Gripin’ ’Bout Grammar—#1 in a Never-ending Series
Today, we are looking at how the English language abuses our planet.
|Lt. Col. Ed White, US astronaut. in orbit |
above the Earth. When I was a kid,
this poster hung on my wall.
English is the youngest language on Earth (and that’s with a capital “E”—more on this in a second), and with the exception of made-up languages like Esperanto or Ubi-Dubbi, is perhaps the craziest, most confounding and contradictory language on Earth, as well.
Sure, Mandarin Chinese or Arabic or Basque (which is the closet language on Earth to Martian--being of Basque heritage, I can make that joke) are very difficult to learn, with eccentricities regarding pronunciation and so on, but nearly all non-English-as-a-first-language speakers that I have taught have confirmed that it’s English’s multitude of homophones and its non-standardization (its vs. it’s—but “apostrophe-s” is usually possessive, right? This is one native speakers of English still have trouble with) that really drive English language learners nuts.
Because it’s the youngest language on Earth, the English language is still figuring things out.
I have enough gripes about the English language (and how it’s taught) to fill a book (and hopefully I will be)—I used to teach English at a private, for-profit school (and despite having taught at one—and at the risk of appearing hypocritical—I’m not sure if I approve of the “for-profit” model; there’s plenty of room for mismanagement, corruption and all sorts of malfeasance that will prevent the students from learning as best they could), and have plenty of material to complain about, especially how this for-profit school shitcanned all us teachers due to COVID-19, and will hire young and clueless, but SO inexpensive newbies when the plague calms down. But anyway…
One thing (out of many) that always used to drive me crazy was when the school’s textbooks (which generally could have been MUCH better, and were usually supplemented by myself with plenty of photocopied handouts) did not capitalize our planet’s English name. The textbook’s synopsis of Ridley Scott’s classic Alien (1979) begins, “…we follow a seven-man crew in cryosleep en route to earth.”
[NOTE: The textbook also hyphenates “en route” to “en-route” (which is INCORRECT!), but rather than insert a “[sic]” and confuse the issue more, I corrected it. Meanwhile, the textbook’s halfwit creators had forgotten to hyphenate “seven man” into “seven-man.” Also corrected by me for this blogpost.
See what I had to deal with? Oy! Sometimes I would waste 20 minutes of a lesson correcting the textbook! Lemme tell ya, I’m not sure if I want to return to that damn school. I got enough aggravation in my life…]
My students would be amazed at how I’d be habitually blowing my stack over this: “No, no, NO! The name of a planet is a proper noun,” I’d rant. “It must be capitalized! You capitalize Mars, Jupiter, and Pluto! You capitalize Vulcan and Tatooine, so you must capitalize planet Earth.”
(Depending on their cultural literacy and/or geek quotient, I’d have to sometimes explain “Vulcan” or “Tatooine” to the students, but I’m sure you get those references…)
A big problem is that the same word for the ground that we walk on—the soil we plant our crops in, the dirt and mud our kids come home covered with—is the same for the planet.
And it’s sort of the same for all languages on Earth (in Spanish, tierra is ground/land, and Tierra is our planet). Another problem are the differences between American English and British English (Damn that Airstrip One!), and then within those distinct branches, the academics (Damn them, too, while we’re at it!) have not made up their minds—for example, is it “past progressive” or “past continuous”? Guess what, kids? It’s BOTH.
No wonder students have such a hard time….
And because ossified, rich old white men run the show, change will be slow in coming.
“We are returning to Earth,” said Captain Kirk.
“We are returning to the earth,” said Captain Kirk.
According to the website grammarist, both of those mean that Kirk is taking the Enterprise back to the third planet from Sol.
But couldn’t the second version also mean something like burying the dead?
Let’s look at Genesis 3:19 (King James Version):
In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.
Any good English teacher will tell you it is about context.
“We are returning to the Earth,” said Captain Kirk. He nodded to Mr. Sulu, who punched some buttons, and the Enterprise jumped into hyperspace.
“We are returning to the earth,” said Captain Kirk. He nodded to Mr. Sulu, who punched some buttons, and the automatic burial machine began lowering another unfortunate redshirt.
The planet Earth ~ the Earth – it’s sort of like leaving out “that”-as-a-conjunction: For example, He said that he was afraid / he said he was afraid.
Our Good Pal Uncle Bill once said, “Language is a virus from outer space,” and I think those slimy, invading BEMs out there are trying to get us to turn against each other, if not our own planet!
Psychologically, the practice of using lower-case “E” while referring to our own home planet, this precious big blue marble, may be one of the factors in our (collective) abuse of this exquisite, necessary sphere.
The lower-case “E” keeps Terra in the dirt, literally and figuratively. When [INSERT NAME OF MAJOR CORPORATE POLLUTER YOU HATE MOST HERE] dumps a zillion gallons of toxic whatever into the ocean, they are saying they don’t care, that money deserves a capital-M for its name before the only habitable celestial body we’ve got.
An Additional Rant About the English Language and Its Grammar:
And what’s this bullshit referring to “a” and “an” as a single article? Since the Academy still hasn’t figured it all out about the English Language, I do not mind telling students that there are THREE articles. (Of course, I warn them that if they meet a teacher who demands there are only two [treating “a” and “an” as “a/an”—some sort of gender-switcher like out of Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness?], the students should just go along with it.
Indicating that mine is the right way, and they should only humor that other teacher—ain’t I a stinker?