Thursday, April 14, 2011

Return of the ("Sigh") Grammar Nazi

Alas, it is time once again to mount the anti-tank guns and prepare to take a few pot-shots at the proliferating weird, bland, dumb, lazy, ungrammatical coinages which are appearing just over the horizon of our fair English language.

Just the other day, listening to the radio, I was nauseated to hear an announcer use the phrase "bein' as how..." as an informal conjunction. Other similar constructions--"being that" or "being as"--constitute the same kind of error. What speakers mean by these phrases is either "because" or "since" but they seem unable to avoid using the word being. (Another variation of the same error is "seein' that" or "seein' as how.") These are regarded as "country speech"--especially in the American South--and are unworthy of anyone pretending to practice civilized conversation.

A related problem is the use of "be it that" or, as in a string of options "be they one, or be they another, or be they..." etc. "Be it that" like "being as" or "being that" or (horrors) "being as how" are all yahoo grammar mistakes. And yet you hear these phrases used constantly in the media, usually in situations where the speaker is either uneducated, or wants to sound, or to seem to be, familiar. "Aw shucks, Pee Wee, bein' as how you and me is such great friends,..." etc.

Never use "being that" or "being as" to introduce dependent clauses! Never use "be they" or "be that" in the same way, or to elaborate choice-lists. Instead, use "whether" as in "whether they are" or "whether you have" etc.

The other gripe I have is with the spreading use of clipped participles, i.e., bein', seein', livin' etc. Somehow, these kinds of mock abbreviations have come to be accepted as familiar, politically correct, friendly, easy-going, inoffensive gestures, or as polite, homespun, intimate, humble overtures. In actuality, they are a form of condescension, particularly when used by educated people. When someone wants to put you at ease by "puttin' ya' at-eazze" they probably want something from you, or are saying (in effect) "you're just dumb enough to think that when I used clipped participles in speaking to you, you'll be more likely to believe what I'm tellin' ya, than ya would be if I used grammatically correct language." Don't drop the g (or "ing") sound from participles. It's stupid. Imitating bad speech patterns in an attempt to achieve familiarity is dishonest, or naive, or both.

Out, out!, I say!


J said...

Speaking is not formal writing, of course. A drawl or some clipped "bein's" in casual speaking might offend the WF Buckley sort of Tory-wannabe,'s fairly natural. Actually a slight drawl (not a complete hillbilly dialect) sounds quite American--say Tommy Lee Jones. Or the Brooklyn tough guy --sound. Chicks fall for Tony Soprano, Sir F. Or De Niros. A few for Kevin Costner. Not for Demosthenes, or even the Schackspearean sorts. Most yahoos chuckle at a Hitchens speaking (what in the heck izz this fruitcake talkin' about, honay...?). No wonder that Brits usually are cast as villains.

It's the US bluebloods--WF Buckleys or Kelsey Grammars-- who sound alien, like dyslexic Brits or something. I think Bush II realized this in his campaign 2004 or so-- he seemed to affect a bit of a Texas drawl, IMHE, whereas Kerry sounded Boston-like and pretentious. But in Texas (and really most of the country)..that drawl probably helped Bush's cause--the yahoos don't want Buckleys. They want Palins and Hucklebees. Even Romney might be a bit too yankee-ish for the Herd. Obama as well, but he at times puts on his Chicago street hustler act and pleases the homies, mo or less.

Grammar Nazi might have a point in regard to formal situations, including oratory, but in regard to ordinary speaking--he sounds rather anal.

Curtis Faville said...

Sorry, J, I'm goin' ta' hafta' disagree with ya' here.


Pardon me?

You make illiteracy sound like a kind of ideal state.

I'll take the high road, if those are the only alternatives.

As I've said in the past, here, intelligent inventions and coinages which are witty, or ingenious, or make the language more efficient and specific, are to be desired. Changes which descend from ignorance, laziness or just uppity-ness (as with rappers who hate "white" English because they associate it with white people), are to be resisted and spurned.

J said...

I don't think Brit. wit is always needed. Mericans respond to ...say Bill O'Reilly, not to Hitchens' fancy rhetoric. I don't care for the content of O'Reilly's rants but he speaks fairly effectively without british-snobbishness. That doesn't imply approving of Al Sharpton (and I wd agree...urban blacks have done some damage to language)

But what of like....writin'? I prefer Dash Hammett to Shakespeare actually--or Stephen Crane over Hawthorne's posh prose. Orwell probably wrote more effectively than Bertrand Russell did.

English isn't latin is it--it's a journalistic tongue by definition. When it gets too British-fancy it has some of us reaching for a guillotine.

J said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Curtis Faville said...


I think we're arguing at cross-purposes here.

Educated people--that is, people educated in the humanities or the sciences--rarely talk like country bumpkins. (I'm not talking about accents here, obviously.) It is certainly true that erudite people may be poor speakers, but that's not a recommendation for doing so, in my opinion.

I think grammatical speech is something to aspire to, rather than to detract from. You seem to be arguing for the vulgar tongue out of principle, but speaking grammatically needn't signify some class-bound condition.

Some years back, there was a move afoot to legitimate "black speech" (as "Eubonics"), which would relieve those who spoke it, from the obligation to speak clearly and meaningfully. Ignorance usually shows itself in poor communication skills. People who have a poor command of their own language usually have a difficult time in their lives. Exceptions, of course. Athletes. Gangsters. But would you want to pose these as standards of behavior?

J said...

In regard to professional and/or academic contexts, you are correct--be articulate, or attempt to be. But what about...dialogue, whether written or in flicks, etc.? Do you want to listen to CSPAN like rhetoric or the House of Lords debate, or De Niro or Eastwood?? That was my point really.

Rhetoric might work in collegetown but were you writing a novel you'd use normal, even colloquial speech. We respond to "Make my day, punk", or "and ah got a one way ticket to palookaville" rather than to "excuse me, my good man, would you be so kind as to respond to an inquiry...""...etcetc

Curtis Faville said...

Well, J, "high" dialect may be more grammatical, but common men may speak a good English to each other. I'm afraid you seem hung up in the 18th Century. Language may be used in a hundred ways. In formal debate, or in the language of law, or philosophical discourse, or literary criticism.

What do you think of the newfangled "cultural criticism" jargon, for instance?

J said...

De Niro, Eastwood, Orwell, Hammett 18th century? No.

At times I echo some of Chomsky's descriptive approach to language, rather than...prescriptive. Content over form. Yes, form, eloquence, articulateness matters in some situations, but clarity should be praised over rhetoric and fancy speech. Expressing ideas clearly needn't mean speaking like british barristers.