Wikipedia:Reference desk/Archives/Language/2009 November 19

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November 19[edit]


Why do Americans use the clunky contruction "obligated" rather than the word "obliged"? (talk) 00:19, 19 November 2009 (UTC)

I'm not really sure, although to my ears "obliged" sounds like an empty social nicety ("Much obliged"), whereas "obligated" suggests serious consequences. Marco polo (talk) 00:54, 19 November 2009 (UTC)
Different dialects use different words, and 'clunky' is subjective. I could just as easily ask, "Why do Brits use the clunky word 'redundancies' rather than the nice word 'layoffs'?" (And that question would fit nicely with these economic times.) rʨanaɢ talk/contribs 02:09, 19 November 2009 (UTC)
There are lots of paired words like that in English, where one has -at- or -ate and the other doesn't, and the meanings are the same or overlapping. Prevent(at)ive, interpret(at)ive, comment(ate), orient(ate), puls(at)e, sublim(at)e, transfigur(at)e, administer/administrate. Generally they arise either because of the different derivational paths that words may follow from Latin to English, or by back formation from the suffix -ation. If you're only used to one of the two forms, the other looks wrong and ugly, but someone else may find it quite normal. --Anonymous, 03:33:33 UTC, November 19, 2009.
We are obligated to use obliged when we are obliged to use obligated. Bus stop (talk) 04:04, 19 November 2009 (UTC) Bus stop (talk) 04:04, 19 November 2009 (UTC)
Now, who can argue with that? :) ←Baseball Bugs What's up, Doc? carrots→ 04:08, 19 November 2009 (UTC)

By the way, obliged in its use as an "empty social nicety" was apparently sometimes pronounced "obleezhd"... AnonMoos (talk) 13:12, 19 November 2009 (UTC)

Why yes, noblesse obleezh! rʨanaɢ talk/contribs 20:22, 19 November 2009 (UTC)

In a similar vein, hardly anyone ever says the antiquated "amongst" and "whilst", preferring "among" and "while", but some feel the need to use the former, antiquated words in encyclopedic and formal writing. Odd. Very odd. -- JackofOz (talk) 20:04, 19 November 2009 (UTC)

Perhaps some feel that formal texts require a formal style of writing. Some languages have literary forms for this purpose (like Welsh); English speakers can just dig out some words you don't hear every day. It would be a dull world if people didn't do odd things. Alansplodge (talk) 21:27, 19 November 2009 (UTC)
Sorry if I'm being dense: Jack, are you making a point about people assuming their dialect is normal and other dialectal usage is abnormal? Or, after all these years, do you really not know that British people widely use amongst and whilst in their daily speech? (talk) 22:56, 19 November 2009 (UTC)
How impertinent! But thank you for enlightening me about the speech of the British people, a people hitherto known to me only from myths and legends and half-told tales. -- (talk) 02:13, 20 November 2009 (UTC)

Exchange messages from[edit]

The following sentence from the New Yorker puzzles me somehow:

The treatment of Gazan detainees is harsh; since 2007, they have been barred from any family visits, though they 
can exchange messages from family members.

Is it "exchange messages from" or "exchange messages with"? In the former case, I get the impression that detainees exchange messages from family members among themselves. In the later, it seems to make more sense to me, they send their families messages and get messages back. Am I right?Mr.K. (talk) 11:08, 19 November 2009 (UTC)

