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HD: Word Crimes
Posted: 18 July 2014 04:48 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 16 ]
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Dave Wilton - 18 July 2014 03:37 AM

Ben Zimmer has a nice bit of commentary on the video.

Seems he has a somewhat prescriptivist view of what the word grammar means. :-p

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Posted: 18 July 2014 05:58 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 17 ]
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You do realize, don’t you, that “style guides” are simply books written by people with strong ideas about language?  They have no evidentiary value whatever except about the ideas of that particular author.  A state legislature mandating that pi = 3 would not make it so (to take an analogy based on a pleasing urban legend).  I understand that you dislike certain uses of “less” and “literally,” but that does not make them incorrect.

Language isn’t mathematics, though. It’s a means of communication amongst people, who determine what is correct in any given context.

Here’s one for you: I was sitting in a pub with some people. A drunk came over and decided to have a go at us for various reasons, one of which was not doing our bit in WWII (none of us had been alive then, but never mind). He kept saying, ‘Where was you in 60 years ago?’

Now the use of ‘was’ for ‘were’ is quite common, but regarded as substandard, or in the common parlance, ‘wrong’.

The use of ‘in’, however is rather idiosyncratic, and unidiomatic. I’ve never heard anyone else use it in this way. (If others have, please pipe up.) But nobody was in the slightest doubt as to what was meant.

So would you accept both these uses as correct by definition, as it was a native speaker? And if so, is there anything you would regard as incorrect?

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Posted: 18 July 2014 06:25 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 18 ]
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Both are nonstandard. ("Substandard" connotes a value judgment and privileges native speakers of standard English over native speakers of dialect.) The use of was, while not standard English, is perfectly appropriate for certain dialects, so I wouldn’t call it “wrong” or “incorrect.” (I would say that it’s “inappropriate” for certain registers and contexts.)

As far as I know, this use of in isn’t a dialectal feature (I could be wrong), and so I wouldn’t hesitate to label that as “incorrect.”

But given the context, a drunk in a bar, I don’t think I would bother to try and correct it.

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Posted: 18 July 2014 07:16 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 19 ]
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He could have been drunkenly conflating “Where were you 60 years ago?” with “Where were you in ‘62?” which was the tag line for the movie American Graffiti (1973).

Edit: I heard about a drunk guy once, who on hearing there was a Dunkin Donuts over on Green Pond Road kept saying to his friends “Let’s go to Dunkin Green Nuts” which they found absolutely hilarious but the drunk guy was unaware that he was saying anything unusual.  Drunks say the darnedest things.

[ Edited: 18 July 2014 07:25 AM by jtab4994 ]
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Posted: 18 July 2014 07:59 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 20 ]
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As far as I know, this use of in isn’t a dialectal feature (I could be wrong), and so I wouldn’t hesitate to label that as “incorrect.”

But the question of whether or not it is “incorrect” is of vanishingly small interest except to vigilant policers of other people’s language use (which, alas, is a substantial portion of the population); the idea that it might be a dialectal feature is far more interesting, and one of the many downsides of the obsession with “correctness” is that it keeps people focused on the imaginary rulebook and prevents them from thinking “Hm, I wonder if that’s the way they talk wherever he’s from?  Never heard that particular usage before.” I mean, “Where is it at” is familiar; “Where is it in” would be a discovery.  But if you consider them both simply “word crimes,” you’re reducing the marvelous variegated world to a flattened and colorless caricature.

[ Edited: 18 July 2014 08:05 AM by languagehat ]
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Posted: 18 July 2014 09:59 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 21 ]
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languagehat - 18 July 2014 07:59 AM

But the question of whether or not it is “incorrect” is of vanishingly small interest except to vigilant policers of other people’s language use (which, alas, is a substantial portion of the population)

Of course it’s natural for language to change. But my point it is it’s equally natural for people to dislike certain forms of change, and to resist them. 

the idea that it might be a dialectal feature is far more interesting, and one of the many downsides of the obsession with “correctness” is that it keeps people focused on the imaginary rulebook and prevents them from thinking “Hm, I wonder if that’s the way they talk wherever he’s from?  Never heard that particular usage before.”

Not to me. That’s why I asked if anyone else had ever heard this particular use of ‘in’.

Dave Wilton - 18 July 2014 06:25 AM

Both are nonstandard. ("Substandard" connotes a value judgment and privileges native speakers of standard English over native speakers of dialect.) The use of was, while not standard English, is perfectly appropriate for certain dialects, so I wouldn’t call it “wrong” or “incorrect.” (I would say that it’s “inappropriate” for certain registers and contexts.)

Sorry, a bit of a slip there. I love dialect. But the German writer Kurt Tucholsky (who, incidentally, is praised for his excellent renditions of dialect) said that Berlin dialect was a pleasure to hear from someone who could speak it, but a torture to hear from someone who hadto (in other words, who was unable to speak standard German). There is more of a tradition with German dialects for speakers to code switch, but I would still hold that the same applies to English.

I’m not arguing for some god-given absolute standard of English, and I think I’ve been around long enough for people to know that. I’m saying that language is correct, or incorrect, depending on context. I might go as far as to argue that standard English could be considered incorrect in certain contexts – in the pub I mentioned, for example. It might even get one beaten up, which is a bit more serious than simply being marked wrong. Dave might prefer to call it only ‘inappropriate’, though.

[ Edited: 18 July 2014 10:06 AM by kurwamac ]
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Posted: 18 July 2014 10:39 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 22 ]
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Of course it’s natural for language to change. But my point it is it’s equally natural for people to dislike certain forms of change, and to resist them. 

