Inherent human worth

I am a grad student, and I’ve been doing part-time English tutoring and translation work to pay the bills. As a tutor, I sometimes have English sentences to correct. I recently got this sentence (more or less):

> It’s common for people to envy the people who are better than them.

During the lesson, I told my student that the sentence was grammatically correct and the vocab word “envy” was used correctly, but I couldn’t help but find it funny. It reminded me of the play insults my little sister and I used to sling at each other in high school, or that spunky hillbilly in the movie, picking a fight with the snooty aristocrat using the line, “you think yer better’n me??

I explained to my student that blatant statements of one human’s inherent superiority over another are either ridiculously elitist or racist in nature, and frowned upon (officially) by the West, where we (in name, at least) adhere to the concept that “all men are created equal.” My student didn’t really understand what I was getting at, so I explained it this way:

> Let me compare myself with Bill Gates. You may say he’s richer than me. Well, yes, he certainly is. You may say he’s more powerful, more successful, and harder-working than me. I can accept all that. But if you say Bill Gates is better than me, I have to disagree. As humans, we are equal.

To my surprise, she still took issue with my point. She was nice enough not to say I’m worthless compared to Bill Gates, but she still held that some people are just better than others. Eventually I understood what I think her point was, and that was something to the effect of value to society. I’m not sure if I was able to explain the difference between “value to society” and “inherent human worth.”

In the end, we adjusted her sentence thusly:

> It’s common for people to envy the people who are better off than them.

Sometimes you really can’t guess what will be difficult to explain.


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. I think that “value to society” and “inherent human worth” is pretty easy to differentiate. It’s like in Deep Impact, when Morgan Freeman is shuffling bunches of people into shelters to avoid getting killed by the incoming comet–you’d like to save them all (because their lives are all equally precious), but you’ve gotta pick the ones that will give you the best chance of making it back as a species once you emerge from the caves (the most valuable to society).

  2. John,

    So if we had two people, and one was a doctor who gave most of his money to charities and spent his vacations performing free surgeries for poor people in “underdeveloped” countries, and the other was serial rapist/murderer, you would say they have the same value?

  3. Hang on a second. Were you tutoring English or personal cultural values?? I think you might be right that this kind of sentence is partly the result of a small vocabularly (ie. she’ll write “better” instead of “wealthier”, “sexier”, “stronger”, “faster”, etc, because those words don’t leap into her mind when she is trying to get her point across), but it is also the result of her underdeveloped thinking on ideas like human rights, self-worth, etc — and I’m not convinced it’s specific to Chinese or Asian or “non-Western” people.

    When she explained herself to you in Chinese, assuming that she did so, did she explain herself with more consideration to the shades of grey?

  4. Great observation. Growing up in China, my friends and I have been indoctrinated with the notion that one has to climb ahead. For each exam there’s a ranking which is displayed publicly to the entire class. For us Chinese, (ok I’m generalizing here) “better” is a natural outcome when there’s severe competition for many things in life – chance to go to college, chance to get a good job, etc. etc. It has its root in the imperial exams in the old days. Consequently, the discussion of self-worth is often limited to how much one’s worth.

    I do agree with Lisa that this is not specific to Chinese. But maybe more so in China right now b/c there hasn’t been enough discussion here about self-worth beyond per capita GDP and one’s bank account.

  5. I agree with Lisa. I think your student is simply dumb. Not in any IQ sense of the word, but in that It appears that she is consciouslly allowing “society” to set the outer limits of her worldview. Don’t examples like the acceptance of racism in Nazi Germany or Aparteid South Africa show that we need to look beyond societal norms when making value judgements? Don’t mean to get heavy, but isn’t that were you end up when you start to think of human worth as being defined by society rather than some kind of bigger picture?

    And to JR, my answer would be yes. All human beings have equal value. Irregardless of past or present behaviour.

    Now if you want to factor in John B’s shelter situation, there are probably other considerations in choosing between the doctor and the rapist/murderer (like not having someone raping people in the shelter). But that doesn’t mean that the serial rapist/murderer has any less value. Just that their past behaviour suggests that they might turn out to be a liability in the situation.

  6. Isn’t “better off” sort of idiomatic? How did you two agree on that one?

  7. I think her original sentence would be acceptable in certain contexts. For example, students in a competitive music conservatory, often are envious of other students who are better players of their instruments than themselves. (I say this from hard experience!) In the context of a conversation in which the subject has already been made clear, a native speaker of English might very well say: “It’s common for people to envy the people who are better than them.”

    But, I agree that, outside of such a context, her sentence implies (intentionally or not) a worldview at dischord with modern English-speaking culture.

  8. JR, your post reminds me of what was both one of my proudest and most embarrassing moments. Back when I was teaching at Tomcat, this topic came up in one of my advanced classes. Like John, I wasn’t very comfortable with the idea of saying one person is “better” than another. My students had no problem with the idea, though.

