ANOTHER VICTIM OF LANGUAGE PARANOIA.

Mark Oppenheimer has a piece in double X in which he discusses flogging his daughters.
OK, not really. What he says is that “parents can still insist on a certain vernacular in the household, which we’re free to enforce with, you know, repeated floggings with copies of Strunk & White.” He’s, you know, joking. Except that he really does want to insist on “a certain vernacular,” and by “vernacular” he means the opposite of a vernacular, which (per Merriam-Webster) is “a language or dialect native to a region or country rather than a literary, cultured, or foreign language,” “the normal spoken form of a language.” He wants to enforce a form of the language that nobody actually speaks but that he thinks it vital to pretend to his daughters is the real thing. He starts off by saying “when Rebekah, who is now 2 and a half, started parroting our language back to us, we discovered a concern that had never before occurred to us: our grammar”:

I started to worry that if I didn’t get my “whom”s and my “who”s lined up right, Rebekah would spend a lifetime running afoul of her English teachers, or at least of the ghost of my late grandmother Rebekah, her namesake, who never forgave her home state of Pennsylvania for the ungrammatical legend on its license plate, you’ve got a friend in pennsylvania. “It should be you have a friend in pennsylvania,” she wrote to her state senator…. What if I bequeathed to my daughter the habit of saying “a whole nother topic of conversation,” instead of saying, simply, “a whole other”?
Worst of all, what if she inherited my generation’s habit of saying “like” all the time? I long ago made peace with my own inability to de-like-ify my speech, but I have always taken some comfort in the existence of older people, parents and grandparents and aging teachers, who do not speak that way. They uphold the dignity of the language so that I don’t have to. But my grandparents are dead and gone, and here I am, raising two impressionable girls (Rebekah has a baby sister), and teaching the occasional college class. I was not, I had to admit, being the role model I ought to be. I said to myself, ”I’d better start speaking like a grown-up.”

He goes on to admit that it’s a faulty assumption that “how grown-ups speak determines how their children speak” and that “there is nothing moral about ‘good’ grammar for its own sake, just as there is nothing morally repugnant about trendy vernacular habits, like the rising inflection, common among adolescent girls, called up-speak…. English usage is a matter of convention, and it changes with time; it was not ordained by God, nor by language prisses who think they are God…. To demand that my children adhere to particular linguistic rules, on the supposition that rules I was taught are fixed like the stars, would be nonsensical, and a bit tyrannical.”
So it would, so it would. End of story, one might think; but no, he continues thus:

Still, anything does not go. My maternal grandparents, who were born soon after the turn of the 20th century, modeled certain principles of correct English usage for a few reasons (only one of which was snobbery). For starters, as the children of immigrants who never learned English well, they understood that life was not fair, that there were precincts in America where one was judged according to how far one deviated from some uncodified, but widely recognized, Standard English. They wanted to equip their children to use it. They also loved the tongue and believed that treating spoken as well as written English with care equaled respect for education. These are things I’d like my daughters to understand. Language is not, ultimately, something about which to be slovenly.
My grandparents also took a certain pleasure in using grammar and habits of speech to create a distinct culture of the home. At 819 Carpenter Lane, one said “between you and me,” not “between you and I.” I have inherited that preference. I’ll also correct my children’s inevitable “Tessa and me are going to the park.” Also, if God forbid I ever have to, “irregardless.” My children will no doubt find this annoying, especially if I do it in front of their friends. They may think my “It is she” sounds ridiculous—reasonable enough, since that usage is antiquated and arguably inferior to the more natural “It’s her.” But maybe 10 years later they’ll remember it as one of my silly rules, and 10 years after that hear themselves insisting on it to my grandchildren.

