Wednesday’s article on noticing usage generated a number of emailed responses, but not much variety, as the tendency was to dismiss the point I was hoping to make (basically, get out there and revel in the way language is USED) and instead to offer me a rule which ‘obviously’, ‘clearly’, explained things to the writers’ satisfaction.
For those who didn’t read it, and can’t be bothered to now, I reported that my Italian students had been surprised by the English multi-word expression ‘black and white’, as in TV, photography, and films.
In Italian it’s ‘bianco nero’ (‘white and black’), they remarked!
Which point I used to remind them that the more they read, listen and speak, the more of these interesting differences in usage they will notice and learn.
Languages are basically all about usage, see?
There’s no rule book that says things must be this way or that way, just this accumulation of ways of saying and doing things.
The idea that there are intrinsic, unchangeable ‘rules’ is nonsense, though admittedly it can be helpful to teach and learn ‘regularities’ of usage – for example that unreal conditionals in Italian are expressed with a different conjugation, whilst in English we shift back a tense (‘If I’m wrong, correct me. If I was wrong, you’d correct me.’)
Multi word expressions are a thing in linguistics, and in language teaching. They exist in Italian as well as English, so it’s no surprise that ‘black and white’ has the Italian equivalent ‘bianco nero’. Along came the technologies, then the ‘usage’ required to describe them.
That’s how languages are created, and evolve, whether teachers and grammar book writers like it or not.
There’s an academic article on multi-word expressions here, if you’d like to ‘approfondire’.
But back to the emails from club members, many of whom commented that the ‘rule’ is, or must be, that such multi-word expressions follow alphabetical order. B comes before W, see? Or N, in Italian. Either way, it’s alphabetical order!
Nonsense, I emailed back, the first couple of times. Yes, this particular expression is in alphabetical order, in both English and Italian, but that explains nothing. There are many other expressions that aren’t.
A quick brainstorm produced:
- ‘ins and outs’ and ‘back and forth’, but, erm… ‘ups and downs’
- ‘cheese and biscuits’, ‘fish and chips’
- ‘salt and pepper’, ‘salt and vinegar’
- ‘thunder and lightning’
- ‘dead and buried’
I’m sure you can think of plenty more…
Leaving aside linguistics, confirmation bias is, according to Wikipedia:
the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms or supports one’s prior beliefs or values.
“My elementary teacher told me that…”, “This example is this way, and so is that one, so the others must be, too”, and so on.
Not very scientific, is it? Check out the academic paper I linked to above and (though I just skimmed it) alphabetical order is not mentioned, and why would it be? Spoken language is made up of phonemes, not letters of the alphabet, and in any case, we learn expressions such as ‘black and white’ and ‘salt and pepper’ way before we are taught to write them.
It’s a poor teacher who ‘explains’ a ‘rule’ which is demonstrably wrong, and, in my not-so-humble opinion, it’s an unhelpful approach for learners to focus on learning ‘rules’ rather than on acquiring the skills (reading/listening/speaking with confidence) that will allow them to interact with others using the language and so EXPOSE THEMSELVES TO EXTENSIVE EXAMPLES OF ITS USAGE.
I asked my Italian wife to note down a few examples:
- prima o poi
- bene o male
- vero e proprio
- sano e salvo
- forte e chiaro
- vivo e vegeto
- culo e camicia
- (dire) peste e corna
- (per) bene o male
- a spizzichi e bocconi
- a occhio e croce
Homework is to go check the meanings, if you don’t already know them.
Have you listened to Thursday’s bulletin of ‘easy’ Italian news?
It’s free, and so is subscribing to receive each of the three weekly bulletins, on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays.