Monthly Archives: July 2016

A Minor Hiccup in a Hedge

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Nestled among the marked (or “dispreferred”) behaviors of discourse we find a lovely little linguistic feature known as “hedging.”

Hedging is the default refuge of anyone who doesn’t want to be held 100% accountable for what they say. The speaker tempers their words to lessen the impact of their speech, thereby creating a verbal trap door through which they can escape should the need arise.

It’s the linguistic equivalent of tiptoeing and a useful hallmark of lawyers, politicians, bloggers, and anyone else who might worry about getting caught in a lie by their own soundbites.

Shifty behavior isn’t the only factor that lends towards hedging. Politeness plays a strong part as well. You don’t want to speak in bald absolutes? There’s a hedge for that.

Modal Hedges

Modals provide a ready means of hedging. Compare the solid, reliable sense inherent in can, will, shall, and must with the weaselly, conditional sense of may, might, could, should, and would. You can almost hear the retractions formulating in a speaker’s mind:

“I told you I might help, not that I will.”

As modals, by their definition, indicate a speaker’s mood toward the statement they utter, use of the conditional models is a dead giveaway for a hedge. The speaker may follow through, but then again, they might not.

Verbal Hedges

Verbal hedges come in at least two varieties. The first is the pull-your-punch linking verbs that people like to substitute for the solid “to be”:

  • to seem; “She seems nice.” (I don’t know if she actually is, but she seems that way right now, so don’t hold me accountable if she turns out to be a massive jerk.)
  • to appear; “It appears we have an agreement.” (We have one, but I don’t want to trample on your sensibilities by declaring is so boldly, in case you’re having second thoughts.)
  • to look; “He looks angry.” (Every visual cue for anger is there, but there’s a slight chance he has one of those angry faces, so I won’t definitively label him as being angry just yet.)

The second type is a shell verb that dilutes the main verb of a sentence to allow for exceptions to the statement. For example,

  • tend to; “I tend to shriek when I’m scared.”
  • try to; “I try to obey traffic laws.”

Such hedges can be useful, but remember: the longer the verb phrase of a sentence, the weaker its effect. In strong, efficient writing, verbal hedges get the boot.

Adverbial and Adjectival Hedges

Adverbial and adjectival hedges are, as their name implies, adverbs, adjectives, or adverbial phrases that qualify another lexical part of speech (noun, verb, adjective, adverb, or preposition).

Some of these hedges reflect “smallness” in their literal meaning, the better to minimize the rhetorical impact of the word or message they modify:

  • a little; “I may be a little late.” (“I won’t be there on time, but it’s nothing to get upset about.”)
  • a bit; “Your voice is a bit loud.” (“Tone it down, Brunhilda.”)
  • slight; “We’ve run into a slight snag.” (“Something’s gone wrong. Terribly, terribly wrong.”)
  • at least; “I called your name at least five times.” (“I lost count after five, but there were more than that. Or I’m exaggerating to make you feel bad.”)

Others reflect “variety”:

  • kind of; “I’m kind of happy.” (“I’m happy, but saying it outright is too much.”)
  • sort of; “You’re sort of a jerk.” (“You’re totally a jerk. Mend your ways.”)

The “frequency” adverbs often and sometimes serve to temper their absolute counterparts, always and never.

My personal favorite with adverbial hedges is when they pile up on each other, à la kinda sorta (“I kinda sorta like you, Jimmy.” *blushblushblush*) or when they directly contradict the adverb they’re modifying.

Kind of really, my love, I’m looking at you. “I’m kind of really annoyed right now” actually means “I’m really, really annoyed right now, but I’m tempering one of those reallys with a kind of because I’m showing restraint, but if you don’t take the cue I might end up wringing your neck.”

Yes, in a strange twist of language, kind of really is a hedge that augments and diminishes at the same time, people.

(Which is why I love it so.)

When it comes to narrative writing, adverbial and adjectival hedges are mostly superfluous (YSWIDT, haha?) and can be edited out. A slight snag is a snag. A minor hiccup is a hiccup. And if you’re a little late, you’re late. Period. No qualifying necessary.

Except when you kind of really need to, I mean. And then it’s pretty much okay.

The Most Potent of Good-luck Charms

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Once upon a time, fictional dogs didn’t stand a snowball’s chance of surviving to the end of the story. Old YellerBristle Face, and Where the Red Fern Grows taught generations of children to weep in trauma.

Then, presumably, those children grew up and took over the entertainment industry. The canine body count had reached critical mass and the pendulum swung the opposite direction.

Particularly where disaster movies were concerned.

The ’90s boasted a series of apocalyptic films, many of them coming in thematic pairs, and most if not all of them hosting a common plot thread:

  • Volcano (1997): The dog lives.
  • Dante’s Peak (1997): The dog lives.
  • Armageddon (1998): The dog lives.

Yes, humans are dropping like flies and all mayhem abounds, but those furry, rambunctious pets somehow manage to avoid any serious injury.

Independence Day (1996) features the now-infamous scene of the family dog leaping into a concrete shelter mere seconds before a raging wall of fire sweeps past. The feel-good moment belies its context. Millions of people have just been incinerated off screen, but the audience is supposed to cheer for a dog.

