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Sunday, January 22, 2017

A PURELY PEDANTIC QUIBBLE

The reports you all are posting of marches in your cities are remarkable and enormously encouraging.  But since I am, when all is said and done, a pedant, not an organizer, I will pause to give voice to an utterly irrelevant pet peeve.  I apologize for the interruption.  The revolution will continue momentarily.

For a variety of reason having mostly to do with its mongrel pedigree, English exhibits a distinction between what are called strong and weak verbs.  Weak verbs form the past tense by adding "ed."  I walk, I walked, I cook, I cooked, I kiss, I kissed.  Strong verbs form the past tense by altering the present tense itself:  I run, I ran, I bring, I brought, I think, I thought, I fly, I flew [except when I am playing baseball, in which case I fly to left field, I flied to left field, not I flew.]

"Freight" is a noun meaning, roughly, cargo put aboard a ship or truck.  It was originally the present tense of the verb "to freight," which is to say "to load with goods for transport."  The past tense of freight is fraught.

So, to say of a situation that it is fraught with significance or danger is essentially to say that the situation is loaded or weighed down with significance or danger as though [metaphorically] with cargo.

It doesn't make any sense to describe a situation, simpliciter, as fraught.

Now, back to the revolution.

13 comments:

s. wallerstein said...

The Cambridge Dictionary says that "fraught" can be used alone (without "with") as an adjective, giving the example "the situation was fraught".

http://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/fraught

Robert Paul Wolff said...

I know, but that just means people use it that way, not that it is correct [did I mention that I am a pedant?]

s. wallerstein said...

Is your pedantry a philosophical position about what constitutes correct language use or just a personal idiosyncracy? If the former, maybe you could explain your position. That would make an interesting post for many of us, I believe.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

No, no, my pedantry is just a personal foible. As linguistics it is all wrong. So sue me.

Anonymous said...

It's not c o r r e c t? There is a science of linguistics which has largely given up on telling people what's correct. (Given up on prescriptive grammar) Steven Pinker made a lot of fun about pedants in his best seller The Language Instinct. It would be responsible of you to at least find out something about this matter. (I don't say you should read that book in particular.) Probably the rules behind the use of those verbs are more complicated than you imagine--that's the sort of thing I recall that Pinker showed in poking fun at pedants..... No, I am not a linguist; but neither are you.)

s. wallerstein said...

Professor Wolff can defend himself, I'm sure, but I do imagine that he's given the subject of language some thought, since he studied at and taught at Harvard back in the days when language was the chief theme of philosophy.

Anonymous said...

err no, SW, Harvard philosophy, even when it was so called analytic was not identical with linguistics. And studying with, say, Quine would not be identical with studying Linguistics. Wolff is complaining about a shortening or abbreviated form of speech. How does he know that it is anything else? There are not fully grammatical utterances which we quickly fill in. There are utterances which are not complete and can be easily filled in.
Most of all, it is not clear that there is actual confusion in the minds of the people Professor Wolff is criticizing. He's ticked off because they've broken a rule. Nothing more.
The only complaint seems to be that they did not know and do not follow the rules which he has learned. But those are prescriptive rules, and generally prescriptive rules fall short of the most accurate representation of what's going on when people speak.
If Professor Wolff knows about the distinction between descriptive and prescriptive grammars, then there is no sign of it in what's he has written.

Anonymous said...

I's a fright to have been taught
To think the past of "freight" is "fraught"
But only as a verb. Do not get caught
Using it to mean "distraught":
Our Prof will get quite overwrought
And all of that, methinks, for naught
As language does evolve, and ought.
A concept even pedants bought.

s. wallerstein said...

If I know the difference between descriptive and prescription grammar, even Professor Wolff does.

You don't understand Professor Wolff's sense of humor. It takes some time to see when he is joking around and when not and when he is half joking and half not joking and even when he is one quarter joking and three quarters not joking. I've been following this blog daily for over a year and I still don't always get when he's simply ironic or ironic about being ironic or ironic abut being ironic about being ironic.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

THANK YOU, S Wallerstein!! I think humor is one of the victims of the internet.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

To continue, I was being ironic about being an old man who has crusty, pedantic crochets about things like language, all as a way of lifting the mood somewhat from the very earnest posts, mine especially, about the marches and the threat posed by Trump. But like all jokes, if you have to explain it, it loses its bite.

David Auerbach said...

There are interesting regularities wrt strong and weak verbs. When a verb has both meanings (as with 'fly') which one gets the irregular and which the regular ending. I think the transitive gets the irregular--can't think of exceptions.

Charmides said...

Two purely pedantic quibbles:

If "...to say of a situation that it is fraught with significance or danger is essentially to say that the situation is loaded or weighed down with significance or danger" then why not "to say of a situation that it is fraught is essentially to say that the situation is loaded or weighed down"?

In baseball, isn't it 'I fly out to left field' and 'I flied out to left field', not 'I fly/flied to left field'?