    Anyway, for one of the open-topic class speeches, one of my best students, Eric, really drilled the point home. His speech went like this:

    Many Americans think that people are all equal, but it’s just a superstition. They say that just because it makes them feel good. People always make up religions and superstitions to feel good. You don’t want to die? Then just say there’s an after-life. You don’t like being un-talented? Just say that only diligence is important. You don’t like being ugly? Just say that the heart is most important.

    For example, look at two people. The first is Leonardo Da Vinci. He was a great athlete when he was young. He later he became the best artist in the world. He also wrote the best book about the body in the world. He was a great doctor. He was a great inventor. He was nice to children and beggars, too. Now, look at Ken. He was stupid. He never learned how to read. He was fat and lazy, too. He only lived by stealing from people.

    Americans would say they are equal. But they aren’t. If Leonardo Da Vinci wasn’t better than Ken, then what does “better” mean? Are people equal just for being people? Are we equal just for being this race? Then what about rats.? 95% of their DNA is like human’s. Are they equal too? What about…

    From there, he rambled on for about five minutes, but it was very entertaining. During the Q&A after his speech, I bit back my desire to drill him about DaVinci’s infamous unreliability, or just crush the little whelp with my superior English. Instead, I asked the dumbest of all possible things: “Who’s Ken? I’ve never heard of him.”

    “There were ten thousands of Kens. But nobody’s ever heard of them.” At that the whole class got a great laugh at my expense. I was left with a feeling of immense pride due to how much Eric’s English had improved during the year, but also intense embarrassment due to being the but of a witty reply made by a @#$%ing ESL student!

    This topic just seems to keep coming up. At my current school, classes which are just learning comparative of adjectives invariably make questions like “Is Jenny better than Sarah is?” when they are doing their QAR drills. Whenever I try telling kids to make the question clearer by asking something like “Is Jenny better than Sarah is at basketball?” a student will invariably ask something like, “Is Jenny always better than Sarah?” It seems that Chinese kids just don’t have the taboo we about out and out saying who’s superior and who isn’t.

  9. I envy you guys. You are better than I. You understand all men are created equal. That right there proves you are better, or from a better culture! Wait, what culture is that? Western? English speaking? Developed? Actually I believe that many, for example, from German speaking cultures think they are better than English speaking persons and than anyone else for that matter. My simple-minded and uninformed view on European history leave me with an impression that that was how Naziism had been born. And wasn’t it some English speaking folks that were running Aparteid South Africa? Maybe we can call all that the past but tell it to the cartoon-protesting Muslims. Wait again, aren’t they less better if they can’t even understand humor? Or, are they upset because they have simply been less better off?

    The above is to illustrate my agreement with the view that the issue becomes complicated/clouded when societal, esp. racial, aspects are mixed in. When we are only talking, and only when we are talking, about basic human values (aka inherent human worth?), John’s concerns about the statement are quite valid. My advice, John, stay with the sentence, not the statement.

    About the basic human values, though, I have always had this puzzle. One of the old Chinese classics talks about 人之初,性本善 … … 苟不教,性乃迁 (ren2zhi1chu1, xing4ben3shan4 gou3bu4jiao4, xing4nai3qian1), i.e., all men are kind in nature to begin with but the lack of education (or nourishing) would let that nature slip. I was of the opinion that that’s opposite to one of the most fundamental Western (or Christian) teachings, that every man’s nature is evil unless and until he is saved. However, I wonder if these concepts have not ironically turned 180 degrees around in today’s global villages.

  10. John B wins for using Deep Impact to prove his point. 🙂

  11. all men are created equal, but don’t stay that way for long.

  12. Following a discussion on this subject this morning with Ben I have come to realize that if I dig deep enough into my world view, I probably do believe that some human’s are inherently better than others. Here’s why – while every individual may have the potential to see the big picture/be enlightened/self actualize/whatever and make the most of the opportunities presented to them to do “good,” some people never will. Others, like Einstein, Mohandas Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Zhou Enlai etc (pick a person you truly admire and use them as the example if you take issue with my choices), do so in an astounding way that changes the whole world.


    How do we recognize these people? They may not have been good/great their whole lives. People totally change overnight (Malcolm X is the first example that leaps to mind) and go from being stereotypically bad to stereotypically good. Some people may be truly good in their intentions, but because their actions do not fit within societal norms they are popularly seen as bad.

    So we can’t recognize these people. Which is why we have to act in the belief that every single person we meet is inherently equal, and inherently good, even if their actions suggest otherwise.

    This is not a Western value. Gin’s example of a traditional Chinese view on the equality of all, as opposed to the Christian concept of original sin is very enlightening, but in the end I don’t think that it is a view that belongs to any one culture more than any other. A minority of individuals worldwide seem to see things this way. The majority just go along with society…

    If there is a general difference between Asia and the West, or to use the two nations I’ve lived in, China and the U.K., isn’t it because popular culture/society in China encourages people to judge people based on the value to society of their actions to date, while popular culture in the U.K. encourages people to judge based on some deeper sense of inherent human worth? Isn’t it a fact that in each environment, the vast majority have not actually rationalized this for themselves, they are just going with the flow?

  13. Eh? Just to clarify, I understand the difference between inherent human worth and value to society. I thought it was pretty simple and should be easy to explain, but it turned out to be harder than I expected. That was the point.

  14. lisa,

    I do quite a bit of cultural tutoring on top of the English tutoring. 🙂

    Her English is quite good, so there’s really no need to use Chinese. In fact, I think it would be irresponsible of me to use it more than for the occasional difficult vocabulary word.

  15. Phil,

    If there is a general difference between Asia and the West, or to use the two nations I’ve lived in, China and the U.K., isn’t it because popular culture/society in China encourages people to judge people based on the value to society of their actions to date, while popular culture in the U.K. encourages people to judge based on some deeper sense of inherent human worth?

    I would agree with you (although I’ve never lived in the UK), but I’m also not entirely convinced that, in America, at least, we are really encouraged to judge people based on some deeper sense of inherent human worth. It might just be that we have a social taboo against saying that one person is better than another, but deep down, we also feel that some people have more value than others. It’s hard to say. I think the message we receive conflicts, to say the least.

    I know I don’t even need to say this, as we’re all making allowances when we speak in generalizations, but it’s certainly not nearly as simple as Asia is A, West is B.

  16. John,

    Apologies for putting what was effectively the same comment up twice. I’m not quite sure what happened, but when I posted it the first time it looked like it had disappeared off into the ether. Even when I check about 20 minutes afterwards it was not there, so I changed a few bits and pieces and tried again. So feel free to dump 10:42’s comment from me if you want to avoid repetition….

    I guess the social taboo you are talking about is just another part of the whole political correctness confusion (for which applied socio-linguists have to bear some responsibility). I hadn’t seen it in that light before.

    There is definitely a culture in some Western nations (I think far more in the English speaking ones than elsewhere) of topics being taboo because they imply racist/sexist/whatever-ist views, as we know that the way we talk has some effect in shaping the way we think.

    And I guess what we’re looking at here is a situation where the restrictions on acceptable language have replaced any desire to actually influence the underlying beliefs, so Westerners are not encouraged to think of people as having some inherent value as human beings, but they are barred from saying the opposite.

  17. Usually when I hear “better person” used in English, it refers to moral superiority. How often have your heard “I want to become a better person.” or “… and I’m a better person for it.” in movies? It comes up all the time. It’s just that in English, it has nothing to do with money. It’s almost always about ideals.

  18. I think this is an interesting debate, but I think the original value of ‘all men (and women!) are created equal’ should really be ‘all humans should be treated equally’. I’d say this was probably one of the original intentions when it was written.
    Of course people aren’t born equal – if we were, there wouldn’t be great artists/musicians/sports people etc. There would just be a group of people that work hard, and a group that doesn’t.
    As for the cultural differences when talking about it, I think it’s true that English-speakers aren’t comfortable openly acknowledging differences in skill/talent etc. I think this is for the same reason that most English-speakers won’t say anything if their meal is bad, they get stepped on on the bus, they get passed over for promotion etc, etc, etc…

  19. What about saying one country is better than another? Is there a taboo against that in America? I mean, would the President of the US ever say something like: “America is the only indispensable nation”? Frankly, I doubt it very much. I would image there would be a taboo against saying this kind of thing because it might be seen as racist or nationalist or something. What do others think?

  20. The question is better in what way? Better can be measured in somewhat systematic and somewhat objective ways. I.e. better in speaking a foreign language, better at bargaining & negotiating, better at picking up chicks…

    As for a better human being, I don’t believe ..all men are created equal, some person having obvious handicaps such as blindness, terminal disease, or missing limbs is hardly considered equal.

    And I think the writer’s intention was not so much a better human being (as in contributing MORE to society) but more so ‘skills’ related, such has better memory or better at making $ or finding directions or better at analyzing semantics…. Therefore, I really don’t know what the fuss is all about.

    I’d let the sentence stand as it is.

  21. I’m not so sure. I think America’s is a great example of a government that is still comfortable using language describing it’s nation as better. “Land of the Free.” “Home Of Democracy.” That type of thing. I guess it’s not totally saying “we’re the best,” but doesn’t it come closer than any other Western nation to doing so?

  22. Great discussion. Two quick random points:

    • IMHO, many liberal politically-correct Westerners do have similar knee-jerk emotional reactions to what’s “better” (the definition of which is subjective and culturally conditioned), even though they feel taboo to say it out aloud. Go to New York and I guarantee the BOBOs gracing a gallery opening will proclaim that the artists were born equal as the beggars outside but they just would never trade the company of the artists with that of the beggars.