You are correct. 'From' is not normal usage here, and it's the first time I've heard of it. --KageTora - SPQW - (影虎) (talk) 11:40, 19 November 2009 (UTC)
I would say it ought to be "with". To me that sentance is a poor piece of writing: too many commas - it meanders along. I would write it as "The treatment of Gazan detainees is harsh. Since 2007 they have been barred from any family visits, although they can exchange messages with family members." I am not sure but it may also be written in the passive voice, which is thought to be bad journalism. My guess at re-writing it in the active voice would be: "Gazan detainees have been barred from having visitors since 2007, although they can exchange messages with family members." (talk) 11:42, 19 November 2009 (UTC)
Um, two points. One, your 'guess at rewriting' is not in active voice. Don't worry, many people misunderstand what passive and active voice mean, and it is a topic that has been frequently covered on Language Log; see, for example, [1][2][3].
Secondly, there's nothing wrong with the original sentence as written. Particularly, using a semicolon suggests a connection between the two parts (specifically, "treatment is harsh, and this visits/letters thing is an example of that") which your version with a period does not. rʨanaɢ talk/contribs 15:56, 19 November 2009 (UTC)
If "The treatment of Gazan detainees is harsh." was the first sentance in a paragraph, then there is enough connection with the rest of it. Even being followed by the other sentance is enough of a connection I think. I'd be interested to see the original written in the active voice. (talk) 19:51, 19 November 2009 (UTC)
When I read "that sentance is a poor piece of writing", I usually disregard whatever comes next. Sorry, but if you want to criticise others' writing, you have to be squeaky clean yourself, particularly when it comes to spelling such a fundamental language concept as "sentence". -- JackofOz (talk) 20:00, 19 November 2009 (UTC)
Attacking the person is a poor arguement. Enough already. (talk) 20:05, 19 November 2009 (UTC)
I most certainly did not attack the person. -- JackofOz (talk) 20:30, 19 November 2009 (UTC)
Have you read any of the links above yet? The original contains three clauses, two of which are in active voice (and the one that is passive, you left as passive in your 'guess at rewriting'). "Treatment is harsh" and "can exchange messages" are active; "have been barred" is passive. Again, see the articles on active voice and passive voice. rʨanaɢ talk/contribs 20:01, 19 November 2009 (UTC)

the context would seem to give a clue. it would be the harsh treatment that excludes family members from each other, similar to the Jewish ghettoes of Poland and Amsterdam in 1941. That would result in family members sharing messages FROM other members. Only in extreme cases would it seem that even messages would be restricted so I would question the use of 'though'in the original statement. (talk) 14:04, 19 November 2009 (UTC)

One exchanges messages with others. One receives messages from others. If people are exchanging messages from others, that to me implies that they are exchanging messages from others with others. In other words, the statement suggests that Gaza detainees can receive messages from family members and that they then share those messages with other detainees. It isn't clear whether Gaza detainees can send messages to family members. I suspect that the sentence you've quoted is a mistake, likely the result of hasty editing, and that the writer really meant "with family members". Marco polo (talk) 14:50, 19 November 2009 (UTC)
Echoing Marco polo, it was probably just a copyediting mistake (one person wrote "receive...from", another tried to change it to "exchange...with" and missed a word. or vice versa). Happens pretty frequently in publishing. rʨanaɢ talk/contribs 15:50, 19 November 2009 (UTC)

Not only am I not that thing OR Not only I am not that thing?[edit]

?Mr.K. (talk) 11:38, 19 November 2009 (UTC)

'Not only am I' is correct. --KageTora - SPQW - (影虎) (talk) 11:41, 19 November 2009 (UTC)
It depends on the context. "Not only am I not X, I'm not Y either" is correct, but so is "Not only I am not X, you are not X either". In other words, if you say "Not only am I not X", it means "X is just one of the things that I'm not", while if you say "Not only I am not X", it means "I'm not the only one who isn't X". +Angr 12:02, 19 November 2009 (UTC)
I understand the distinction you are making, Angr, and I will admit that in your second case, "Not only I am not..." may not be incorrect, but to my ears it sounds wrong and awkward. To my ears, the best form in both cases would be "Not only am I not..." In your second case, in spoken English, one would emphasize the word I by using a higher tone. Marco polo (talk) 14:38, 19 November 2009 (UTC)
I agree, I would say "am I" in both cases and would distinguish them through intonation and emphasis. --Tango (talk) 19:44, 19 November 2009 (UTC)
(ec) I agree with that. If you were talking on the phone to someone who believes you're alone, and you wanted to let them know that's not the case, you'd probably say "I'm not alone" or "I can't talk now", but you might (just barely) say "Not only I am/is/are here". Or, for "It's not just me (who's) saying this", you might prefer "Not only I am saying this". But both those formulations are very non-standard, and the choice of verb is contentious, to say the least. Other than that, "Not only I am" is unheard of among native speakers. -- JackofOz (talk) 19:51, 19 November 2009 (UTC)
In Jack's cases, as he suggests, I think it is far more usual to say "I am not the only one who is saying this" or "It's not just me who's saying this" than to say "Not only I am saying this." Marco polo (talk) 20:41, 19 November 2009 (UTC)


