08 October 2016

Mrs. Malaprop Lives!

by B.K. Stevens

Affectation, Henry Fielding declares in the preface to Joseph Andrews, is "the only source of the true Ridiculous." I think that principle holds true for language. We may get irritated with people who confuse "your" and "you're" or "accept" and "except." Usually, though, we're not tempted to ridicule them--certainly not if they're very young or haven't had many educational opportunities, probably not even if they're well-educated adults who ought to know better. After all, everyone makes mistakes. Unless something is so riddled with errors that it's obvious the writer didn't even try to proofread, most of us are more inclined to forgive than to ridicule. (I certainly hope you'll forgive me for any mistakes I've made in this post. It's terrifying to write on this sort of subject, knowing I could slip up at any time.)

But when writers are guilty of affectation--and especially when affectation is compounded by ignorance--ridicule begins to seem like an appropriate response. Some literary characters have become famous for sounding foolish when they try to impress others with inflated language. In Shakespeare's Much Ado about Nothing, Dogberry announces that he and his men have "comprehended two aspicious persons" and later declares a prisoner will be "condemned into everlasting redemption" for his misdeeds. (I checked several copies of Much Ado, by the way, and they all said "aspicious," not "auspicious." So you don't have to forgive me for that one.) In Sheridan's The Rivals, Mrs. Malaprop complains she has little "affluence" on her niece, who is "as headstrong as an allegory on the banks of the Nile." When these characters make us laugh, I think we're laughing at their affectation, not their ignorance: They become ridiculous not because they have limited vocabularies but because they're trying to show off.

And Dogberry and Mrs. Malaprop have plenty of modern descendants. "My new thriller is the penultimate in suspense!" a novelist proclaims. The poor thing probably thinks "penultimate" means "more than ultimate." But since it actually means "second to last," "the penultimate in suspense" isn't much of a boast. "If you're searching for the meaning of life," a motivational speaker says, "I can offer you a simplistic answer." The speaker could have said "simple" but probably thought it sounded too--well, simple. Instead, the speaker opted for the extra syllable, unintentionally admitting the answer he or she is about to give can't adequately explain life's complexities. "If you follow my advice," the astrologer promises a potential client, "you will always be fortuitous." The astrologer may think "fortuitous" is a more elegant way of saying "fortunate." But to the extent his or her promise means anything, it means the potential client will always be ruled by chance. In all of these examples, the real problem is affectation, not ignorance. (True, we sometimes laugh at the things people say even when there's no affectation involved. For example, it was hard not to chuckle when Yogi Berra said, "You can observe a lot by just watching" or "Half the lies they tell about me aren't true." But an affectionate chuckle isn't the same as ridicule. Yogi wasn't putting on airs, just scrambling things up a bit--that makes a big difference.)


People who dress up their sentences with foreign words or phrases may also be suffering from affectation affliction. I love HGTV--like Food Network, it's one of my default channels--but the constant use of en suite grates on my nerves. "Here's your magnificent master bedroom," a star of Love It or List It or some such show will say, "and here's your spa-like en suite." Then he or she throws open the door to what used to be called a master bathroom.

Has en suite become fashionable because "master bathroom" sounds politically incorrect? I don't think so. After all, the same people who use en suite still say "master bedroom"--once, I heard an HGTV host refer to a "master en suite." And if the connotations of "master bathroom" make us uncomfortable, we can always say "owner's bathroom." No, I think en suite is appealing because it has that special air of sophistication, that added note of elegance, that je ne sais quoi. In short, it's appealing because it sounds so darn French. Unfortunately, to anyone who knows even a little French, it also sounds silly. "En suite" is a phrase, not a noun; it means "in a suite," not "bathroom." Two or more rooms that form a unit might be described as rooms en suite, but referring to a single room as "an en suite" doesn't make sense.

