The life changing difference between "do" and "don't"

Attempting to improve on my ability to craft dialogue, I find myself listening to people more and more, eavesdropping on conversations and taking careful note of a person’s choice of words.

Last week I was in Carvel, waiting to order, when the woman in front of me was handed her root beer float. She looked at it, paused a moment and then asked, “Don’t you mix these up?”

Obviously, the woman was a lunatic to assume that a root beer float should be mixed like a shake. The word float implies that the ice cream should be floating in the root beer, and not spun in like some mutated form of a Dairy Queen Blizzard.

But what I noticed even more was her use of the word don’t instead of the word do

Note the difference in tone between the two questions:

Don’t you mix these up?

Do you mix these up?

The use of the word don’t implies accusation. It makes the speaker sound rude, condescending, and annoyed. It’s not a nice way to solicit the desired bit of information from the counterperson.

The use of the word do essentially turns the same question into an honest search for information, with no tone of accusation or annoyance whatsoever.

One simple word change could have made this woman’s ridiculous question at least sound sincere and polite, but instead, she came across as a complete jerk.  

Which undoubtedly she is. 

It's a good thing to keep in mind when writing dialogue. And when speaking to other human beings who don't deserve to be treated poorly.

Small word choices can make a world of difference.   

I was tempted to instruct this woman on her poor word choice but chose instead to remain silent. 

Though I don’t do it often, I am capable of restraint from time to time.

Firemen became firefighters. Penmanship became handwriting. Great. But there's one gender neutral word I can't support.

Firemen became firefighters.
A serious improvement. I'd rather be a firefighter than a fireman. 

Stewardess became flight attendant.
Also an improvement.  

Policemen became police officer.
A solid choice. I'd rather call a police officer for help than a policeman. 

Mailman became mail carrier. 
Fine. More descriptive, even.

Penmanship became handwriting.
A more modern alternative.  

Waiter and waitress became server. 
I don't love it, but I can live with it. 

Freshmen became first year students.
A little awkward. Not the greatest. But I can live with it if I must.

I appreciate the attempt to create a more gender-neutral language, particularly when so many of these words traditionally skewed male. 

But there's one that I just can't get behind:

Fisherman has become fisher. 

In 2013, Washington state completed a six year process of rewriting their laws so that they were written using gender neutral terminology. Certain words like manhole cover remained because a better alternative could not be found, but fisherman became fisher, and I hate it.

And it's not only Washington who has adopted the new word. Many websites and news organizations acknowledge fisher as an appropriate alternative to fisherman.

I'm not saying that fisherman is the right word. I'm saying that despite it's obvious male slant, fisherman is a hell of a lot better than fisher. 

But I'm open to better options. I asked my students for alternatives, and their suggestions weren't all that appealing, either. 

Fisher person
Fish hunter
Fish catcher

To be honest, they didn't love these ideas, either. They also agreed that fisher was a terrible alternative.

One of them pointed out that a fisher is actually a small mammal that doesn't eat fish.

Another terrible use of the word.

So I'm looking for an alternative to fisher, and until I find one, I think I'm going stick with the admittedly male leaning and possibly sexist word fisherman.

Sometimes a word - even when wrong - just feels right. 

I don't know any professional fishermen - male or female - but I can't help but think that they would agree with me.

"Close to the chest" or "close to the vest?" The answer annoys the hell out of me.

I've heard this idiom spoken both ways:

  • "Play your cards close to the vest."
  • "Play your cards close to the chest."

So I wondered: Which of these is correct?

The answer: Both.

There is no definitive answer to this question. While it appears that "close to the vest" appeared first, "close to the chest" followed almost immediately, and today, both are used with equal frequency.

This annoys the hell out of me. I want there to be an answer. I want one of these idioms to be correct, and frankly, I want it to be "close to the vest."

This middling, indecisive linguistic uncertainty is stupid. 

As a writer, I'm thrilled with a variety of ways to express a single idea, but that variety should contain some actual variation rather than two words (vest and chest) that essentially mean the same thing in this context and rhyme. 

And it shouldn't be the result of an inability to decide upon a correct way of expressing a specific idiom.  

So I'm taking a stand. I say that "close to the vest" is correct and those who say "close to the chest" are heathens and cretins and socially unacceptable monsters. Linguistic criminals. Language murderers.

Disagree with my selection? Unsure if I'm right? Do a Google image search on "close to the vest" and "close to the chest" and see which set of images more closely capture the meaning of this idiom and which set of images make you marginally uncomfortable. 

Who is with me?

Let languages die.

