The Compulsive Copyeditor

August 7, 2009

A Hole in English

Filed under: English is weird,grammar,history of English,language evolving — amba12 @ 10:42 pm

English is so stripped-down, so shorn of grammatical clues, thingamabobs, and “this end up” arrows, that if you didn’t study Latin, German, or Russian, you’d never realize that English too had a dative case (indirect object) and an accusative case (direct object). To illustrate:  in “give [to] the dog his food,” the dog is the indirect object; in “walk the dog,” the dog is the direct object.  In German, the language in which I discovered these things, the dative “to the dog” is “dem Hund,” and the accusative dog to be walked is “den Hund.”  Once you have grasped this distinction in another language, you can feel it in English even though it’s not marked.

We manage to make our meaning clear by word order, juxtaposition, and context, and the words not fixed in their particular role of the moment by case endings seem freer and more mobile, like Americans.  (Chinese, I’m told, has even less grammar and makes no time, case, or number changes in its words at all; they are simply strings of unaltered nouns and uninflected infinitives, modified only by their proximity to each other.  Can anyone confirm or correct this?  Randy?)

But there is at least one grammatical hole in English that gapes like a missing tooth.  You can tell it’s there because people have tried repeatedly to fill it.  None of the tries have attained to official status; they’re all dismissed as uneducated or slangy, regional or generational dialect.  Nonetheless, we keep using them, like temporary patches grown permanent, because we need to fill the hole.

That hole is the second person plural pronoun.

We’re supposed to say “you” when we mean one person and “you” when we mean a bunch of people, and damn it, that just doesn’t work.  So we’ve had:

yous(e) – Brooklyn

y’all –  South (“all y’all” for a really large group)

you guys – urban youth (applied to both genders)

Which of these do you think is the best solution?  (I think it’s “yous” — which simply pluralizes the pronoun by applying a universal rule.  Ironically, this is considered the most “uneducated”-sounding of the three.)  Should one of them be made official?  Do you have yet another, new candidate for English’s second person plural pronoun?  Or must we just keep on scraping by, stumbling into the hole?  It’s frustrating not to have a word there!

August 5, 2009

Usage Find of the Day.

Filed under: language degenerating,Usage Find of the Day — amba12 @ 1:34 am

They have begun to sew the wind.”

And soon will rip the stitches out of the whirwind?

August 3, 2009

The New (N)etiquette

Filed under: Uncategorized — amba12 @ 2:41 am

Subbing for William Safire (damn, I wanted that gig!), Jack Rosenthal observes in today’s “On Language” column that

Thank you and you’re welcome were once as connected as horse and buggy, but the buggy’s disappearing. A casual survey of acquaintances finds the most frequent response to thanks is now no problem. When National Public Radio hosts thank correspondents for their reports, other responses include sure, sure thing, my pleasure, any time, no sweat and you bet!

Wondering why, Rosenthal muses that the familiarity and formality of “You’re welcome” may make it seem insincere.  I’ll come back to that thought.

But first I want to observe that the same thing has happened to starting a letter with “Dear”:  it’s disappeared.  It always was a little odd that we started business letters that way — addressed to people who weren’t remotely “dear” to us unless they were costing us a lot of money.  The Germans started business letters “Sehr geehrter Herr ________” — very honored Mr. So-and-So.  That Americans used “Dear” was less a tribute to our bold frontier informality than to the salutation’s having lost all literal meaning.

I’ll tell you, though — when I write an e-mail to a publisher’s PR department to request a review copy of a book so I can fact check the review, and I get back the inevitable “Hi Annie” — it strikes me weirdly.  I usually address those first e-mails to total strangers to “Ms.” or “Mr. So-and-So;” once we’ve corresponded and become friendly colleagues, it’s a whole different story (just as Germans switch from the formal Sie to the familiar Du, and figuring out when to do so is still, in this age of e-mail, somewhat fraught, as I recently read to my surprise — I wish I could re-find that link for you).  The ice breaks easily in America, and that’s fine (probably because it’s thin ice), but maybe it’s a side effect of global warming that there’s no longer any rime of formality to break.

Business letters, at least business e-mails (which now comprise what percent of business communication? anyone?), now begin “Hi Annie.”  “Hi Dave.”  It’s like casual Friday 24/7.  (Or an AA meeting.)  We meet in our verbal T-shirts.

Back to the subject of formality and sincerity:  there is the argument about whether self-expression in wedding vows is a good idea, whether those sculpted in new-age Play-Doh will hold up as well as the traditional, graven-in-stone ones.  And then there is the odd observation of people’s tendency to revert to formality in moments of high emotion.  “I’m sorry for your loss” comes to mind. (I think all those of us who had never even heard that gravely formal, formulaic expression of condolence gratefully picked it up from TV cops.  I’m pretty sure I learned it from Andy Sipowicz.)

I was very struck by that at the climax of the very postmodern, bloggy Althouse-Meade romance when Meade exclaimed antiquely:

Althouse said yes!

I am the happiest man in the world.

Formality, in other words, can be a refuge for sincerity as well as a merciful slipcover for insincerity.  I’ll never forget after J’s mother died in Romania — for which we had gotten there in time to hold her hands and later wash her body —  there was a sort of receiving line of neighbors beside her coffin, each of whom walked up, pumped my hand, and said mechanically, “Mein Beileid.”  (Literally, “my condolence.”)  Just one person in that line took my hand and looked me in the eye and filled those exact same words with such warmth and feeling that I burst into tears.

He was the town drunk.  (Though just then sober.)

August 2, 2009

Tow the Line. [UPDATED]

What are people thinking when they say this, I wonder?  What are they picturing?  A tug of war with two teams and a heavy hemp cable?  No one has towed a barge on a canal by a rope while trudging along a towpath for over a century, as far as I know.  At least, not in the United States.

It’s toe the line.  Toe.  As in step up and stand exactly where you’re supposed to.

These malapropisms are artifacts of an oral, aural culture where people hear language — through their iPods, through YouTube videos — far more than they read it.

“She poured over the document” is another one that really bothers me.  I worry about the ink running.  Think of it as examining something so closely you can see its pores, and you will be spelling it correctly.

You know, we used to have the opposite problem.  We read so much that we’d seen words we’d never heard, so we invented our own ways of pronouncing them, which could be way off base and could persist for years or even decades.  For the longest time I thought “succumb” was pronounced “suc-kewm” and, best of all, that “misled” was “my-zeld”:  chiseled, swindled, and misled!

UPDATE: George Orwell noted this misuse in 1946!

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