Sunday, July 15, 2007

It's, like, a breath of fresh air

This is just to balance my grumbling from last week. William Safire is still on vacation from his column so this week Patricia T. O'Conner takes the helm. She nicely avoids the icebergs that Safire usually broadsides.

  1. She defends a new usage instead of calling language change a degeneration. She writes
    O.K., the new like is hot and it’s useful, but is it legit? Aren’t some rules of grammar or usage being broken here?

    Linguists and lexicographers say no. It’s natural, they say, for words to take on new roles. In this case, a "content word" (one that means something) has become a "function word" (one that has a grammatical function but little actual meaning). Academics call the process "grammaticalization." It’s one of the ways language changes.

    and she doesn't pull a muscle arguing against the point. Brava.

  2. She makes an important distinction between different registers and grammar.

  3. She talks to several linguists (Jennifer Dailey-O’Cain Geoffrey Pullum Arnold Zwicky) and gives their observations plenty of attention treating us to extended quotes. Most of the quotations sound characteristic of their rational reasoning.

  4. She sagely suggests that most people who complain about usage probably rely on many of the forms they deride.

Towards the end of her piece she identifies parents as the most grumpy prescriptivists. I'll leave you with some of her best thoughts.
Another unfounded assumption about like is that it’s used by the less educated among us. ... I’ve always believed that young people are capable of knowing when to use formal versus informal, written versus spoken English. ... A word to parents: Loosen up.


  1. Please, can Safire stay on vacation forever? Assuming, of course, that this would mean someone like O'Connor got his job, not like Jaimie Epstein.

  2. Unfortunately so many people rely on the Safire/Epstein type voices to support their own elitist inclinations. That's why peevologists are so popular.

    One day (I hope) the NYTimes editors will think "Hey. Let's devote this space to a writer who actually likes language. Real language."

  3. Wow! What a breath of fresh air! I agree with the Ridger.

  4. Oh boy...I just realized that your title for this post was about a breath of fresh air. I totally wasn't paying attention to the title at the time I made my comment. What a blog faux pas!

  5. Ha. I heard it as a reiteration. Something like "that was a breath of fresh air"--minus the "was" I guess.


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