Grammar Moses: Did I make a straw man argument? No problem!

  • A straw man's argument is more than what you might find at the St. Charles Scarecrow Festival.

    A straw man's argument is more than what you might find at the St. Charles Scarecrow Festival. Daily Herald file photo, 2012

  • A straw man's argument is more than what you might find at the St. Charles Scarecrow Festival.

    A straw man's argument is more than what you might find at the St. Charles Scarecrow Festival. Daily Herald file photo, 2009

 
 
Posted8/1/2021 5:30 AM

Theresa Pawlicki tells me she is 78 years old and has a daughter who is a stickler about proper English, so she lives in mild fear of saying the wrong thing.

But that's not why Theresa wrote to me.

 

"I have to tell you the one phrase I hear so much today that is extremely irritating is 'No problem!' I assume it's meant to take the place of 'Thank you,'" she wrote. "When I hear it, it brings chills to me and it is insulting. It's easier to say 'Thank you' as it's only two syllables where 'No problem' is three."

Theresa, my dad was once like you: His blood would simmer when someone would say "No problem" when "You're welcome" would have been the more appropriate response.

This could have something to do with Dad's being a writer for most of his life.

But I believe it's also a generational thing. He is in his early 80s, still my better in every way but hair color, and I'm a whisker away from 60. I merely twitch when someone -- usually a restaurant server or clerk -- says this to me.

With every generation, acceptance comes more easily.

My recollection is that it entered the vernacular in the early 1980s -- not long after I graduated from high school -- as a synonym for "You're welcome." My English Basic Training was still fresh, my mind still pliant, so that's probably why it merely annoys rather than angers me.

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After much counsel from his children, Dad seems less annoyed by it these days. Perhaps that's because his grandchildren routinely employ it, and he knows they love and appreciate him. Perhaps it's because he's adept at accepting new things. Perhaps it's because he's an old softy.

My advice to you is the same as it was to him: Focus on the sentiment, and don't get hung up on the words.

And don't worry about saying the wrong thing in front of your daughter. That's what parents are supposed to do.

Straw man?

Reader David Harding feels I employed a straw man argument recently when I wrote about superlative adjectives.

The vision that pointed remark evoked was of someone ending a squabble with a straight pin and a voodoo doll.

So, as with anything you ask me about, I researched exactly what a straw man argument is so I could either defend myself or fall on my ... straight pin.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"The question was whether 'most polite' or 'politest' was correct," David wrote. "You offered the example of 'most bright' or 'brightest.' Back in the day, I was taught that you almost always formed the superlative of a single-syllable adjective by adding '-est,' so 'brightest' is the winner hands down. We were taught to add 'most' in front of a three-syllable or more adjective (unless we were Ogden Nash)."

So, David, this sentence wouldn't be preferablest?

"Two-syllable adjectives, such as 'polite,' could go either way," he continued. "With two syllables, I use my ear. Some combinations flow and some are choppy. Often it's probably, as you suggest, familiarity that breeds an illusion of smoothness, but other times there are awkward juxtapositions of consonants that suggest one choice or the other."

Honestly, David, and everyone else, I wasn't trying to blow one by you. I don't remember learning that.

If you're a little fuzzy on the concept of a straw man, consider this: Buying a gun to sell it to someone who shouldn't own one or doesn't want his name attached to it is known as a straw purchase. It's a diversionary tactic.

A straw man argument also is a form of diversion: making it appear you have refuted an argument by substituting that argument with a different one.

Perhaps I did so, albeit unwittingly.

One argument that can't be disputed is Ray Bolger was the most likable of Dorothy's three humanoid traveling companions in "The Wizard of Oz" -- and he was stuffed with straw.

Write carefully!

• Jim Baumann is vice president/managing editor of the Daily Herald. Write him at jbaumann@dailyherald.com. Put Grammar Moses in the subject line. You also can friend or follow Jim at facebook.com/baumannjim.

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