Instantly, Eventually

The best line of a student essay in this term’s competition discusses the U.S. response to the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor:

Instantly, months later, the United States accelerated it nuclear weapon program.

Perhaps the student was thinking in geologic time.

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About James Hanley

James Hanley is Associate Professor of Political Science at Adrian College and a Fellow of the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding. The views expressed here do not reflect the views of either organization.
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19 Responses to Instantly, Eventually

  1. AMW says:

    Reminds me of something my old boss used to say: “We’re right on the cusp of incremental change.”

  2. lancifer666 says:

    Being a word pedant I get annoyed when people use the word momentarily when they mean in a moment.

    I was on a plane when a flight attendant said “We will be airborne momentarily.” This actually meant that the plane would only be airborne for a moment.

    Then what? A fiery crash?

    No one on the plane seemed concerned by this statement since this is such a common misuse of the word momentarily.

  3. pierrecorneille says:

    Lancifer,

    Hopefully, the passengers just thought it was an error.

  4. James Hanley says:

    Lance, Maybe they were all stunned into silence…then in a moment the plane took off and stayed in the air for multiple moments, and they all realized the danger had passed.

  5. lancifer666 says:

    I think most people think momentarily means in a moment, instead of for a moment.

    I have given up on the hideously vulgar but popular “Where are you at?” as opposed to the correct and more elegant “Where are you?”.

    I am told by the liberal and enlightened Modern Language Associations folks that language “evolves” and English is what people that use it, make it.

    I know I am fighting a rearguard action but in my math classes I insist that “height” is pronounced “hite” and not the hideous “hith” though even my beloved Merriam Webster’s American English Dictionary accepts the second as an acceptable pronunciation.

    That’s why I love math. 2 + 2 = 4 no matter how many dipshits decide it equals five.

    SUCK IT MLA!

  6. James Hanley says:

    I have what may be an odd position, being sort of a Burkean prescriptivist. That language evolves is as much an empirical truth as 2+2=4 (perhaps more so), so I don’t fret too much about things like “momentarily” meaning “in a moment.” But I think there’s an important role for you stick-in-the-muds, helping to keep the language somewhat orderly and coherent in its evolutionary process. And especially for us teachers–I often make the point to students that it doesn’t matter how smart they are if prospective employers think they’re stupid, and using non-standard language in the wrong environment may lead them to that conclusion.

  7. AMW says:

    For a moment appears to be an accepted definition of “momentarily.”

    “Irregardless,” thankfully, is still nonstandard. It’s regardless or irrespective, people!

  8. pierrecorneille says:

    “I often make the point to students that it doesn’t matter how smart they are if prospective employers think they’re stupid, and using non-standard language in the wrong environment may lead them to that conclusion.”

    I do to, or did, when I taught. I’m something of a “strategic prescriptivist.”

  9. James Hanley says:

    “strategic prescriptivist.”

    Good term. I’m going to borrow it.

  10. Matty says:

    I have given up on the hideously vulgar but popular “Where are you at?” as opposed to the correct and more elegant “Where are you?”.

    In Bristol and south Wales the accepted form is “Where are you to?”

  11. James Hanley says:

    Where are you at?”

    “Where are you to?”

    Years ago at San Francisco City College I worked in a writing center helping non-native English speakers edit their term papers. Certain Asian students had a hell of a time grokking appropriate use of prepositions, and I never figured out how to explain why “I walked to the house” was correct and “I walked at the house” was incorrect. I can “look at” the house, “throw a rock at” the house, but I can’t “walk at” the house? Really? I’m pretty sure that as Matty’s post implies it’s all mere convention, and true linguistic logic plays damn little role.

  12. lancifer666 says:

    James Hanley,

    I guess that I see most nonstandard usages as “corruption of the code”. Language is meant to communicate ideas and if you have a different idea attached to words than I do there is going to be a misunderstanding, at least at first. Also there are actual rules, known as grammar, that are designed to standardize language and maintain its utility across populations and generations.

    I’m not saying that I want late twentieth century American English to be the standard, but why are many of the same people that are eager to mutate English so distressed and outraged at the thought of “losing” the languages of “indigenous” peoples?

    I guess I’m just becoming an old curmudgeon, math teacher.

    I’m not at all conservative in most things in life but I think changes to our language should be made only when they add nuance or beauty. Sadly, I see very few examples where that is the case. Usually the changes dilute or corrupt the language rather than enhance it.

    Also I don’t claim that I am some paragon of “correct” English usage, but I try to use English that is as succinct and clear as possible while still expressing some individual character.

  13. lancifer666 says:

    james Hanley,

    I’m pretty sure that as Matty’s post implies it’s all mere convention, and true linguistic logic plays damn little role.

    Certainly idiomatic style and vaguery have propagated throughout English, as well as most language, but there is an underlying structure and proper syntax that girds our language.

    I struggle to explain the difference between “correct” and “incorrect” English to Kidist (my Ethiopian wife for those few people reading this blog that may not know about her). I frequently end up saying “I don’t know why blank is wrong and blank is correct. I just know from the sound.”

    Now that she is preparing to go back to college she has purchased some books on English grammar. In most cases there is a clear rule and now shed delights in explaining the rules to me! (To be fair, I knew them when I took college freshman composition and have the A on my transcript to prove it.)

    But you’re right, often there are things that outright violate or at least don’t conform to the rules and she finds these inconsistencies maddening. And I usually haven’t even been aware of the inconsistency since I have been using these rule breaking or illogical words and expressions for my whole life.

    I think this demonstrates that some “gatekeeper” was hamstrung by some damn “evolutionist” in the past. I say it’s time to “stem the tide”.

    Gatekeepers unite!

  14. lancifer666 says:

    First I guess I’d better master these damn word press tags!

  15. James Hanley says:

    Lance,
    Fixed it for you. But I get a kick out of being able to mock a math guy for not remembering to put in the end bracket.

    To the best of my limited understanding, English is a mongrel language from the beginning, having adapted both words and grammar from different and often unrelated languages. Much of the rules structure seems to have been grafted onto that, rather than necessarily having arisen organically with it.

  16. pierrecorneille says:

    “English is a mongrel language from the beginning, having adapted both words and grammar from different and often unrelated languages. Much of the rules structure seems to have been grafted onto that, rather than necessarily having arisen organically with it.”

    That’s probably true to a large degree, although I might suggest that English has retained some of its distinctive germanisms (not that I’m enough of a linguist to tell you what those are). But I don’t think English is necessarily unique in this sense. All or most languages borrow words or grammatical forms, all or most have ways of incorporating those forms in “organic” ways or in “non-organic” ways.

    At least, that is my default assumption. I suppose it’s possible–perhaps probable, given English’s position as arguably the dominant world language–that English is unique in the ways in which it has adapted words and grammar (and you weren’t saying it was unique, only that it had those features). I just am less certain.

  17. Matty says:

    I didn’t have a point with my first comment but thinking about it I can retrofit one.English is not just composed of the existing standard and modern slang. It is a language with multiple dialects and what looks like bad grammar or a neologism to you may be traditional to someone else.

  18. lancifer666 says:

    Thanks for the clean up James. My students love to catch me make goofs on the board so I’m used to the mocking.

    I really only get riled about changes to English that are totally illogical, like accepting “hith” as a pronunciation of height. I imagine people say “hith” because they are “set up” by length and width, which do end in “th”.

    Funny how no one ever says “wath” for weight”.

  19. James Hanley says:

    Funny how no one ever says “wath” for weight”.

    Shhhh. Naming calls.

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