    • Some Chinese friends of mine do believe that China needs some sort of Christianity brain-wash to get the notion of “all (wo)men are born equal”. Otherwise the culture would still idolize Bill Gates and Britney Spears for the forseeable future, regardless of what Confucius had said in the past.

  23. […] John at Sinosplice is not sure how to best explain to his Chinese students in English “the difference between ‘value to society’ and ‘inherent human worth’“. Readers debate whether this is a linguistic or cultural problem. […]

  24. I always enjoy the discussions arising from your comments – they usually have a very international flavor and we all learn a lot. In the present case, though, no one has pointed out that your original sentence is indeed not grammatically correct as you thought. I hesitate to point it out publicly after all those comments.

    “Than” is a conjunction and part of an adverbial clause of comparison. If your sentence were not abbreviated, it would read: “It’s common for people to envy the people who are better than they are.” More simply, “You are taller than I am tall.” These constructions therefore take the nominative and not the objective. It’s not a prepositional phrase taking the objective case. (Strumpf, p. 300)

    I know well that “It’s me” has taken over and that your construction is common, but it sure grates on these ears – and it should grate on a tutor’s too. Both what is common and what is correct should be taught to an advanced student.

  25. Robert B,

    I, too, am surprised that no one brought up this grammar point. I am aware that the sentence always had that grammatical flaw, but I always emphasize a descriptive view of a language over a prescriptive one, and typically will not correct students for mistakes that are generally acceptable as correct (descriptively) to native speakers. I recognize that sentence as grammatically incorrect in the prescriptive view, but to be honest, it doesn’t grate on my ears much.

    For the students that care, I teach both what’s officially “correct” as well as what’s common, but I find that in general students are much happier when I correct “non-native English” or (pragmatically) improper English. I find that very few students care about the “what is common and what is proper” issue. As an English tutor, it’s just one of the calls I have to make. I realize not everyone agrees with my view, but that’s OK.

  26. sneak a peek Says: February 11, 2006 at 3:29 am

    I’m afraid I’ll have to agree with that student ‘Eric’, saying all men are created equal is just a ‘superstition’. Total equality simply doesn’t exist in nature. We are who we are because that one sperm outperformed its tens of millions of competitors and reached the egg. In society, you can keep saying all men are created equal but that doesn’t give you a job or any money, you have to fight for them. I think the best way to address this problem is to say ‘All men are DIFFERENT’. Learn to appreciate the difference, not the self-claimed superiority or the ‘superstious’ equality.

  27. I think some people are confusing a political and religious idea, all men are created equal, with a realistic one. In the U.S. the idea is that all men are equal before the law, just as they are equal before God. Therefore, to treat one better than another is to violate Natural Law. However, in fact, some people are smarter, wealthier, luckier, better looking, etc. So in our daily life, we might envy the better athelete, or the smarter student. In fact, it’s very difficult for people NOT to feel that way sometimes. One is a rational idea, that I have no more and no less worth than any other human being, versus a feeling that some guy is wealthier and gets more chicks. Religion spends a lot of time trying to get rid of feelings like envy.
    Sorry for getting philosophical, but I think you’re student is right. I don’t think And how odd is it that Chinese don’t have the concept of equality? Actually, without going on and on, it’s probably due to Buddhism and Communism, which both devalue human life.

  28. @Gin: You have the concept of original sin mixed up. It’s not that people are born evil, it’s that we have the capability to do evil. In other words that we can choose to do evil, not necessarily that we will choose do to evil. And it doesn’t go away when you’re “saved” either. That said, don’t confuse Christian ideas for Western culture. Many of the ideas about ethics, morality, and politics which are deeply held in the west today have their roots in the enlightenment and the secular philosophers of that age.

    @John: Wayne nailed it dead on. It’s the distinction between “morally or ethically better” and “better at (some skill)”. These are totally separate from each other. Bill Gates is “better at” making money or managing people, but in the western mindset this does not equate to being a “morally or ethically better” person. What’s more, either statement says nothing about whether or not the better person was born better or whether they choose to make themselves better. My experiance is that “all (wo)men are equal” refers to the former, not the latter. This is why westerners can say “nobody is better than anyone else” and “i want to be a better person” without contradicting themselves.

    And my apologies if this ends up a double post.

  29. Yes we should promote difference as beautiful. But at Matt points out, it’s also vital that we recognize that fundamentally, one human life is worth as much as any other, particularly when it comes to the way institutions treat groups of people (i.e. how governments treat groups defined by a shared feature such as race or religion).

    Again, allowing that we are in the business of making generalizations here, perhaps as a rule the West (and maybe just the English speaking West) goes to far one way, while the East goes too far the other. Hey, perhaps they should team up…

    Matt, I’d be interested in hearing about why you believe Buddhism and Communism devalue human life. I’m not sure I agree with the statement as it stands.

  30. wayne (and alex),

    It’s obvious that certain people’s skills are superior to certain other people’s. And no, that was not the author’s point.

