One of the few benefits of being forced to attend weekly staff meetings is the opportunity to hear colloquial discourse in a setting where I can’t distract myself with a good book and can write down whatever interests me under the guise of taking notes. Today I heard two sentences that got me scribbling:
“I always usually say the wrong number.”
“I thought you may want to take a browse at that.”
The first exemplifies a pattern I’ve been noticing for years, particularly in women (though the sample is so small that may be random): the collocation of always with another adverb that appears to contradict it, mostly usually or sometimes. I don’t understand what’s going on here, except that I’m quite sure it’s not a misspeaking plus correction (“always… [I mean] sometimes”), it’s felt as a compound adverb by the speaker. How this might have arisen and how it should be interpreted I leave to psycholinguists and syntacticians, but I think it deserves analysis, and I’ve never seen a reference to it.
The second exhibits the continuing replacement of might by may, as well as a nominal use of browse I was hitherto unaware of (it’s in the dictionary: ‘an act of browsing’).
One reason I feel sorry for prescriptivists is that they are doomed to react to such things with blanket dismissal (“Wrong! Bad! Unclean!”), thereby missing a chance to think about, and possibly learn something about, their language and its speakers. But they do get to feel good about themselves, and I guess that’s a fair tradeoff.