Choose to Make Good Choices
Posted by Neal on September 27, 2007
Doug and I were reading the rule book for his school earlier this month. We had to sign a form saying we’d each read and understood it, so we read every last page of it over the course of a few suppertimes. Ah, yes, I remember it like it was just a few weeks ago…
We’d reached the section on playground rules. “Hmmm…” I said. “‘Students must go up on ladders.’ So, does that mean if you want to go up, you have to do it on a ladder? Or does it mean that if you are on a ladder, you can only go up and not down?”
We decided that since there were other structures in the playground that were intended for climbing, they couldn’t possibly mean the “when going up, use a ladder” reading (or in semantic terms, the reading with “go up” as the restriction for must and “on ladders” as its scope). So that left the “on ladders, only go up” reading (i.e. the reading with “on ladders” as the restriction, and “go up” as the scope). Of course, that makes for a crazy rule, too. Why aren’t you allowed to
go down on ladders use ladders to go down? This sounded suspiciously like the first half of a rule I occasionally hear the more uptight parents incanting to their kids on playgrounds: “Go up the ladder, down the slide!” When I thought of that, I looked to see if there was a corresponding rule for “on slides, only go down.” I was amazed to find there wasn’t one.
“Hey, Doug! They don’t say you’re not allowed to walk up the slides! With all these other rules, I can’t believe they didn’t put that one in!”
But on closer inspection, I wasn’t so sure: “Well, I guess it could fall under ‘use playground equipment in an appropriate manner’, depending on how they define appropriate.“
“But Dad,” Doug said, “Even if there’s not a rule against something, if I think it’s something a teachers won’t like, I only do it when the teacher on duty isn’t around. Because if she sees it and says don’t do it, then it is against the rules.”
“You know, that’s a smart policy, Doug!” I said. “Adam, did you hear that?” Doug’s right: No need to make next year’s rule book even longer than this year’s.
Of course, in such a thick rulebook there bound to be some good rules. Here’s one that I agree with:
Choose to make good choices.
Anyone who’s seen Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade knows the importance of making wise choices. I admit, however, that I am puzzled by the phrasing. It seems to imply the possibility that instead of choosing to make good choices, someone could be forced to make good choices. Is this logically possible? Also, why stop at choosing to make good choices? If it’s good to make good choices, and better to choose to make good choices, then wouldn’t it be better still to choose to choose to make good choices? Or to choose to choose to choose to make good choices?
Seriously, though, why the extra-choosy construction? I have two guesses. One is that given educators’ tendency to preface verbs with choose to (noted here), it could just be a matter of simple analogy: do your homework is to choose to do your homework as waste your time is to choose to waste your time as make good choices is to … choose to make good choices. The other guess is that some semantic bleaching has been going on, like what happened with the French word aujourd’hui:
Once upon a time, in the days before records of Latin began, there must have been a phrase hoc die, which meant ‘(on) this day.’ By the time of attested Latin, this phrase had eroded and fused into one word, hodie ‘today’. Later on, in Old French, hodie was ground down into a meagre hui, but the French soon found that they couldn’t utter this paltry syllable with enough emphasis, so they piled up more words, and started saying au jour d’hui, literally ‘on the day of this-day’. But with repeated use, this became a set phrase, and so it fused into one word again: aujourd’hui. And nowadays in colloquial French, the same cycle is beginning all over again. A mere aujourd’hui is not deemed to have sufficient presence, and so to emphasize it, the French have started saying au jour d’aujourd’hui — literally ‘on the day of on-the-day-of-this-day’. (Guy Deutscher, The Unfolding of Language, pp. 168-169)
Progressions like this are well-attested in language histories. So with choose, maybe when so many actions are not merely taken, but chosen to be taken, then when you’re actually talking about a choice, just one choose or choice isn’t sufficient anymore.