    Human worth is not about the body’s physical abilities or a skill set. Do you honestly mean to tell me that you think you can go around pointing at handicapped people and saying “I’m better than that cripple, and I’m better than that blind person…”??? That kind of attitude is clearly unacceptable in the West.

  31. Although it is objectively obvious that our genetic heritage, education, experiences and choices make us unequal in skills and financial value to society, I’m still with John on this one. Whether you believe (as I do) that each individual has inherent value imbued by God or wish to take an entirely secular view, the “All men are created equal” meme is very useful for maintaining a harmonious society.

    If we allow that some people are better than others, then that is but the start of the slippery slope to bonded labour, slavery or pogroms of genocide. In daily life, without the background assumption that we are the same and of equal value, day to day interactions would become a maelstrom of pushing and one-upmanship as each individual demonstarted their value by asserting their right to be first…

  32. Phil,

    my short answer would be:
    Communism devalues human life because the society is the highest form. The individual is worth less, and value to society is more important. The 20th Century death tolls from government sponsored murder of their own citizens by Communist countries is far, far greater than anything even the fascists did to their own citizens (excepting Hitler). Most dictators killed to maintain power, think South America or Middle East. Communist executed people wholesale to create a new society.

    Buddhism says that the world is an illusion. Also, the entire universe is basically one, either being or not-being, depending on the sect, Either way, all is one. The individual does not figure as highly in that system. I should state that when I say Buddhism devalues human life, I say that from a Western/Christian perspective which places the individual at the highest point.

    I think it’s fine to believe everyone is equal in a philosophical sense, but to actually believe that in reality everyone is equal in everyway is contradicted by reality. That is what Communists tried to implement, to make everyone equal. Their societies, by denying human nature and reality, are abysmal failures. Is a mentally handicapped parapalegic = Michael Jordan? In God’s eyes, yes. But on Earth, these two souls have far different abilities and “value to society”. Why was there widespread eugenics movements among progressives all througout Europe and the United States in the early 20th Century? They wanted to make a better life on Earth.

    I think this topic cannot be answered without getting into serious philosophical or theological discussion, because I think the question that I cannot answer is, Why am I equal to Bill Gates? Evolution says I’m not. Reality says I’m not. (If we are multiculturalists we might say that in the West, we are equal, but in China we are not equal.) Western values come from Christianity, (Natural Law, the basis of the U.S. Constitution was discovered by Catholic monks). The so called secular values of the West still are based on Christian theology,(which you can say is also in some way based on Greek philosophy).

  33. Matt,

    Thanks for the short answer. I like where your head is at. I think one ought to include “Confucianism” or some other catch-all phrase for the Chinese philosophical tradition, as while there are many crossovers with Buddhist teaching, as I understand it Buddhism itself has never really been massively popular in China. That may just be me buying into the CPC sales material though.

    I’m also totally with you on the Western Society being Christian idea. Which is why I wasn’t so upset as some when Tom Doctoroff coined the concept of the “Confucian Consumer” (yes that link is a flagrant attempt to drive some traffic) to describe Chinese consumers as oppposed to their Western counterparts.

    Talking about cultural blocks as defined by their key religions or philosophies makes much more sense to me than a simple East/West divide. And if you want to plead The Enlightenment, surely that, and every major shift in Western world view since, are just evolutions of Christian culture, not the end of it?

    In fact we should probabaly be saying “Catholic Christian” culture, as I think there is a big divergence with the Orthodox tradition.

  34. I strongly prefer using the correct, i.e. object, pronouns in this situation as well. Not only is it correct, but it also allows for clearer distinctions. For example, let’s say you are talking about video games and your girlfriend. The following two sentences are both correct, but have very different meanings.

    1. I like video games more than her.
    2. I like video games more than she does.

    Since “her” is an object, it must be the object of my “liking”. Since “she” is a subject, she must “like” something. In other words, the two sentences are condensed versions of these two:

    1. I like video games more than I like my girlfriend.
    2. I like video games more than my girlfriend likes video games.

    It’s true that in most situations, this distinction won’t be as important as it is my example. Still, I have seen TEOFL questions in which it matters, and SAT writing sections (as well as many, many college English professors) will take points from students who use subject pronouns as objects.

    Since they’re so common, it’s absolutely vital that students can understand “I’m better than him” constructions. However, they also need to know that when they write, they should use the correct pronouns. As for the idea of teaching culture in class, I think learning the target culture is a very important part of learning any language. Greg Thompson gave a great example of an American’s narration about getting a traffic ticket that is incomprehensible to a 3rd world rural share-cropper, despite the fact that the share-cropper had studied all of the words and grammar patterns used in the narration. I’m of the mind that you really can’t separate teaching culture from teaching language, and still be successful.

  35. “I explained to my student that blatant statements of one human’s inherent superiority over another are…frowned upon by the West, where we…adhere to the concept that ‘all men are created equal.’”