He doesn’t seem to grasp how contradictory this is, how (not to put too fine a point on it) nuts. If English usage is a matter of convention and to demand that children adhere to particular linguistic rules “would be nonsensical, and a bit tyrannical,” why on earth is he demanding that his daughter adhere to these particular linguistic rules? Explicitly, so that she can in turn insist on his “silly rules” to her own children. This is how this craziness gets passed on, and I want it ended. If you’re smart enough to see that the linguistic forms that were forced on you are arbitrary and silly, you’re smart enough to stop the madness. Do I have to quote Philip Larkin to you? (And hey, I just found a YouTube clip of Larkin reading “This Be The Verse” [link corrected: thanks, Ben and rootlesscosmo]—what a wonderful world! And thanks for the double X link, Margaret.)

Comments

  1. Vance Maverick says:

    Oppenheimer here. (I wonder why there’s no date or sequence component in their URLs.)

  2. Are you sure that’s actually Larkin’s voice in the YouTube clip? I think this is him (based on this).

  3. SnowLeopard says:

    Language is not, ultimately, something about which to be slovenly.
    Well, this observation from the piece is true, anyway. But adopting a set of rules is actually the lazy option because that means you never have to think, really think, again. If you want to stay on your toes, cultivate your judgment. So surely the non-slovenly approach to language would not be to reprimand and publicly embarrass his daughter in such a hidebound fashion, but to always seek particularly apt and elegant ways of putting things that draw her emulation for pure pleasure in the words and the creativity of expression. That’s how you teach pride in your language, not by enforcing antique cliches.

  4. Yes, perhaps it is true that Oppenheimer is being a bit hypocritical, but his predicament is understandable. When you don’t conform to some form of proper language you sound uneducated at best, and nonsensical at worst. Languages have universal rules and standards so that they can be understood across an entire culture of speakers, not just tweens on the internet. He wants his daughters to be accepted by their peers, but also respected by society as a whole. This is a balancing act, and I don’t fault him for trying navigate the murky and ever changing waters between propriety and “hipness.”

  5. Siganus Sutor says:

    Spammer: “Nice Article. Thank’s!”
    It’s funny sometimes to see where people put an apostrophe. You cannot but wonder why there is a need to write “in the 60′s” or “the attached PDF’s”.
    Vernacular ?

  6. rootlesscosmo says:
  7. rootlesscosmo says:

    Sorry, I didn’t see Ben Zimmer’s comment with the same URL.

  8. Siganus Sutor says:

    I found it pretty hard to read the vernacular in Lady Chatterley’s Lover. That gamekeeper should have minded his language at least.
    Here people are sometimes frowned upon when speaking “too Mauritian”, but most of the time it’s all right. Only the learned ones, or those who believe they are, are poking fun at other people’s “mauritianness of speech”.

  9. If he succeeds in perfecting his daughters’ speech, he can flog them for more when it comes time to put them on the market.

  10. They fuck you up, reading Philip Larkin.

  11. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    What’s supposed to be wrong with “you’ve got a friend in Pennsylvania”? I realize that “you have a friend in Pennsylvania” would be more usual in American speech, whereas “you’ve got a friend in Pennsylvania” would be much more usual in British speech (if we had occasion to express such an idea), but is the got form considered to be ungrammatical?
    Incidentally, there is very small village in England close to Bath called Pennsylvania, and each time I drive through I wonder how it came to be called that. I haven’t got any friends there, however.

  12. The Columbia Guide to Standard American English says that She’s got the votes she needs is “Standard … (although purists once frowned on this use, preferring She has the votes…). ”

  13. dearieme says:

    It’s so rare to see “contemporary” used correctly that it’s a delight to read “We find that mtDNA genetic diversity in Neandertals that lived 38,000 to 70,000 years ago was approximately one-third of that in contemporary modern humans.” Is anyone going to argue that “contemporary” doesn’t have a correct use?