Sure. That’s true, and no one says you have to like change. But I don’t think this is what’s going on.

Instead, people are conditioned that certain, specific changes are “bad,” while paying no heed to many other, often much bigger changes. And often the complaints come at the expense of some disadvantaged group. The same specific complaints are repeated ad infinitum, as if the talking points were distributed and rigidly adhered to, while ignoring huge swaths of similar usages.

The person who bitches and moans about how teen texting conventions are destroying the language will go on to to use “ASAP” and numerous other abbreviations and acronyms in their business emails without giving it a thought.

The person who corrects someone else’s “I could care less,” unabashedly talks about being “head over heels” in love, or when at the shooting range “locks and loads” their rifle.

The concern is not over language use, but rather to establish themselves in a position of social superiority.

[ Edited: 18 July 2014 11:24 AM by Dave Wilton ]
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Posted: 18 July 2014 02:19 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 23 ]
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kurwamac - 18 July 2014 09:59 AM


Of course it’s natural for language to change. But my point it is it’s equally natural for people to dislike certain forms of change, and to resist them. 

Disliking something is one thing.  Complaining about it is another.  I despise the taste of raw celery, but I don’t go on food sites calling those who like celery idiots.

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Posted: 18 July 2014 03:43 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 24 ]
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There are people who do, though. And in any case food is pretty much a private matter, unless a celery eater has invited you to dinner. It’s impossible to avoid other people’s language, because the purpose of language is to communicate with the wider world.

I certainly agree with Dave on the inconsistency of self-styled pedants, and on other, non-specialised boards, have enjoyed pointing this out. It doesn’t have any effect, of course.

Language is to some extent irrational, but my point is that people’s responses to it are equally irrational. If change in language can’t be halted by people getting apoplectic about the fact that a television presenter has violated some rule they were told by their sainted English teacher 50 years ago, neither can the tendency of people to judge others by the way they speak. What we mostly hear are the complaints of speakers of the standard variety of a language about non-standard usages. But the speakers of non-standard dialects can be equally judgemental about speakers of the standard form, though they’d probably use different words to express the sentiment.

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Posted: 18 July 2014 04:13 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 25 ]
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There is one oddity about fewer: Whereas it is fine to write, “The Liberals won three fewer seats than in the previous election,” you run into idiom trouble if you reduce the number to one: you cannot say “one fewer seats,” nor can you say “one fewer seat.”

I’m not buying that from Bernstein. You can say “one fewer seat”.

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Posted: 18 July 2014 10:22 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 26 ]
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It’s interesting that in Italy there are different dialects for the different regions throughout the country.

In Naples the majority of Italians speak the Neapolitan dialect.  What I always found fascinating when I lived in Naples was how the educated Neapolitans could easily switch registers for a different audience. Keep in mind, a Milanese in Milan would have difficulty understanding a Neapolitan speaking in dialect and vice versa; a Milanese speaking in his dialect would probably not be easily understood in Naples.

The point I’m trying to make is that many Italians from the various regions in Italy, Rome, Naples, Florence (the Florentine dialect is a form of Tuscan dialect) Milan etc. speak in their dialect, but usually only the educated group can switch codes from dialect to standard, depending on the audience.

I’m fluent in Italian, but it was difficult for me to understand the Neapolitan dialect, even though I heard it every day. It’s a fascinating and vibrant dialect and I can’t imagine Naples without it.

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Posted: 19 July 2014 04:04 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 27 ]
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The point I’m trying to make is that many Italians from the various regions in Italy, Rome, Naples, Florence (the Florentine dialect is a form of Tuscan dialect) Milan etc. speak in their dialect, but usually only the educated group can switch codes from dialect to standard, depending on the audience.

Code switching is a common feature in most languages. In American dialect it is perhaps most noticeable when switching between African-American Vernacular English and standard American English, but it happens with all dialects. Switching is not a matter of “education” or intelligence—although it can might seem that way to the casual observer. The ability to code switch comes with necessity and practice--those who have a need to converse with people beyond their local group become adept at it. (Those who are better educated are more likely to use code switching in their professional lives, so that’s why one may think that’s the cause when it’s really just a correlation.)

Labov’s famous experiment with code-switching among NYC department store employees is perhaps the most famous study of the phenomenon—and which shows that education or class doesn’t have anything to do with one’s ability to switch.

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Posted: 19 July 2014 10:46 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 28 ]
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No, it shows that in that particular instance certain people were able to code switch with respect to one particular aspect of NYC dialect. It says nothing about whether they recognised other features of their dialect that could give a poor impression. It certainly can’t be extrapolated to all other examples where people code switch, or don’t.

You appear to be saying that anyone can code switch if they feel motivated enough. I don’t believe this, and I find it even harder to credit that anyone can believe it.

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Posted: 19 July 2014 12:32 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 29 ]
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You appear to be saying that anyone can code switch if they feel motivated enough. I don’t believe this, and I find it even harder to credit that anyone can believe it.

No, as I said, “the ability to code switch comes with necessity and practice.” One must learn to speak the other dialect; it’s not simply a matter of motivation, but anyone can learn to do it. Logophile was implying that only the educated code switch, which is patently not true.

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Posted: 19 July 2014 12:55 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 30 ]
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I have a friend who, when in Italy, speaks Spanish (interlarded with whatever Italian words he knows). He says that in Southern Italy, they believe he’s speaking a Northern dialect; and in Northern Italy, they think he’s speaking a Southern dialect. Italians being the tolerant, good-natured people they usually are (I can’t stop liking them even when they’re short-changing me), he manages just fine.

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