Saturday, May 23, 2009

Linguistic pet peeves

Plenty of people have linguistic pet peeves, phonetic or syntactic variants, usually non-standarad, that they cringe upon hearing. I'll admit to my fair share of them: I have a slight adverse reaction when I hear people say "I wish I was..." or "This is him". But I'll tell you what really bugs me: people who insist that their linguistic pet peeves should be enforced upon everyone. When I hear someone say "I wish I was..." I think to myself "I wish I were..." But I don't say anything, and I don't think to myself, "Man, that person is an idiot." Language is what people say, not what's in the Strunk & White. This isn't to say that all prescriptive grammar is hogwash. Some of the prescriptive suggestions really do lead to clearer, better writing. But so much of it is just linguistic peevery. What's wrong with, "I wish I was"? Is it ambiguous? Is there something that the subjunctive adds to the meaning of the sentence? No. It's merely agreement. In fact, the subjunctive is so useless that it shows up in languages very late in their development, and it's often one of the first features to be lost. That's not to say I don't love and use the subjunctive; I just recognize that it's a personal thing, not a linguistic law.

15 comments:

N said...

Ha, when I read the post's title I first took it to mean pet peeves about linguistics. I know anytime I hear about the "Chomskyan Revolution" I twitch a little.

Margrete Dyvik Cardona said...

As an adult I have learned to keep the "corrections" to myself in the face of my linguistic "pet peeves". However, these errors, or whatever they may be called, are particularly annoying when they come from people who obviously view themselves as very eloquent or "academic". Some errors are hypercorrections that appear when people try to sound professional. One example is the incessant use of "I" insted of "me" when it appears coordinated with another element; *"My mother saw John and I", *"My uncle took my brother and I to the movies". This is obviously a consequence of the fact that we have learned that *"John and me are going to the movies" is erroneous. I've also noticed that a lot of people say "more so" when a simple "more" would suffice. These are all things that I have noticed when I watch TV (since I have no other daily contact with English), so I have the luxury of shouting out my frustration freely. :)

mrsseymourglass said...

hmm. I don't know. I took Spanish for most of my academic year and regardless of my (lack of) fluency, I'd have to say that the subjunctive is one of my favorite parts of the language. Not just that there's a whole separate way of conjugating verbs because of it, but because one's own desires (and helplessness) are given a special place in the language.
-maria

Margrete Dyvik Cardona said...

To mrsseymourglass:
I completely agree! They can express certain distinctions so elegantly that we'd need a lot of words to specify in Norwegian (and English). Such as the difference between "We are looking for a man who plays the piano. (We know who it is, we just don't know where he is at the moment).": "Buscamos a un hombre que sabe tocar el piano", and "We are looking for a man who plays the piano. (We need any man that can play the piano)": "Buscamos a un hombre que sepa tocar el piano". Also: "I didn't do it because I was sick (I was sick, that's why I didn't do it)": "No lo hice porque estaba enferma", and "I didn't do it because I was sick. (I did it, but it wasn't because I was sick)": "No lo hice porque estuviera enferma." You've gotta love that! If you're a nerd like me, that is.

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parlance said...

I agree with the original post. It's fun to love the niceties of language and have a fair idea of what is correct, but often non-standard ways of saying things are just as easily understood.

I have noticed , though, that most people still say, "If I were you." (That's in Australia, by the way.)

I'm interested that subjunctives show up in languages late and disappear early. Is there a reference where I could read about that?

linguistlessons said...

That's interesting to hear; without having actual data I'd wager that "If I was" is significantly more common in the U.S.

Bybee, Pagliuca, & Perkins (1994 - The evolution of grammar: tense, aspect and modality in the languages of the world) has a good discussion of subjunctive and a bunch of other TAM-related discussion as it related to the evolution of languages.

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parlance said...

Thanks, linguistlessons, for the reference.

Now I'm wondering whether I was correct about Australians. I'll keep my ears open to check - my own little research project.

Margrete Dyvik Cardona said...

About the distinction "when"/"whenever": http://margretecardona.blogspot.com/

Melissa said...

"Language is what people say" - language is just as much what people understand based on what is spoken, correct? So from a strictly linguistic point of view, there is no error as long as the listener clearly understands the meaning the speaker meant to convey, right? I think it's much more interesting to watch how and when people deviate from what is correct because that's language in the making!

Margrete Dyvik Cardona said...

Melissa, although I understand your point, I think you are over-simplifying it. Evidently language changes continuously, and what is considered incorrect at one point might be considered correct some years later. That does not mean, however, that it doesn't make sense to talk about correct and incorrect use of language. The utmost consequence of that view is that language has no rules that govern its use. Clearly it does, or we wouldn't be able to communicate. I am sure that you would correct me as a foreigner if I said "I is at the movies". That sentence is incorrect even though you understand what I'm trying to communicate.

linguistlessons said...

However, "I is at the movies" is a perfectly acceptable sentence in some dialects of English, viz., AAVE/ICE. Obviously there are some rules to language. The point I always emphasize is merely that many of the "rules" that people know aren't actually part of the language, but rather made up prescriptions.

Gustavo said...

Long live the subjunctive! Though my own research suggests that it does tend to disappear from the language! I love it anyways!