Sunday, November 1, 2009

Your relationship to language

I find myself getting into arguments on the internet lately, taking a side that, at one time, I didn't think I'd ever take: that of defending some of the most irritating habits of colloquial speech. If you spend any time reading and contributing to online discussions, you know the kind of argument I mean. Somebody says something like, "My sister has issues," and then some self-appointed savior of the language swoops in to inform the OP (original poster, for those of you who don't engage in these kinds of discussions) that their sister has problems, not issues, and that they hate it when people confuse the two. (And then there are those who will object to my using the plural possessive to refer to a singular antecedent in the previous sentence, whom I respectfully invite to suck it.)

No, I don't especially like lazy and imprecise usage--but I dislike sanctimony even more, especially when it is in the service of a pointless losing battle like the one waged daily against the forces of linguistic invention. The fact is, "issues" is now a synonym for "problems," and if the world needs a new word to claim the territory that "issues" is now spread too thin to cover, then such a word will soon spring into being. Your OED may not be fond of one's sister's issues, but soon it will be, because, as any lexicographer will tell you, the rules of language are constantly in flux, and innovation is constantly ongoing. Mistakes turn into habits turn into scripture, more quickly now than ever before.

I'm a teacher of writing, though, and I can't help but be annoyed when I encounter, even among my grad students (you know who you are!), fundamental problems ("issues," if you will) with verb tenses, point of view, subject-verb agreement, and syntactic ambiguity (the unintentional and distracting variety, that is). They should know better. But really, it's hard to blame them--the writer has to inhabit two minds at once: the one that adores the colloquial, with all its beautiful awkwardness and random innovation, and the one that values clarity and brevity above all else.

For my part, I fall more into the colloquial-enjoyment camp with every passing year. Indeed, the main reason I love the internet so much is the enormous variety of written voices--freed from the rules of grammar and usage (not to mention definitive personal identity), internet writers are wildly expressive and distinctive, as much through their flaws as communicators as through any intentional gambit.

Where do you stand on this issue? (Not, I'm sure you'll agree, "problem".)

20 comments:

rmellis said...

I knew it was time for me to turn in my grammar snoot card when I realized I preferred "I could care less" to the technically correct "I couldn't care less."

I also like spelling things wrong to make them funnier.

And when are we going to get a gender-neutral singular pronoun? Until then, "they" it is.

Paul said...

I am part of the camp that too loves new coinings but is annoyed by imprecision.

The use of issues I find a bother mostly because I interpret it as a subjective form of problems in that if you have issues, you may or may not actually have a problem, what you have is being unhappy, and for no explicated reason, with some state of affairs. "I have issues" gives me no information about anything but a state of mind.

My favorite recent usage is totally which because I find it so amusing I have been overusing. What I like about this is that it has lost the necessary requirement of fulfilling the action as in "I could totally eat that" does not mean that you will finish it or intend to but more that you really want to start eating it.

Love language change just like I love chaos but sometimes it is still good to drive on the right side of the road.

jrlennon said...

"I could totally eat that" is teh awesome, I agree. It's akin to saying that something really delicious makes you "eatier."

I still prefer, by a wide, wide margin, "I couldn't care less."

sjwoo said...

I have issues with your problems and problems with your issues. The couldn't care-could care has always befuddled me. Is the measure of uncaring necessarily higher because you couldn't find the desire to care? Couldn't it be because you are simply an absentminded buffoon?

As someone who learned the wonders of English later than most (before 10, I only knew Korean), let me just say this language, for all its beauty, is also just plain crazy.

Jay Livingston said...

I don't think you meant me, but I just blogged about "issues" (a post with the title "Houston, We Have an Issue"). What I wonder is whether issues to mean problems will last. I'm old enough to remember the bull market in "viable," so I guess I'm asking, is "issues" viable.
(The "their" in someone and their sister -- that's just because English doesn't have a gender-neutral singular.

rmellis said...

See, you *could* care less, but you don't want to be bothered...

I like "issues" just because of the new implications the word has acquired. Yeah, it only tells you a state of mind, but it hints at a history of neurotic rumination, which is funny. My younger son described an incident in which a classmate chased him with raised hockey stick: "He has anger issues." Haha, no kidding!

Though I'm glad I never had to learn English as a second language, I think it would be interesting -- speakers of English as a second language often have insights into it that we native speakers will never have.

jrlennon said...

Jay, I hadn't seen your post...maybe it's just in the air right now...the pet peeve du jour.

Stephen said...

What are Italian, French, Spanish, Romanian and Portuguese but Latin with issues?

Gary said...