why does language use such contorted language to describe people? I just heard on Radio 4 the language used by the authorities in the Soviet Union and in the Eastern Bloc post 1945. Several times the word special was used, such as the Special Police-the stasi- and special people as in those in prison or under surveillance for crimes against the state. the same is true in education in the States where the term special education and students has changed original derogatory language against such students in the classroom or out on the playground. Such euphenism(?) is also seen in contortion with the ever changing acronyms ESL, ELSOl( English AS a Second Other Language) which then ironically lose any meaning themselves. Is there any link between the institutions of the Soviet Union and the U.S Department of Education? —Preceding unsigned comment added by (talk) 14:28, 19 November 2009 (UTC)

I don't think that the Soviet Union or the Eastern Bloc ever had a monopoly on "spin" or the political manipulation of language. Politicians and bureaucrats of every ideological stripe have long devised labels that aim to present unpleasant or embarrassing concepts in more appealing terms. Marco polo (talk) 14:46, 19 November 2009 (UTC)
See Euphemism and Spin (public relations). rʨanaɢ talk/contribs 16:11, 19 November 2009 (UTC)
Also see Political correctness. — Michael J 19:05, 19 November 2009 (UTC)
"Special" means "specific", it is the opposite of "general". It can be used to refer to anything that is different from the norm. Special police are like police but different in some way. Children with special educational needs have educational needs in the same way as other children, but they are slightly different needs. Special Relativity is much the same as General Relativity, but applies is only a small subset of situations. The use of "special" to mean unusual in a positive way is only one meaning of the word. I'm not sure what you are saying about ESL - I think the name was changed because it was inaccurate. English can be learnt as a third language, or a fourth or whatever else. --Tango (talk) 19:53, 19 November 2009 (UTC)
There was a horrible phase a little while ago when children with cancer or a host of other conditions were dubbed "special children". Of course they required special treatment, but how appalling for those poor unfortunate other children who weren't blessed with bad health. The message for them was "You have to be sick to be special. If you're healthy, you're just ordinary". -- JackofOz (talk) 20:25, 19 November 2009 (UTC)
In didn't take long in British schools for "special" to become a playground insult. Alansplodge (talk) 21:13, 19 November 2009 (UTC)
Not just in the playground. In the 1960s, Bill Cosby had a whole routine about "Special Class", dating to when he was a kid in school, and centering on the fact that those kids, whom he likened to Mortimer Snerd, seemed to be having a lot of fun while he and his "not so special" classmates had to work hard. ←Baseball Bugs What's up, Doc? carrots→ 05:21, 20 November 2009 (UTC)

Not to want[edit]

Is there an easy, colloquial way in English to say "not to want" to mean just the absence of wanting something, not wanting its opposite? JIP | Talk 20:29, 19 November 2009 (UTC)

Of course, most things don't have opposites, so when I say, for example, "I don't want a horse", it just means that I don't want a horse. It doesn't mean that I want the opposite of a horse, whatever that might be. Even when something has an opposite, "I don't want..." doesn't necessarily imply that you want the opposite. For example, "I don't want to be rich" does not imply that I want to be poor. Of course, there are cases where you have only two options, and not wanting one does imply wanting the other. For example, "I don't want to be ill" implies that I want to be healthy, because a person is either one or the other. Is there some other shade of meaning you want to communicate? Marco polo (talk) 20:36, 19 November 2009 (UTC)
I think what he means is the distinction between, for example, "I don't want to be rich [but if I end up that way, ok]" and "I don't want to be rich [I want to not be rich!]". rʨanaɢ talk/contribs 21:03, 19 November 2009 (UTC)
Right. The most direct way to say that is "I don't care if I get rich", or, in a more formal register, "I don't care whether I become rich". Marco polo (talk) 22:03, 19 November 2009 (UTC)
I would say "I don't want to be rich" means you lack a desire for richness, while "I want to not be rich" means you have a desire for non-richness. The difference is too subtle for many and I often see people get it wrong, but that is what the phrases mean. --Tango (talk) 04:40, 20 November 2009 (UTC)
"I don't want to be X", for many English speakers, is an idiom that means exactly "I want to not be X". Idioms aren't "wrong". This idiom also works with other verbs of preference, so that "I don't like spam" actually means "I dislike spam". Anyway, you can get the other meaning across by adding an adverb, such as "I don't particularly want to be rich". rspεεr (talk) 05:06, 20 November 2009 (UTC)
This can also be of an illocutionary force (illocutionary intention) in pragmatics. Let’s say for example, in a family of three (dad, mom, and a young boy) where mom drives very nice car and the dad drives not a fashioned one, and the son said in an occasion--‘No, I do not want you car’ when the dad asked his son ‘Do you want to take my car to your party today?’ Here, the illocutionary force is a non explicit performatives, i.e. to say ‘I want mom’s car’; the absence of wanting something.--Mihkaw napéw (talk) 05:53, 20 November 2009 (UTC)

