The grammar mavens fall to my wit and charm

The following is a series of posts and the last one should be read first. Following that last one are some additional comments to the post which begins right here:

Bob, you know I am too much of a nerd and an egotist to let this go as fun.

There’s a great article in the NYT today on the growing use of the word “so”
as an introductory sentence starter like “well” and “ummm”. I have noticed
for a long time now a tendency in my writing to start sentences with so, so
I go back and replace some of them.

The article goes into the reasons for the growth of ’so’, relating it to the
fragmentation of our attention so that we want to assure our interlocutors
that what we are about to say concerns what we have been talking about. One
scholar traced its rise to Silicon Valley where lots of immigrants found it
an easy word to use in tracking the course of problem-solving discussions
inherent in the informatic industry. One scholar, Galina Bolden, has
written several papers on it. One function of “so” is to foreshadow a major
insight, which is how I usually use it, so pay attention.

Idiolects and mistakes are common and I’ve read enough linguistics to know
they are a part of language – I think that it is called “performance” versus
“competence” in the jargon. (I have to be careful here as the great Timothy
Mason once caustioned me against “hitting people over the head with the
cudgel of theoretical linguistics”). I myself had never heard the word
’encroach’ spoken (I did not come from an educated family) and had somehow
missed the ’c’, so…. my buddy had to correct me when I referred to
“enroachment”, thinking at first I was talking about an invasion of

NEVERTHELESS, to pedanticize this further, what I was fascinated with from
my time spent as a child reading books about ancient cavemen, medieval
knights, warriors, etc. was the way words travel: Arabic al-jabr became
algebra (maybe if I had studied it in Arabic I would have passed it the
first time). Then to find out that all those Spanish words beginning with
al- came from Arabic; why? Because the Moors ruled Spain for 700 years. Wow!
So that’s why Spanish architecture reflects a Middle Eastern influence and
then THAT can be seen right on the border here in Arizona! Wow!

So then I began to discover the reason all my language study did not square
with what my English teachers were trying to tell me. The reason was that
English is a lot more complicated than the few simple rules taught in my day
(there’s about twelve of them, all baseless as reading any scholarly history
of English will show you – it is emphatically NOT a matter of opinion that
the rules are baseless – it is a matter of scholarly fact which every
language teacher should know). Most English teachers do not bother with
those rules nowadays but there is still great pressure from self-appointed
“experts”, whom Pinker labels “grammar mavens”, to hold to them, to “plant
your flag for standards”.

So from that discovery I explored why we talk the way we do. Ninety-nine
percent (I would tell Paul W. where I got that figure from but it wouldn’t
be printed on this family-friendly listserv) of inexplicable usages derive
from vestigial forms (e.g. “she looked him in the eye” where ’him’ makes no
sense in Present Day English but is a frozen form called the dative of
possession, a narrow version of the dative of reference in case grammar. If
this frozen form were used by hillbillies like my family instead of the
Middle Class, you could be sure it would be condemned by the mavens). The
Gabby Hayes “jine the Army” came from 17th c. pronunciations more like a
schwa plus ai rather than the i of dine, e.g. “bile some water”; so it was
revelatory to me to find that many of these condemned and ridiculed usages,
rather than being the utterance of dunces and fools, personal failings,
actually had histories, origins, and even some legitimacy in earlier times
(check out a production of a 17th c play in original pronunciation for

So what I am saying is that a good many words, grammar features,
pronunciations, and so forth condemned by the mavens and their acolytes as
“unclear”, “imprecise”, “illogical”, and so on are not part of Standard
English, but they are perfectly clear, precise and logical to the people who
use them. “Me and him went to the store” is just as clear, precise, and
logical as “He and I went to the store”. One English teacher told me, “But,
Pat, if we let the students know that, we’ll never get them to learn
Standard English.”

So the motives for distorting and falsifying our grammar may be good, but
it’s all still a lie.And let’s face it, looking at the archives of this
Listserv, we can read some pretty ugly things said about non-standard usage;
“imprecise” is hardly the worst thing said (my favorite is “it makes my ears
bleed”) about non-standard forms. But just explaining in a vain attempt to
bring some scholarship into the discussion where these non-standard forms
come from is then taken as a call to use and teach non-standard English in
the classroom (witness the Ebonics backlash of December, 1994). It’s as
though one must either act as if they [yes, “they”] just smelled a dead fish
or we are all going to have to talk like Jethrow – there’s no in-between,
like reading a book on the history of teaching English (I recommend H.A.
Gleason’s 1965 Linguistics and English Grammar).

For the long version of this post, go to my blog where I discuss “all”,
“like”, and the inner workings of my mind.
Pat Barrett

Well, I have heard non-French speakers pronounce French words in all kinds
of strange ways. Including lots of ways that are not the same as the
variations of pronunciation of French words that have been adopted in
English and are given in English dictionaries. Indeed, I often hear my
English native speaker college students mispronouncing English words that
they have seen in writing but not heard frequently enough to have learned
them. And my French wife mispronounces English words all the time.

