No Right Way

Valerie Fridland’s new book Like, Literally, Dude: Arguing for the Good in Bad English provides enough material for an eternity of Wednesday Word posts. Literally.

Yep, Fridland takes on not only the non-literal sense of literally, but also um and uh, the pronoun they as a singular, and even the detested and abhorred vocal fry. She finds some good in all of these, and in like, dude, and many other linguistic shibboleths. As a linguist, she analyzes the need these usages are filling, or, if not a need, their usefulness in social interactions.

Her overarching theme is, “Chill.” (Or possibly, “Dude. Chill.”) Our apoplexy over language change is frequently built on sand. When you hear grammatical errors, does your head literally explode? In fact, Shakespeare, Dickens, Joyce, and Austen used literally in this intensifying sense. The word’s meaning is shifting, like very and awfully before it. We’re expending a lot of mental energy over an inexorable historic process. Language changes, and it always has. Ain’t nothing we can do about it.

Yes, Shakespeare also employed ain’t, as well as double negatives.

Language changes most often climb up from the bottom of society’s ladder. Young women, especially, often drive this evolution. Fridland writes, “It’s a good bet that whatever . . . eventually makes it into the grammar books probably started with the very folks whose speech is most criticized and reviled. The disenfranchised? Check. The young? Check. The female? Check. And while many of the curiosities heard in the speech around us may die out as quickly as a trending TikTok, some will go the distance and become the speech that our grandkids rebel against. And yes, that is a sentence-ending preposition, the likes of which Shakespeare, preposition strander himself, would be proud.”

Of course, you can still edit out the likes from your sentences and restrict your use of literally. You can still be annoyed by others’ speech habits. Just try not to frame your annoyance as the end of civilization, or as snobby put-downs of other people’s speech habits.

In the comments, you can share what drives you crazy, with the understanding that I will respond as Valerie Fridland, with charming history and explanations. I told you. I can draw on this book, like, forever.

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9 Responses to No Right Way

  1. Kathy says:

    Tricia–I said I would try to reply as if I were Ms Fridland. I think she’d say something like this. Regular English verbs use -ed to form past tense and the past participle, as in “walk, walked, (have) walked.” “Lay,” with its principal parts “laid” and “laid,” is virtually a regular verb. “Lie” on the other hand is radically irregular–“lay, (have) lain.” (I know you know all this.) Irregular verbs are holdovers from Old English forms; the movement is toward following the overwhelming pattern of -ed. The distinctiveness of “lie” is disappearing because it’s so much like “lay” and it’s an outlier in its “irregularness.” The force of analogy tends to reduce the number of irregular verbs over time. Wikipedia offers the example of “chid” as the former irregular past tense of “chide.” The past tense has now regularized to “chided.” But we’re not upset about the loss of “chid” because it happened before our time, and we’re used to it.

    I used to teach my students “lie” and “lay,” joking that I was probably the only one who would do it. Always in recent years no student would even know what I was talking about, unless they (the now acceptable singular “they”) were over 40. Or 50. They had literally never once heard the word “lain.” As I always say, their 30-year-old English teachers have also never encountered the distinction. So, like you, I’ll keep noticing it and take care, in my writing especially, but that ship has sailed.

    I always tell Roxie to lie down, you’ll be happy to know.

    The pronoun case issue is what’s known as hyper-correction, where people learn a rule and then misapply it. They learn that it’s polite and proper to start a sentence “She and I,” and then that usage begins to sound right…That’s the right way to do it, right? It sounds better, more educated, etc., so it takes over in every part of the sentence. Pronouncing the “t” in “often” is a similar thing. There’s a “t” there, so I should say it, right? Same thing happening with “whom” and “whomever.” Those objective case pronouns are thrown into every relative clause. Once everyone starts hearing these things, they sound correct, and then I think there’s no stopping the change.

  2. Kathy says:

    Sarah–Does Samuel Johnson have a quotation for every situation? It seems so!

  3. Kathy says:

    Roger–So interesting. I didn’t even realize that men do this until reading your comment and finishing the book. Fridland points out that both genders (all genders) do it but that only women are criticized for it. So refreshing that you have a different take (as you often do)!

  4. Tricia Dykers Koenig says:

    I will attempt to chill, but since you asked, the errors that I most frequently have to restrain myself from correcting are mixing up “lay” and “lie,” and pronoun case confusion such as “Grammar is important to she and I.”

  5. Jewel Moulthrop says:

    I need to read this book. Thanks!

  6. Michael Whitely says:

    Well, that has stirred the pot. If language has become cabbage twice cooked, the young have to wrest control from the oldies. I was hoping to get you to talk about Cicero and found this:
    Cicero was instrumental in transforming the Latin language from a practical, straight-forward language to a language that could be used as a literary medium, a language with which abstract thoughts could be expressed.

  7. Barb Cockroft says:

    Literally, I detest when someone says “irregardless.” Another pet peeve of mine is “mischievous” spoken as mischievious.”” ARGH!

  8. Sarah Becker says:

    Samuel Johnson says it all:
    My labour has likewise been much increased by a class of verbs too frequent in the English language, of which the signification is so loose and general, the use so vague and indeterminate, and the senses detorted so widely from the first idea, that it is hard to trace them through the maze of variation, to catch them on the brink of utter inanity, to circumscribe them by any limitations, or interpret them by any words of distinct and settled meaning: such are bear, break, come, cast, full, get, give, do, put, set, go, run, make, take, turn, throw. If of these the whole power is not accurately delivered, it must be remembered, that while our language is yet living, and variable by the caprice of every one that speaks it, these words are hourly shifting their relations, and can no more be ascertained in a dictionary, than a grove, in the agitation of a storm, can be accurately delineated from its picture in the water.

  9. Roger Talbott says:

    Once again, you sent me down a rabbit hole. I’d heard people complaining about vocal fry and knew it was associated with young women. When I figured out what it was, I realized that it is, indeed, one of my pet peeves — not when young women do it, but when I hear men doing it. Artificially lowering their voices makes them unintelligible to my cochlear implant processors. But they do sound MANLY. For the most part, when young women do it, they become more intelligible, because they also slow their speech, making it easier for me to piece together the meaning of what they are saying.

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