Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Musings on American English

Sybil here. As you read this, I’m on my way to the Malice Domestic conference in Bethesda, MD. I’m also finishing up Book 3 in my Aurora Anderson Mystery series. To say I’m stressed would be an understatement.

When I’m stressed out, I get annoyed at little things and get a bit nit picky about how people speak or write English. Don’t worry, I don’t actually correct people. Okay, I might talk to the TV screen, but they can’t hear me so...

I’ve taken enough linguistic classes to know a language is a living thing, in a constant take of flux. Words get added, deleted, change meanings all the time. I get that. I also get that grammar changes over time. What was once considered unacceptable and bad grammar becomes the norm.

I’m not a grammar snob. My own isn’t ‘correct’ all the time, but some things annoy me or, at least, bring me up short. Here’s my current list:

How do you pronounce ‘primer’?
Pronunciation of this word is one of my hot buttons. In American English it's pronounced two different ways, depending on its meaning. Go ahead, consult your American English dictionary if you don’t believe me. You back? If we’re talking about a book, it’s pronounced with a short ‘i’ like “primmer”. If we’re talking paint, it’s pronounced with a long ‘i’. I don’t know how many times I’ve been literally laughed at for pronouncing this word correctly. My gut response is: “Read the dictionary, people!”, but I usually just say that’s what the dictionary says. One of my AE dictionaries did note that in British English, the book is pronounced the same as the paint. I'd be interested to know if this is true. So, you speakers of British English, let me know.

Waiting/standing on line v. in line
This preposition difference between coasts only came to my attention in the last few years. I’ve lived on the West coast my entire life. We stand or wait ‘in line’ here. On the East coast, though, ‘on line’ seems to be preferred. You East Coasters can stand or wait on line all you want. I’ll stick with ‘in line.’ But when a character in a book that we’re told has lived on the West coast their entire life stands “on line”, I sit up and take notice. It bothers me, okay. Brings me right out of the story. I read a book once where that happened and it bothered me for pages. Okay, it’s still bothering me years later. Stupid, I know, but that’s the way it is.

pled v. pleaded 
Okay, this one I know is not incorrect. I was just taught that the proper past tense of ‘to plead’ is pled. Both are listed in my American English dictionaries, though pled seems to have pretty much gone out of every day use. All of the news articles on crime that I read use the form ‘pleaded’. Still jars me, though. Yep, I’m old.

‘she’ used as a generic pronoun
English needs a generic 3rd person pronoun. It really does. Neither ‘he’ nor ‘she’ seems to work well. I was taught ‘he’ is the proper generic to use in English so that’s what I use. Now, I grew up in the 60s and 70s. I remember when single women couldn’t get mortgages without a man to cosign a loan. I understand the issue. I didn’t change my name when I got married, my own little womens’ rights protest, something quite unusual at the time. Years and years ago, I started seeing ‘she’ used in this context all over the place. Makes me pause every time. I know this is my problem. I’m okay with that. Just don’t tell me I’m wrong when I use ‘he’ as my generic.

than + preposition
This one I think I’m going to have to let go. It’s become too ingrained in current American English. Still, it grates on my nerves to hear someone say “he’s taller than me.” I was taught the correct preposition in this case is ‘I’ and here’s how you know: extend the sentence to use the proper form of the verb ‘to be’, e.g. He’s taller than I am. You can cut off the verb or leave it in. I tend to leave it in, because I admit it sounds a little odd otherwise. I did catch myself saying ‘taller than me’ the other day, though. Guess it really is time to ignore this one.

I’ve shown you my list of nitpicks. What things annoy you or at least cause you to pause?


Rick Blechta said...

"Waiting/standing on line v. in line"

Do what the Brits do "Standing in a queue"or "queuing up"

Problem solved -- and in North America it has the added benefit of making one sound exotic!

Sybil Johnson said...

True, very true. Just can't seem to get my mouth to say it. :->

Donna S said...

I have two that simply drive me bonkers.

"goes" instead of "said" as in - She goes, "do not start singing". This is used when one person is talking to another and telling them about a third conversation. If you know what I mean. LOL

no one seems to know how to use the word "fun" anymore. They do not use adverbs with it. The don't say "very much fun" or "lots of fun" when describing something or an activity they had. And I can't remember another particular instance where it is misused, but people, especially teens, do it all the time.

Christopher Huang said...

I was taught that "advertisement" was pronounced "ad-ver-tiss-ment". I remember hearing half the school chorus out, "ad-ver-TISSS-ment! Who's your English teacher?" whenever someone slipped up in public speaking and said "ad-ver-ties-ment".

Also, that "route" was pronounced "root", "buoy" was pronounced "boy", and "quay" was pronounced "kee". Now it's "rowt", "bwoy", and "kay".

But I think what makes me the saddest is the American usage of "story" for both "a tale" and "a level in a building". I like having "storey" for the latter: less confusion in text when they're spelled differently.

Christopher Huang said...

Oh [expletive here] ... I completely forgot the One Thing that bugs me above all else, but I just saw it and now I remember and I don't want to.

"He was sat".

I hate that construction SO VERY MUCH. It makes me imagine the character as a block of wood being manhandled into position. Argh.