I wonder, Pat, if your interest in this might be related to a tendency you
have (as I have noticed) to assume that non-standard, idiosyncratic forms
used by some people are somehow indicative of something more than just a
misunderstanding or mistake… a linguistic dead-end.

I remember when I saw little thinking that “candid” meant “hidden”. The show
was called Candid Camera, and they talked about their “hidden camera”, so I
figured that candid was just another way to day hidden. Or maybe I was
somehow influenced by the title of the French program “La Caméra Cachée”. Of
course this was years before I began learning French and many more years
before I ever heard of the French show. But later, when working at the Univ.
of Metz, I did work with someone who had worked on the Caméra Cachée TV
show, so perhaps some time distortion à la Star Trek or Kurt Vonnegut made
my future have an effect on my past! Unlikely, but if we are looking for
great leaps to give meaning to simple mistakes… 😉

Hmm… Tay tah tay rhymes with “canapée”, a French word for “couch”, and a
“tête à tête” in English is also a kind of small couch, so… maybe… 😉
Hmm… this is sort of like politics; you can use anything to suggest
anything, as long as you don’t actually have to prove anything 😉

Just pulling your leg and having some fun. 🙂


> —–Original Message—–
> If I could let these things go, I would be a happier person. But…….
> The idea here is that words from other languages come into English and,
> if
> distorted, usually get spelling pronunciations, such as the preferred
> ’foy
> yer’ (according to the Am. Heritage Dict) for ’foyer’ where Fr
> pronounces it
> as ’fwa yea’ (according to Cassell’s).
> Coup-de-grace, OTOH, by spelling pronunciation in English, woud be
> pronounced with an s sound, like the French, but instead loses the
> sound due
> to Churchill’s faulty notion that the final s should be dropped.
> OK (pant, pant)….. tete-a-tete, following the French, should be ’tet
> ah
> tet’. But I heard ’tet ah tay’. I think Leigh has it right – it was
> just my
> family.
> Could I be more pedantic? I hope it stops somewhere. Thursday my school
> gave
> me the sesquipedalian award for the most use of unnecessarily big
> words. Who
> woulda thunk it?
> Pat Barrett

The word “like” has come in for mavenly condemnation recently. Most everyone admits that one major source of new usages and slang is the speech of Black Americans, esp musicians. This really stands out for me b/c I entered the Black community at a time when there was little interaction between Blacks and Whites, so Black speech struck me mightily, esp given my interest in language. Certain expressions like “allri-i-i-i-ght” were heard among Blacks but not Whites. One night at a Little League game I heard someone shout “allri-i-i-i-i-ght” and turned to see who the Black person was. There were no Blacks so I realized the usage had penetrated into the general society (later a colleague said it had been used on SNL and that may have been what spread it). This would have been around 1972 or so.

Both “cool” and “like” are associated with Blacks but both have antecedants in early English. They are examples of how difficult it can be to unravel the threads of mutual influence and reinforcement. I understand that “cool” is used in West African languages (i.e. the African language’s word for “cool”, not the English vocable ’cool’) in much the same way that Black Americans used it in earlier times. This factor makes for a lively discussion among scholars of Af-Am Vernacular English regarding just how “African” Black English is.

The word “like” is often cited as a “quotative”, i.e. a word announcing a quote, as in, “And then I’m all like What?! Who’d you hear that from?” I remember hearing White Beatniks in the fifties saying “like” constantly, as in the ubiquitous, “Like man, it’s like crazy, man, like, you know, I just don’t know, like” and other utterances of great moment. The function of these usages must be analyzed linguistically rather than dismissed as incoherent mumblings of drug-addled goof-balls. The precision of meaning and context is illustrated when someone like Mitt Romney tries to use this language and comes out looking remarkably stupid and inept. You just shouldn’t do it; it’s like trying to cuss in a second language – it requires native-like control of nuance and context.

Earlier I wrote, “I’m all like What?!” where ’all’ reinforces ’like’. We hear “So he’s all mad and everything”. Uses of “all” in this way were restricted in my childhood, as far as I can remember, to phrases like, “I’m all tired out”. This use of ’all’ with adjectives and quotes and so on is fairly new. EXCEPT, it occurred in much the same way in the 13th c. Amazing. The only vestige we have of it is “alright”. I can just hear Little John saying to Robin Hood, “Dude, the way you shot that sheriff was all right and everything ’cause he was a stone bad actor”…….. or so I imagine.

So (either connecting the forthcoming to the previous or announcing a major insight), we have come full circle back (superfluous) to “alright”. My mind works that way. It’s a mysterious thing. When I came up with my example of “encroachment”, I thought it just came to me. But when I reread the article I referred to on “so”, I read the word “encroach”, so perhaps my mind unconsciously recalled that word and my history with it and then provided me it (?) as a useful example.

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