  14. Oppenheimer here.
    Sigh. The one time I forget to check my links before posting… Thanks: fixed!
    That’s how you teach pride in your language, not by enforcing antique cliches.
    Indeed, and well said.
    Are you sure that’s actually Larkin’s voice in the YouTube clip? I think this is him
    Thanks very much; I changed the link.
    What’s supposed to be wrong with “you’ve got a friend in Pennsylvania”?
    This is, thank goodness, an ex-shibboleth (in America, anyway); I’m pretty sure it expired around the time the author’s grandmother did. MWDEU says “Have got came under fire in American English from Richard Grant White 1870 [Words and Their Uses: Past and Present]. White considered the get superfluous in the construction. White’s objection went into later handbooks and grammar books…. But by the time of Evans 1962 and Bernstein 1971 a greater tolerance had developed…. Curiously, later British commentators—Phythian 1979, Longman 1984, Chambers 1985—pick up criticizing where the Americans left off.” Needless to say, they present plenty of citations showing it’s been used by the best authors (Jane Austen: “ask George if he has got a new song for me”; Lewis Carroll: “Haven’t you got your little camera with you?”), but such citations never impress the language crackpots; their response is a mix of “even the greats make mistakes” and “they can get away with it because they’re great, but you can’t.”
    Interestingly, MWDEU also points out that “to many—perhaps most—Americans have got denotes mere possession, while have gotten denotes obtaining”; I think this is true of me.

  15. Is anyone going to argue that “contemporary” doesn’t have a correct use?
    I’ll take you up on that in a flash – although I suspect I’m walking into some sort of verbal trap, because you may be claiming “this here in my quote is an incorrect use of contemporary”.
    If “contemporary” were not subject to problems of interpretation, why did the author of the sentence continue on with “modern”, writing “contemporary modern”? Only “contemporaneous” is unequivocal.
    This is a similar difficulty with zeitgenössisch in German. In studious works, zeitgenössisch can usually be relied on to mean “contemporaneous”. So you will read something like (in German): “in the 15th century, [this and that was happening]. In zeitgenössische commentaries, …”. The commentaries were also written in the 15th century.
    In contrast, in today’s newspapers and on TV, zeitgenössisch refers to today’s events. These media usually don’t go much into old-timey topics, because readers and listeners would tend to fidget – so there’s no uncertainty whether zeitgenössisch refers to old-timey times or current times.

  16. The interpretative problem arises when “contemporary” or zeitgenössisch is used in a context where both past and present times are being discussed. For instance, in the imaginary text from which my quote above is taken, the author may also, in other paragraphs, have mentioned 21st century commentaries on those 15th century happenings. If he is a poor writer, the reader may be unable to figure out, in the particular section of text from which my quote is taken, whether 21st century or 15th century commentaries are meant.

  17. jamessal says:

    Only “contemporaneous” is unequivocal.
    Yes, MWDEU, while I’ve got it open this morning, sez: “the ‘present-day, modern’ sense of contemporary has become fully established, and contemporaneous appears to be replacing contemporary in its older sense.”
    As for Dearie’s challenge, I’ll go a step further and say that this is just about always wrong: “It’s so rare to see X used correctly.”

  18. jamessal says:

    There is something particularly annoying about authors who admit the existence of counterarguments but don’t engage them, prattling on (after they’ve shown how sophisticated they are) as if intellectual rigor were beside the point.

  19. jamessal: dearieme just caught me out doing exactly that, in the latest Crown thread.
    Do I detect a hint of – what shall I say – shoulder-chip acrobatics in your post?

  20. Buffrobe says:

    This statement is quite incredible:
    They may think my “It is she” sounds ridiculous—reasonable enough, since that usage is antiquated and arguably inferior to the more natural “It’s her.” But maybe 10 years later they’ll remember it as one of my silly rules, and 10 years after that hear themselves insisting on it to my grandchildren.
    He really gets a kick out of being ridiculous, doesn’t he.

