Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Language Nerdery

I found this on facebook. I agree with one, three, four, five and nine and disagree with two, six, seven and eight. However, since one, three and six are not about grammar and I don't really understand ten, I'm not sure if I meet this writer's criteria for grammar nerdhood or not. I always thought of grammar nerds as those who internalise a load of prescriptive rules - don't split infinitives, don't place prepositions at the end of sentences - and then enjoy a good wince when other people break them. Or maybe you are truly a language nerd if (like me) you enjoy feeling superior to those poor saps who are stuck in their prescriptivist rut and not really quite clear about what grammar is. Number eight made me cringe for reasons other than those envisaged by the writer. There's no logical reason not to double a negative in English. Double negatives are mandatory in French, Greek, Italian, Portuguese and Spanish, so how can they 'cancel one another out' in English, as prescriptivist logic-choppers claim? Sixty years or so ago, you might have heard an exchange such as the following between a gowned and mortar-boarded school master and a scruffy first-former:

'Why are you not writing, Higginbottom?'
'Amp got no pen, sir.'
'Then I see no possible impediment to your commencing the test forthwith, Higginbottom.'
'Bur I amp got no pen, sir.'
'I'm simply taking you at your word, Higginbottom...'   

No, you're not, teech, you are just being a dick and a snob. Pragmatics, mate: you understand the kid perfectly well. If someone asked you to describe yourself, would you say 'well, I can't get no satisfaction!' and expect us to understand that you are a fairly contented soul? No, you wouldn't. Double negatives are a sociolinguistic matter, not a semantic one - as underlined when the school master warns Higginbottom that he's going to end up working in the mills unless he bucks his ideas up. I actually heard this warning issued to contemporaries at school in the early seventies. (If some prescriptivist is thinking of ticking me off for ending that last sentence but one with a preposition, it's actually an adverb, so there.)      

Number four, though, hell yeah. The railway station in the city where I work is an endless source of irritation in this regard, but usually for misplaced stress rather than mangled grammar:

This barrier will retain tickets

This notice was posted probably because the staff got fed up of people waiting to get their tickets back and holding up the queue. They decided to underline one of the words for emphasis:

 This barrier will retain tickets

This has been causing me mild discomfort for some time. Surely the point is that 'this barrier will not give you back your tickets, no; the fact is that: 

This barrier will retain tickets'

But then I decided that from the point of view of a barrier attendant, maybe there is some logic behind this apparently unmotivated stressing of the auxiliary. 'Look, you lot, we've told you over and over, but you never bloody get it,     

 This barrier will retain tickets

so what's up, don't you believe us?' It's just that any passenger who needs this information is by definition not in on the subtext.  

I've just spent a couple of hours of a free day sounding off about matters of scant interest to non-language teachers, so I suppose that qualifies me for nerdery of some kind.  


CJB said...

Great nerdery indeed. But also deeply impressed re 'up'. Seriously an adverb.....but, no-one didn't know that not knowing that wouldn't do no one no 'arm, guv.

Vilges Suola said...

Makes a difference as to where you shove your pronoun, ma'am, as you might say in a manner o' speakin.


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