## How we’re sounding stupid today: On the propriety of examples

My first language is (American) English, but I speak French well enough that if I want French people to believe that I’m an American, I have to convince them of it. Comparing and contrasting French and American political appartenances helps, as does my ability to explain the difference between felonies and misdemeanors and how they affect the length of your prison sentence. Why it doesn’t occur to me to just speak English with them, I couldn’t tell you–I’ll have to try it some time…

My ability to speak French well doesn’t mean that I don’t make absolutely stupid mistakes, though. Case in point: propreté and propriété. One means “cleanliness” and one means “property,” but if I need to say either “cleanliness” or “property” in French, which of those two words propreté and propriété will come out of my mouth is pretty random. How random? I’d guess a 50/50 chance for either of them. So, how often do I say the right/wrong word? Let’s figure it out.

First, we have to make some assumptions. Assumption #1: the probability of me needing to say cleanliness and the probability of me needing to say property are equal. If we don’t make that assumption, then we have to adjust the calculation of how often I say the wrong word to account for how often each of those two words get said. By me. In French. Complicated? Yes. Hence: Assumption #1.

Assumption #2: the probability of me saying the right word and the wrong word are equal. Otherwise, we have to adjust our calculations of how often I say the wrong word to account for different probabilities for each. By me. In French. Complicated? Yes. Hence: Assumption #1, and Assumption #2.

With those assumptions in place, let’s figure out the possible outcomes in a situation where I need to say one of those words: “cleanliness:”

1. I need to say “cleanliness” and I say propreté (the right word)
2. I need to say “cleanliness” and I say propriété (the wrong word)

We have two possible outcomes (that’s the technical term), so the probability of either of them is 1/2, or 0.50, or 50%.

It works the same way if I need to say “property”–there are two outcomes:

1. I need to say “property” and I say propreté (the wrong word)
2. I need to say “property” and I say propriété (the right word)

Back to our original question: how often do I say the right/wrong word? Well… we need to change the question. To wit: to know how often I say the right/wrong word, we would need to know the probability of me saying every word that I say, and calculate the probabilities of me getting them right/wrong.

However: I don’t give a fuck about that. What seems funny to me about the fact that I am equally as likely to fuck up the words cleanliness and property is that they’re so fucking…common. I mean, I don’t have a problem with the vocabulary for talking about, say, why we have the Electoral College or why Beaux Arts Victorian houses aren’t built any more, but I can’t talk about the fact that if my little corner of New Orleans gets flooded in the next couple days, I am going to have some hot, sweaty, bug-infested work ahead of me as soon as I can get a plane ticket back there. Yes, friends and family: I am safe and sound in Colorado.

Note to self: propreté is pretty close to propre, “clean”–maybe that can help me remember? And for practice (just in case writing this blog post wasn’t enough), here are some sentences to practice with, courtesy of the Sketch Engine web site, your home for fine linguistic corpora and the tools for searching them. Scroll down for the answers:

1. Je suis en train de vendre ma ______.
2. Il y a des efforts à faire concernant la ______ de la piscine.
3. Comment conserver la ______ d’une salle de bain ?
4. Dans les années 60, on a étudié les ______ de trous noirs.
5.  La couleur blanche est rattachée généralement à la pureté et à la ______ .
6. Balai vapeur hyper polyvalent – pour plus de ______ dans la maison !
7. Ton corps même n’est pas ta ______ ; comment pourrais-tu posséder le Tao ? (See Taoist scripture for an explanation.)
8. Les jeux vidéo ne sont pas la ______ exclusive de ces hommes blancs cishétéros.
9. Les oreilles : vérifiez régulièrement la ______ des oreilles de votre chien.
10. Actuellement la ______ appartient à la commune.
11. Tous les jeux flash présent sur le site restent la ______ de leurs auteurs respectifs.
12. Votre langue, cher monsieur Walder, est révélatrice de l’état de ______ du sexe de votre femme, point barre.
13. Les sanitaires sont d’une ______ immaculée et il y a même des machines à laver.
14. …les métaphores qui transposent certaines ______ d’une catégorie à une autre : “l’homme est un loup pour l’homme”…
15. Entretien des trottoirs : Chaque Soiséen est responsable de l’état de ______ du trottoir qui borde sa ______.
16. Nettoyage: Les frais de nettoyage (50,00 Euros) vous seront rendus à la fin de votre séjour selon l’état de ______ de la ______.
17. Un matériau aux multiples ______ – résistance, ultra______ – et qui s’adaptent aux dimensions de vos projets.
18. Il n’a cependant pas les ______ ou la ______ du biométhane naturel.

Picture source: https://www.accuweather.com/en/weather-news/how-a-hurricanes-dirty-side-factors-into-the-storm-surge-it-produces/801756. Scroll down for the answers to the exercise!

1. Je suis en train de vendre ma propriété.
2. Il y a des efforts à faire concernant la propreté de la piscine.
3. Comment conserver la propreté d’une salle de bain ?
4. Dans les années 60, on a étudié les propriétés de trous noirs.
5.  La couleur blanche est rattachée généralement à la pureté et à la propreté .
6. Balai vapeur hyper polyvalent – pour plus de propreté dans la maison !
7. Ton corps même n’est pas ta propriété ; comment pourrais-tu posséder le Tao ? (See Taoist scripture for an explanation.)
8. Les jeux vidéo ne sont pas la propriété exclusive de ces hommes blancs cishétéros.
9. Les oreilles : vérifiez régulièrement la propreté des oreilles de votre chien.
10. Actuellement la propriété appartient à la commune.
11. Tous les jeux flash présent sur le site restent la propriété de leurs auteurs respectifs.
12. Votre langue, cher monsieur Walder, est révélatrice de l’état de propreté du sexe de votre femme, point barre.
13. Les sanitaires sont d’une propreté immaculée et il y a même des machines à laver.
14. …les métaphores qui transposent certaines propriétés d’une catégorie à une autre : “l’homme est un loup pour l’homme”…
15. Entretien des trottoirs : Chaque Soiséen est responsable de l’état de propreté du trottoir qui borde sa propriété.
16. Nettoyage: Les frais de nettoyage (50,00 Euros) vous seront rendus à la fin de votre séjour selon l’état de propreté de la propriété.
17. Un matériau aux multiples propriétés – résistance, ultrapropreté – et qui s’adaptent aux dimensions de vos projets.
18. Il n’a cependant pas les propriétés ou la propreté du biométhane naturel.

English notes: In my defense, a big part of my problem, I would guess, comes from the fact that English has the word propriety. The Merriam-Webster web site gives these synonyms for it: decencydecorumform. Examples:

1. Zipf, I’m not sure about the propriety of that example about the cleanliness of Mr. Walder’s tongue.
2. President Obama was the very *model* of propriety. Never once did he say or do anything to make America ashamed of him. (Source: Twitter)
3. Even inside the nation’s prominent law firms preparing to help President Trump wage a legal war challenging the results of the election, concerns are intensifying about the propriety and wisdom of working for Trump, the New York Times reports. (Source: a tweet from the San Francisco Chronicle)
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