27 September 2008

Post 153

Prepositions are not bad things to end a sentence with. Those who are against ending sentences with prepositions must be put down. Their objections to terminal prepositions are the most baseless (not to mention heartless) things I can think of. There is no reason they should be put up with. We need to tell them to shut up! We need to force them to sit down!

I just thought I’d give you something to think about. I really had to think this through. It’s a tough subject to speak on. For listening to me, I give you my thanks many times over.

19 September 2008

Post 152

I was completely unaware of the Prescriptivist vs Descriptivist debate at the beginning of 2008: I (like this web browser's spell check) hadn't even heard the terms before. But then, sometime in the fuzzy period between winter and spring (I forget when exactly), one of my roommates gave me a copy of David Foster Wallace "Tense Present: Democracy, English, and the Wars over Usage" to read, and I found myself diving headfirst into this glorious new can of worms.

(I regret that I do not, at this very moment, have my copy of that essay handy; perhaps on some future day, I will give you some lovely excerpts.)

That essay changed me: when I started it, I had no idea what Prescriptivism was; by the time I gave it back to my roommate, I considered Prescriptivism foundational, a quintessential part of my being, and I was horrified to realize that the dictionaries that take up such a large portion of my bookshelf were mostly compiled by hell-bound Descriptivists who were leading the language to ruin. I was a bonafide Snoot (Wallace's word, not mine).

(At this point, I really wish I could tell you that I'm exaggerating, but for once in my life, I feel I'm extreme enough without exaggeration. I suppose that completely honest would encourage me to say that, rather than changing me, "Tense Present" really just opened my eyes to an issue that I already had a solid opinion about even though I had no idea that an actual debate was raising, but having empowered me with such awareness, it also ignited my indignation against the evil Descriptivist.)

Not very long at all after this intellectual epiphany, I began taking my first course in Linguistics. Were I to pull out the notebook I used in that class and show you the first page, you would see where I wrote on the first day of class BEWARE: LINGUISTICS IS STRAIGHT UP DESCRIPTIVISM and circled it several times.

But then the unthinkable happened: I fell passionately in love with linguistic descriptivism, and I realized that, from a strictly historical standpoint, language did just fine for a few thousand years before the advent of Prescriptivism a few hundred years ago. Nevertheless, I remained ideologically aligned with the Prescriptivist camp because I felt we had to have an academic standard, a right and wrong for every question, and I clung tenaciously to these notions while immersing myself in my linguistics class--sorta like trying to swim with a 25-pound weight (I've done that before; it's excellent exercise but hard to do for very long).

Then summer came, and I enrolled in a Philosophy of Language class, and that's why I am the way I am now. Despite the fact that my professor was a self-proclaimed Prescriptivist, the course made me realize that utterances can only have meaning so long as a community agrees on some kind of association between sounds and intentions, and I came to the conclusion that, though I really like clear-cut right and wrong, language is a very liquid thing, which is why (I think) it's so effective (and also why it's so hard to nail down).

This semester is my first in the English Language program here at BYU. I left summer term a repentant Prescriptivist, now solidly rooted in the Descriptivist camp. Looking at my schedule that included classes such as "Modern American Usage" and "The Grammar of English," I was afraid that I'd be alone in my major: a newly converted Descriptivist in the midst of a hundred Snoots. I felt a little leary as I looked ahead to a couple of years of headbutting with closeminded Prescriptivist.

I have been pleasantly surprised: not only is the ELANG department's allignment decidedly Descriptivist, they also unilaterally hate Chompsky--and I'm all for that! Whereas I feared I was going to war in this new major, I now find myself feeling quite at home.

I have finally found my intellectual niche.

12 September 2008

Post 151

I’m about to say something that is, I think, the sort of thing that could cause people to hate me forever. It’s been milling about in my head for the past week or so, and I’ve been trying to devise some way to present it little by little and build up to my slap-in-the-face conclusion, but I’ve decided that that really just isn’t my style. So I’m gonna bank on the assumption that most people who read this blog are accustomed to my bluntness and then hope that that assumption doesn’t cause problems. Please understand that your first impression of what I say will most definitely be incorrect, so read the whole thing before you settle into your opinion.

There was one question I got on my mission that I was never really able to answer very clearly even though it never seemed particularly complicated to me. I’d heard the question from time to time before my mission, and I’ve heard it a few times since; I don’t imagine it is a new question, and I don’t think it’s ever going to stop plaguing humanity, but I have an answer that I am quite satisfied with.

The question: Why do bad things happen to good people?

My answer: They don’t.

Now, see? There you go getting all uppity. Why are you so easily offended? I’m telling you, you’ve jumped to a conclusion that is just plain wrong. I didn’t say that good people have easy lives, I said that bad things don’t happen to good people. Hopefully, by the time you finish reading this post, you’ll believe me.