    “I do quite a bit of cultural tutoring on top of the English tutoring. :)”

    To ESL teachers like John and Mark, when did you decide that it was your place to “educate the savages in Western Philosophy”? There are thousands of years of cultural evolution behind your students’ attitudes. Of course they’re going to find what you’re telling them hard to understand!

    There are good aspects of Confucianism and horseshyt aspects of it as well. But my (and your) opinion is irrelevent to their learning ESL, which is your job. Not enlightenment.

    Now, John, I’m not picking on you. And I know your intentions were good. However, the situation kind of reminds me of River Town. In the course fo the book the kid gave several accounts of his frustrations at trying to educate the savages in Superior Western Ideals. I thought his attitude was egocentric, juvenile and unrealistic. China was China long before he was there and it’s doing fine being China right now. It doesn’t need your help ushering it into the Renaissance. 🙂

    Nice discussion, though.


  36. I think it’s best illustrated by asking, “when you were a child and got sick, would you have preferred that Bill Gates come take care of you or your ma ma?” Depending on the context, one could say Bill Gates is “better” than mama, and vice versa. Thus, there is no absolute standard, which “better” implies.

  37. G,

    Points you’re missing in your eagerness to defend the Chinese from an imagined cultural conquest:

    1. Culture and language are inseparable. Study of a language must therefore necessarily involve study of its culture.

    2. My student did, in fact, write a sentence which proved that her cultural understanding was lacking.

    At least in this case, you’re way off base.

  38. It should read:

    It’s common for people to envy THOSE people who are better off than them.

  39. I strongly prefer using the correct, i.e. non-elliptical sentence forms in this situation. Not only is it correct, but it also allows for clearer distinctions. For example, let’s say you are talking about girlfriends and Mark’s formalist views on grammar. The following sentence is correct, but may have very different interpretations.

    1. The two sentences are condensed versions of these two:

    Since “these” is being used to point, it ought to be clear what it is pointing at. But is this “these” pointing forwards or backwards or outside the text? If backwards then the nearest noun is “versions”, but most people would ignore this and go for “sentences” instead. If pointing forwards, then we will have to just assume on the basis of what comes next that we can guess. If pointing outwards, we really would like to see some more description of the context of situation! In other words, the sentence might be a condensed version of one of these three sentences:

    1. The two sentences are condensed versions of these (meaning backwards) two sentences:
    2. The two sentences are consensed versions of these (meaning forwards) two sentences:
      1. The two sentences are consensed versions of these (meaning outwards) two sentences:

    It’s true that in ALL NORMAL HUMAN SITUATIONS, this distinction won’t be AT ALL IMPORTANT BECAUSE PEOPLE USE THE SIGNALS FROM THE CONTEXT TO DETERMINE MEANING. Still, I have seen TEOFL questions in which it matters, and SAT writing sections (as well as many, many college English professors) will take points from students who use ellipsis like this.

    (Actually, Mark, if you use a functional grammar, which is what speakers actually use to form their sentences, you will see that “than her” is a correctly formed prepositional phrase.)

  40. Hmm, just to poke fire on the grammatical front:

    I would say that the “the” of John’s student’s original sentence was redundant and a little buhaoting.

    “It’s common for people to envy the people who are better than them.”

    “The” is usually a specifier; better in this instance to omit it?

  41. As a Sinologist, the only thing I can say for sure is that when it comes to inherent human worth, White people have more than chinese. This is nothing new to most of you but I thought I would point it out, since this discussion seems to be getting a little off track: they vs. them? prepositional vs. elliptical?? We’re talking about VALUE here, so the only thing that needs clarification is: in the original sentence the first “people” obviously referred to chinese, and the second “people” obviously refferred to Whites. And as such, because Whites are better than chinese, the student’s sentence is a true logical proposition. I would give the student full marks.

  42. There are better ways of dealing with differing viewpoints than mocking people, Tony. I could have been more specific by saying “the following two”, instead of “these two”. Maybe if this board supported an “edit” button, I would have. On the other hand, your post is absurd. I have yet to meet a single English Prof. who felt that all sentences with unmodified demonstratives were elliptical, and therefore incorrect.

    In any case, I HAVE seen occasional situations in which subject/object pronoun agreement problems cause misunderstandings. Believe it or not, the example I gave in my previous post came from real life. My roommate and best friend in college was a Japanese guy. His girlfriend girlfriend was an obsessive gamer, and he said, “I like video games more than my girlfriend at a party.” As a result, a bunch of people thought he was a total jerk for a few days, until I helped him explain. It was really bad luck, but a good friend of mine was tripped up by exactly the sentence I used as an example. I know that stuff comes up on TOEFLs and SATs because I used to work at Princeton Review.

    I said students should be able to understand both forms, and they should know which is more acceptable in writing. If anyone can make a coherent argument as to why that’s such a bad thing, as opposed to just mocking me personally, I’m all ears.

