Geoff Pullum, one of the jolly crew over at LanguageLog, has an entry discussing this quote from a younger, as yet ungubernatorial Arnold Schwarzenegger: “I threw up many times while I’m working out. But it doesn’t matter. It was worth it.” Geoff says the use of present rather than past in “I’m working out” is not broken English: “A small departure from idiomatic standard English, and a use of tense that would be grammatical in some languages… What Schwarzenegger said was not all that far from grammaticality.” Leaving aside the distraction of what would be grammatical in other languages (that way lies madness), do any of my readers agree with Geoff that the first quoted sentence is “a small departure from idiomatic standard English”? I don’t know how to measure distance from grammaticality, but I do know that I would automatically judge anyone who spoke that sentence not to be a native speaker of English, and isn’t that what “broken English” means?


  1. Yeah, I’d have to agree with you. I can’t think of a grammatically correct way to justify that first sentence.
    And the mental image gives me shudders.

  2. I srew up many times, auch, and for mich, it was worse hit.
    Und was ist dat, “native speaker”?

  3. I agree with you, but I can also see his point. Broken English normally has breaking rules: it is broken because it would never be right under any circumstances. Frequent pitfalls are articles, objects, and the order of modifyers. Tense is also an issue, but in ways where the context or actual words are inconsequential. Participles are often involved. For instance, there is no way to substitutes subjects or objects to make “you going now” acceptable; the grammar itself is broken.
    In Schwarzenegger’s case, the problem is subtly different. We do use what Pullum terms “backshifting,” which means that we can’t complain about the structure itself. We have to complain instead about it’s use in this case. Why is a “while” construction more problematic that the “that” construction Pullum uses for his example? Does it have to with the implication of times that don’t agree? Or is the real culprit the verb? Does backshifting rely on strong verbs? Or perhaps transitive verbs? I’m not completely sure what rules are at play here, but it seems more complicated than most examples of broken English. This is one of those places where the line between grammar and usage is blurred, and if you define broken English as a strictly grammatical phenomenon, you might be tempted to see this as something else.

  4. it sounds broken to me, but it isn’t necessarily broken to tell a past-tense story with present tense verbs. (“so it’s two weeks ago and i’m walking down the street…”) but i would call this mixing of past and present tense in the same sentence “far from grammaticality”, if i were a person who used words like “grammaticality”.

  5. I wonder what rules German has regarding the sequence of tenses. Even to me, the sentence seems unnatural, but I thought proper broken English would be something like “I musted tell to you”. “You going now” could, in theory, be a legitimate construction in the spirit of “Columbus having discovered America, inflation destroyed the Spanish economy”.

  6. jay: “You going now?” is, of course, a perfectly normal question, but I assume you meant it as an assertion, in which case I guess I agree with you.
    And I agree with you, Alex(ei), and Geoff that the sentence is in some sense “not as bad” as I musted tell to you and the like, but if we’re drawing a line in the sand, to me it falls on the far side.

  7. While I am working out, I threw up many times, but I don’t anymore.
    (I don’t throw up anymore, but I do work out still.)
    While I worked out, I threw up many times, but I don’t anymore.
    (I don’t work out anymore, and thus I don’t throw up anymore. I only worked out once, but threw up several times in the midst of it.)
    While (ok, when) I used to work out, I threw up many times, but I don’t anymore.
    (As before, but I worked out several times AND threw up several times, and possibly several of those throws could have been upped in a single work out session, or not, I let you decide.)
    While I work out (touch this, meine Schnuckie, preety good, ja?), I never worked in, if you know what I mean.
    (This is starting to make quesy.)
    Arnold still works out, but doesn’t throw up anymore.
    Was it really worth it?

  8. Broken but not foobared, maybe? The grammatical mistake doesn’t prevent you to understand the sentence, but a red bulb lights up at the “while I’m working out” part. While working out? While I was working out?
    And German wouldn’t be a help here: both verbs would be past tense too…
    Let’s not complain too much on such mistakes: at least, this immigrant did learn some English, which is definitely not the case of some of his constituents…

  9. I am only happy to dump on Schwarzenegger, and I don’t think his English is great, but the sentence seems a little like he started the sentence one way, and then decided to finish it a different way — the kind of thinking out loud that gets fixed in editing.

  10. Really? Huh. Well, I guess Geoff is right, and my inner editor has done a hostile takeover of my native-speaker Sprachgefuhl. Sigh.

  11. “Broken English” is not exactly a scientific term. For me, it would indicate a deficiency in fluency, a jaggedness or discontinuity, not the simple transgression of a grammatical rule. Thus I suggest that Arnold’s sentence is ungrammatical, but not necessarily “broken.”

  12. I always read “broken _language_” to mean “with frequent breaks in the flow of speech, as opposed to fluent.” I’ve noticed the more general use of the term in the last few years, and I’m not that comfortable with it. I’d class Schwarznegger’s _faux pas_–if he were to repeat it–as being more a pecularity of his idiolect compared to the standard. I mean, he could maintain the flow of conversation, and people could understand what he was saying, so communication, _per se_ was not really an issue.

  13. Broken English is too strong a criticism for Ahnold’s lapse in tense agreement. Though I sure don’t like a lot of his politics, I applaud the immigrant who learned a second language (and how many of us posting speak another language as fluently as he speaks English?)and made a successful life for himself here.

  14. Heh. “Proper broken English”. I thought that that was rahter amusing.
    Alas though, no Googlewhack. 🙂

  15. Wait- now it *is* a Googlewhack! Congrats, I guess. 🙂

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