  21. jamessal says:

    Do I detect a hint of – what shall I say – shoulder-chip acrobatics in your post?
    No more than usual, I don’t think. I’m actually in a pretty good mood: I just ate a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and I’m going to play basketball. (We only had smooth PB in the house, though, so if you’re detecting anything at all, and I don’t think you are, that might be it.)

  22. jamessal says:

    Harking back to something I probably shouldn’t hark back to, I just realized that Hat, for the first time in five years, just joined to independent clauses with a semicolon followed by a “but”: “End of story, one might think; but no, he continues thus.” Happy day.

  23. jamessal says:

    Harking back to something I probably shouldn’t hark back to, I just realized that Hat, for the first time in five years, just joined two independent clauses with a semicolon followed by a “but”: “End of story, one might think; but no, he continues thus.” Happy day.

  24. Bathrobe says:

    I had noticed that Americans prefer “have” to “have got”. But would I be mistaken to think that “have got to” — or rather “gotta” — is more common than “have to”?
    If true, this would be quite strange, “Have got” is at least understandable in the sense of “have taken possession of”, but “have got to” doesn’t make sense at all. It can only be understood as an automatic replacement of “have” with “have got”.

  25. George Foreman outdoor grill says:

    Gotta->got to, hafta->have to, those are commonly use when we speak, so we do not use have got to usually.

  26. If [the author] is a poor writer, the reader may be unable to figure out, in the particular section of text from which my quote is taken, whether 21st century or 15th century commentaries are meant.
    This is a problem of deixis, which is an area of language that inevitably requires you to structure your utterances carefully for clarity. Contemporary simply marks that two of a number of roles are close in time: The original text, commentaries, the author of the article, the reader of the article (who could be in the 25th century), other people living at the same time as the writer or the reader, etc. etc. It’s this multiplicity (you can’t list all the possibilities in all cases) which makes it a poor idea to try to lexically restrict it to just one role. You simply have to disambiguate by context.
    So don’t blame any unclarity on the word contemporary itself!

  27. jamessal says:
  28. Not only is there a Pennsylvania near Bath, but there’s a Somerset in Pennsylvania. And, praise be, there is once more a Bath in Somerset.
    Now then. To the point.
    Anyone here ever correct their kids’ English?
    No? Good lord! So the Church of God’s Descriptivists has saints, too.

  29. 2) So don’t blame any unclarity on the word contemporary itself!
    A good point, except that nobody’s blaming. Naturally it’s the way the word is used that is ambiguous. It’s a mere convention to say “the word is ambiguous”, but a widely used convention. Of course, the very notion of “the word (itself)” is a prejudice of the marketplace (idolon fori). The way a word is used makes that word the word that it is.
    By the way, there’s inconsistency in also writing 1) You simply have to disambiguate by context, just before the above sentence 2). 1) implies that the source of the ambiguity is “the word itself”.

  30. We only had smooth PB in the house, though
    I have to say, that would make me quite cranky. Chunky PB represent!
    Anyone here ever correct their kids’ English?
    It is, of course, sometimes necessary to correct one’s kids’ English, because kids have not learned all the ins and outs and sometimes misuse words in ways that will get them mocked if they do it in the wider world. This has nothing to do with the kind of ridiculous nonsense the author is trying to instill in his kids.
    (Incidentally, I removed the URL on George Foreman outdoor grill’s comment, but I didn’t have the heart to remove the comment itself. How can I resist an on-topic comment from George Foreman outdoor grill?)

  31. Unless by
    You simply have to disambiguate by context
    you mean, uncontentiously, “disambiguate words in context by other words in context”. Granted, but that doesn’t get us anywhere near square one, as regards understanding how we “disambiguate”. Actually, I don’t think there is such a thing as square one. Ambiguity is pervasive, we merely channel it in various directions. Language is self-serving, and self-sufficient. “Communication”? Two ships passing each other in the night, signalling with their foghorns.
    I believe Noetica would disagree with me on this.

  32. People who like smooth PB probably like camomile jello as well. They avoid stepping on ants, and take warm showers (Ger. loc.)