I might say "I have no desire to go" or "I don't particularly want to go" to indicate absence of desire (the former is purely absence of desire, at least with the proper nonchalant intonation, whereas the latter conveys some, but not strong, opposition), and "I don't want to go" with matter-of-fact intonation to indicate explicit opposition to going. But "I don't want to go" with a high tone on want (the same as in the 'particularly' example) also indicates absence of desire, whereas "I don't want to go" with a low tone on want indicates adamant refusal, and sounds a bit pissed off. If you want to be really clear about your opposition, but to state it matter-of-factly without sounding pissed off, for instance patiently explaining to someone who's a bit clueless, you could also say "I want to not go". kwami (talk) 20:07, 20 November 2009 (UTC)

"I'm okay either way." Or in a more general sense, "I'm content"? Pfly (talk) 07:02, 21 November 2009 (UTC)
When you say "I don't particularly want to be rich", you strongly imply that you are indifferent to whether you are rich or not. Thus, "I don't particularly want to be rich" does not have the same meaning as "It is not true that I want to be rich"; the latter leaves it open whether you are averse to being rich or just indifferent. If the OP was looking for a colloquial way of denying a desire to be rich without disclosing whether he is averse to it or just indifferent, the best solution might be "I am not wanting to be rich." —Mathew5000 (talk) 01:17, 24 November 2009 (UTC)

Usage of "Our friend"[edit]

What does [4] in this case Our friend mean? Since FWG is not hertz's friend, could it mena our enemy?-- (talk) 21:57, 19 November 2009 (UTC)

Yes: "Our friend" is likely being used in a sarcastic manner to mean "our adversary". The only way to answer this question definitively, though, would be to ask the original poster. Xenon54 / talk / 22:00, 19 November 2009 (UTC)
More specifically, "our friend" is in this case synonymous with "block-evading banned user". — Lomn 22:17, 19 November 2009 (UTC)
I'd say "our friend" can frequently be a euphemism for "that asshole", just like "my learned friend" in the mouths of British MPs. +Angr 15:14, 20 November 2009 (UTC)
Or just a less formal equivalent of "our acquaintance"--that is, we've been dealing with him for a long time. But there is an element of sarcasm to it. kwami (talk) 19:54, 20 November 2009 (UTC)
MP's are "(Right) Honourable friends" (if from the same party), baristers are "learned friends". --Tango (talk) 20:02, 20 November 2009 (UTC)
OK, but the point remains, it's a euphemism for "that asshole". +Angr 21:12, 20 November 2009 (UTC)
In French, we are more intimate and call our collegues confrères from the words "con-" and "frère", meaning brother. It can also be used with sarcasm, as in "mon cher confrère" (my dear colleague), indicating quite the opposite.And if one of my brothers can fix the link so that is an internal one, I will be eternally grateful. -- Александр Дмитрий (Alexandr Dmitri) (talk) 20:56, 20 November 2009 (UTC)
By the way Angr, "my learned friend" is not used in the House of Commons as you suggest. It is used in the courtroom when one counsel, addressing the judge, refers to the opposing counsel. So as you say, "friend" is used sarcastically. In Parliament, "my honourable friend" (Commons) or "my noble friend" (Lords) refers to a member of the same party, so it is not sarcastic, simply formal. Occasionally "learned" is used when the member referred to is a lawyer ("my noble and learned friend the Attorney General". Sussexonian (talk) 17:00, 22 November 2009 (UTC)