(There’s also the physics-defying politeness of the flames not to flood that sheltered nook and barbecue its occupants. So kind of the inferno to magically pass by, as though fire traveling forcefully on air currents wouldn’t press into every opening it encounters.)

But, I’ll admit, the first time I saw the film, I did cheer. No one wants a fictional dog to die. (Unless it’s Cujo, I mean.)

One of the more egregious example of The Dog that Lives trope appears in the 1996 disaster flick Daylight. A group of people seek to escape a collapsed traffic tunnel beneath a river, their path immersed in darkness and slowly rising waters. The dog, which belongs to the token elderly couple of the ensemble, doesn’t make it through one of the chambers. Grandma is despondent. She can’t go on. She gives up and dies.

And the freaking dog shows up again, like, five minutes later, to make a final escape.

Hooray! Fido’s alive!

Granted, the owner who loved him so much is floating lifeless in the darkened depths below, but that’s not important. And all those people who croaked in the initial disaster and along the way, well, they’re just faceless casualties. And yeah, his appearance caused the protagonist to (stupidly) jump back into the waters to save him and subsequently get trapped again and have to find another way out.

But it was totes worth it, m’kay?

For the record, I love animals. Dogs are among the purest, most loving creatures on the earth.

But when push comes to shove in a disaster story line, they take second tier on my list of priorities. When creators bend over backwards to let the dog live while simultaneously slaughtering human characters by the dozens, I’m out.

***

PS – For a comical take on the Ill-Fated Dog trope, try No More Dead Dogs by Gordon Korman.

The Principle of Expendable Virtue

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We’ve all seen it: two people of casual acquaintance thrown into a story line that involves instant death bearing down upon them. And suddenly, in the midst of calamity, voila! A lurrrve subplot is born!

Sure, they might grapple with a token moral dilemma—”Should we? Should we not?”—but inevitably, the qualms recede as the end draws nigh. Principles aren’t that important, you guys.

This phenomenon of expendable virtue can crop up in pretty much any impending-death scenario, but the cataclysmic doomsday genre allows it to flourish. It encourages its characters to participate in an angst-filled battle against regret and to arrive upon its “seize the day” solution.

Which is ironic, because impromptu hook-ups are more often a cause of regret rather than a means of avoiding it. But I digress.

I have issues with this subplot for several reasons, three of which I’ll here discuss.

1. It illustrates selfishness.

I get the whole “unfulfilled love” vein of regrets, but intimacy born of impulse is the opposite of love. It’s a self-serving act, and too often it comes with an “anyone will do” undertone. Person A solicits Person B to satisfy their own desires. “But Person A has always secretly loved Person B,” you might contend.

Yeah, sorry. It still rings hollow. It would hold a lot more weight for me if Person A only wanted to spend time with Person B and wasn’t angling for some action, but that’s rarely the case.

2. Characters in this subplot can come across as predatory.

This is particularly true when one of the parties involved is at all reluctant. One partner pressuring the other for intimacy creates an unequal power balance, and using impending doom as a means of coercion is a special brand of vile.

That’s something captors do to hostages. It’s what abusers do to their victims. It’s a mind game. “You don’t want to have these consequences, do you? You should obey me.”

Yuck.

3. It’s fundamentally godless.

This one is probably fine for readers with atheist or agnostic leanings. I don’t fit in that category, but I get the logic. If death is certain and there’s nothing beyond, why not engage in behavior that might otherwise be reckless or ill-advised?

Except that there’s a whole list of behaviors we should never engage in under any circumstances: arson, murder, rape, molestation, animal cruelty, and so forth. And no, I’m not drawing a parallel between consensual sex and criminal activity, but when the argument boils down to, “Let’s do this because there will be no consequences,” the line between right and wrong no longer exists. Why shouldn’t a character go on a murder spree if there won’t be any consequences?

(Incidentally, that could be a fascinating subplot for a doomsday story, and a heck of a lot more original than the Desperate Awkward Love trope.)

The moral dilemma variation to this subplot only enhances the scenario’s inherent godlessness: in the face of impending destruction, characters cast aside life-long beliefs and embrace the philosophy of “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die”—a philosophy that only works if there’s no final reckoning in the Great Beyond.

Frankly, abandonment of faith and principles is the last thing I want to see in any character’s closing hours. That’s depressing, even more so than an Imminent Fiery Death.

I’d much rather see kindness, hope, encouragement, people being decent to one another, reconnecting with family, mending fences. A million potential regrets would loom over someone’s head in a doomsday scenario, but love—true, lasting love for family and dearest friends—dominates that list.

Our culture is obsessed with romance, though, and spur-of-the-moment intimacy marks the apex of that ideal. So, we get hackneyed subplots about gangly teens trying to fulfill their warped sense of love, validation, and lost adulthood instead.

Yay.

*gags*

Principles are not meant to be disposable. They’re supposed to remain constant regardless of external circumstances. The whole “You don’t want to die a virgin, do you?” line of persuasion should lead to one obvious answer: “Why not? That’s the way I lived.”

But there’s no drama in that, only dignity—which is one of the most underrated virtues of all.