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  • Sandeep Prasanna

    Sandeep Prasanna 6:00 am on April 9, 2012 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , if i was, if i were, mood, , pop music, prescriptive linguistics, subjunctive   

    If I were Justin Bieber… 

    If I was your boyfriend, never let you go
    Keep you on my arm girl, you’d never be alone
    I can be a gentleman, anything you want
    If I was your boyfriend, I’d never let you go, I’d never let you go

    Justin Bieber, “Boyfriend”

    Truly stirring.

    According to English grammarians, “If I was your boyfriend” should read “If I were your boyfriend.” Bieber is describing something that isn’t true — he isn’t the girl’s boyfriend — so he needs to use the subjunctive mood. Here is a lengthier description of the subjunctive. (Not all big pop stars get it wrong, though: Beyonce’s “If I Were a Boy” follows the rule correctly.)

    My problem with substituting “if I was” for “if I were” in songs is that it doesn’t cost anything to be grammatically correct — you end up with the same number of syllables and stresses. Why not follow the rule? Is there a social cost to using the subjunctive? Like, is it automatically less cool?

    There’s some evidence to suggest that the use of “if I was” is on the rise. Here’s the Ngram data for “if I was” (blue) versus “if I were” (red):

    When “if I was” occurs in the middle of a sentence, writers are almost as likely to use it versus “if I were.” But writers are less likely to use “if I was” if it occurs at the beginning of the sentence (second graph).

    The problem with this data is that “if I was” is occasionally grammatically correct, as in “If I was rude to you yesterday, I’m sorry.”

    So I tried narrowing the searches to eliminate correct instances of “if I was.”

    First, I thought of “if I was you” (blue) versus “if I were you” (red). But saying “if I were you” is pretty much idiomatic at this point. The data confirm that suspicion.

    Here is “I wish I was” (blue) versus “I wish I were” (red). They’re nearly convergent now. I thought that “I wish I were” was idiomatic, just like “if I were you,” but apparently that’s not the case.

    But maybe the subjunctive “was” isn’t really entirely encroaching on the territory of “were.” I compared the phrase “if I was your” to “if I were your,” thinking that a grammatically correct instance of “if I was your” was unlikely to occur. The difference is greater:

    Separating the correct instances of “if I was” from incorrect instances is a challenge. Does anyone have other/better ideas on how to eliminate grammatically correct instances of “if I was” to compare it to “if I were”?

    On a similar note, does anyone know of any studies that look at the loss of the subjunctive in English?

     
  • The Diacritics

    The Diacritics 8:43 am on November 28, 2011 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: chaucer, , language and gender, new york times, on language, prescriptive linguistics, singular they,   

    They, their, and them 

    (posted by John)

    We all use ‘they’ as a singular pronoun when we want to be gender-neutral. It’s so common these days that we hardly notice it, and nobody has ever corrected me when I’ve said ‘they’ in conversation. But most of us have been told not to use ‘they’ as a singular pronoun when we’re writing something at all formal. As it turns out, though, we are in good company. The singular ‘they’ has been around for a long time, and it’s been used by some of history’s most famous and well-respected authors. Geoffrey Chaucer is credited by many as the first major author to use ‘they’ as a singular pronoun, albeit writing in Middle English.

    And whose fyndeth hym out of swich blame. / They wol come up . . .

    -Chaucer, “The Pardoner’s Prologue”

    Chaucer is credited with the first use of singular ‘they.’

    This was all the way back at the end of the 14th century. And since then, according to the Merriam Webster Dictionary of English Usage, a number of other famous writers have done the same, including Shakespeare, Lord Byron, and Jane Austen.  The NY Times’ On Language cites more—Dickens, Eliot, and Trollope, among others.

    “And every one to rest themselves betake.”

    -Shakespeare, The Rape of Lucrece, 1594

    “Nobody here seems to look into an Author, ancient or modern, if they can avoid it”

    -Lord Byron, letter, 1805

    “I would have everybody marry if they can do it properly.”

    -Jane Austen, Mansfield Park, 1814

    Nevertheless, most ‘purists’ agree that the traditionally correct way to use a singular pronoun in ‘neutral’ situations is to use the masculine ‘he.’ This ends up at least sounding fine in most places. But Merriam-Webster points out that it is “awkward at best” to use ‘he’ in certain instances, for example when the pronoun’s antecedents are both male and female.

    “She and Louis had a game—who could find the ugliest photograph of himself.”

    -Joseph Lash, Eleanor and Franklin (in Reader’s Digest)

    “. . . the ideal that every boy and girl should be so equipped that he shall not be handicapped in his struggle for social progress.”

