked for "aspect".

You can perhaps see that when you look at "kissed" as "the action of kissing as one complete action" and "kissing" as "the action of kissing as a continuing action", you can understand how ergative languages can see verbs as describing actions that don't "belong" to anyone.

Incidentally, participles really are adjectives pure and simple. The passive is used exactly like a predicative adjective. Compare:

The boy is fat.
The boy is kissed.

Notice that the passive does not need an "agent" any more than "fat" does. You just are fat. No one needs to have made you that way. But you cannot say:

The boy is fat by me.

And you can say:

The boy is kissed by me.

This is fine of course. There are adjectives that can fill different slots in sentences by their nature. You can say:

He was made fat.

But not:

He was made kissed.

So verbal adjectives are not quite identical functionally to what you might call common adjectives. Which is okay. Just as we can have transitive and intransitive verbs, there can be different sets of adjectives and we can still consider them the same thing because functionally they do the same thing in many structures.

I think that it's probably best to think of "by me" as an "inflection". Usually, in linguistics, "The boy is kissed by me" is seen as derived from "I kissed the boy" but to be honest, I'm not sure about that. I think we may have been wrong to dismiss generative semantics entirely and English sentences might be better seen as verb first. After all, few enough sentences lack a verb! Seeing "was kissed" as a verb form loses the insight that "kissed" is an adjective. Usually, the passive is seen as a way that English makes a "patient" (someone the action of the verb happens to) a subject (grammatically the "possessor" of the action of the verb). And traditionally we've said that is accomplished by using a different verb form because that's how Latin did it (the passive is an inflected form of the verb in Latin).

But as so often, applying Latin grammar to English doesn't really work. We'd do better to first of all understand that participles are adjectives of the verb and that we form passives by making verbs de-active, not by making patients into subjects and changing verb form.

I know that last sentence is difficult. What is the difference between:

I kiss.
I am kissed.

In the first, the word "kiss" describes a process. It's dynamic.
In the second, the word "kissed" describes a state. It's static.

So to form the passive, we change the verb from a process to a state and then make whatever undergoes that state into the subject of the sentence by using the participle as a predicative adjective.

And if I'm giving the grammar lessons, I tell my students to use verbs to do the work of sentences and avoid adjectives. Sentences with the passive voice feel static because they describe states. The verb "to be" is generally stative and rarely used to describe a process.

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Action some verbiage chaps

So there's nothing I enjoy more than tackling pedants because English is a living, vibrant language and most of its speakers write it much more fluently than the pedants would have them believe.

Today, I saw a common complaint about using "action" as a verb. Well, I'm here to tell you that's fine and here's why, and it's not even a new thing in English.

First, English is jampacked with words that can be either nouns or verbs. I'll list a few.

Look, view, debate, list, act, murder, kill, light, fire, bolt, flick, fling, love, like.

There are many more. There are even words that are also adjectives:

You wrong me, sir.
You have done me many wrongs.
You are wrong about that.

Verb, noun, adjective, and in spoken language, adverb (You did it wrong).

So there's no problem with words having two purposes. We have been doing that for centuries. Of course, there are other ways to make nouns from verbs ("nominalisation"), such as using the gerund as a common noun ("meeting", "running", "footing"), adding an ending ("hatred", "flight"), changing the ending ("belief"), or even both ("action" itself) and of course sometimes these processes had already happened in Latin or French before we borrowed the words (many of our nouns are from the accusative of Latin nouns that were derived from verbs).

But "action" is a formation the other way. This process ("verbalisation") also happens in languages, although it's somewhat less common (and there's an interesting thesis, I think, in why it seems verbs are more "primal" than nouns, at least in Indo-European languages). In English, the ending "-ise" is commonly used to verbalise nouns. Consequently, we have "realise", "theorise", "incentivise". And interestingly, "incentivise" was frowned upon early in the last century as a neologism.

