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I refer to my recent answer: Can I say "I Java", or does it have to be "I do Java"?

The question is simple: Given that English speakers often google things, is it reasonable to say something like "I Java"?

Apparently my answer to this is controversial, but most of the objections to it seem to me to be (for reasons I'll get into in a moment) untenable. If you read what I wrote, you'll see that I tried to carefully frame this use as the common practice of verbing nouns, something that native speakers do all the time.

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https://xkcd.com/1443/

I reasonably explain this is colloquial English -- meaning that it is, in a sense, incorrect -- but nevertheless, English learners are likely to hear this kind of wordplay, and should learn to recognize it. Moreover, they can try it themselves, if they feel familiar enough with English to recognize the nuance.

Still, many detractors commented along the lines of, "They can't handle the truth!"

The main problem I have with this statement, is that it stems from the odd and ethnocentric assumption that such things as colloquialism, satire, wit, nuance, understatement, multiple meaning, and all the various other forms of wordplay are somehow exclusive to English -- as if the objectors would, in all seriousness, pedantically admonish a native French speaker against trying to make a double-entendre.

Yeah, about that. You do know French has those things too, don't you?

I can't help but consider this attitude to be narrow-minded and condescending. It seems far more considerate to assume English learners are familiar with the various kinds of wordplay, because such things exist in their own native language (albeit in different forms). As long as we can tell them, "This is a colloquialism of such-and-such type, and here is the context in which you might hear it," then we have done our due diligence. More importantly, it approaches the ELL user base from a position of respect. Adult learners should be able to understand that any non-standard use of language requires caution.

To put it another way: Imagine yourself learning your second/third/fourth/etc. language. You are told that, yes, you might hear some particular phrase, but that it's essentially nonsense that doesn't work outside of a very limited context. Wouldn't you appreciate knowing the complete answer, rather than simply being told, "Don't use it, period!" Aren't you perceptive enough not to use it indiscriminately? And if you believe yourself to be capable of such discretion, shouldn't you grant the same courtesy to English learners?

Look, I get it. We're here to help English learners, which means we shouldn't indifferently teach them "bad" English, and we may be reluctant to metaphorically give them so much rope they hang themselves. But at the same time, we have to remember ELL users are already fluent in at least one other language. They're not naive children. They don't need constant hand-holding. That's not "why they're here".

They just want the tools to say what they already know how to say, but in the most natural and idiomatic way possible in English. Isn't it plain good manners to give them the tools, even if we know those tools may be awkward and difficult to use properly, rather than tell them they can't be trusted because they might hurt themselves?

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    Thank you for this meta post! This is one of my biggest pet peeves as a learner. – M.A.R. Jun 21 '19 at 17:40
  • en.wiktionary.org/wiki/double_entendre: "The phrase is unused and ungrammatical in French." They say "double sens" or "équivoque" instead. – CJ Dennis Jun 26 '19 at 5:56
  • @CJDennis Good to know, but irrelevant to my point. Do you think you'd have to explain the meaning of the phrase to someone fluent in French? Moreover do you think you'd have to explain what exactly this is, and why a skilled example is considered clever? – Andrew Jun 26 '19 at 15:31
  • Yes. I used to talk on Skype with some French people. I used the phrase "double entendre" and they had no idea what I meant. I had assumed it was real French, but it isn't and makes no sense to them. It's simply a nonsensical pair of words with no meaning in French. Just because they understand French colloquialisms and wordplay (such as Verlan), doesn't mean they can understand things that make no sense. You need to have encountered most idioms previously before you can understand them, and "double entendre" is unidiomatic in French. – CJ Dennis Jun 26 '19 at 21:52
  • In Phillippe Katerine's song "Parlez-vous anglais, Monsieur Foutrax?" the latter asks him "Dansez-vous encore la java, dans les dancings?" – Michael Harvey Jul 2 '19 at 13:45
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    This reminds me of the wonderful George Bush quote that "the French have no word for entrepreneur" :-D – Aaron F Jul 4 '19 at 9:38
  • I think your question is poorly asked as the answer you gave in the link is clearly one where you have assumed that it isn't "reasonable to assume English learners intuitively understand colloquialism and wordplay". And that's right. It sure isn't reasonable to assume that. – Lambie Oct 28 '19 at 16:33
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There are two sides to every coin, and the question you point to provides a great example.