It also doesn't make sense for invitations to ask people to "please RSVP," or for menus to say a roast beef sandwich is served with "a cup of au jus." And if the menu also lists a "soup du jour of the day"--sacre bleu! The point isn't that we all need to know French--certainly not--but that we shouldn't try to sound impressive by using words or phrases we don't really understand. The advice George Orwell offers in "Politics and the English Language" can save us from a lot of embarrassing mistakes: "Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent."

Linguistic affectation can take other forms, too. Malapropisms are silly but relatively innocent. Driven by a desire to impress, people abuse the language without realizing it. But sometimes, I think, people are so driven that they push ahead even when they're fully aware of what they're doing.

That brings us to the world of politics, and to the world of television journalism. Like many others during this election year, I've been watching far too much cable news lately. And I've heard far too many reports that go more or less like this:
Top Democratic advisors meeting today to discuss strategies for the next phase of the campaign. On the other side of the aisle, Republican spokespeople responding to the latest controversies and countering with charges of their own. And both candidates issuing statements predicting victory. In Florida, officials warning of worsening conditions. In international news, NATO leaders calling for more joint action against terrorism, North Korea announcing more missile tests, and Vladimir Putin posing shirtless for more photographs.
Here we have five so-called sentences but not a single complete verb, just a plethora of present participles. As a result, we don't really know when things are happening. Have top Democratic advisors already met today? Are they meeting now? Will they meet later this afternoon? We can't be sure. We might think the present participle at least rules out the possibility that the meeting already happened, but that's not a safe assumption. I've often heard news anchors use the present participle, without any auxiliary verbs, to refer to past events.

I don't know when this preference for verbs without tense began. Maybe it's a recent development, or maybe it's been around for a long time, and I just haven't noticed it until now because I don't usually watch so much news. It does seem to be widespread. I sampled three cable news networks to make sure, and I never had to wait long to hear an ing string. I also don't know why the trend developed. It could be that news writers are so determined to use only "strong" verbs that they avoid all forms of to be and other auxiliaries. My best guess is that news writers (or, more likely, producers or executives) decided that unadorned present participles are more dramatic than regular old verbs, that they're sexier, more immediate, more exciting. "FBI investigators revealing startling new facts"--if we don't know exactly when something is happening, we might think it's happening right now. Better stay tuned. If that's why news networks are dangling all these enticing participles in front of us, I'd say it's another form of affectation. And it's a particularly calculating form, a deliberate misuse of language to mislead and manipulate. I don't want to overstate the problem, or to suggest news networks have evil intentions. At worst, they're guilty of trying to drive up ratings, and I suppose that's natural enough. But I don't like it when people twist the language to try to limit my understanding or control my reactions. And as a long-time English professor, I know that plenty of students already have a hard time understanding what a sentence is. If the news networks are muddying the waters still further, that's a shame.

We probably can't do much to reform the language of cable news, and malapropisms of one sort or another will probably always be with us. Affectation has deep roots in the human soul. But we can at least try to keep our own use of language as free of affectation as possible. To the extent that our writing has any influence on others, we can try to make sure our influence is positive. How can we do that? I've always found some advice E.B. White offers in The Elements of Style helpful, even inspirational. "The approach to style," White says, "is by way of plainness, simplicity, orderliness, sincerity."

That about sums it up.

# # #

Do you have favorite examples of malapropisms, or of other forms of inflated language? I'd love to hear them.


17 comments:

Paul D. Marks said...

Great piece, B.K. Had me laughing out loud in several places. Some people sound pretentious because they don't know better, while others are trying to impress with their inflated language. Two of my favorite fictional examples are the Crane brothers, Frasier and Niles.

Art Taylor said...

I really enjoyed this piece, Bonnie--fun and informative in equal measure!
I just finished grading 40 essays this week (whew!), and one that stood out tried so hard to sounds smart (look smart, I guess) by using larger words and more complex sentences that...well, you can imagine: Much of it made no sense. I know (and you do too, I'm sure) why students do this; they're taught to think that their writing for formal essays needs to sound academic somehow. But I'm with Strunk and White on simple, clear language--and I encourage my students in those directions always.

B.K. Stevens said...