So it's actually an interesting process, adding "action" to the first group "the wrong way round". There are words that already went through the process, although you may not recognise that they did, for instance "function", "machine", "fund". Wait, what's this? It does seem as though we've been using nouns as verbs for a long time in English! "Function" as a verb is thought to be from the 1840s, for instance, and "fund" as a verb is so well established that we use its gerund, "funding", as another common noun.

We also do that with the rather less common "functioning", which means something slightly different from "function". And that's important. English has adopted a noun from French, then verbalised it, and then nominalised again, to create shades of meaning that are impossible in many languages. And most speakers of English can use all of these without any problem.

When you action a proposal, there is no straight translation. It means "act upon" or "put into action". It's a brilliantly concise word. In a hundred years, no one will think twice about using it, any than they think twice about "exchange" (formed as a noun and then verbalised, just like "action") or even "hump" (yes, a verbalised noun).

Friday, May 04, 2018

A short note on too

Perhaps you were taught in school that you should comma off the adverb "too"? So for you a sentence such as this is correct:

I, too, will go there.

Or even this:

I will go there, too.

Both are strictly incorrect but this is a solecism so often taught to children that many people don't understand why it is. Here's the reason.

"Too" is an adverb almost exactly alike in function to "later". You can often -- if not always -- replace "later" with "too" in a sentence and your new sentence will make sense. (The reverse is not quite true: the structure "I x verb object" doesn't admit "later". You can't write "I later will write to you" for instance.)

I'll see him later.
I'll see him too.

Give it to me later.
Give it to me too.

Now, you'd never comma off "later" in those sentences. So don't comma off "too", which is functionally the same. Believe it or not, when words have the same function, they are punctuated the same way in a sentence.

So we're clear that "Give it to me, too" is incorrect (and btw you don't need a comma for "Don't tell him either" or "they went there also" -- you simply do not comma off an adverb in its default "unmarked" position in a sentence). But what about "I too will tell him"?

Well, not all that many adverbs can actually come between a subject and verb but try these sentences:

I very much like her.
I absolutely don't like her.
I sometimes go there.

You can see how ridiculous it would be to comma those adverbs off? And "too" is functionally exactly the same as "very much", "absolutely" or "sometimes".

Monday, April 23, 2018

Fairy tales

Sometimes I feel as though I will drown in this trench of melancholy. I feel as though nothing is substantial enough to believe. Because I believed in her and I didn't believe this was anything like the person she is.

I feel the sharp pain of loss. Not of the cruel, hurtful person who makes me look at my child on a phone screen. That's not the woman I loved. Not of the person either who tells her friends she is glad I am ruining anyone else's life.

I didn't ruin anyone's life. I lost my job and I fell ill. I didn't choose either and I know I didn't do well with either but I have done what I can to come out of the other side. I have shaken that box up and down.

I am the same person who still thinks over what happened with Mrs Zen, who castigates himself for the ill I did her, the person who is critical of himself that he couldn't carry B throughout her life -- a woman who gave me nothing, didn't even try, whose only commerce was tears and rage. But I still blame myself for not being good enough. If anyone would know, I'd know. And I shake the box and it's not there.

But not of that person because I won't believe she is that person. I feel like that's her shell, I get it, and there's nothing to be angry about, except that she doesn't want me to love Miggins, doesn't feel it's worth anything -- and even if it isn't, it still hurts -- and I loved her daughters and that might mean nothing at all to her but it means something to me.

And you have to be able to feel like what means something to you is worth something, whatever other people think. And not being able to even say hello to them hurts me.

***

I do shake the box. I think, well, I know I could not give enough. And I do know that the pressure, the pain she suffered was too much for her to bear, and that hurt for her to recognise, because she depends on herself to be strong. And I know I'm selfish and felt like I too was crushed.

I did not sleep for nearly a year until I had figured out how to sleep. I am not exaggerating. I literally did not sleep. Even now some days I feel broken, as though I cannot function.

Some days I feel broken regardless but that is because of the void that she left. I feel empty because I am the person she just shrugged off. I don't know how you can do that. And I always did shrug people off but I never closed the door. I have never really been unkind enough to do that.

