A Handbook of Usage and Tone



I took an introductory anthropology course in my sophomore year at the University of Wisconsin. I confess, I thought the course would be more interesting than it was. Unfortunately, for me, the books I'd read and the PBS shows I'd watched--the ones that gave the origins of the human species an air of intrigue--weren't matched in the dry language of an anthropology textbook, nor in the monotone drone of the teaching assistant who taught the lab portion of the class. My enduring memory of this class was the argument I had with him over a test question for which I was marked down because I didn't answer it, which robbed me of an “A” on the test. This was the test question:


Which of the following is the most recent descendant of homo sapiens:


  1. homo erectus
  2. homo habilis
  3. homo neanthertalis
  4. homo heidelbergensis

Granted, these choices are limited to our knowledge of anthropology in 1981, but this aside, I was the only one in the class to point out the question couldn't be answered, because all four answers were human “ancestors,” the antonym to “descendants” (“antonym” is a word opposite in meaning to another). Apparently, the vast majority gave in and chose the “correct” answer to the intended question, instead of refusing to answer the question as it was written. And, because of that, it was now too difficult to differentiate between those who got the question wrong because they couldn't answer the question as it was asked, and those who chose the wrong answer to the question as it wasn't asked. Granted, as a teacher I now sympathize with his predicament, for the same test question had been used for hundreds of other students, and in many other semesters; to eliminate the question altogether from all the test scores would have required a massive, coordinated effort with other overworked T.A.s and instructors. At the time, though, I didn't care for his attitude: he cussed loudly in front of the entire class and demanded to know if I were using this error to trick him into giving me the credit for an answer I didn't really know! I said--in front of the class--I felt as if he were punishing me for his mistake. He asked if anyone honestly missed the question because of the word “descendant.” I was gob-smacked at the reply! Only one other person raised his hand. One person! I thought, Are you kidding me?! How could people just change a question so its answers would make sense? Was that how they managed their own lives, too? Did they vote that way? Express their spiritual beliefs that way? Is that how they came by their education, as well? Language simply wasn't supposed to work like that. Words had specific meanings that, in the fastidious environment of a university classroom, could not be changed capriciously.


Then, I remembered, that is the way riddles work. Back in grammar school, our fourth grade intelligentsia used to corner kids on the playground and grill them with a word problem they called an “Idiot Test.” Here's what I remember of it (in paraphrase, naturally):


A jet carrying key diplomats from several countries on the verge of war with one another tragically crashes on the U.S.-Canadian border. Teams of firefighters, paramedics, and ambassadors from all the countries involved are dispatched immediately. When they arrive, they find the back half of the plane crashed on Canadian territory, and the front half on U.S. territory. To make matters even worse, the ambassadors realize, unless something can be done quickly, this tragedy will not only cause a breakdown in diplomacy that will lead to declarations of war, but it will also likely drag Canada and the U.S. into the fray. For the good of all, the leaders decide with great moral consternation to cover-up the incident and bury all of the survivors right then and there. The question is, on which side--Canada or the U.S.?


Well, obviously, whether or not you figure this out, it ain't a test of your idiocy or your genius (not like a college anthropology test, right?). However, this sort of riddle tests how well you take tests, because answering it correctly rests on whether or not your head is “in the problem” or “of the problem”--in other words, how much language awareness you have. I was always a very skeptical kid: I didn't trust words easily. Perhaps, because my father wasn't a native speaker of English and made usage errors from time to time, I was accustomed to listening for quirks in usage. Or, perhaps because I was already trolling through a Webster's unabridged dictionary at that age, the nuances of words and their meanings made me a little more wary of sloppy usage. Whatever the reason, this particular riddle didn't get by me. The answer, obviously, was that you wouldn't bury the survivors at all; you'd bury the dead!


What made this riddle such a challenge, though, to other kids? Why on Earth would anyone fail such a “test”? For the same reason magicians can fool you into thinking they can levitate or cleave a pretty woman into bloodlessly neat halves: distraction! This riddle, and many others like it, sets a trap with a red herring: it expects that you'll stop paying attention to the wording of the test and get caught up in the emotional nitty-gritty of it, which is what real tests frequently ask of us and what we've become accustomed to. When solving a problem makes us “lost in thought,” we readily ignore or forgive its linguistic abuses. Therefore, a riddle like this cons us into thinking we can safely retreat into our “head space” in order to solve the problem of it, while the language of it picks our pocket.


I use the phrase “head space” here with some intention, for it's the key to learning how to use language with subtlety. As corny as it sounds, our imagination is a subliminal place in our minds. “Subliminal,” a word related to “sublime” and “limb,” means “below the threshold.” That's why the subconscious is often characterized as a place below the surface of the waters, where you submerge into deep thought. That place is your “head space,” and using language requires a subliminal awareness of how the words are being chosen while the concepts are being expressed through them. It's pretty heady stuff, but being human is, in part, defined by this ability. It's similar to how we learn keyboard typing--real typing, not the “thumbling” you do while you're texting. Regardless of speed, those who master this skill early on can generally use a keyboard with such proficiency that the technical act of typing is overtaken by the creative act of writing instead; such writers don't need to stop to choose where to place their fingers on the keyboard because they express themselves from inside the technical process. Psychologists and phenomenologists call this the aletheia (a word whose Greek derivation is related to "Lethe," the waters of forgetfulness into which we submerge). In the aletheia, writers are so engrossed, they become cognizant of the imaginative realm only, and not the room they are in, the chair in which they are seated, or the keyboard on which their fingers alight. (Think back to the last film you attended that you enjoyed so much, you forgot you were sitting in a theater. You got caught up in the aletheia of the experience.) Mastering language skills is just a matter of forging a lethargically forgetful relationship with the techniques of usage and vocabulary.


For now, most of you are self-consciously plucking away at words you may have memorized for your standardized tests but never actually used in intellectual or creative expression. Why? Because you didn't really care about them. Standardized tests were simply a race to the finish line, and vocabulary words were hurdles over which you had to jump and keep going. This is a tragic and damaging view of language, though, and I recommend that you adjust your thinking about those same words you might have been quick to abandon before. They aren't hurdles in a hundred-yard dash. They're your running gear in an endurance race; they travel with you, and they propel you over the obstacles. They make you a better runner--which does not always mean a faster runner. Teach yourself to care about language again by finding within it enough intellectual puzzles to tease the mind into forging a new and more mature relationship with it. Remember, words are used either to reveal or conceal. Knowing what's good usage and what isn't, then, is a matter of intellectual protection--not the least of which is knowing how to make your case when you're being cheated out of the “A” you deserve.



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"A Handbook of Usage and Tone" copyright 2015, Karl J. Sherlock. Written and graphical contents of this site may not be used for profit. Unauthorized use, whether whole or in part, is prohibited. Direct inquiries and comments to the author. Thank you.