English XXI – Fillers Part Four

“I Sort of, Kind of, Enjoy Life”

This is another in my series of posts that deal with fillers. I am coming to the conclusion that fillers are here to stay. I don’t want to accept this reality, and I continue to look for signs that the use of fillers is one the wane, but I feel increasingly helpless in my quest to reverse the trend.

I have discussed the use of the most common fillers, such as ‘like’, ‘you know’ and ‘I mean’. They are still out there as frequently used as ever. But, in the last two or three years I have noticed that a couple of expressions have taken on the characteristics of fillers. I will provide an example, and I think you will quickly notice the issue. This is something I might say on a topic of interest to me:

I enjoy reading novels, and sort of like the older ones. I kind of prefer novels written in different time periods, because they kind of give a different perspective on people and culture. For example, I sort of relate to the characters in Thomas Hardy’s novels, even though I kind of have difficulty understanding the cultural context of late nineteenth and early twentieth century England. It’s kind of hard to put myself in that pre-WWI, post-Victorian mindset.

 You no doubt noticed the number of times I used sort of and kind of.  What do these expressions tells us about the person speaking? Both of these expressions imply that I am unsure or that I have doubts about the topic I am describing. They communicate the idea that I have not thought about the subject enough to come up with a clear idea or opinion.

Well, that is not so unusual. If I am having an impromptu conversation with someone, and I am going into territory that I am not very familiar with, I might employ one or both of these expressions. But, if I do, I will use them when really necessary. I certainly won’t use them in every other sentence. I will probably state, early on in the discussion, that the topic is one I am not very familiar with, so I won’t feel the pressure to qualify so many of my comments.

If people are having a discussion, one that at least one of the participants has solid knowledge of, and that person uses one of these terms repeatedly, it tells me something. There are actually two possibilities, as far as I can discern. First, the person simply does not have a good grasp of the subject after all. That is the clear implication. Both of the expressions imply some level of doubt. If the person uses these terms repeatedly, then it is obvious that the person is not sure about the subject.

“I think the central theme of that novel is kind of vague,” a person might say. My response would be, “You don’t know if it is vague or not?” The person then says, “No, it is vague, for sure.” “Yes,” I say, “but you just said it was kind of vague. That sounds like you are unsure.” The point I am making is that this knowledgeable person should simply state what he/she feels and not try to hedge her/his bets by adding the ‘kind of’.

Now, let’s say the person really is an expert on a subject, but interjects the ‘kind of’ and sort of’ expressions frequently. If I am convinced of the person’s expertise, then I have to come to another conclusion. Obviously, this person has developed an addiction to these recent fillers. I have two examples from the real world to make my point.

I was listening to NPR one afternoon driving to my office, and the announcer explained the upcoming interview subject and described the person to be interviewed. It was going to involve a history subject, and an expert was going to explain the deeper significance of the period in question. Frankly, I don’t recall now the exact topic, but that is part of the point I want to make. The interview began, and I was instantly interested. I knew something about the general topic, so I was going to be entertained and better informed on a good topic.

Several minutes into the interview, I noticed a pattern on behalf of the expert. This person, a man, could not get two sentences out without using either ‘sort of’ or ‘kind of’. I could hardly believe what I was hearing. The subject was indeed highly interesting. The person obviously had done considerable research. I was a ‘captive audience’ and ready to get some great insights. However, the frequently inserted fillers made me start to think. Using those particular fillers left me with the impression that the person was not sure about his conclusions. I understand that not even experts have all he answers, and they don’t always know the tiniest details. I accept that, but there are better ways of expressing this.

Instead of saying, “It is kind of a difficult situation to understand,” and “I sort of realized that the conditions had changed,” the person might have said, “The situation was complex, and it is hard to make sense of all the events,” and “It was clear that the conditions had changed, but the reasons for the change were unclear.” I became so frustrated with the interview that I finally changed he channel on my radio. I realized that the problem was not the interviewee’s lack of deep understanding of the subject, rather it was an indication that the person had a filler addiction. Fortunately, the next pre-set button was the local classical music station, and I let Brahms help me feel more comfortable.

The other example involves a video that I show in one of my classes at Wilmington College. I teach a course called Global Issues & Awareness in which we learn about and discuss the major problems in the world today. The video I refer to was made by an activist and involves the occupied territories of the West Bank. It deals with the fact that Israel plays a highly invasive role in the lives of the Palestinians in the Palestinian’s own territory. It is a compelling video that is comprised mostly of photographs that show the constant obstacles that Palestinian residents have to deal with in their everyday lives.

I use the video every tie I teach the course, which means that I have seen it lots of times. About the third time I used the video I realized that in the first fifteen minutes, when the activist is shown on the screen explaining her background and providing an explanation for her activist activities, that she used ‘sort of’ and ‘kind of’ over and over again. I do not doubt for a moment this person’s knowledge of the subject or her commitment to bring about change in the struggle for the Palestinians to have some semblance of a normal life. What I concluded was she shows in the video a clear habit of using those fillers. What I don’t understand is why she didn’t realize that she was using those fillers when the recording was being made and edited and decide to re-do the introductory segment without those fillers.