I was kind to her too. Did you know that? I've seen how people are and I can't help but wonder how you can feel a person who was trying and wasn't very good at it deserves to be whipped.

And I do get that "deserves" is the word here. That people don't consider you transactionally. They do what they do sometimes to protect themselves. They do it for themselves. And ultimately of course we all do things for ourselves first of all, and only then for others. I no more expect others to be martyrs than I do myself.

***

I do wish she would talk to me. I don't really understand why she decided not to. There's nothing that happened. Just one day we were talking and it wasn't so bad -- as I said, I was kind, and she was kind enough too -- and the next she just was like fuck no. And that makes me sad, that I went from the person she loved to a person not even worth a few words.

It makes me sad because I feel like we did have something special. And I think we both know that she became unable to maintain that and maybe she felt guilty, maybe she felt I was punishing her for that. I didn't feel I was but I can see that maybe you could feel that way. People feel what they feel after all. They're not in your head.

But I didn't feel any of that was irretrievable. I would say, it's okay because I know you can recover who you are. And maybe she didn't feel I could. Maybe I can't.

I know this rambling isn't fun to read. I know you re not supposed to share the swirling waters that swill around your heart with anyone. I do know it upset her when I talked about her -- although surely not when I said how wonderful a person I thought she was, how beautiful I found her.

But this is what you do when the person you do find beautiful will not let you love them. They have a right not to -- I don't deny that -- she has every right not to let me speak to her, and even if you might think that's wrong because we share a child, I'm not a judge, I don't apply that standard really. But you still want to speak. I still want to tell her I love her. I still want the chance to woo her. I still do want to be someone she would want to be wooed by. And I do think, perhaps he disappeared, but perhaps he didn't.

And perhaps she did too. I know. Perhaps the woman I loved really did twist into someone who thinks it's okay to make my child a tiny figure in a telephone. Perhaps it's not just misunderstanding and miscommunication. Perhaps it isn't. But why should I choose to believe that? Why would I want to believe the beautiful soul I saw beneath the whatever you call it, the persona, has stopped existing? Why would I want my love story to end with a wicked witch? I don't. I want it to end as it began, with love that was worth everything.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

In defence of would of

A pet peeve of mine is those people who enjoy snobbishly correcting other people's English on the interwebnet. Which might surprise you, since I have made an astonishingly poor living out of correcting English. But then, I have also taken a shit once every day and that doesn't mean I'm keen on doing it in the high street.

I want to talk to you about could of, would of, should of, which people spend far too much time getting all snobby about. Not only do those people make an ugly spectacle of themselves, but they are wrong. Yes, really.

Three things back my play here: how we learn English, the variety and mutability of Englishes and why pedants are wrong about how language obeys "logic".

Babies learn how to speak and they're very good at it. Something that we often forget is that brains are much smarter than people. Weird thing to say but trust me, it does make sense. Whatever difficulties we seem to have with processing things in our world, our brains deal with extremely complex and large amounts of data. Perhaps not always perfectly but quickly and quite efficiently.

So babies are able to sift through sounds in the world around them to pick out, analyse and categorise ones that form language. They are able to internalise huge bodies of rules, which are in most languages complex and difficult enough that learning them for adults can be trying, and they're able to exclude sounds that don't fit on account of not being part of language at all or of belonging to another language.

But what's important to remember here is that they store language as a system of sounds. Babies do not learn to write. Our formal education in literacy largely consists of marrying sound to written symbol. And it's interesting that babies can learn to speak so well but children can learn to write so badly.

I can hear our pedant object. But people don't speak so well! How can you say such a thing? Some of those people speak common. Well, here's the first place they are wrong. You need to ask yourself what a baby is trying to do. It's not trying to learn to speak English. It has no idea what English is. It does not aim for a platonic ideal of a language. It is trying to learn to be comprehensible to the beings it finds itself among. It is not even trying to understand them. Babies are pretty much autistic; they have no interest in what you want or what you're trying to say. They are interested in getting what they want, and language is a good way to help them get it.

