Madeleine Robins

August 5, 2016

Confessions of an Inadvertent Prescriptionist

Filed under: Life,Writing — madeleinerobins @ 7:55 AM
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victorian_teacher_postcard-r54cfbbfd3f9b4af68a22d15a9b640f1a_vgbaq_8byvr_512So my daughter is home for the summer, bringing joy and great conversations and taking over my kitchen. I really enjoy both my daughters, but Younger Girl is such an emphatic presence in the house that you really know she’s here. And we talk. Oh my God do we talk.  And there are some tics in her language that drive me a little crazy.

Such as? “I’m really excited for this vegan dinner.”

The way I understand my language, the sentence above suggests that my kid is excited on behalf of the vegan dinner, which is not what she means (I asked). Once I started hearing her use this particular construction, I realized that it was everywhere.  What happened to about? For the life of me, I can’t see a reason for the shift in prepositions. And that’s what annoys me every time I hear it.

I’ve become, in my own way, a language crank. My daughter calls me on it.

She says at college she’s the one who corrects her friends. She sends me every single paper she writes for me to vet for style and grammar. She also says (and I agree) that English is a living construct, and changes constantly. I’m generally on board with neologisms, and I try not to be too twitchy about the erratic use of spoken grammar (I live on the internet; I have stopped worrying about there/their and your/you’re). But language is also the tool of my trade, and some of the things the kid thinks she’s saying are, well, not.

When the subject comes up my daughter suggests that I’m the problem, that I’m being prescriptive and exclusionary. It’s almost a social justice issue to her. But in my head, I’m like a carpenter that doesn’t like to see the side of a hammer used to sink a nail–what’s wrong with using the tool the way the tool is supposed to be used?

It occurs to me that “that doesn’t mean what you think it does” is the root of my problems with some language shifts. At some point many words do shift (when was the last time you saw “nice” used in its original sense of “choosy”?). But until they have shifted, a speaker risks losing meaning by using those words in their newer sense. Lost meaning = risk of not being completely understood. And that’s it for me: the idea of not making myself understood gives me the screaming collywobbles. But as with so much else about life, Your Mileage May Vary.

I forget sometimes that I’m part of a continuum. I wake up each morning at the very end of evolution, and language (maybe even humans) have reached a point of perfection where there’s no need for further change. So a change that makes no sense to me (like “for” for “about”) feels like a step backward. But in thirty years it’s likely that “about” will feel as awkward to casual English speakers as “for” does to me. So I’m trying to curb my prescriptivist ways. Or at least restrain my flinching.

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May 20, 2015

Fixing the Future?

Filed under: Uncategorized — madeleinerobins @ 11:51 AM
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pinBecause my husband works in the film industry, we sometimes get to see early screenings–or screenings that are remarkable because the director is there, or we’re in the company of other film tech people, or just because it’s a great theatre. Last week we got to see Tomorrowland.

There’s a song by Aimee Mann called “Fifty Years After the Fair,” about the 1939 World’s Fair, which includes the line “How beautiful was tomorrow…” And Tomorrowland starts out at the 1964 World’s Fair, and evokes it beautifully: the landscape that looks like the cover of a 1959 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, the crowds, the rampant product placement… As a kid I went to the fair a handful of times, and believe me, they got it just right.

And then things move to the now, and aside from a dearth of flying cars and soaring spindly architecture and the gosh-wow of future tech we were promised (personal jet packs! video phones!) we all know what now looks like. And by the standards of 1964, it doesn’t look so hopeful, what with climate change and political unrest and overpopulation and… heck, the UN just suggested that if we want to keep the human race a going concern, we should all become vegan, like, right now.

Tomorrowland is, in fact, a fable about hope and despair.

My fabulous 19-year-old came to the screening too. And she laughed and hooted and cried at the right places, but it also opened a whole closet full of anxieties and outrage for her, which both recalled my own 19-year-old self and reproached my somewhat older, current-model self. The protagonist in Tomorrowland–the one who comes down firmly on the “how do we fix it” side of the equation–is a girl of my daughter’s age. What my daughter came away with, among other things, is that my generation and the ones that followed it have not only not fixed the problems we found when we reached adult-hood, but have left things worse than we found it, and now it’s up to her to fix it. Her and her cohort.

I remember this. The threats are not the same, but the song is.  When I was 19 the threat of nuclear annihilation was very real; civil rights was an ongoing struggle (and the term referred only to African-Americans–other ethnicities, and the complex web of stuff that is gender in our society, was barely on the radar); we were just beginning to understand the havoc human presence was wreaking on our ecosystem; and–oh yeah, as a younger acquaintance said to me some years later, “you had that war.” I am not an activist by nature, but I felt the weight of my generation’s responsibility to fix all the stuff that was wrong. Being a science fiction reader and writer, I was perhaps a little more ready to see the human race poised on the edge of “if this goes on…” So I do all the non-activist things I can: recycle and compost and use public transportation and try to be mindful about, well, everything.

I’m not convinced it makes a difference, but I keep trying. I remember knowing that it was up to me and my peers to fix the mess the world was in. And some things have, in fact, improved (I could make an argument that the current crop of know-nothingism and racism and sexism is a sign of progress, a reaction those improvements by people who just can’t stand leaving the old ways behind–but we’re down to a lot of wires, and there’s too much to do to spend time indulging those fears).

I didn’t want to leave the people who come after (emphatically including my kids) a mess to clean up. She’s much more of an activist than I am, but that spirit of activism is being dinged by the seeming impossibility of the tasks before her generation. Yes, this sounds familiar. I suspect every generation coming up has felt something of the same thing. All I can do, aside from telling her that her feelings are real and valid (but not an excuse for doing nothing) is to promise that, as long as I’m here, I will do my best to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with her.

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