Last, This, Next

As I was folding a week’s subset of my embarrassingly large collection of printed t-shirts, I reflected momentarily on the history of my pixelated Minnesota t-shirt. I bought that t-shirt last summer and wore it each time I went to the Minnesota State Fair last year, as my symbol of “Minnesota pride”.

Then I started thinking about sharing this story, and about referring to the Minnesota State Fair that took place in 2013 as the “last” Minnesota State Fair, and how the one that will take place “this” year, in 2014, is “this” State Fair, and so on.

Frequently conversations between SLP and me have resulted in confusion based on the different possible interpretations of “last”, “this” and “next” when referring to days, weeks, months, years or events. I tend to use “this” when I’m referring to any unit of time that occurs within the same larger unit of time, whether before or after the current one, although I may be likely to omit “this”.

For example, today is Thursday. The Super Bowl (or, if you prefer, the Suberb Owl) is happening in 3 days. It’s happening “this Sunday”. But what if today was (or is it “were”? I never get that right, either) already “Superb Owl Sunday” and I was (“were”?) talking about the 5K race I’m running in 7 days later? “This” Saturday seems a bit far off in that case. But “next” Saturday doesn’t feel right to me either. Or does it? Is it better for “next” Saturday to refer to a day that’s 6 days away, or 13?

As for my confusion with SLP, the fact that she lived her life on the September-to-June academic calendar for much longer than I did only exacerbated the situation. I’ve always been a stickler (to the point of ridiculousness) for precision in dates. The first day out of school isn’t the beginning of summer; the solstice is. The first day back in school isn’t the beginning of fall; the equinox is. And the first day back in school in late August or early September most definitely is not the beginning of the new year. (Although yes, Rosh Hashanah usually does occur in September so depending on the calendar you use, there’s an argument to be made.)

Ironically, it was only after SLP stopped organizing her life around the academic year that I embraced calling any of the days in early-to-mid June when our kids are out of school (but which are still technically in spring) “summer”, but I will never give up the idea that “this year” refers to the 4-digit number starting with a “2” that comes at the end of the current date. “This year,” to me, means January 1 to December 31. Period.

But what do I mean when I say “this winter”? Sure, winter technically only starts about 10 days before the new year, so it’s almost entirely in 2014. But let’s be honest. In Minnesota, “winter” usually starts in early December, or sometimes as early as October. By my logic, “winter” in Minnesota begins on whatever day snow falls and doesn’t melt away. We had a few light snows in November, but “this winter” began on December 2, 2013.

My point is: language is fuzzy. Assigning vague labels like “last”, “this” and “next” to our days and events relies on a great deal of tacit agreement between ourselves over meaning. This particular quirk of our language has been causing me trouble since I was a kid. Back then I had a lot of time, sitting around bored in school (which I didn’t even realize was the case until much later in life), to ponder and obsess over and get annoyed by things like this. I was trying to create in my mind a world of precision and clarity that didn’t, and couldn’t, exist. Our minds don’t work that way, the world doesn’t work that way, and language, a product of our minds used to help us understand and communicate with each other about the world, necessarily can’t work that way.

I didn’t understand that then, and I only barely do now. Each of us carries around an entire universe in our mind. It’s built on a foundation laid by our genes and constructed around our experiences — and our interpretations of those experiences. Our language can only achieve an approximation of a fraction of that universe, and we have to rely on the assumption that our own version of the language we use is a close enough approximation of the same things in our own mental universe as the language, and the mental universe it represents, of the others around us.

It’s a wonder we can communicate at all.

I have not formerly addressed this formally

Malaprop'sI’m a geek. Let’s get that straight. I’m not a nerd. Geeks are people who tend to be obsessive over a particular set of arcane knowledge. Nerds are people who are obsessive about learning. The differences are subtle, and to some extent overlapping. I could draw you a Venn diagram, but then, simply by virtue of the suggestion, I think I prove my point. SLP is a nerd. She will provide historical citations to back me up on this. In short, nerds read more books than geeks. At least if you exclude sci-fi/fantasy.