Babies are very good at learning an idiolect that can (eventually) be understood by other nearby speakers. (An idiolect is your own peculiar way of speaking your language. We all have a different idiolect. It's our most natural way of speaking. You can have more than one, of course, because you have a separate idiolect for each dialect you speak -- but this is verging on a technical morass because these are only terms of art for what we have: people speaking utterances that they hope other people will understand.)

Part of how they do it so well is they form rules that they can generalise across different utterances (I'm going to continue to use this word from linguistics to distinguish spoken sentences from written ones). And anyone who has a child knows they overgeneralise. Which can be very cute. Who doesn't love it when a child says Mummy drived the car or Daddy goed to work? All the child has done is apply the rule "form the simple past by adding /t d/ to the verb stem" too broadly. (Yes, I know the rule is a bit more complex but that's not the point.)

Children's brains are searching for patterns in the sounds they hear. They are looking for rules that apply systematically. This is because language is "generative". This quality means you can create novel utterances from the "dictionary" you've acquired. And you can do it from whatever materials you have. Children are very creative with language. As soon as they have acquired even a few words they try to express themselves with those words. The rules help them do that by providing structures to hang the words on.

Now note that the rule we have mentioned involved adding a phoneme to the end of a word. (A phoneme is a distinctive sound in English -- in fact, the "rule" is something like "add the phoneme /d/ to the end of the lexeme while observing phonotactic rules". And the marker for the past tense can be /d/ or /t/ without changing meaning -- there are phonological rules for which one to use.) Park that while we take a trip into history.

Old English -- Anglisc -- was a synthetic, inflecting language. Synthetic is a pole on a spectrum; the other is analytic, and the spectrum is a description of how much meaning there is in each "word". So an analytic language such as Chinese has monosyllabic words that have one meaning each (you create more meaning by positioning the words) and a (poly)synthetic language such as Navajo has multisyllabic words that contain a lot of meaning (they can be as long and meaningful as an English sentence yet are structurally one word). Inflecting means that changes in meaning or relationship between words in a sentence can be shown by changing parts of the word, usually the ending, without adding more elements (contrasting with agglutinative languages, which tend to add new syllables for more complex words, in which syllables are fixed -- Turkish can use five or six syllables where Latin would use one or two).

Anglisc used cases to show relations between words in a sentence and inflected verbs to show differences in tense, aspect and number. Anyone who's learned Latin will be familiar with the concepts of case and inflection. Over time, however, Anglisc evolved to become more analytic. Relations between words became more often shown by prepositions or word order, and verbs became much less inflected. But the new analytic English was littered with fossils from its synthetic past. For example, we have a fossil of Anglisc genitive case in possessives. Where Anglisc had "dog" and "dogges", we have "dog" and "dog's".

In fact, the possessive is the only case remaining for English nouns. Importantly, it cannot be seen as inflectional. The rule is simply to add the phoneme /s z/ to the end of words (with some jiggery pokery and exceptions of course).

Now imagine you are a baby presented with a jumble of sounds. You are able to categorise, say, "dog" and "dog's" and you systematise the difference between them and other words used in similar contexts as a rule to add a phoneme. In other contexts, other words seem to add other phonemes. This seems to be what English does.

Interestingly, it really is what spoken English does. The baby is presented with (forgive my "phonetic" spelling): /ai/ /yu/ /hi/ /wi/ /yu/ /the/ and /aiv/ /yuv/ hiz/ wiv/ /yuv/ /thev/. The baby's already systematised that /hi/ /shi/ /it/ are exceptions, so there's no problem with simply assuming "add v" is the rule for these words to express something. But what?

Well, "I've done" is the perfect. This is how we express an action that is completed (perfected) from the point of view of the present time. You use the auxiliary "to have" and the past participle.

In most varieties of spoken English, the auxiliary "to have" is expressed by the phonemes /v/ and /z/. In fact, /v/ and /hav/ are not interchangeable in most varieties -- they have strictly delineated contexts. They are to most intents and purposes different words. "I've done it" and "I have done it" do not actually mean the same thing for most of us. In some ideal version of English, "I've" is "short" for "I have" but babies do not learn that. They learn /aiv dun/ is the perfect of the verb /du/.

