• Puzzling instances of word usage in the English lexicon

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    I’D like to share with readers three interesting questions about word usage raised recently in Jose Carillo’s English Forum.

    The first is from reader Leonolin Pecina:
    “This is regarding the use of the adjective ‘gratuitous.’ I know that some words have different senses or dictionary meanings, but the difference is usually not contradictory. But ‘gratuitous’ is unique (at least to me) in that it seems its two senses are contradictory. I’m confused.”

    Here’s my reply to Mr. Pecina:
    The adjective “gratuitous” indeed belongs to the strange league of words variously known as “contronyms,” “antagonyms,” and “auto-antonyms,” which have conflicting or contradictory definitions. A good example is the verb “patronize.” It has the positive sense of favorably giving business to someone, then in the negative sense of treating someone condescendingly or haughtily, as in “She patronizes my restaurant and gives me a lot of referrals, but I don’t like the way she patronizes me while she’s dining there with her friends.”

    “Gratuitous” is in a similar predicament as “patronize.” On one hand, “gratuitous” has the positive sense of being given free or provided without expectation of being recompensed for it, as in “She’s well-liked in the community for her gratuitous service as a Red Cross volunteer.” On the other hand, “gratuitous” has the contrary, negative sense of being unwarranted or uncalled for by the circumstances, as in “The couple was scandalized when the supposedly general-patronage movie showed a lot of gratuitous nudity.”

    The second question is from Forum member Baklis:
    “I skimmed through an English module for K-12 and came across this sentence construction: ‘His song is boring to hear.’ Take note that the word ‘boring’ is used there as a present participle, as what is indicated in the module, but it seems to me that there’s something wrong with that sentence. For me, the word ‘boring’ there serves as an adjective and not a participle. Please do shed light on this.”

    Here’s what I told Baklis:
    You’re right that something’s wrong with that sentence. It’s actually a redundant construction of the succinct “His song is boring,” in which “boring” is unmistakably an adjective instead of a present participle. By definition, the adjective “boring” means “causing boredom” or “tiresome,” a condition that in the context of a song is obviously perceived through the sense of hearing, so it’s superfluous—needless—to still qualify it with the phrase “to hear.” (It’s as awkward as saying “Her home-cooked lasagna is satisfying to eat.”)
    Despite being redundant, “His song is boring to hear” does use “boring” as a present participle, if in a semantically awkward way. Recall that a present participle typically expresses present action in relation to the time expressed by a verb. It is formed by adding the suffix “-ing” to the verb, then used to form its progressive tense, as in “His song is boring me”—a perfectly legitimate use of the present participle “boring” in the sense of “to cause to feel boredom.”

    And the last question is from Forum member Ifontok:
    “Which is grammatically correct? ‘This award is given to Mandy (in recognition of, in recognition for) her outstanding leadership.’”

    Here’s my reply to Ifontok:

    For that sentence, the prepositional phrase “in recognition of” is the conventional usage. We can justify the choice of “of” by saying that it’s needed to indicate belonging or a possessive relationship, but it can easily be countered by arguing that “for” can do the job as well to indicate the goal of the indicated action. It will therefore be tough to give a convincing semantic or logical explanation for the choice. So let’s just accept the fact that over the years, native English speakers have simply found it easier and more comfortable to articulate that phrase with “of” instead of “for,” thus making the usage idiomatic.

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

    j8carillo@yahoo.com

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    4 Comments

    1. vagoneto rieles on

      Why can’t Mr. Carillo’s piece come more often?
      We all need more proficiency in English.
      You just have to go over news reports in our newspapers to know what I mean.

    2. carlos flores on

      what about the use of the word “hopefully”? it’s usually used by people during interviews in answer to what their future plans or prospects are?

      • The use of “hopefully” as a frontline adverbial modifier, as in “Hopefully summer this year won’t be so hot,” has long been derided as ungrammatical but is now recognized in American English as standard usage. As a personal stylistic preference, though, I avoid using “hopefully” and am much more comfortable using “I hope” instead, as in “I hope summer this year won’t be so hot.” You can check out my detailed discussion of the controversy over the usage of “hopefully” by clicking this link: http://tinyurl.com/ltq9ldt