Paul, I have many fond memories of Frasier and Niles. I loved it when those two got into a duel, each trying to sound more sophisticated and cultured than the other. I also enjoyed Diane's pretentiousness on CHEERS (which was, as you undoubtedly know, the series in which Frasier first appeared. When Diane left the series, she was planning to write a novel with a deliciously pretentious title--Cassandra's Conundrum, or something along those lines.

B.K. Stevens said...

Art, I remember many essays like the one you describe. When I taught composition, I often told students they were required to buy a dictionary but forbidden to buy a thesaurus. A freshman armed with a thesaurus is a dangerous thing.

Your comment gives me an excuse for telling a story I wanted to work into the post but couldn't--it's not relevant to the subject of affectation, but writing about verbs brought it to mind. I usually required composition students to correct their graded essays; in an often futile attempt to make sure they understood what they were doing, I also required them to turn in a separate sheet explaining each correction they'd made. Once, when a student shifted tense in mid-sentence, I underlined the offending verb and wrote "verb tense" in the margin as a hint. The student corrected the error and offered her explanation: "I made the verb more relaxed."

Art Taylor said...

That's hilarious, Bonnie--love it!

GBPool said...

I love a well-place "Malaprop." We watch The Bowery Boys on Saturday mornings and I marvel at the writers' ability to pick the wrong word with the right sound. In that case, it shows that the writers know the language. As for the news media, I don't think the vernacular was part of their curriculum. I have heard more "Bowery-Boy-isms" from the media than from Leo Gorcey. But I must say, the media has made gobbledygook the new norm. So I shall reframe from saying anything augustus lest my pompascity overhelm my boat.

B.K. Stevens said...

Gayle, your final sentence is a work of art. I've never watched The Bowery Boys, but I'll have to give it a try. As for your comments about the media, I almost added a paragraph about current media cliches. But after I'd kicked that can down the road for a while, it got into the weeds, so at the end of the day, I pushed back against that narrative.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Bonnie,

A very enjoyable piece! Elements of Style truly is a classic and remains on my book shelf. I loved your story about your student's correction explanation.

B.K. Stevens said...

I'm glad you enjoyed it, Jacquie. Elements of Style is still on my shelf, too, right next to my dictionary and my Fowler's Modern English Usage. I also love Paul Brian's Common Errors in English Usage--a sensible, witty guide that deals with some abuses that have gained ground since Fowler, Strunk, and White went on to their rewards.

Eve Fisher said...

Love this!

B.K. Stevens said...

Thanks, Eve! I'm glad you enjoyed it.

Elizabeth said...

There was an article in the paper about the "centurions" celebrating their birthdays at the assisted living facility.

Barb Goffman said...

I once worked for a fellow attorney who didn't know the difference between "which" and "that." She clearly thought "which" sounded more intelligent and would change every correct use of "that" in my memos and letters to "which." It drove me crazy, but you can't correct the boss.

In other news, I have been guilty of saying "please RSVP" by a certain date. I often think about it before I use RSVP in that manner, knowing I could use "reply" instead of "RSVP" and that my use of RSVP in this way is incorrect. But I feel like the term has gained its own meaning in English, that people read it as a verb to mean respond to this invitation, and so I use it as such.

Finally, I loved the relaxed verb story, Bonnie. Made me laugh out loud.

John Floyd said...

Well done, Bonnie--I loved this column.

Reminded me of a neighbor we used to have, who once told me she had a photogenic memory. I congratulated her, since I felt that was pretty unique.

B.K. Stevens said...

Elizabeth, I assume those centurions were injured in the line of duty--they have a dangerous job, after all--and that's why they were in the assisted living facility.

Thanks for your comment!

B.K. Stevens said...

Barb, I can see the argument in favor of using RSVP in that way. After all, over the centuries, English has absorbed and adapted many words and expressions from other languages. And I'm glad you enjoyed the relaxed verb story. Grading essays can be a dreary business, but it does have its moments.

B.K. Stevens said...

John, a photogenic memory does sound unique. Most memories can't be photographed at all!