Importantly, in most dialects, the phoneme /v/ cannot be used for /hav/ in every context. Some dialects do allow /aiv thri/ for "I have three" but curiously they do not allow /hiis thri/ to mean "he has three". Generally, /v/ is not used for /hav/ though, and in spoken English, it's easy to schematise it as a postfix that allows formation of some tenses and/or aspects.

Spoken English does not have spelling. Not only do children not store the words they learn as spelled versions, the spoken language cannot be understood as identical as the written language. I'm not going to go into great detail about how this can be known: I'll simply appeal to your own intuition and the fact you cannot spell every word you can say (don't lie, you can't).

Given this, it's not clear that there's a "proper" way to spell /wudv/. By convention we make out it's a contraction of "would have" but children do not learn "would" and "have" and "would have" and "would've" as connected in any vital way. I'm just asserting this btw; I don't propose to provide evidence for it.

We have talked about how children develop an idiolect that sufficiently corresponds with what people around them speak that they can be understood. Then they go to school and if like me they come from an area with a slightly different dialect, or indeed they are from somewhere diglossic, they find out how they speak is "wrong". I think for English speakers it's fairly hard to understand that written standards are somewhat idealised versions of the languages they represent. If we look at Arabic, it becomes much clearer. Written standard Arabic does not bear much resemblance to vernaculars in Morocco or Iraq, and speaking it is a bit like declaiming Chaucer in Chaucerian English -- you need a special and distinct education to understand it. Chinese is worse! I've mentioned in other posts that Cantonese, for instance, is written in the same script as Mandarin, but they are very different languages -- perhaps as far apart as English and Italian as far as vocabulary goes.

And one thing we learn is that /wudv/ is represented in the written standard language as "would've". Which makes it look like something's missing. But of course it isn't.  I think that what is going on is clearer when you compare English with a Brythonic language, where there are different ways of rendering the present tense (roughly a personal and an impersonal way). There are informal and formal ways to render the past modals: /wudv/ and /wud hav/, /kudv/ and /kud hav/ and so on (I'm not ignoring the variety /wud@/ -- it's just not useful in this discussion, although it will rear its ugly head later). I will note that some people eschew contractions, preferring to represent everything, even in dialogue, in good written language. I respect that choice because it avoids making uncomfortable choices with dialectal variation. Nothing says that written English need be phonetic or that one cannot understand that a character uses a contraction even though it's not written.

All of this is a long path to saying that "would've" has shaky legitimacy. It renders a spoken construction that arguably does not represent a contraction at all. And now to our point. The phoneme /v/ serves in the spoken language as the preposition written "of". It's so commonly used that one should probably consider /ov/ to be a variation on it, not the other way round. It would be beyond pompous to say /bag ov tschipz/ for instance. And this word is uncontroversially represented by the written word "of".

I said we would mention again /wud@/ but actually let's look at the purposive /aim gon@/. Again, outside emphatic uses, it's very common for "going to" to be pronounced /gon@/. Writers have long affected to write this as "gonna". And to be honest, if someone wrote this in informal English, it'd be a brave pedant who objected. Furthermore, the cliche "shoulda woulda coulda" would be rendered ridiculous were it spelled "should've, would've, could've". Why? Because it doesn't look right.

A speaker of a language does not speak one language -- even if they are monolingual. They speak a range of lects that vary according to the person they are talking to and the context they are talking in. You don't speak "posh" to your mum. Most speakers of most languages actually can and do use an entirely different dialect at home than they do in the public sphere, although in English, dialects tend to be so close to standard English that you cannot fairly say that. Still, even though we may use the same variety of English in different settings, we use different vocabularies and different ways of expressing ourselves. These different sets of English are called register. I don't think anyone could argue that the "interview register" is different from the "spouse register", at least for most of us!