  43. Tony, your post was sheer humour,

    Mark, don’t take it seriously, I read it as genuine tongue-in-cheek sarcastic parody. For Tony was not mocking you, merely parodying your post. If you were offended by that then don’t be so literal, I like to read the ‘net in a light hearted way, most people are not offencive in real life, and even if they are challenging, some friendly jesting bypasses most defensiveness.

  44. You know, Penfold, I just came accross an interesting story on Slashdot about the secret cause of flamewars.

    “According to recent research published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, I’ve only a 50-50 chance of ascertaining the tone of any e-mail message. The study also shows that people think they’ve correctly interpreted the tone of e-mails they receive 90 percent of the time. “

    You’re right. I very likely read Tony’s post the wrong way and just got too defensive. I should just assume he meant it in good humor unless I have a good reason not to. My appologies, Tony.

  45. Mark said:

    “I said students should be able to understand both forms, and they should know which is more acceptable in writing. If anyone can make a coherent argument as to why that’s such a bad thing, as opposed to just mocking me personally, I’m all ears.”

    Well, I apologize, Mark, if you were offended. By mirroring your previous post, I was simply trying to show that your own writing could be construed as being ambiguous. But that this would be something only an overfussy professor who was letting his situational intelligence be overridden by his formalist grammatical one would do. I thought you would understand this.

    However, since you did not, I will attempt to explain myself more clearly:

    While it is true that we can encounter contexts in which ambiguities take place, there is really no need to make an art form of them as the Princeton Review and other piss-up jobs of this elitist ilk tend to do. This is because the reason the Princeton Review and all the grammar tests feel compelled to say that one perfectly acceptable English sentence is actually another sentence in disguise is because the model of grammar they are working with is simply WRONG. This model is based on a faulty analogy with Latin and Greek that does a real disservice to English.

    In other words, this model of grammar is incapable of dealing with the actual language people use in a sufficiently refined way. That is why it claims that perfectly acceptable everyday sentences like

    I like video games more than her

    are ambiguous and should be rewritten as

    I like video games more than she does.

    And then goes on to test this “knowledge”, failing those people who don’t understand or appreciate this refined understanding of non-ambiguous language.

    Of course, this passion for avoiding ambiguity sometimes has the unintended side effect that the language user being upbraided for their “mistakes” might tend to feel that their own language was secretly being mocked. And this would tend to result in this language user becoming much more self-conscious about their writing, wishing they could go back and correct their “mistakes” and trying not to make more mistakes when they report on other people getting embarrassed because they said things like

    “I like video games more than my girlfriend at a party.”

    But at any rate again, Michael Halliday would suggest that

    than my girlfriend at a party

    is a correctly formed prepositional phrase (two actually and potentially ambiguous!).

    But I am then genuinely interested in what your think of this alternative explanation.

    Because in my opinion, this alternative view of grammar allows us to write sentences like

    I like video game more than her

    or even sentences like

    “I like video games more than my girlfriend at a party.”

    or even

    “I like video games more than my girlfriend” at a party.

    without embarrassment.

  46. When I first saw this article, I didn’t approve the John’s view. Because I think if people judge people by their “value to society”, what’s the significancy to talk about “inherent human worth”,it just crap of people to cheat themselves. But on the way to work tomorrow morning, I thought about this question again, when I was sitting on the bus, and made more sense of this issue. That is if put this problem in larger situation, “Is a country better than aother?” “Is America better than China?” Of course I will say No, however if people say America is richer/opener/more developed than China, I can accept all that. What’s the difference with the two questions? I’m not sure why I changed my idea about the same kind of issues. So I guessed John’s view is right that “inherent human worth”and “value to society” are quite different.

  47. It looks like the lack of an edit button got me again. He was at a party when he said the sentence, “I like video games more than her”.

    By mirroring your previous post, I was simply trying to show that your own writing could be construed as being ambiguous. But that this would be something only an overfussy professor who was letting his situational intelligence be overridden by his formalist grammatical one would do…

    Chill, dude! This isn’t an essay, a research paper, or even a newspaper. It’s a blog. When writing an something formal, being clear, persuasive, interesting and error-free are the goals. Blogging’s more about convenience and informal discussion. Anyway, if you want to keep debating this, lets move it to email.

    Now, back to the topic of this thread! I thought of another thing related to this post. How do you refer to your bosses or military officers in English? They’re your “superiors”. Does anybody know of a similar usage in Chinese?

  48. Mark:

    Michael Halliday would analyse the sentence that you first wrote in this way:

    I (nominal group)
    like (verbal group)
    video games (complement)
    more (adverbial group)
    than her (prepositional group).

    In other words, the construction “than her” is similar to other constructions like “of her”, “by her” and “in her”.


    I like video games more.
    I like video games more by her.
    I like video games more at her house


    Halliday would analyse the other sentence in this way:

    I (nominal group)
    like (verbal group)
    video games (complement)
    more (adverbial group)
    than (prepositional group)
    she (nominal group)
    does (verbal group).