    -C.C. Fries, American English Grammar, 1940 (in Reader’s Digest)

    Reread those two examples with ‘they,’ ‘their,’ and ‘them,’ and see for yourself how much better they sound.

    Interestingly enough, the Times’ On Language credits a feminist grammar teacher by the name of Anne Fisher with popularizing the use of ‘he’ as the neutral pronoun.

     “If any single person is responsible for this male-centric usage, it’s Anne Fisher, an 18th-century British schoolmistress and the first woman to write an English grammar book, according to the sociohistorical linguist Ingrid Tieken-Boon van Ostade. Fisher’s popular guide, “A New Grammar” (1745), ran to more than 30 editions, making it one of the most successful grammars of its time. More important, it’s believed to be the first to say that the pronoun he should apply to both sexes.”

    -On Language, Patricia O’Connor and Stewart Kellerman, July 21, 2009

    For many, it’s not just an issue of sounding awkward in certain contexts. It is a major point of contention that the so-called ‘neutral’ pronoun is actually masculine–call it a symbol of continued male dominance in a world that should instead be striving for equality between the genders. And it without doubt sounds sexist to say that “Everyone should have his fair share” or “Everyone should be allowed to assert his rights.”

    However, attempts to find a good gender-neutral pronoun that’s not ‘they’ have been relatively futile. The On Lanugage article discusses a wave of Twitter-using grammarians tweeting about some of them, like hiseror shhe. I’ve also heard zhe (that first sound zh is supposed to be [ʒ] in IPA, like the first sound in the French name Jacques). None of these seem particularly satisfactory to me though.

    One frustrated tweeter agreed, simply saying “Damn you, English language!” — I guess everybody’s entitled to their (his? zheir?) own opinion, but maybe we should just be happy with what we’ve got, and what we’ve got is definitively ‘they.’

    Like I said, lots of people have an opinion on this issue. I hope my position is clear enough, but I would be interested to learn what other people think. Also, if anyone has any suggestions for, or has heard other good versions of, a gender-neutral pronoun, let us know! 

     
  • The Diacritics

    The Diacritics 2:49 pm on September 18, 2011 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: AAVE, colloquial, descriptive linguistics, ebonics, , , prescriptive linguistics,   

    Where you at, man? 

    (Posted by Sandeep)

    I have a sordid confession, grammar nerds. I use the phrase “Where you at?” on a regular basis.

    That Boost Mobile commercial just got to me. And then Jennifer Hudson came out with a song called “Where you at?” and I just couldn’t resist anymore. “Where you at?” is a phrase associated with African American Vernacular English (AAVE) but plenty of my non-African American friends use it. And then there’s me, too.

    So what’s with this phrase? From a prescriptive standpoint, there are just so many grammatical issues.

    First, there’s no verb (called a copula in this instance, since we need a form of the verb “be”). But let’s give speakers a little break. Maybe the “are” just got swallowed up in the “where.” When many speakers casually say the two words “where are,” the “are” usually gets contracted into the “where,” resulting in “where’re.” That’s a pretty hard word to pronounce, so it may get reduced to a simple “where” when we’re speaking. Also, in AAVE, the copula is generally omitted altogether, anyway.

    So, okay, there’s no verb — fine. We’ll allow it.

    But what about that pesky “at” at the end? The word “where” literally means “at what place,” so saying “Where you at?” effectively results in “At what place (are) you at?” Repetition is usually no good. There shouldn’t be two instances of “at” when they are used for the same purpose.

    There’s also a prescriptive argument that a preposition like “at” shouldn’t be used at the end of a sentence. I generally avoid subscribing to that view, especially when it creates awkward sentences. There might be a case for that argument here, though: If we place the “at” somewhere else in the sentence, we see that it doesn’t really belong in this sentence. “At where (are) you?”

    But maybe that “at” serves another purpose. I find “Where you at?” to be a more useful phrase than the standard “Where are you?” because it requests something deeper than a simple GPS location. I want to know where you are, what you’re doing, whom you’re with, and whether it’s fun. Can I come to where you’re at? Can I bring friends? Maybe the simple word “at” holds much more meaning than we give it credit for.

    I also like the phrase because it’s more casual and less creepy than an out-of-the-blue “Where are you?” — it has all the functionality of the “proper” phrase and none of the stalker undertones. Maybe that reason alone is enough to welcome the sentence into my regular speech.

    In addition, the social implications of the phrase — cool, hip, urban — probably play into my and others’ decision to use the phrase. You don’t want to be lame and use “Where are you?” when a more proper “Where you at?” would do the job in certain contexts.

    Sure, I probably won’t use it when I’m speaking to my elders or in a professional context, but I like using it with my friends and peers.

    And after all, for descriptive linguists, utility and popular usage is where it’s at.

     
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