As an aside, the differences between register can be quite obvious but also quite subtle. For instance, if I was being interviewed, it's very unlikely I'd use vulgar language. I wouldn't say my last job was "shit" or my last boss was an "arsehole". But I would also likely say /wudv/ not /wud@/, which is what I'd normally use talking to a friend. These are examples that illustrate something we all understand: you use language appropriate to the setting. But what's not so obvious is that written English also has registers.

I don't know about you but I don't worry too much about how literate I am in a text message. And I might even use a lol here and there. (I hope that if S reads that she'll crack a smile.) Now I wouldn't say lol in a newspaper article. And I'd probably avoid difficult words and certain constructions in the newspaper too. I generally write with a fairly restricted vocabulary for various reasons but if I was writing something highly formal, I might deploy more impressive words (I might not though; I don't command a very impressive vocabulary at all).

I think even the worst pedant among us can happily agree that there are different written registers and that whereas you might write an email to a friend in a chatty tone, you'd use something more formal for business, for instance. You might not. You might write your business proposal in a lighter way if that was appropriate to the business. But you'd be aware that you were doing that.

So people writing posts on Facebook are not bound to stick to the register that would be appropriate to a book about astrophysics. Facebook would be even duller than it already is if they were. And those of you who enjoy writing that "Trump is a dick" would not be permitted to, since calling people dicks is on the whole inappropriate in textbooks. I think that a variety of what you might call "common", "vulgar" (in a more technical sense) or "vernacular" English would be most people's idea of what's appropriate. In this version, some things that I would not allow in formal English are common: objective "who" (should be "whom" but even I don't usually write that), unpossessed gerunds (Fowler would spin in his grave at you missing that), even existential or presentative singular "there's" for plural referents ("there's three good ideas about that" or "here's three things you need to know") and so on.

So here we have it.

I think "would of" is an understandable way to render /wudv/, particularly for people who are used to writing "SMS English", where apostrophes are often eschewed. (Wouldve looks weird, you know it.)

I think furthermore "would of" is a more natural way to render /wudv/ because there is no other context in which the phoneme /v/ is rendered "have" outside tense/aspect forms, and "'ve" cannot be used for "have" more generally, whereas /v/ is rendered "of" routinely.

I think we all agree that contextually "gonna" is the preferred rendering for /gon@/ and writing "going to" would not just be wrong but would be ridiculous.

I think that the settings in which people wish to disallow "would of" are not formal, so rules of formal language cannot be applied. In fact, the pedant is left in a bind, because you do not write out contractions in other cases, yet "would've", "could've" and, omg I'll shit, "hadn't've" are horrid.

I do not have enough lunchtime to discuss the truth that language does not sit still, that it changes, and its form depends on its use. Chaucer used the phoneme /n/ fairly liberally as a prefix to negate verbs. But you can't do that now. Eventually, everyone will write "would of" and it will be as though that was always how it was written.

English is not fully analytic. We don't add the meanings of "would" and "have" together. "Would have" has a synthetic meaning that is not like either of them. "Have" is definitely synthetic -- used across the Indo-European group without actually meaning anything in itself. And there's no good reason, really, for spelling it in the same way as the verb of possession.

So, pedants, you will be wrong for sure in maybe a hundred years. And mostly, you are wrong now. You are a sad lighthouse of formality in an informal world. I pity you, fighting as you do to force a tool of immense flexibility and expressiveness into dull regularity. Language is how we get others to understand us. We learn it because we want others to understand what we want, what we need, what we feel and in time to express that we understand what others want, need and feel. And you understand perfectly well what "I would of told you if I knew" means. So you are wrong, sorry.

Friday, April 06, 2018

Fine ghosts

The first ten things you want to say are not worth saying. Not that they're not deep. Not that they're not full of insight. Maybe they are. But the person they are deep for isn't listening. The person who you feel could use the insight doesn't want to look inside any box they might have.

And I'm not afraid to say that I feel like I bet everything I had on her and I still don't want to believe that she's someone who's suffered like she has -- and I do believe she has -- but turned straight round and did it to me so I would hurt just as much.

