Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

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.

8 Responses to “Choose to Make Good Choices”

  1. Ran said

    It’s interesting that this can occur both when the underlying redundancy isn’t readily obvious, and the phrase doesn’t sound phonetically repetitive (as in “au jour d’hui”) and when it is and it does (as in “au jour d’aujourd’hui”).

  2. oonae said

    I suppose it’s theoretically defensible if you think that making good choices refers to a series of specifics while choosing to make good choices refers to the acquisition of an attitude or disposition. But I hate it anyway. It’s stupid. Ersatz autonomy. Didacticism masquerading as empowerment, and I don’t know which of these is worse anyway.

  3. Wishydig said

    Did you consider the possibility that the rule might require that every student must at some point go up a ladder? “[at least once every week] students must go up on ladders”…

    Or were you choosing not have a choice of such a preposterous parsing?

    (very prudent strikeout there in the third paragraph)

  4. Narvi said

    In a roundabout way this entry makes me think of the word “literally” as it is used in everyday speech now. In my experience I have noticed that people use this word to emphasize something, though they don’t mean to say, “I mean this in a literal sense.” For example, a friend the other day was trying to demonstrate their incredulity of some news he heard and said to me, “I literally blew up.” Surely he didn’t.

    In addition to that, I’ve noticed that people use the word when they *do* mean to say, “I mean this in a literal sense,” but there doesn’t seem to be any need for it. For example, “I literally couldn’t sleep last night.”

    Ever notice this?

  5. Neal said

    Ran: I think that when it happens, it doesn’t sound redundant to the speaker; it only sounds redundant to the hearer who holds to the old meaning.

    Oonae: Good point. He sometimes always calls can make sense if the always applies to situations of a certain length of time (say, a month), and the sometimes to a larger interval, say over years. So in some years, he always calls in the relevant situations, but in other years, he doesn’t always call. In the same way, you could make a meta-choice about your life, such that in individual situations, you will make an effort to make a conscious, good choice. It’s possible.

    Wishydig: Ah, good one! This is the reading in which both “go up” and “on the ladder” are both in the scope, and the restriction is provided just by context: “when on the playground,” or something similar. This reading reminds me of another rule in the book. It’s in a place where they were trying to make the first letter of a series of rules spell out “RESPECT,” which made for some rather unintuitively framed rules. The last one, for T, said, “Take time to walk on the sidewalk around the playground.” It took me several attempts to get past the “Take time to smell the roses” kind of reading, in which they were demanding that each kid at recess at some point go over to the sidewalk and walk on it, and finally arrive at what seemed like a sensible reading: “Oh, I get it, Doug. I think what they mean is, ‘Don’t run on the sidewalk.'”

    Narvi: Your first point about literally is well-known. I remember telling my economics teacher that some businesses didn’t literally rape the land, and she insisted they did, but after my second denial, she saw what I was getting at. The second point: I haven’t noticed this, and it is a bit strange. It seems to demand an assumption that there is a nonliteral meaning. I guess there could be if someone says, “I couldn’t sleep at all last night” and just meant they had a hard time getting to sleep. I’d probably accommodate for this example, but for something like “I literally had Cheerios for breakfast,” I’d be perplexed.

  6. Robert said

    The au jour d’aujourd’hui process has an analogue in English. The word pre-prepare is sometimes used. However, the word prepare already has a pre- prefix and comes from the Latin word parare, which of course meant to prepare. So it’s had two pre- prefixes added to a word that already connotes performing an action in advance.

  7. […] by Neal on December 31, 2009 Back in 2004, and again in 2007, I wrote about the unusual use of choose and choice among teachers and school administrators […]

  8. […] This passage is also entertaining because of the retronym manual masturbation. Once you have electric guitars, wireless phones, and mental masturbation, you need to specify when you’re talking about what used to be the only kind of guitars, telephones, and masturbation. Etymologically, manual masturbation is funny, given that the word masturbate itself may ultimately come from the Latin root manus, too. It reminds me of the kind of situation I blogged about here. […]

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