Anyway, yes, there places where geekdom and nerdery overlap. One of those places is in language itself. So perhaps I’m being a bit nerdy here, and not just geeky as usual, but I feel I must address one of my longstanding pet peeves of language misuse that I’ve been observing with increasing frequency: the confounding (to me) confusion (by others) over the words formerly and formally. These two words are not even close in meaning, yet I often see one substituted for the other — almost always “formally” for “formerly,” come to think of it. I suspect that many people just don’t even know “formerly” is a word.

Perhaps, formerly, you were one of them. But no longer.

A Google search confirms that I am not just imagining this phenomenon, and the first result, from, elucidates the difference succinctly:

The adverb formally means “in a formal way.” The adverb formerly means “at an earlier time.”

Another way to look at it is to simply drop the “-ly” adverb suffix and compare the base adjectives: “formal” and “former.” So, really, maybe the problem here is that none of you were paying attention in fourth grade grammar class. Clearly, I think that those who are misusing these words are failing to understand some aspect of the linguistic structure underlying them. Because if you do understand, it’s almost impossible to mix them up.

Or is it?

I certainly thought the two words were about as distinct as could be, until I looked at this quiz which challenges you to read a sentence and determine which of these two words belongs in it. It’s not as clear cut as you might think. For example:

I recognize her face, but she and I never have been introduced (formally/formerly).

My gut tells me to use “formally” here, but “formerly” would also technically be correct (even though “previously” — or nothing — would probably sound better). However, all of the questions in this quiz are only challenging from the perspective of the reader/listener, who is trying to determine the original intent of the writer/speaker. The writer/speaker should not be struggling with this ambiguity, assuming they themselves know what they’re trying to say.

So we’re right back at square one: do you know what you’re trying to say, or not? And if not, why are you talking at all? Formerly I would have been more tolerant, but now I am formally asking you to get it right before you write. All right?

More words for the verbage bin

I just finished reading a great article on “verbage” [sic] in the New Yorker. It discusses both Republican disdain for Barack Obama’s linguistic skill and Sarah Palin’s extraordinary meat-grinder approach to the spoken word.

Along the way it does something undeserved, though: it credits the governor with coining the term “verbage,” which apparently she did not. It gets the meaning of the term correct though, and I suspect that she is as unaware of her mispronunciation and its associated alternative meaning as she is of the fact that she says “nucular” (a verbal tic she shares with our current president).

It is almost worth repeating the entire second portion of the article verbatim here, but I’ll let you click the link. I do want to call out a few select quotes from Sarah Palin, however. From the vice presidential debate:

I do take issue with some of the principle there with that redistribution of wealth principle that seems to be espoused by you.

Ugh. A classic example of letting your mouth get ahead of your brain. It can be difficult to speak coherently when you’ve started talking without any clear mental roadmap to the end of your sentence, but still, I would like to believe that someone who needs a command of the breadth of knowledge required of a president or vice president would at least have a little more command of their native tongue. I remember cringing at “espoused by you” when I heard it live, but that final phrase just served to distract me from the redundant incoherence that preceded it.

Here’s another:

Nuclear weaponry, of course, would be the be-all-end-all of just too many people in too many parts of our planet.

Ummmm… OK. I don’t even know what that’s supposed to mean, but any of the possible interpretations would probably be equally terrifying. It seems to suggest to me an “End of Days” philosophy, consistent with the governor’s (reported) religious beliefs. True, I’ve never actually heard Palin utter the phrase; it was her Tina Fey doppelgänger who did. But it is reasonable to assume that she does believe in the Rapture, and quite possibly that it’s on its way soon.

In this country we have freedom of religion, and people are at liberty to practice whatever faith they choose, in whatever way they choose, as long as they do not violate any laws or the rights of others. Fair enough. Religion is by definition not based on objective, verifiable fact, so it’s a pointless exercise to argue the merits of one set of religious beliefs over another. But I do believe it is truly dangerous when the principles that seem to be espoused by Sarah Palin find their way into the highest levels of government. We run the grave risk of turning the nation into a 300-million-member doomsday cult (whether we all go along willingly or not; all it takes is 270 electoral votes), and the entire planet into a poisoned Kool-Aid mass suicide, courtesy of that end-all-be-all, “nucular” weapons.

Now that’s some verbage that lives up to its name.