And I know how empty you felt, darling, because sometimes I feel it's not so much it's hard as it's empty and empty's worse.

***

Things one through nine are worthless and when you say them out loud, you hate the sound of your own voice. And I do remember sitting on that step with that woman, whose name I can't remember, and I said, Ugh my voice is like barking dogs.

And she was like, No, it's nice.

And I feel alone because everyone else knows who they are and when I look in the mirror, who the fuck is that guy? 

Who is he? Someone who claims to be me but he has to be lying.

***

So I wrote my buddy Martin a short email and it was kind of I'm sorry but he wrote a long email and I replied, just as long, and that was that.

And we do have some history and none of it is bad. But maybe that was that and what a fucking waste and what else should I have done?

I don't know, you tell me. And how can this actually be a flaw, that I need you to tell me? If I'm listening, how can it be a flaw?

How can everything about a person be wrong? When you all look like you have things wrong with you too but you don't even notice but you notice it in me.

***

And you're thinking, this is just the same old shit but I did say the first seven things I think are nothing worth thinking.

Like, let me tell you, I haven't ever said this but really, who cares? There's me, you, a guy who hates me in a sort of sordid, jealous rage, A, E and P when she bothers to remember I exist, and a couple of other people who think people only write things because they want you to judge them.

But listen. They don't want you to judge them. They don't want anything from you. You don't understand what it is to hate yourself so much no one can begin to hurt you.

So anyway, I never said it out loud but I think Lisa fucked me when it came to my job and I don't know why she would do that. We were friendly. Well, enough. But it's always bothered me. And losing that job was the end of everything for me.

But there wasn't any real reason for that, was there? I remember we were friendly, we talked, we seemed to get on. But who knows?

I never know.

And I remember when Crab got married. We were drunk in Ballina, somewhere. It was all good, we were talking to the bridesmaids, but I had been with B. I mean, I was with B, but she had gone home.

And I know she wanted me to go with her. That's how she was. She would ruin every good time in your life if it meant it would prove to her that she had worth.

And you had worth, B. I wish I had have known how to tell you in a way you could have heard.

So I walked back to the motel alone and it had a huge bath. I ran it and got in and fell asleep.

I woke up when B said, What the fuck are you doing in the bath?
And what else could I say? Having a bath. I was just having a bath.

***

They are fine ghosts. They come, they step into your life, then they go. And while they are there, they hurt you sometimes. And why is it you remember the hurt and it's so hard to remember that they made you smile?

Or is that just me? Because my dad cannot accept my mum has died. It feels like affectation that he keeps talking about "us". As though he's playing out an image he thinks he should maintain.

And I am angry, genuinely angry, because he didn't earn it. He doesn't deserve to try to force her to be alive.

My beautiful mum. She does not belong to him. She does not belong to a man who hurts me. Doesn't he even understand that she loved me more than she loved him? And every time he hurts me, her ghost winces, shudders and wishes to be gone.

Sometimes I think I cannot bear to plod through this any more but I can't die. I would leave a ghost that could not leave because my own children would be angry with me, would hate me.

It's strange. People think I mourn the time I could be spending with Miggins. And I do but Miggins doesn't know me and Zenita does.

Well, she doesn't, of course. I don't know what picture she loves but it cannot be me.

It is that man in the mirror, I suppose. That cunt. Hangs around like a spectre and won't. just. fuck. off.

***

I do mourn the time I could be with Miggins. I do wish Ally could understand. But I know if I was kinder about it, I would stop thinking she is trying to make it grindingly horrible. She just does not think the way I do.

She would not be unkind to Miggins. I don't know what happened with her and her daughter. I can imagine because I've seen the Ally she pretends to outsiders doesn't exist. And don't get me wrong, I think she is fragile, not bad. Bad is not really a thing, you do know that, right?

I know she may have hurt her but she didn't want to. Anyway, that is not for me to talk about, only that however she is to me, I wouldn't ever wish on her the pain I know she felt. It was impossible for her to bear.