I think 'issues' are not just 'problems' but legitimated problems, or more usually self-legitimated problems. This is what makes 'issues' so annoying, or to put it another way, what gives so many people issues with 'issues'. 'Issues' has a moral and even a political freight that 'problems' doesnt cover - ie if you have 'anger issues' it signifies that you are in the process of working through the multifarious causes that led you to be chasing people with an axe, you are aware of the axe-related components of your personality, and quite hostile to people who are unable to see that you are, and spectators should not be dialling the police but stroking their chins sympathetically and asking 'and how did you feel about your most recent bludgeoning?'...

Jay said...

Gary" "'Issues' has a moral and even a political freight that 'problems' doesnt cover." But issues is also now used as a synonym for problems. As I said in my blog, some years ago, I heard an ex-jock (I think it was Joe Klecko) talking about the Jets upcoming season. "Well, the Jets have right tackle issues."

Or this morning at the gym, a guy I know noticed that I did use a lock.
Me: No, not since the second time someone broke into my locker.
Eric: I use a lock, and I've never had any issues . . .
Third Guy overhearing: Well I had an issue. I left mine unlocked for twenty seconds while I went to the bathroom, and someone took all my cash and credit cards.

He had a problem with theft. He didn't have theft issues, at least not in the psychobabble use of the word.

Kevin said...

Great post. I think that dichotomy is part of what makes David Foster Wallace's prose so fun, the way he balances hyper-articulate precision with colloquial vagueness, qualifying the former with "sort of" and "like" and a million other bits of awkward language tics that he'd absorbed. The result was often quite funny because it was so aware of the dichotomy, and so aware of the vagueness.

It's like the word "irregardless," which some people claim is not a word. Of course it's a word. People use it, and it conveys meaning. In fact, it conveys more meaning than "regardless" because it tells you something about the person using it.

Gary said...

It reminds me of the woman in the New testament who had an issue of blood, or rather blood issue issues, though maybe some people would have an issue with me mentioning it.
Jay - yes, I see your point - I think it's gone further in the US than in the UK. In your first example with the 'right tackle issues' a few years ago I can still see a ghost of the psychobabble in that he didnt want to identify it solely as a problem but as a problem-challenge (perhaps). But that was a couple of years ago - in the meantime it's mutated further and in your recent locker-room example where the guy had 'an issue' with theft, the moral dimension has fled utterly. We havent quite got to that stage here yet.

jrlennon said...

I agree that DFW has exploited this kind of language well--so have George Saunders, and Margaret Atwood.

Interestingly, Wallace once declared himself to be a rather strict grammarian, in a review of a reference book once...though he certainly heard some kind of music in slang, and felt it more intensely than perhaps any other writer I've read.

heh heh "axe-related components of your personality"...

rmellis said...

What it comes down to, for me, is whether you're using language consciously or unconsciously. If you use "issues" just because it's the term of the day, or because you're obfuscating rather than clarifying, then it's bad.

There are lots of words that have been put to work avoiding meaning, rather than adding to meaning. But that's not the word's fault -- it's the user's.

inverseroom said...

Rhian, I like the word "user" there--it's like the language is a piece of software. Which of course it is.

jon said...

my only issues are with newspapers and magazines. it absolutely drives me nuts when i read poorly edited journalism and non-fiction, especially the misuse of whom, and of the subjunctive. worse is when writers don't seem to know what the words they use mean. but context is everything. writers should know it all. blog posts, conversations, e-mails surely are different. a friend told me of a lengthy discussion following a meeting where his boss used the word 'exemplar'. the gist was, did he mean by 'exemplar' 'typical of this kind' or 'superior of this kind'. all i could think was, who gives a damn. still, confusion and misuse and abuse of meaning eventually lead to a degradation of meaning and thought, which i think we see all around us, especially in the media. i.e. is obama a socialist? only if you don't know the meaning of the word. and if you don't know the meaning of the word, you can't possibly have a discussion about socialism.

jrlennon said...

Agreed. And of course Obama is a communist fascist, not a socialist.

Art O.T. Grid said...

There was the word "one" used as a gender-neutral noun and possessive adjective, but try listening to interviews with W.S. Merwin to hear how "one" sounds in spoken language...

I like his poems, though.

jrlennon said...

I would imagine one sounds like one has a stick rammed up one's ass...

Martha Nichols said...

Re: "Indeed, the main reason I love the internet so much is the enormous variety of written voices" -- yes, I love verbal inventiveness, whether in print or online, and I do believe that blogging encourages the ever-evolving colloquial.

So, I agree, all hail the colloquial. But as another teacher of writing, I am thrilled when tenses aren't mixed up. Let's keep the timing straight at least; who needs unnecessary confusion?