    Technically, this last bit involves what Halliday calls rank-shifting, which is the process whereby one unit of grammar functions at another level. In this case, the verbal element “she does” has become part of the prepositional group. This happens all the time in English and is a major aspect involved in the formation of texture and the movement of argument.

    As another instance of this, your own sentence:

    There are better ways of dealing with differing viewpoints than mocking people, Tony

    also contains a verbal element rank-shifted: “mocking people”.

    At any rate, Mark, this is a different analysis than you have proposed, and it avoids the ambiguity that you detected. Moreover, it does this without rewriting one sentence as another sentence.

    And because this analysis solves the problem that you first commented on, I am genuinely interested in your response.

    (Despite your knowing that a blog “isn’t an essay, a research paper, or even a newspaper,” I believe that it was YOU who first raised it as a subject for discussion here.)

  49. You’re mistaken, Tony. Robert raised the subject in comment #24; I just responded.

    At any rate, Mark, this is a different analysis than you have proposed, and it avoids the ambiguity that you detected. Moreover, it does this without rewriting one sentence as another sentence.

    And because this analysis solves the problem that you first commented on, I am genuinely interested in your response.

    Since you are “genuinely interested” in my response, I’ll reply one last time. If you want to discuss it any further, email me. You haven’t eliminated the ambiguity. When you use the word “her”, sometimes it’s a subject and sometimes it’s an object. The meaning of a sentence can change dramatically depending on which it is. Worse still, that usage grates on Roberts ears. It grates on mine, too.

    Michael Halliday, like many linguists, was a functional grammar zealot. He would have accepted Ebonics as being just as “correct” as Hemingway. I don’t. I teach my students how to understand the way most people speak, whether if it is grammatically correct or not. I also teach them what sorts of language should be used in writing and formal speech. I wouldn’t be doing them any favors by letting them use any grammar they please, as long as Halliday could parse it.

  50. John, the sentence is arguably not correct English. Let us look again: “It’s common for people to envy the people who are better than them.”

    First of all, according to prescriptive grammar books, it should be “better than they”, because “than” is a what-do-you-call it (conjunction??) and not a what-do-you-call-it (preposition??). But according to the descriptive grammar approach, as most native speakers say “better than me” rather than “better than I”, then the sentence would be correct. But: arguably the “the” in “the people” is non-idiomatic.

    Human equality refers to rights. We all have the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, but that does not mean we are all equally tall, equally handsome, equally intelligent, equally gifted at languages, equally good piano players, or equally good people morally. Why is the Unabomber in prison, while I am free on the streets, if we are all equal? People and population groups have the same human rights – which includes a duty to respect other people’s human rights, and not go killing them for example – but individual people do not behave in the same way, and population groups do not behave in the same way either. As Honore de Balzac once said, “equality may be a right, but no power on earth can make it a fact”.

  51. Hmm! A can of worms. To quote a Confucian passage saying that people are all good to begin with before education/society corrupts them sounds like something Mencius might have written. Xunzi wrote “man’s nature is evil; goodness it the result of conscious activity” (Xunzi, Book 23, “Man’s Evil Nature”). Actually there is a bit of a split in Confucianism on this subject – read The Confucian Mind by Daniel Wang for a fascinating read – but, equality in traditional Chinese thought is the equality of the powerless vis-a-vis the emperor and scholar officials. Daniel Wang describes it as a pyramid society, where most people are on the bottom layer, and so equal among themselves, but not compared with those at the top. Confucius did not say that all people are equal. Rather he said that all people should conduct themselves in a servile and obsequious way towards rulers, and that this setup should be replicated witihin the family. As I can see after reading Daniel Wang’s book, it is difficult for Westerners to understand East Asian thinking – and he specifically says that most foreigners in China come away without understanding the Confucian basis of thought here, as we interpret things in a different way.

  52. Confucianism certainly has a ton of practical difficulties, but Confucius was pretty clear on the idea that “the ruler” should always be putting himself in the position of “the ruled” and thus make decisions based on empathy. This isn’t exactly equality, but it is “equalizing.”

  53. Actually, I think, what your student means is “It’s common for people to envy the people who do things better than them.” When a Chinese says “You are better than me” he actually intends to say “You can do this or that better than me” or, as you pointed out, “You are better off than me”. It’s just a mistake of translation.

  54. I think the distinction is this: all humans have equal value and equal rights, yet this does not mean their actions are equal. For instance, although the life of Mother Teresa is inherently equal to that of Hitler, their actions are nowhere close. A person’s actions may indeed be better than another person’s actions. Perhaps your student meant “better” in the sense that we should all strive to be better. It seems incredibly offensive (and hilariously ironic) to assume that your non-english-speaking student is racist or an elitist because she doesn’t conform to your viewpoint. heh.

  55. You nailed the point home of intrinsic human worth. Not everyone can understand easily their human worth that is regardless of external things as you can grasp so easily.

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