I’ve been thinking about this because I’ve had a rough couple of weeks. I moved from one apartment complex to another, but my contracts didn’t overlap, so I had about a week and a half of homelessness. During that time, I went home to my parents’ house for a few days, where I learned that the skin cancer my dad has is worse than he’d been telling me. Shortly after I returned to Provo, a girl in a Passat rear-ended me, totaling my car twice over and screwing up my neck a bit. Less than a week after that, I in all my social suavity sort of blew to smithereens (again) a friendship I had been thoroughly enjoying. All this in the midst of the first week of my first real semester in my new major and while adjusting to a new place.

Now, this may shock some of you, but I actually consider myself well within the category of ‘good person.’ I feel I must be because, to my recollection, nothing bad has ever happened to me—ever. Oh, sure, I know what it’s like to have physical pain so intense it makes me scream or just shake, and I have experienced emotional pains such that I’ve been debilitated by sobbing for hours at a time; I have helplessly witnessed the mortal suffering of those I love, and I have seen those I care about make mistakes. I have tasted hate, been adamantly wished to hell, spit on, pushed around; I know what it is to be frozen with fear. I’ve made mistakes and writhed with guilt and regret. I’ve been rejected. I have felt shunned at times. But I really can’t think of a time when something really bad happened to me.

I list all these unpleasant things I’ve endured from time to time not because to try to convince you that my life has been hard: quite to the contrary, I think that all of those things are fairly typical and that you each could make a similar list. I mean, maybe you’ve never had physical pain so bad it made you shake, but perhaps you’ve been beaten by someone or struggled with a serious addiction or—or whatever other sorts of things people suffer in life. All I’m getting at here is that suffering doesn’t make somebody special: we’re all in this mortality thing together, and we each get our share.

You see, I’m just not convinced that bad things can happen to good people. Paul said that all things work together for the good of those who love God; Brigham Young said that he didn’t feel he had ever had to sacrifice anything for the Gospel because what he ended up with was always better that what he lost. And I say that nothing bad has ever happened to me.

I heard a story once that allegedly came out of ancient China; I think it will be helpful in this discussion (I’m setting it off not because it’s a quote but so people who’ve heard it can skip it if they like):

A man and his son caught a wild horse, brought it home, and corralled it. Their neighbors all came over to see it.

"What a beautiful animal!" the neighbors said. "You are so lucky to have caught it."

"Maybe," the man said.

A day or two later, the horse broke out of the corral and ran away. The neighbors came over to give their sympathies.

"Those damages will take a long while to fix," the neighbors said. "What an unfortunate loss."

"Maybe," the man said.

The next morning, the man and his son discovered that the horse had returned, and with it had come the rest of the herd, all grazing in the pasture. The man and his son barricaded the hole in the fence to keep the animals inside. The neighbors came over to give their congratulations.

"What good fortune!" they said.

"Maybe," the man said.

A day or two later, the man’s son tried to ride one of the horses, fell off, and broke his arm. The neighbors came over to give their condolences.

"He won’t be able to work the rest of the season," they said. "What bad luck."

"Maybe," the man said.

The next morning, a representative from the Emperor came and announced that all able-bodied young men were being drafted into the army, so all the boys of the village went off to war—except for the man’s son because he had a broken arm. Soon thereafter, a horrible battle killed all of those boys. The neighbors came again to the man.

"Our sons!" they lamented. "You are so lucky that yours could not go to war."

"Maybe," the man said.

The point of the story, I think, is that it is impossible to know immediately whether anything that happens to you is good or bad. I have often been amazed at God’s ability to take really horrible circumstances and consecrate them for my good. Also, if you really pay attention to what Moroni actually says in Ether 12:27, I think you’ll find his choice of verbiage (viz. "give") quite interesting. It’s hard to think of trials (and particularly our own weaknesses) as gifts or of humility as much of a reward, but God knows what He’s doing, I’m pretty sure.

Now, I’m not so wise as to be able to see the good in everything; for example, I’m not really sure why it was necessary (or even that it was necessary) for me to have only one kidney. Furthermore, I’m really not sure what good came out of spending the first 12 years of my life wondering why I was in so much pain while it quietly withered away (not that I knew it was withering away: that took the doctors an awfully long time to deduce). Also, I don’t really know what good comes of my occasional social casualties (sure, I learn from them, but isn’t there a better way?). Still, I believe wholeheartedly that bad things don’t happen to good people, and every unpleasant thing I ever encounter will one day be counted a blessing.

So that classic question—why do bad things happen to good people—is really a poor question, if you ask me, because the only acceptable answer is, "They don’t; can you please rephrase the question?" My question is this: Do bad things happen to bad people? I honestly don’t know: I’m not a bad person. I suppose bad people eventually wind up in hell, but I’m not sure that’s such a bad thing because, as we learn in Mormon 9:4, they’ll be happier there than they would be in heaven anyway. (Perhaps that’s taken a wee bit out of context, but I think the sentiment is fair enough.)

Do bad thing happen at all?

Certainly evil is real, and people make bad choices sometimes, but this notion of bad things just happening—I really don’t buy into it much.

Any thoughts?