Can I say "I Java"? Or do I have to say "I do Java"?

One could look at that question in one of two ways:

  • Can I say something like, "I Java" in English?
  • Would the particular phrase "I Java" sound acceptable to most English speakers?

I would answer the first question much like you did: Yes, we occasionally verbify nouns, even ones that don't normally get verbified.

I would answer the second question much like others tried to clarify in comments below your answer: The particular phrase "I Java" sounds very awkward and probably should be avoided, even in casual speech.

(I'm glad a third point was raised in a different answer, one that would also be helpful and useful for learners: If you're talking about the language, "I program in Java", is better than "I do Java".)

Anyhow, it's a complicated question with no easy answer.

That all said, I agree with your meta opinion: It's better to err on the side of license. I usually avoid telling learners that something can never be done, because sooner or later they'll encounter a counterexample1 somewhere – maybe even by a competent or established writer – and then our credibility takes a hit.

I'm not particularly fond of this dissenting comment below your answer:

I don't think this answer could be any more confusing to a person who's learning English. No, you shouldn't say "I Java". It doesn't make sense in any context. Let's leave it at that.

That was well-intended, I think, but it also could come across as condescending.

I agree with you: give them the tools.


1Such as, "Sorry if I mix in some C# by accident... been a long time since I javaed."

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  • I agree it sounds awkward and shouldn't be used outside of a particular set of circumstances, which is what I say in my answer. Many things are like that. For example, when hanging out with my nerdy friends I might respond to something I think was said incorrectly with, "I do not think that word means what you think it means," a Princess Bride quote that they understand implicitly, Meanwhile, if I said it to my less "learnéd", I'd just get a funny look. – Andrew Jun 21 '19 at 17:16
  • In the same way, with programmer colleagues, "I Java" needs no explanation, and might even be funny, especially if all we do is Java night and day. Again, this is in my answer, but despite the various qualifications, I still was told "No, you mustn't do that." – Andrew Jun 21 '19 at 17:17
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    @Andrew - Agreed. Moreover, if we were programming in the same office, you might say, "Why don't you work on that Python routine, and I'll work on this Java code," to which I might respond, "Me Python, you Java." Nonstandard? You bet. But if you know the cultural reference it parodies, you might find it amusing or clever. – J.R. Jun 21 '19 at 20:55
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Some folks want “rules” so that they won’t be in danger of saying something that’s incorrect. It’s understandable, because poor English (or even the perception of poor English) can impact their work or education opportunities. Other folks are more adventurous and are interested in slang and idiom. This is why we need multiple answers written from different perspectives for most questions.

Your answer has a score of 21 and is the highest scored answer the last time I looked. That’s far from a rejection of the idea that learners can handle the tricky parts of English like verbifying nouns. On the contrary, "(Noun) the sh*t out of this" — What nouns work? was very well received.

I believe that both answers written from the perspective of keeping things simple to prevent confusion and answers delving into more colloquial usage even though it may be challenging are valuable. We have many levels of fluency in our community and learners get more fluent as time goes on. It would be a shame if we excluded less fluent learners or if more fluent learners outgrew us.