A man in Hawaii is facing criminal charges for blocking the construction of a telescope on a mountaintop. His trial is being delayed because even though he speaks perfect English, he is insisting on being tried in Hawaiian, which happens to be the official language of Hawaii. 

The only problem:

No judge speaks Hawaiian, and only about 8,000 people in the world speak the language, so finding jurors who speak the language would be almost impossible. So the man is insisting that the trial be conducted through an interpreter. 

The man's guilt or innocence is not my concern. My bone of contention lies in the NPR report on this case. Specifically, this exchange between NPR host Rachel Martin and the defendant Kahookahi Kanuha: 

MARTIN: It's my understanding that more than a generation ago, the Hawaiian language was almost gone. It had almost been wiped out.


MARTIN: What brought it back? What's to account for the resurgence?

KANUHA: Yeah, so in the early 1980s, actually, it was estimated that there were less than 50 speakers under the age of 18. It was almost guaranteed - approximately guaranteed - that within - within 20 to 30 years, perhaps, the language would be dead. And so what they did was they implemented a preschool system, and it's known as Aha Punana Leo. And as the kids graduated from preschool, those families wanted them to continue their education in Hawaiian language. And that's what created that push and the pressure for the implementation of Hawaiian immersion programs and ultimately, within the last 30 years, we have taken those numbers from less than 50 to about 8,000 or so.

I will never understand the desire to preserve languages and fight against their extinction.  

Languages are not birds or animals or plants. They are not integral parts of an ecosystem. They do not carry the potential for life-saving medicines. They do not preserve biodiversity. 

Languages are human constructs. They are a means of communication that developed differently across the globe only because of geographic limitations on humankind thousands of years ago. They are not in need of preservation. In fact, I think they are in need of eradication. The sooner human begins drill down to one worldwide language, the better off we will be. The ability to communicate freely and openly to anyone in any corner of the globe would be a remarkable feat of human progress.

The process of achieving a single, worldwide language begins by allowing languages to die rather than spending time and money preserving them.

In 2007 the New York Times reported:

Of the estimated 7,000 languages spoken in the world today, linguists say, nearly half are in danger of extinction and are likely to disappear in this century. In fact, they are now falling out of use at a rate of about one every two weeks.

Some endangered languages vanish in an instant, at the death of the sole surviving speaker. Others are lost gradually in bilingual cultures, as indigenous tongues are overwhelmed by the dominant language at school, in the marketplace and on television.

The good news in this report is that languages are dying at a rapid clip. But the New York Times - and many other publications - use words like endangered and extinction to describe the precarious state of languages, as if their elimination hurts the planet or humankind. 

It doesn't. It only serves as one small step in bringing us closer. 

It's important to note that I am not promoting the active eradication of languages. I'm not looking for people to intentionally eliminate languages. I just don't think them worthy of preservation.

This also doesn't mean that I am overlooking one of the primary agents in the elimination of languages. The genocide of the Native Americans of North America, for example, wiped out hundred of languages in the process. I am aware that all too often, the eradication of a language was accomplished through forced subjugation and genocide. Obviously, this is not the kind of action for which I am advocating. 

Languages should die of natural causes. And they are.

A report in Science magazine from 2014 indicates that the primary agent responsible for the eradication of languages today is economic growth. As previously isolated and otherwise struggling communities of people begin to interact with the world economically in order to raise their standard of living, they begin to adopt the primary language of commerce, and over time, their original language falls away and dies.

This makes sense. People want to be able to communicate as fluidly and inexpensively as possible. They want to understand and be understood. When you realize that participation in world markets will improve your lives of your future generations, you will engage in that market as fully as possible. 

This includes language. 

My hope - and my expectation - is that somewhere in the distant future, humankind will continue to winnow down from the approximately 7,000 languages today to a handful of languages and perhaps even one. And I don't care what language we eventually settle on. I'm not looking to preserve English as the language of the world. Whichever language rises to the top is fine by me. 

The language is irrelevant. It's singularity is paramount. 

The sooner human beings across the globe share a common tongue and can speak without barrier or misunderstanding, the better off we will be.

Don't seek the eradication of language. Just don't invest in its preservation. Spend your time and money on more important matters. Implementing a preschool program on the island of Hawaii in order to teach children a language that was nearly extinct and is useless outside of Hawaii strikes me as a terrible waste of resources. 

Oh, and in case you were curious, Kahookahi Kanuha was granted an interpreter at his trial, and last month he was found not guilty of obstruction. 

I'm happy Kanuha isn't going to jail. If you read the reports from the trial, it's clear that he was acting with noble intent. 

I just hope he doesn't use his newfound freedom to promote a language that clearly wants to die.