Think About It

What's Up?

by Don Meyer, Ph.D. | September 25, 2010

"What's up, Doc?"
Bugs Bunny

The English Language is extremely ambiguous. I realized that again when I had a personal conversation with Rev. Wesley Smith, the person who was president of VFCC for 12 years just before me. I shared with him the exciting news that we had just planted 49 new trees on our campus. 

In an attempt to be a bit playful, I asked him the simple question, "When is the best time to plant a tree?" He grinned and gave the kind of answer most people would say, "I'm not sure, perhaps in the spring or maybe in the fall." I then told him the old Chinese proverb, "The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago; the second best time is today." 

The look on his face made me realize immediately I had said one thing but he had heard something else. Since 20 years ago he was the president, my comment could have clearly stated that he should have planted the trees while he was president. We both knew that was not my intent but the ambiguity of English caused both of us to have a good laugh. 

Someone recently sent me the many variations we have in English for the simple word "up." In the dictionary it is listed as an adverb, preposition, adjective, noun and even a verb. It's easy to understand "up" meaning toward the sky or at the top of the list, but when we awaken in the morning, why do we wake "up?" 

At the meeting, why does a topic come "up?" Why do we speak "up" and why are the officers "up" for election and why is it "up" to the secretary to write "up" a report? We call "up" our friends, brighten "up" a room, polish "up" the silver, warm "up" the leftovers and clean "up" the kitchen. We lock "up" the house and fix "up" the old car. 

At other times this little word has real special meaning. People stir "up" trouble, line "up" for tickets, work "up" an appetite, and think "up" excuses. To be dressed is one thing but to be dressed "up" is special. And this "up" is confusing: A drain must be opened "up" because it is stopped "up." 

We open "up" a store in the morning but we close it "up" at night. We seem to be pretty mixed "up" about "up." To be knowledgeable about the proper uses of "up," look "up" the word "up" in the dictionary. In a desk-sized dictionary it takes "up" almost one-fourth of the page and can add "up" to about thirty definitions. 

If you are "up" to it, you might try building "up" a list of the many ways "up" is used. It will take "up" a lot of your time, but if you don't give "up," you may wind "up" with a hundred or more. 

When it threatens to rain, we say it is clouding "up." When the sun comes out we say it is clearing "up." When it rains, it soaks "up" the earth. When it does not rain for a while, things dry "up." One could go on and on, but I'll wrap it "up" because now my time is "up" and I would not want you to get fed "up" and give "up." 

This note which came to me ended with a few final examples. Don't goof "up." Send this on to everyone you look "up" in your address book. Now I'll shut "up." 

I cannot imagine how hard it must be to pick "up" English as a second language. Even those of us who grew "up" with it must perpetually build "up" our vocabulary and grammar if we who know it are to keep "up" with it so we don't mix "up" how we use it. 

Too much talk about "up" could get you down so I will wrap this "up." 

Think about it.

Dr. Don Meyer is President of 
Valley Forge Christian College, Phoenixville, PA 
Responses can be mailed to president@vfcc.edu
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