I know that much because Ally does the same to me. I can't believe she sees it because I don't believe she is that unkind. She cut me off without a word to children I loved. You can believe I am as pernicious as the worst boil but that is still ugly.

And she would not be unkind to Miggins. Not if she knew how not to be.

I still think she is worth something, that inside her there is something beautiful. I know you are thinking, that is just vanity, that you do not want to have loved her and been so wrong. And maybe that is right but I still do believe in her. I still believe I saw her in a way no one else has. Or will. I think that is what has hurt the most.

***

I wish sometimes I could present a different me, just say, hey look, it's a much better version and then I laugh and think, wtf man, there's just you.

There's just me. And it wasn't good enough for her. And she ain't shit, really. I don't tell you what I know, what I think. And I know you, or she, might think, that's horrid that he talks about her, but I don't talk about her, I might say, she's mean but I don't say anything you would hate her for.

I only say things in ways that make it easy to hate me. Isn't that a thing?

Sweetie, write and tell me you want me not to have said anything about you, and it's gone. But then the three people who read this don't read that you can be mean, sure, but they don't read that you're beautiful. You're beautiful in a way only I've seen, only I've talked about. You've inspired someone who can tell the world how inspiring you are, or try to.

Or try to.

Why does everyone else get to fail?

***

I told you the first ten things I thought would be boring as fuck and you didn't believe me. The rest are just variations on a theme and now I'm tired. But look, no one read all the way down to here so I can be honest. Only I know what's here. It's a curious thing but I think at the same time any love I have is close to valueless, yet I still want you to be worth the love I have for you and you haven't been. And maybe it just feeds your anger a little bit more but it's the truth. You are just about the only person in my life I can say that about (mostly I just didn't love them all that much, that's true, or they were worth it but I couldn't convince them) but jeezus, sweetie, I just still want to be right about you, and when it comes down to it, wrong about me.

And, thank god no one reads this far down hey?, I want to say this. When you were pregnant, I pictured us with our baby, perfect in our love for one another and I don't want that to be nothing at all. I believe you were worth it. I believe I was worth it too. I know she is worth it. We are all worth love, at least until we're not.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

There's a moment when

Sometimes I think I wish I could meet you tomorrow and then I remember I have dwindled into pointless goo and if you do or don't deserve more you think you do and that's what it is.

But I did learn. I'm not always able to deploy what I learned but that doesn't mean I didn't. I just never learned anything of any use to anyone else. Yet.

And I do learn every day. One day I think I know something and then I know something else. And in between I have a piece of clarity, as though the symbols I have always thought I knew what I was looking at, I realise I did know know what they said.

That anyway is one of the bigger things to realise. That the marks and signs of human life do not say one thing. When you read, I don't know, Derrida, that's what he says, and you nod, but you don't get it. And then you get it.

***

I am a face on a telephone screen. You don't know who I am. That's okay, neither do I. And I know you're supposed to. I know everyone else seems to think they do.

But they don't.

It's just the mask they wear.

And sometimes I wish, I wish, I wish you would not be like me, that you will learn to live among these people, that you will find content among them, but I look at me and I look at your mother and I know that the chances are it will be an effort of will.

But even so I do still love her, whatever that word means, and I do wish she would let us try to begin your life with a different lesson.

Even so.

I want you to grow to never have a doubt. To do and be done to and live with it. To never be sorry, even if you have things you should be sorry for because after all what does "should" even mean?

***

I will always be sorry I put my own wellbeing over loving you but I genuinely truly felt it was that or die and I couldn't die.

When you are younger, you feel like you want people to want to know your story. Then you know what it is and you don't any more and that's when you know that you made your own world and you didn't know how to paint it in with colours so it is grey and bereft. And no one really wants to live in ashes but sometimes you have to.

And what is the solution? I laugh, as though I have ever known the solution to anything. Sometimes I feel like you just have to forget everything you are or wanted. When you have done that, you can die. And other times I feel like even that wouldn't be enough.