At a time when fillers are running rampant, I find it hard to accept that new fillers are being created. It is another sign of the fact that we are collectively being challenged to express ourselves clearly and demonstrate that we have deep knowledge of a subject and that we can communicate our thoughts and opinions without a lot of verbal noise. I find that noise very distracting, and I cannot believe that many others don’t feel the same way.

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English XXI – Is it Time for “Therz”?

I have spent many years studying several of the Romance languages. I was a Spanish major in undergraduate school, and I used Spaniish in my career in the business world for more than twenty years. Thus, I speak Spanish with native fluency. I took up Italian on my own, and I know a lot of Italian, even though I lack conversational expertise because I don’t have anyone to practice with. I started learning French as a child when our family lived in the western suburbs of Paris, and when I was traveling to Brazil on business I put considerable time into Portuguese.

I mention this as an introduction to a grammatical phenomenon, which is better understood when compared to the way the Romance languages deal with it. I refer to the way languages handle the issue of describing, in the most basic way, things that exist. In the Romance languages I have studied there is a consistent format that involves, in some way, the most basic verb in virtually any language – ‘to be’.

To begin he discussion, I will point out that Spanish has a verb – haber. Haber means ‘to have’, but in the modal format. In English we have one verb – ‘to have’ – that serves as a transitive verb (“I have some money”) and as a modal auxiliary (“I have borrowed some money”). In Spanish the transitive verb is tener (Yo tengo dinero).

When Spanish speakers want to describe something that exists, they use haber“Hay gente en el parque” (“There are people in the park”). The form hay (which is present indicative, third person) is invariable – it serves for both plural and singular nouns – “Hay una persona en el parque” – (“There is a person in the park”). In French the construction is “il y a” and in Italian it is “c’è”. By the way, this consistency is maintained regardless of the verb tense.

However, in English we take this in a different direction – we use ‘there is’ or ‘there are’. It is one of those situations in English when the verb precedes the noun; normally it is the reverse. Whether writing or speaking, the person doing the communicating has to decide what the noun is – whether it is singular or plural – before using the verb, which comes first, and get the verb form correct from the beginning. For example someone might state, “There are several reasons for this situation” or the person may say, “There is a primary reason for this situation”. These cannot be interchanged because they would be grammatically incorrect.

I admit that there is a bit more pressure on people who are engaging in oral communication, especially if there is a dialogue going on. This implies that there is no script and that the speakers may be asking and answering questions and be discussing topics spontaneously.  Nevertheless, educated people should have the mental dexterity to get the grammar correct.

Let’s imagine that one of speakers is asked a difficult question. That person will likely have to think for at least a second or two how to answer the question (assuming it does not require a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’). Very often the respondent will begin by describing things that exist. For example, the person may say, “There are many reasons why weI have difficulty dealing with stress in our society today”, or the response may begin with, “There is one major reason for the increased stress in people’s lives today”. Again, these forms are not interchangeable simply because the subjects are different – one is singular and the other is plural. The verb has to change to be in agreement with the subject (unlike the examples from the Romance languages described earlier).

Readers of this blog might suggest that my bringing up this grammatical inconsistency demonstrates that there is simply too much pressure on people today to have to decide on the fly whether they are going to use singular or plural nouns while starting a sentence. Well, the world is indeed getting to be very challenging, isn’t it? Is there anything wrong with doing the following? I am asked a question, and I take a little time to think about my response. I’m uncertain, so this occurs:  “I believe there is, actually I believe there are, several good explanations for this situation.” As the speaker I might have to make a small alteration to my response in order to maintain grammatical consistency. Isn’t that to be expected in spontaneous discussions?

Why do people get this wrong so frequently today? I don’t know, but I will provide a telling example. A few months ago I was listening to an interview on NPR – National Public Radio. The person being interviewed was the president of a traditional, very well known liberal arts college. Two times in less than two minutes during the interview the president of the prestigious institution used the contraction “There’s” and followed it with plural nouns. One of the statements was something on the order of, “There’s many reasons for the decline in the study of liberal arts.” I can only assume this person has a doctorate and this it is in the Liberal Arts.

If the president of a liberal arts college, which has been around for more than one hundred and fifty years, doesn’t get this right, what hope do we have for others with less formal education? I listen to on the radio, or watch on television, the news virtually every day. When any of the broadcasts gets to an interview segment, it is surely going to happen that somebody is going to mess up and say “there’s” and follow it with a plural noun. If well educated, and often even highly educated, people don’t get this right, then we have a problem with the language.

Is it time, then, for the introduction of ‘therz’? We can simply add this new word to the lexicon and borrow the grammatical structure from the Romance languages. “Therz going to be some snow falling tonight” the meteorologist might say, or “Therz going to be five inches of accumulation tonight.” The person would have it correct either way, and would not have to go through the exercise of having to decide which form is correct. On the other hand, we might just stick with the traditional structure we have in English and expect people with a reasonable amount of education to get this construction correct. It isn’t that difficult, is it?

I think therz little chance that we are going to alter the language in this way – what do you think?