Category: grammar and usage

This is a category dedicated to a range of issues: language variation and change, social dialects, speech registers, language judgments, perceived (in)correctness, among others.  “Correct grammar” is an elusive concept that depends on several variables.  Articles in this category explore the concepts of “grammar” and “correctness” in the context of everyday language usage.

Language change: getting it right

Aspects of the english language

The many aspects of English

The attitudes and prejudices of speakers towards various languages and dialects is important “peri-linguistic” data.  They may influence the development and differentiation of language itself.  Or they may not — just voices in the wind.

Gripes of a pseudo-expert

Thus, when a major, even venerable magazine, Harper’s, publishes an essay “Semantic Drift” by Lionel Shriver, it deserves critical attention.  I have seen many such pieces before — a pseudo-expert bitching about linguistic developments he doesn’t like.

On baby talk and language change

Kinds of lingo

Linguistics is concerned with who says what to whom, and why. Why do groups of people adopt their own manner of speaking? There are many answers.

 

Is sloppiness in speech caused by ignorance or apathy?  I don’t know and I don’t care.

William Safire

 

I admire John McWhorter so much for the breadth of his accomplishments, his accessibility to the media, his eloquent lectures.

I recently saw a video clip in which he pegged Trump’s speech as characteristic of primitive humans just getting their “language chops” together.

She judges you when you use poor grammar

Amazon just informed me of a book, by Sharon Eliza Nichols, entitled I Judge You When You Use Poor Grammar: A Collection of Egregious Errors, Disconcerting Bloopers, and Other Linguistic Slip-Ups (Paperback – September 29, 2009).

In fact, there’s a whole series of books around the “More Badder Grammar” rubric. Of course, I’ll order the book and review it more extensively (if such extensiveness is merited; it may not be).

But I already have an idea of what it’s about. Here’s the blurb on the site https://www.amazon.com/…/0312533012/ref=pe_375410_246941470…

So, like, what’s up with this new use of “so”?

I like to watch language change the way many people like to see the seasons change – in fact, I like them both. Language change is the more unpredictable, yet, like the eternal revolution of heat and cold, it is inevitable and inexorable.
 
English existed as a language as early as the 5th century AD, with the arrival (make that “invasion”) of three dialect groups from the German mainland. But it sounded thoroughly Germanic, with lots of suffixes we lack, no pronoun “she,” and minus all the thousands of French and Latin words that came in during the Middle Ages.
 
Over the centuries, there were, for numerous reasons, profound changes in syntax and pronunciation. I would say that the earliest English we could understand would come from the late 17th century, and even then there would be a lot of unfamiliar vocabulary. Just remember that when you see a film set in the Middle Ages (or, even worse, in the time of King Arthur, when nobody spoke English), and they‘re all talking with modern British accents. It’s a copout! In fact, the English of the 1200s would be so different from Modern English that we would need subtitles.
 
Recent changes in English
The dawn of my consciousness as a linguist establishes sort of a baseline; it’s when I really started paying attention. Back then, “February and “library” had two “r”’s each, there as only one “u” in “nu-CLEE-ar” (not “nu-cu-lar”).
 
“Go” was reserved for animal sounds (“Pigs go ‘oink’”). Now people can go, as in “He arrived at ten, and I go, ‘You’re late!’” Other verbs of speech reporting have appeared, noted below.
 
“Like,” formerly a preposition and clause introducer (the latter usage was controversial: does anyone remember “Winston tastes good like [it should be AS] a cigarette should”?), is now a verbal hiccup which enables the speaker to distance himself from his/her/statement, e.g., “Like, I couldn’t tell him that, like, I’m like so bored.” “Like” in this usage is a syllable of non-commitment. It is the near-ubiquitous “as-if” signal of people unwilling to stand behind what they say or perhaps unable to find a more accurate word.
 
