“Sneaky little Hobbitses. Wicked, tricksy, false!” – Gollum
So, this is the first of what I hope will be many posts on all things Hobbit!
“We hates Hobbitses, we does!” – Me
Actually, that quote at the top of the page, was originally meant to convey how elusive the English language can be… but then I got to thinking about Hobbitses and things went downhill from there.
English can be such a tricksy totally made up word thing, though, what with synonyms and all. I don’t particularly like the idea of two words having the exact same meaning, and honestly don’t think the originators of most synonyms woke up one day and said, “I hate that word for this concept; I’m going to say ‘X’ from now on!”
Rather, I believe they were somehow dissatisfied with the commonly accepted interpretation of a word, and wanted something just a shade different, like the difference between clubbing someone with the word “ran”, or expressing a particular type of rapid motion using “scampered”. We all know those words mean the same basic thing, but one conjures a more refined image of the action, no? Yes!
Being someone who cares about language, the way it’s used, and how I might use it most effectively, when the difference in meaning is not obvious, I will assign my own nuanced meanings to words that are commonly accepted as synonyms. Sometimes my singular interpretation is effective, and sometimes I reveal myself to be a raving lunatic; you each get to decide which – you lot of judgmental bastards.
“When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.” – Humpty Dumpty, in rather a scornful tone
“Alright, perhaps ‘scampered’ is more eloquent a word than ‘ran’, but what about ‘scampered’ and ‘scurried’? Exactly the same, aren’t they?”
Maybe they are to you. To me, “scampering” is a sort of playful dodging, something a puppy or cat might do, while “scurrying” is a more clandestine sort of thing, the action of a rat, or bug. Nuance is so important, when you want to communicate on purpose.
“Well then, what about ‘rules’ and ‘laws’? Surely they mean the same thing, don’t they?”
Good Lord, have you been paying no attention at all? This is a bloody post about how synonyms differ! Of course they’re not going to be the same.
“Well everyone I know uses “rule” and “law” completely interchangeably.”
“If all your friends jumped off a bridge, would you join them? please” – every parent of a teenager
Exactly the same, eh? When was the last time you read something like, “Joseph Stalin lawed with an iron fist”? No? Never?
So, the first big difference I see is, “rule” can be either a noun or a verb, while law is only a noun. That’s a rather big difference, but not exactly the type of difference we’re discussing here. We’re talking about how words might be used interchangeably–and why does “interchangeably” retain the “e” in “interchange” while “judgmental” drops the “e” from “judge”? Frickin’ English, man! It’s like it was invented by a bunch of people from all over the place, who got thrown together on an island or something.
Sorry; where was I? Right! So, let’s just deal with “rule” and “law” as nouns, OK? Super.
Now, if I’m going to insist they are not exactly the same, it’s up to me to explain their nuanced difference in meaning. To my way of thinking, there are actually far more rules than there are laws because, to me, the word “law” carries far more weight. In fact, under my interpretation, the only real laws are those in the realm of physics: the law of gravity, the laws of thermodynamics, etc. Laws are inviolate; they may not be broken.
“The exception to this law…” is not a common phrase, in English.
Rules, on the other hand, are proven by their exceptions.
“What the hell does that even mean?”
It means that rules tend to be more like guide lines – weaker than laws. In fact, the phrase was originally supposed to be a joke that came about because there seems to be an exception for every rule. In other words, as a rule, rules have exceptions. Now go forth, oh minions, and find the exception to that rule…
“Riddle me this…” – the, uh, Riddler
There’s a spelling rule for words that have “i” and “e” next to each other in them: “i” always comes before “e” – that’s the rule… except…
It’s really, “i” before “e”, except after “c”, or when sounded like “a”, as in “neighbor” and “weigh”. I remember that little ditty from third grade, with Mrs. Foster… I guess these days she’d be Ms. Foster – unless she preferred Mrs. – the exception that proves the rule for addressing women.
Is it never use always, or always use never?
English grammar has a butt-load of rules. They’re actually pretty important, if all we English-speaking people are going to communicate. The thing is, though, the English language, as we currently know it, is constructed from, well, every other language on the planet.
As a result, the rules for English grammar can be rather mercurial.
It’s OK, though, no one, that I know of, has ever developed a serious case of mercury poisoning from learning the rules of English grammar; some, however, have gone equally mad while trying.
The plus side to that fluidity insane complexity is flexibility. I know, I know, other languages can be very artsy and lyrical as well, but when you can use one sentence structure in one sentence, and a different structure in the very next sentence – and it’s legit! Well, my friend, that… that, right there, is enough to make an editor wish German was his native tongue. Which is not to say English language writers do not have to adhere to any structure at all.
Writers actually create lists of their favorite “rules for successful writing”.
You know you are a successful writer when you can go down one of those lists, checking off each rule as having been broken by you in your latest novel, and it still got picked up for publication.
Some of the rules actually seem to be very basic to the structure of the language, for example: never start a sentence with “and” or “but” – those words are for connecting bits of sentences together. But sometimes, it just makes sense to break those pieces up. So here’s the corollary to that rule:
When a thought carries enough weight that it deserves a complete sentence, but refers, with nearly as much weight, to a previous thought, always begin that sentence with the appropriate ‘and’ or ‘but’.
Governments like to believe they rule by creating laws.
That is, of course, absolutely fucking ludicrous. If you accept my definition of “law”, it then becomes painfully obvious that, at best, governments impose rules upon the populace.
Again, “The exception to that law,” is not a popular expression; “The exception to that rule,” is because there is a subtle difference between laws and rules.
“The law says, you may not go about swindling large sums of money from people, and the imprisonment of Bernie Madoff is the proof of that law.”
Just curious – have you seen any bankers going to jail in connection with the financial collapse of 2008?
The exception that proves the rule.