  33. John Emerson says:

    I am here to report that chunky peanut butter, and nuts in general, are among the few things you can’t eat if you don’t have any upper teeth. Others include carrots, squid and clams.

  34. michael farris says:

    The funny thing here is of course that the features he despairs of in his daughters’ speech are not those that are stigmatized in the US.
    It’s one thing for speakers of a stigmatized dialect to want their kids to not suffer prejudice on that account. Yes, it’s unfortunate to have to worry about it, but that’s a topic for another day. But it’s quite another, and very ridiculous, thing to worry about completely ordinary (if very colloquial) upper middle class non-stigmatized features.

  35. dearieme says:

    “why did the author of the sentence continue on with “modern”, writing “contemporary modern”?” Because “modern humans” (people like us) are being contrasted with defunct humans, specifically Neandertals/Neanderthals. The “contemporary” means that he’s discussing those modern humans who were alive at the same time as the Neanderthals. That contrast is part of why I enjoyed the quotation.

  36. J. W. Brewer says:

    I think I may correct my daughters’ language less than some other parents might, because I find the various mistakes, wrong guesses, misgeneralizations etc. exhibited along the way as they develop their fluency so fascinating to observe. Whether it’s from peers or teachers or tv or wherever, they seem to eventually figure it out issue-by-issue without my heavy-handed intervention, so I don’t think I’m stunting their development. (This is for speaking; for my older daughter’s writing I will draw her attention to spelling or syntax issues I notice if it’s for school, while in other contexts cuteness may trump correctness. I suppose there’s probably some age beyond which an admixture of non-standard spelling is no longer cute, but we’re not quite there yet.)

  37. To this American, have gotten is a perfectly regular use of the past participle of the obtainment verb get. Have got is an irregular form referring to possession. If got is your past participle, there is no distinciton. If you do make a distinction, it is possible to come to feel that have got is redundant for have.

  38. When you all is speaking bad you be sounding dumb and are ignored.
    When you are speaking correctly you are perceived as being educated and are listened to.

  39. I’m with ZABJW, and — for once: it’s very rare — I am in complete disagreement with you, Hat. It’s a parent’s duty to teach his or her children the dialect of the ruling class, so they can be taken seriously in this extremely stratified and class-conscious society we’re stranding them in. Too bad, and yes, it’s ridiculous, and by God I taught my kids to speak it. I think only a bad or zealously ideological parent wouldn’t do so, if they could.
    You don’t insist they speak it all the time, any more than you speak it all the time yourself. You just insist they know it and use it when they need it.
    I hate the structures of power and authority that make it necessary, but I’m damned if I’m going to respond to it by leaving my kids even more vulnerable to exploitation and domination than they already are.

  40. ZABJW, your first sentence sounds a little odd to me. I believe you meant to say “When yall is speaking bad you sounding dumb and be ignored.”

  41. Dale: eminent good sense. It expresses so well what I have been trying to argue [poorly] in these columns for some time !
    For instance ,I constantly correct my teen+ nieces’ use of “like”, which at least here in the UK I believe is taken as sounding “common and ill-educated” even from straight-A students. After a while, at least with us, they do try not to say it with reasonable success.
    It follows exactly Dale’s arguement – you may not like the system but it’s more rewarding to work within it, and your use of language – “standard and RP” – is a major factor.

  42. RP – unless you have a Scots accent, of course

  43. I believe Noetica would disagree with me on this.
    But you have the advantage, Stu: I do not know quite what you mean by this, in “on this”, and you presumably do know. So we can say, concerning that particular opinion of yours:

    I do not disagree (occurrently and actively, de dicto as it were) with you, because I don’t know what you mean. (Nor do I agree, of course.)

    Or:

    I either agree with you or disagree with you (notionally, de re as it were; and I don’t know which, because I don’t know what you mean); or as it might happen, I neither agree nor disagree, because whatever it is you mean, I have no opinion on that matter.