“They” has taken over, at least in colloquial speech and writing, as a pronoun for an indefinite antecedent (“A doctor might use the new drug on their patient.”). I see it in print.
 
We’ve acquired new syntactic speech mannerisms, e.g., postposed NOT to convey irony, as in ”I’ll be there tomorrow – NOT”…or postposed interrogatives, e.g., ”And you would be…?” or “”So you are here because…” as if the speaker is saving the hearer the trouble of deciphering the inverted English question syntax (”Why are you here?”) and providing an easy, fill-in-the blank way to respond.
 
“Home in on” – what a missile or homing pigeon does – is being replaced, rather quickly, by “hone in on,” with its connotations of sharpness and focus. I see that one in print, too.
 
With all of this as background, I consider a linguistic item brought to my attention by Steve, the friend of a friend.
 
“So” — what???
He asks: “Is anyone else annoyed by all the people answering every question with the adverb ‘so’? Example question: ‘How deep is the ocean?’ Example answer: ‘So, it depends where you measure.’ Is this new verbal cliché confined to academics and political analysts on NPR (where I just heard it in virtually every answer on Science Friday) or has it infected young people everywhere? Seems to be joining, ‘I was like…,’ she was all…’ and other verbal sludge in our language. Harrumph!
 
“I’ve noticed it and wondered. It’s not the traditional connective you might have expected meaning “therefore, as a result of.” It’s more of an enclitic, like “well,” a pause, a way to regroup and go on with an answer. [Not quite: an enclitic is a reduced word at the end of a word, like the “r” at the end of “yes’r,” a contracted form of “yes sir.” – AMP]”
 “Mistake” = change in progress?
As always, when we see a “mistake” or an innovation that pisses people off, it is evidence of change in the language system, and we gotta chill out and try to see what’s going on. Language is, in the title of John MacWhorter’s new book, always “on the move.”
 
People don’t know that until recently, “transpire” originally meant ‘to become known’ (trans + spire = “breathe across”), rather than ‘to happen.’ Happening vs. becoming known – important difference lost.
 
The verbal mannerism Steve notes is new to me but not unrelated to the other meanings of “so,” in this case continuative (“The store was closed, so we left.”). “So” apparently now means ‘thus, in order to continue the discussion.’ But it may mean nothing at all, beyond being a boundary marker, like sentence-initial “now” in many contexts (“Now, if we turn to the next topic…”). And of course, any innovation that spreads through a social group like NPR Nation can become definitive of group membership – “So, I’m so cool, I start sentences with ‘so.’”
 
One final example for Steve: In the last century, the progressive passive (“The house is being built”) was ridiculed as verbal sludge. But it moved in and is now fully accepted, even though we already had “the house is a-building.”
 
Of course Steve and I wouldn’t say “I’m all…” and “He goes…” — we’re over 15. We very consciously adopt age-appropriate expressions. But the word “cool,” in an area of language that changes very rapidly – terms of (dis)approbation – seems eternal and sounds fine, no matter who says it. And that’s cool.

PS: Language judgments and prejudices

A PS to the previous post:

We judge people by the way they speak, by which I mean we apply to them the generalizations we have gleaned from past associations with people who speak that way. I caution against being too hasty with these snap judgments. There are very good reasons why a non-stupid person would not be able to keep the homonyms straight. Maybe the writer is a bright, well-educated foreigner who is still learning English. Maybe there’s some kind of language disorder in an otherwise intelligent person. You can think of others – and you should, in order to avoid pre-judging people.

Linguist looks at 2nd Amendment

What does the 2nd Amendment really say?

One thing I understand about New Hampshire, after ten years here, is that the state’s bold and famous motto, “live free or die,” refers mainly to the second half of the 2nd Amendment.  (NH is the last state in New England to legalize cannabis.)

Analysis of 2nd Amendment

But when we try to read it as a whole, it makes the right to bear arms problematic and equivocal.

The text reads:

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to bear arms, shall not be infringed.