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    It's not the votes as much as the attitude behind the comments. Naturally I mind being voted down for specious reasons, but that's just par for the course round here. However, I can't bite my tongue when I see the user base treated like children who need to be spoon-fed for their own protection, against something that is perfectly familiar in their own language. It's not just wrong -- it's rude. – Andrew Jun 21 '19 at 6:47
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    @Andrew I don’t much care for the attitude you’re describing either, although I try to remind myself it comes from a good intention. However, someone expressing that they think an answer is misleading in how common a usage is, or that it doesn’t contain a strong enough disclaimer that the usage isn’t typical, as long as it is expressed constructively, is useful information. If you feel that a comment has stepped over the line and is disparaging non-native speakers instead of addressing the content of an answer, by all means flag it. – ColleenV Jun 21 '19 at 13:43
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    No one is overtly disparaging non-native speakers. Rather it's a casual superiority that comes when we equate someone who speaks broken English, because it is unfamiliar, with someone who speaks it because they are uneducated (or just unintelligent). I guess I hope this meta post helps at least some people rethink their unconscious prejudices. – Andrew Jun 21 '19 at 18:01
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    @Andrew As someone who on occasion speaks Southern, I am well aware of this sort of bias. If a comment seems to have that sort of bias, I don’t think we need to let it hang around. On the other hand, don’t be too quick to ascribe bias to a valid concern about communication barriers. Learners have to ask their questions and read their answers in a language they’re still learning. It’s easy for native speakers to have blind spots wrt things that come so naturally to us it doesn’t occur to us that they would be hard to understand. – ColleenV Jun 21 '19 at 18:09
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The advice you'd give a beginner, an intermediate user, and an expert would be different. When I was trying to learn Irish one of my frustrations was that no-one would give me beginner explanations, only expert explanations that were so complicated that I ended up more confused than when I asked my question.

A beginner needs a "rule" that works 80-90% of the time, an intermediate user 90-95% of the time, and an expert 95-99.999% of the time (adjust those figures to your liking, illustrative only).

Some questions could be asked on either English Language Learners, or English Language and Usage. They should have different answers though in terms of details, as the audience is different on each site.

It is often necessary to have a good grasp of the basics before "breaking" the "rules". Beginners don't have enough experience to be adventurous without drawing attention to themselves. I will accept "bad" grammar from a native speaker with humorous intent, while rejecting exactly the same sentence from an English learner, even if they're deliberately being funny. Is that a double standard? Maybe. But I still think it's good advice. Don't break the rules before you've learnt them well!

The answer I'd appreciate when learning another language is: although it's possible to X, it's better not to at your level, and use word/construction Y instead.

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    This is reasonable, but I'd rather assume experience and simplify if needed, than presume ignorance and give misleading information. For my part, I'd rather have the complicated answer and file most of it away for future reference, while sticking to what I know is correct. – Andrew Jun 26 '19 at 15:34
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    Another example: is there an easy way to tell the gender of French nouns? Simple answer: Yes. Words that end in "e" are feminine. Accurate answer: No. Only 5 in 6 words that end in "e" are feminine. This means it's still necessary to remember the gender of each word independently. Not to mention all the other words not ending in "e"! All words ending in "eau" are masculine. All except "eau" (water) and "peau" (skin) that is! And so on. It's not always possible to extrapolate a simple answer from a complex answer. – CJ Dennis Jun 26 '19 at 22:00
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    @CJDennis - If this was FLL – French Language Learners – and I was asking that question, I think I would want the accurate answer, not the simple answer. I don't think we need to give our learners rules that work 80-90% of the time and then call it a day. Perhaps it's possible to get zealous and give a learner more than they thought they needed, but an answer that tells the whole story probably stands the test of time better than one that addresses the problem superficially. – J.R. Jun 27 '19 at 19:31
  • @J.R. That was not my point. My point was that it's not always possible to extrapolate a simple answer from a complex answer. – CJ Dennis Jun 27 '19 at 23:25
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I've wondered about something closely related: is it patronizing to explain a type of figure of speech, or even the idea of figurative speech as such, rather than just provide the cultural references needed to follow a particular instance of figurative speech? After all, doesn't every language have figurative speech—even pretty much the same set of figures? The following considerations have led me to think that when figurativeness seems to be an obstacle to a learner, we shouldn't shy away from explaining it. These are mostly just educated guesses, though. I'd love to hear more information.

  • The myth that a language is nothing but a set of words, definitions, and grammatical rules seems to be taught implicitly in many places. Memorize this set of words, their definitions, and the rules for altering and combining them, and you will "know" the language. Any straying outside of dictionary definitions and explicit grammar rules is "incorrect"; anything within is "correct". The need to grade exams fairly and objectively adds pressure to treat language as if it worked this way. The myth gets reinforced not just when teaching second languages, but even when people are taught the formal, written version of their own language. And so…

  • Many people have little conceptual vocabulary for figurative speech even in their own language (just as most people have only a little conceptual vocabulary for sentence prosody or phonetics). For many people, the very idea of figurative language is little explored beyond the basic idea of metaphor. Many wholly lack the concept of figurative "schemes" that vary syntax for rhetorical effect. You can see this in some native English speakers' answers: they'll say that a given figure of speech is "informal", colloquial, or "wrong"—apparently unaware of the same figure's prominent role at the highest levels of formality (e.g. asyndeton).

  • More commonly understood is the principle that communication often works by calling simultaneously upon a primary and a common figurative secondary sense of a word, expecting the listener to see the latter in terms of the former—but still a lot of people don't get it, as shown by the occasional practice of picking out one of a word's senses in a dictionary definition without considering how it relates to the others, or disregarding etymology's ability to shed light on the contemporary meanings of a word. Figures of speech are embedded throughout a language, in its idioms and secondary senses and compounds, providing clues to meaning. Yet many try to learn by disregarding those figurative connections.

  • Figurative speech in a foreign language is often baffling, even to a non-native with a lot of experience in that language—and natives often find it baffling that a foreigner would find it baffling. This question about the Canadian expression "two solitudes" gave me an education in that.

  • Figurative speech itself has conventions and familiar patterns that vary from language to language. For example, English commonly uses motion figuratively to describe shapes in ways that seem bizarre in some languages, illustrated here. Sometimes this has gotten questions closed because a dictionary definition seems clear to native speakers but calls upon figurative language that a foreigner doesn't follow. In English, figures like hendiadys and chiasmus are harder to pull off, and often weaker in effect, than in other languages. But anthimeria is "the reigning figure of speech of the present moment," at least in America—even while, I expect, very unusual in some languages.

So, my current thinking is that it's reasonable to assume that ESL learners understand colloquialism and wordplay—but often that's not enough. For some, at least, I think explaining concepts of figurative speech that are common to all languages provides a crucial missing piece of the puzzle of English, enabling them to put the rest together.

The above does not include learners' inevitable search for unshakable rules to make learning easier. If the concepts of figurative speech were more commonly understood, though, it might be easier to guide people to focus more on examples than on rules.

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  • RE: Doesn't every language have figurative speech—even pretty much the same set of figures? I'd be surprised if that were the case. I think one mistake we commonly make on ELL is assuming the hundreds of languages on the planet are just variants of ours. My least favorite comment goes something like this: You would do this in English the same way you would do it in your own language. How can one know that, if we don't even know that person's native tongue? To me, that runs closer to patronizing than taking the time to provide an in-depth explanation about a tricky figure of speech. – J.R. Oct 28 '19 at 10:45
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I think you've just misunderstood the issue the commenters are bringing forth. They aren't arguing that ESL speakers can't understand the concept of colloquialism. They're arguing that your answer is confusing. Rather than being straight to the point, you meander a lot, and your conclusion isn't even clear.

The Question asks whether or not "I Java" is a commonly used phrase in the same way "I googled" is. (The answer is "No.") They do not ask whether they can use it in a humorous fashion. They cite "I googled", which is standard English (even appearing in Merriam-Webster without a "informal" tag).

While what you say in your Answer is interesting information, the reader must infer what the direct answer actually is. This would be even more difficult if you were an English learner--especially if your English was at the level of the Asker.

Your answer would be much better if you simply said "No. While "google" has become a verb in English, Java has not." After that, if you wanted to get into verbing nouns and how it is done humorously at first but eventually can become part of the language proper, then that would be fine.

As it currently stands, hover, I think Michael gave the best Answer to the question actually asked by the Asker. His response is direct and to the point, and fits the level of English indicated by the Asker. It does not get caught up in side issues.

(That said, Ghedipunk's Answer is also good. It answers the Question in the second paragraph, and uses "verbing" to discuss the underlying concept quite well. And it avoids implying that verbing is only used as a form of wordplay and humor.)

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    Nowhere did the OP ask if this structure or this phase was "commonly used" – only if it could be used. (Hence, the answer is not necessarily a simple "No.") – J.R. Jun 23 '19 at 17:34

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