    Depends on what you mean by agree, see? On the other hand – the stricter one – certainly I would disagree with you “on this” (whatever that is), in certain unspecified circumstances.
     

  44. jamessal says:

    Dale, Paul: There’s a difference between education and indoctrination. It’s one thing to teach kids what you just wrote here, about class and dialects and whatnot (though I’m not sure I’m totally buying that either); it’s a whole ‘nuther to tell them that “it’s me” and “who” as an object are flat out WRONG, in the hope that someday they’ll mindlessly pass on such nonsense to their own kids.

  45. It’s a parent’s duty to teach his or her children the dialect of the ruling class, so they can be taken seriously in this extremely stratified and class-conscious society we’re stranding them in. Too bad, and yes, it’s ridiculous, and by God I taught my kids to speak it.
    I think you are mistaking my point. Of course kids need to learn how to speak and write so as to be taken seriously, but are you teaching your kids the particular varieties of nonsense insisted on by the loon I linked to? I suspect not, and I wish calls for less looniness were not automatically taken as calls for anarchy and the use of the most “ungrammatical” possible language.

  46. I grew up berated judiciously every time I misused the “King’s English” by a librarian/writer grandmother, a high-brow mother, a writer brother, and a father who memorized reams of poetry and spouted them out with precise pronunciation around the house all day. If I said “ain’t”–and in the part of Texas I’m from, ain’t is accepted as a legit word–I got an English lesson flogging on the spot. If I said, “goin’,” I got a lecture on how the grammarian rulers didn’t put “gs” on the ends of gerunds for them not to be pronounced. Or say I ended a sentence with a preposition: “What are you blaming me for?” I got a Strunk and White slap across the kisser and a “FOR what are you blaming me?” correction. As a result of this growing up being flogged by grammarian purists, yes, I’m able to get high-paying boring editorial jobs, though in my everyday speech, I talk like a sailor who’s been to sea for a couple a years and I write with such a vulgar flare, I’m ashamed sometimes to read my stuff (using the word “stuff” would have gotten me flogged for sure) aloud–when I do, I keep expecting my librarian/writer grandmother to reach down out of the hereafter to take a blue pencil to my every word.
    thegrowlingwolf

  47. John Emerson says:

    The ruling class of the future will, like, say “like” a lot, and some poor children will see their lives ruined by their archaic, prissy, speech.

  48. Why “prissy”? It’s that attitude that makes me sympathetic to the prescriptivist position despite the lack of logic on their side. Yes, the stereotypical prescriptivist is often an asexual maiden aunt or a bow-tied “bachelor”. In the big game of life the descriptivists alway win in the end – they are the jocks and shop class kids pushing the bespectacled poetry loving kid into the locker. That’s why it’s ironic to see prescriptivism described as “elitist”. Prescriptivsts are usually people with very little real power desperately trying to control a little part of their world and retain some dignity. Maybe this was not true 30-40 years ago but today the popular media overwhelmingly scorns prescriptivist types and sees them as figures to mock.

  49. Jim: you have to know rules to know how to break them ?
    I wish calls for less looniness were not automatically taken as calls for anarchy and the use of the most “ungrammatical” possible language.
    LH: Unfortunately, that does seem to me to be a problem. Particular examples are held up and pilloried (“it’s me”, “who” – and not “whom” I presume) and then, to mix metaphors, used to generally flog those of us who believe that there are some rules which continue to be important.
    The problem seems to me to be how you define “looniness”, which surely must be on a case by case basis (see above).
    John: what a pessimistic view of the future ruling class…
    and I suggest leaving out “like” or “you know” will not be particularly visible.
    Wolf: in the part of Texas I’m from, ain’t is accepted as a legit. Certainly – but the point is that it’s not legit elsewhere, which presumably is what your saintly grandmother was making. I assume you give regular thanks to her for enabling you to get high -paying jobs !

  50. SnowLeopard says:

    I don’t question the importance of commanding the trappings and affectations of power in modern society, among which certain modes of speech play a significant but by no means exclusive role. But I do question the necessity or even efficacy of the methods described — the nagging and browbeating seem particularly distasteful, to say nothing of poor teaching methodology. In my own case, I surpassed my parents’ proficiency in these areas by age 12 if not earlier, and it was they who asked me for help in drafting important business correspondence, rather than the reverse, although my mother was a native speaker of English with some education, and my father, an architect, has been speaking something that usually passes for English since his 20′s. And our home has no shortage of exceedingly well-written books. So I am not concerned about my daughter’s future ability to speak English in a professional register when she feels she needs to, and I anticipate the advantages to be rare of forcing her to speak that language in social situations where *she*, as she develops her judgment, has deemed it inappropriate. She and I may well disagree, especially when she’s a teenager, about which form of English she should adopt in a given situation; but I honestly am not concerned about her having sufficient knowledge to implement that choice effectively. Her ear and sensitivity to nuance may even turn out to be keener than mine.

  51. tlajous says:

    Ambiguity is pervasive, we merely channel it in various directions. Language is self-serving, and self-sufficient.
    GS – This is true by construction, insofar as English is a natural language. For ambiguity to disappear, it would need to be a formal language—more specifically, one having an hors-contexte grammar. (This was, in the end, the point of the “either” v. “xor” discussion.)
    “King’s English” by a librarian/writer grandmother
    thegrowlingwolf – Are we always mis-using the King’s English by focusing on the Queen’s English? Alternatively, is saying “King’s English” (KE) a mis-use of the Queen’s English (QE), an assumption that it (i.e., the QE, correcting for the ambiguous pronoun) cannot be self-referential, and/or a super-poignant reference to the Punk rock warlord (as opposed to war lord)? Another take is saying that the KE is that of the Prescriptivist and the QE is that of the Descriptivist (as we are past-Jubilee).
    LH – Is this whole discussion driving us back to the DFW debacle?
    TL

  52. Noetica says:

    Tlajous:
    (This was, in the end, the point of the “either” v. “xor” discussion.)
    Concerning that discussion at the thread Lost for Words: II, note that I have now supplemented the survey of or in Spanish. See u there.

  53. michael farris says:

    “Particular examples are held up and pilloried … and then, to mix metaphors, used to generally flog those of us who believe that there are some rules which continue to be important.”
    Okay. You’ve got me interested. What rules of English grammar which continue to be important are liable to be not followed by children of a super-literate middle class couple in the US?
    The problem with the article (again) is that nothing he’s worrying about is important or liable to be stigmatized.
    Finally, overuse of ‘like’ is not a grammar problem it’s a discourse problem. ‘Like’ is a space-filler (nothing wrong with that, every language has them and every speaker uses them) and those who speak before they think or those whose mouths get ahead of their brains are liable to overuse it. Having a role model call attention to its overuse is good in that it encourages the abuser to think/plan more when they speak.
    When I was a child I went through a phrase where I overused ‘ya know’ (the ‘like’ of my generation). My father got me out of the habit by interrupting with ‘No, I don’t know,’ or ‘know what?’ It was annoying but I began using it less (though I didn’t give it up entirely until switching to ‘like’ in the late 70′s or early 80′s which I don’t think I’ve ever overused).

  54. It was when I was teaching abroad that I first ran into a reasonable explanation for “like” that someone had posted above their desk. The explanation was that “like” was a substitute for “said”.
    Example:
    “I was like ‘no way’.”
    instead of:
    “I said, ‘no way’”.
    This is a little different usage from the space-filler description. By the way, in Arabic the space filler is “yani”, which I just love hearing.

  55. michael farris says:

    Yeah, ‘like’ is one of a number of informal quotatives used in US English, along with:
    go(es) (He goes “no way!” And I go “way!”)
    be all (She’s all “you can’t do that!”)
    be all like (I’m all like “I’ll think about it”.)
    be like all (He’s like all “I gotta go now!”
    Understanding informal quotatives are absolutely necessary to understand almost any spoken language and are almost never part of any textbook.
    A couple from Polish:
    a PRO (nb a means and/but)
    A ona “Zobaczymy”. (And she goes “We’ll see”.)
    PRO do PRO (nb do requires genetive case)
    Ja do niego “Nie chcę, wiesz?” (I tell him “I don’t wanna, ya know?”
    PRO na to (nb na to means ‘to that’)
    On na to “Ale musisz!” (He’s all “You have to!”)
    a PRO na to
    A ja na to “W życiu, kolesiu.” (And I’m like “No way, dude”.

  56. Michael: Understanding informal quotatives are absolutely necessary to understand almost any spoken language and are almost never part of any textbook.
    Maybe that’s partly because it’s all in the voice. He’s like all “I gotta go now!” is so expressive, but it only makes sense if you’ve heard it used before you come to read it.

  57. Very nice list Michael. That would sort of index would be very useful in a number of languages since quotatives tend to be spoken quickly and are difficult for non-natives to pick up. Anyone want to volunteer to do German? But picking up the nuances is important too – if a middle aged white man starts saying “and she all ‘step off bitch!” people are going to look at him a little oddly. How colloquial are those Polish expressions?

  58. michael farris says:

    “How colloquial are those Polish expressions?”
    They’re very informal. I learned them from talking to (and eavesdropping on) student age young adults, but I’ve heard middle class middle aged adults use them too (a little more sparingly than younger speakers though).

  59. jamessal says:

    you have to know rules to know how to break them ?
    To break them well you mean, of course, and no, I still don’t agree. As reasonable as it sounds, your advice breaks down when you consider what “them” actually are. Let’s take Fowler’s “fused participle,” a construction in which a noun and a gerund (see, even the name’s wrong) serve together as a clause’s subject or object: “I don’t mind it being used,” for example — Fowler would have hated that; “I don’t mind its being used,” I know he would insist, and how, exactly, does that knowledge help me, considering not only that other prescriptivist czars have promulgated precisely the opposite rule — against the possessive — but also that writers wholly unaware of the rule going in either direction have successfully navigated these waters for centuries by relying solely on good sense (i.e., their ears)? Is that an unfair example? Isn’t the point that a whole lot of the examples are unfair? That we’d be better off teaching real syntax than outmoded rubbish?
    It’s human nature to like what we’ve learned, even if it’s worthless, sez this twenty-odd-year old punk!

  60. jamessal says:

    “Particular examples are held up and pilloried … and then, to mix metaphors, used to generally flog those of us who believe that there are some rules which continue to be important.”
    Hmmm. Guilty, I guess. So I’ll just have to second Michael Farris: What rules of English grammar which continue to be important are liable to be not followed by children of a super-literate middle class couple in the US?

  61. Well, it depends on which couple, I suppose. My wife and I certainly fit that description: we both speak a standard — indeed, rather bookish — dialect of American English. Our daughter (who reads books but certainly isn’t bookish), now 22, controls that dialect when she thinks it necessary. The rest of the time she speaks something between standard English and the Hispanic-influenced AAVE of her peers, modified by who’s around. When addressing her mother or me, for example, deep AAVE features are fairly rare, but they emerge for emphasis, showing that AAVE is for her the “heart dialect” if not at all the mother tongue.

  62. Bathrobe says:

    Getting back to “have got”. I think this is probably acceptable in most varieties of English, if sometimes frowned upon.
    In the UK, however, it appears to extend to the past tense, where “had got” serves a similar function to “had”. This is not normal usage in Australia, where the past tense is definitely “had”, unless you are using “had got” as the regular perfect form of “have”.

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