By Dr. Kieran Egan
If you spend a significant chunk of your early life being taught and largely failing to learn Latin you will, despite the learning failures, be unable to use “data” or “media” as singular nouns. Hearing “the data tells us . . .” will cause something in your mind to curl rapidly in revulsion. Similarly when you hear someone say that they “advocate for” this or that, your mind will be momentarily stunned such that you will be in danger of not hearing what they “advocate for.” After your years of Latin you can’t escape knowing that “ad” means “for” and “vocare” means “to call”; so “advocate for” means to “to call for for.”
Many of you will respond to the snobbish grammarism of the first paragraph by wanting to point out that language changes as people use it in particular ways; it’s more democratic than elections.
In response to someone wanting to insist you should use “datum” and “medium” you might ask them why they don’t use “agendum” rather than “agenda” when talking about something that needs to be done; as in, “Our agendum for today is sorting out why we should or shouldn’t adhere to ancient Latin usage.” “Agenda” means the things that ought to be done and if there is only one of them then “agendum” is proper—following the snobby insistence on “datum” and “medium”. Our conventional usage has obliterated “agendum,” and “datum” and “medium” are following fast.
Part of the problem with “advocate for” is that it is itself a product of being snobbish. Somehow people think it sounds more serious and educated than to “call for” this or that. But only a lunatic would recommend reviving Latin in schools—I mean, look how successful we became at educating once we got rid of that useless subject. Even people who are offended by being told they should not use “advocate for,” do not accept wholesale ignoring grammatical and usage conventions. Consider the brilliant Brad Pitt’s wonderfully mangled language in Snatch:
So what are we to do? What should we call for for?
This blog series is built on the belief that methods can be used to teach anything effectively, so what cognitive tools can help us here? Can they help us teach good grammar, or do they push us to accept disruptive forms of language more readily, not worrying whether they conform to past rules and practices?
Our oral language —such as “stories”, “binary opposites”, “metaphors”, “forming images from words”, “narratizing and personalizing”, “word jokes”, “using rhyme, rhythm, and patterns”, and so on—don’t seem to direct us towards any particular sense of some correct usage but rather embed us in whatever conventional forms dominate in our linguistic environment—so if everyone talks of “advocating for”, that’s what is picked up.
The cognitive toolkit that comes along with literacy—“associating with the heroic”, “fascination with extremes and limits”, “the collecting instinct”, “humanizing the inanimate world”, etc.—can obviously be used to encourage more sophisticated “correct” usage. (See, for example, how we can easily and engagingly teach the differences among “two”, “too”, and “to”: p. 8 of “”) But this literate toolkit doesn’t help us deal with the line between conventions we think should be discarded or corrected and those that are linguistic innovations that we should incorporate into everyday usage. (I generally like verbing nouns, such as the Pythonesque parrot which “would have muscled up to them bars, and boom!”)
But being able to navigate the minefield of what’s worth “correcting” and what’s worth accepting is precisely what the toolkit of theoretic language can help us with (never end a sentence with a preposition!). “General ideas and their anomalies”, “meta-narratives”, “searching for appropriate authority”, “dealing with the abstract ideas that undergird our language use”, and “development of our autonomous agency as language users” enable us to articulate for ourselves a clear position that we can apply consistently. This does not “solve” the problem (except for each of us individually according to our preferences) but that’s the role of the next toolkit.
Ironists Get More Laughs
The final tool of ironic understanding enables us to develop a more sophisticated sense of the contingency of language use and of our and other people’s positions on the issue. We come to recognize that there is no “right” answer or even correct general position; rather there are answers that come from utility or just being polite or from aesthetic considerations and positions whose correctness or otherwise vary depending on circumstances.
So one might conclude that, for oneself, it’s just ugly to say “advocate for,” but also recognize that for some people it is just the way they have learned to say it and for them it’s just fine. If a student writes it in a paper, you might indicate how daft it is, but if politicians use it in speeches, you can recognize that they just want to sound important and let it go as their everyday usage and as a battle not worth fighting any more. Hard, though, not to giggle. Ironists, and Latinists, get more laughs.
Learn more about each of the mentioned in this article in the series. Connect with other imaginative educators on TWITTER: #imaginEDchat #imaginED
Interesting essay samples and examples on: