September 24, 2009

Language Tips: cause and give & comprise

Posted in cause, comprise, give at 1:26 am by dlseltzer

Tip 1: Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen. Cause and give

Arriving at work early one morning this week, with no caffeine in my system, I was startled to open my email and find the following:

Dear Wordsolver:

A question arose this evening at the dinner table about some troubling properties of the word ‘trouble.’ While instinct and gut provide some guidance, I feel I must turn to a maven for formal understanding. Here is the problem: it seems correct to say, “I am sorry I caused you trouble.” But it seems to trouble my tongue to say, “I am sorry I gave you trouble.” I can cause trouble for myself, but I cannot give myself trouble. There is the well-known Trouble with Tribbles. One can be in trouble, get out of trouble, have troubles, trouble the waters, make trouble, foment trouble, or avoid trouble. Is the trouble with ‘trouble’ one of style or substance?

I’ll leave you with a couple troublesome quotes.

-Troublemaker

“If Trouble don’t kill me/Lord I’ll live a long time”
–J. Garcia

“Trouble in mind, I’m blue/But I won’t be blue always/’Cause the sun is gonna shine on my back door someday”
–R. Jones

Yikes. This called for a trip to Starbucks.

After giving this way too much thought, I decided that this is a question of style, and it is a question of substance.

I spent a bit of time pouring over the many definitions of ‘trouble’ to determine whether there are some definitions for which ‘give’ makes sense more than ’cause’ and others for which ’cause’ makes better sense.

I finally came to the realization that the trouble isn’t really with ‘trouble’: the trouble is with ‘give’ and ’cause.’

If you look up ‘give’ in the dictionary, you will find something like a gazillion definitions, including present, bestow, grant, impart, provide, relinquish, convey, transmit, assign, allot, yield, produce, for a few. There are a lot more, including ’cause.’ ‘Cause’ as a definition is usually used in the sense of ’cause to catch’ as in :

She gave me her cold.

However, there is no hard and fast rule about that being the only usage for the ’cause’ definition of give.

On the other hand, if you look up the definition of ’cause,’ you will find only a couple of definitions for the verb. It means ‘to result in’ or ‘to bring about.’ Very simple and straightforward.

When we are talking about causing trouble, we are talking about bringing about trouble. So it would be the definition of ‘give’ that means ’cause’ that we would be referring to here, and conceivably, you could say, “I’m sorry I gave you trouble.” However, when we think of ‘give,’ we tend to think of the broader array of definitions that are associated with providing someone with something. “Causing’ and ‘providing’ are not the same.

Moreover, I believe there is another reason that this seems wrong to Troublemaker (and oh, what an apt moniker he gave himself). When we use ‘give’ with a noun that is abstract, we usually associate it with something positive.

You gave me such happiness.

In the sentence above, it could be using the ’cause’ definition, but more likely it is referring to the definitions closer to ‘present’ or ‘bestow.’ We don’t think about ‘giving’ someone a negative abstraction. When we do use it that way, the meaning shifts. For example,

I gave him grief.

I think we all would agree that this doesn’t mean, that I caused him to grieve; rather, it means, I talked back or otherwise showed him the error of his ways.

The boy gave his teacher a hard time.

Here, the boy didn’t cause his teacher to have a hard time (although that could be the result). The sentence meant that he acted up.

We don’t ‘give’ sorrow, pain, despair, agony; however, we can ’cause’ it.

I think that’s why “I am sorry I gave you trouble” sounds wrong.

“We were making the future, he said, and hardly any of us troubled to think what future we were making. And here it is!”                                                                                                                                                                                           HG Wells

Tip 2: A reprise of comprise

I’ve been wanting to reprise comprise. And the following sentences in a recently read proposal provided the impetus.

The Computer Assessment of Mild Cognitive Impairment (CAMCI) is intended as a screening tool for detecting cognitive decline at the earliest stage. The CAMCI is comprised of subtests that are computerized versions of standard pencil and paper tests and a virtual reality shopping trip during which the subject must remember to perform various tasks while attending to surroundings.
Simply stated, ‘comprise’ means to contain. The whole comprises the parts. It is not correct to say that ‘something is comprised of something.’ Although, a common mistake, it is, nonetheless, a mistake. And there is an easy fix.

The CAMCI is comprised of subtests that are computerized versions of standard pencil and paper tests and a virtual reality shopping trip during which the subject must remember to perform various tasks while attending to surroundings. WRONG

The CAMCI comprises subtests that are computerized versions of standard pencil and paper tests and a virtual reality shopping trip during which the subject must remember to perform various tasks while attending to surroundings. RIGHT

The CAMCI is composed of subtests that are computerized versions of standard pencil and paper tests and a virtual reality shopping trip during which the subject must remember to perform various tasks while attending to surroundings. RIGHT

The CAMCI consists of subtests that are computerized versions of standard pencil and paper tests and a virtual reality shopping trip during which the subject must remember to perform various tasks while attending to surroundings. RIGHT

The thing to keep in mind is the notion that the whole comprises the parts. Just as the first sentence, above, is incorrect, so is the following sentence:

50 states comprise the United States. WRONG

The United States comprises 50 states. RIGHT

The puzzle pieces that together comprise a picture of the Eiffel Tower. WRONG

The puzzle pieces that together make up a picture of the Eiffel Tower. RIGHT

The puzzle pieces that together constitute a picture of the Eiffel Tower. RIGHT

And again, keeping in mind that the whole comprises the parts (emphasis on whole), you shouldn’t say:

The results of the experiment comprise part of preliminary data we are going to present today. WRONG

Why is that wrong? We use comprise when we are talking about the whole.

The results of the experiment represent part of preliminary data we are going to present today. RIGHT

The preliminary data we are going to present today comprise the results of several experiments. RIGHT

In the sentence just above, the preliminary data represent the whole, and the several experiments represent the parts. Thus, the preliminary data comprise the experiment.

Easy, right?

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