• Attributes that make some words ‘shades of meaning’ of other words

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    IF you’ve ever wondered but never bothered to check what “shades of meaning” precisely means, you should get a good idea from an exchange I had recently with a member of Jose Carillo’s English Forum.

    Justine Agustines, an Education sophomore who proudly calls himself “forever a student of the English language,” asked: “What do you mean by shades of meaning in language? Can we use the identical clauses of this sentence as examples: ‘I cannot always choose what happens to me, I can always choose what happens in me.’ How do the italicized prepositions change the essence of the clauses?”

    Here’s my reply to Justine:

    Shades of meaning are the small, subtle differences in meaning between words or phrases that denote very similar things or very close attributes. As examples, the differences could be in (1) the level of intensity of the attribute, as those of the words “lukewarm,” “tepid,” and “halfhearted” (“cold” and “hot” won’t be shades of meaning of each other because they differ greatly in heat intensity or strength of feeling); (2) the level of certainty, as those of “sure,” “certain,” and “positive” (“doubting” and “distrustful” won’t be shades of meaning of those three as they are their polar opposites in certitude); and (3) the level of female youthfulness, as those of “girl,” “lass,” and “maiden” (“woman” and “matron” won’t be shades of meaning of those three as they denote females of more advanced age).

    Now let’s take a close look at this sentence that you presented: “I cannot always choose what happens to me, I can always choose what happens in me.” It is, by the way, an aphorism—a terse formulation of a perceived truth—in the form of a rhetorical device called the antanaclasis, which repeats a phrase in two different senses in an elegant, scrupulously parallel construction. In that particular aphorism, a big, profound difference in the sense of the two identical clauses is achieved through the seemingly simple and innocuous change of preposition in the phrase “what happens to me” such that it becomes “what happens in me.”

    I don’t think the aphorism you presented is suitable for illustrating shades of meaning. The denotation of “what happens to me”—the outcomes of one’s outer life brought about by external forces—is entirely different from the denotation of “what happens in me”—the outcomes in one’s mind (mental health) and body (physical health) brought about by both external and internal forces. As such, those two clauses present altogether different ideas and are definitely not shades of meaning of the same attribute.

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    Now here’s a more mundane matter brought to my attention by a Forum member who goes by the username Melvinhate: “I just noticed that Internet is capitalized regardless of its position in the sentence. Do we really have to capitalize it?”
    Here’s my reply to Melvinhate:

    If you are writing for audiences in countries that use the American English Standard, you need to capitalize the first letter of “Internet.” Typical American style guides recommend it, and most major publications in North America—including Canada—follow that prescription. This goes the same for publications in the Philippines, which as you know uses the American English Standard. In my own case, I feel very uncomfortable seeing that word written with lower-case “i” so I change it to upper case as a matter of course.

    But the preferred style in British English is the opposite—“internet” with the “i” in lower case. The United Kingdom and other countries using the British English Standard follow that style. The thinking behind it is that “internet” is now a generic term so there’s no longer a need to capitalize its first letter. That may be so, but as the proverbial American man of the street would say, “Tell that to the marines!”

    Visit Jose Carillo’s English Forum at http://josecarilloforum.com. Visit me on Facebook. Follow me at Twitter.com @J8Carillo.

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    1 Comment

    1. David Curtin on

      In the area where I live near New York I am hearing the younger generation using “on accident” as the opposite of “on purpose”. To me this sounds very wrong. I go with “by accident”