Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Not that I care about authorial intent...

Any writer who wants to establish the snobbery of a character has only to throw in a line in which the elitist corrects someone's grammar. It's quick realistic and obvious. But the characters aren't to blame. They were made that way. I'm not about to start tilting at fictional windbags.

And what television character is written to be more of a snob than Frasier Crane? Well maybe Diane Chambers...

One possibly nuanced exchange from season 9 of Frasier caught my attention. This was written into episode 12: Mother Load: Part 1.

Frasier and Martin commenting on Daphne's decision to move out of Frasier's home so she can live with Niles:

Martin  : Well I guess from now on it's just you and I.
Frasier : "You and me" Dad.
Martin : [sarcastically] This is gonna be great.

Just how many characterizations did writer Lori Kirkland fold into this exchange?

  1. Frasier is a snob.

  2. He's a prescriptivist.

  3. He's aware of hypercorrection -- specifically that the nominative I is often used when the dative/accusative me is the prescribed form.

  4. He's so eager to make the distinction that he ignores an opportunity to connect with his father and instead remarks on his grammar.

  5. He's so eager to show his knowledge that he offers an 'incorrection' to an utterance that he mistakenly thinks is a hypercorrection.

Frasier was one of those 'intelligent' award-winning shows, which I've come to think simply means that the critics think they caught a bunch of jokes that most viewers probably missed.

But a bit of dialogue like this in which the snob is left unchallenged --an unresolved fallibility in which a peevologist hamming it up could be hoist with his own petard but gets away with it -- might be a well-crafted portrait deserving of the praise usually slathered on tired literary references and bad puns.


  1. That's just beautiful. And I wonder how many people missed that it was an incorrection?

    Here's one of my favorites - the character Theodosia allegedly earned a good living for fourteen years in advertising after having "excelled at English and composition" in high school and gaining a liberal arts degree, yet between her author and editor was allowed this:

    "I want you to keep an eye on that one. Billy Manolo. Works at the yacht club. Things have been missing. Manager had to dress him down last week, threatened to fire him if things don't improve. Boy is a hoodlum. No good."

    Theodosia stifled a grin and wondered if Booth Crowley's sentences were always this staccato and devoid of nouns and prepositions.

  2. Also! Are you familiar with this strip? http://www.qwantz.com/archive/000609.html

  3. Interesting. But I think this ultimately serves my stupid purposes...

    I agree that TV characters and people who correct other peoples' grammar may be understood as snobby. But, consider it from the other end: what if you are not the prescriber, but the prescribee? I am sensitive to grammatical constructions the one Frasier thinks he's correcting here for no other reason than that my (snobbish) mom made a point of it throughout my childhood. While all of my friends would've said "You and me should go get a Slurpee," I would not have corrected them, but I would have said "You and I" if the opportunity arose. Two competing grammars collide and the 12-year old has to decide.

    Another case that comes to mind is the very common phrase "lay out" (for tanning in the sun). I can't bring myself to say that, so I snobbishly persist with "lie out."

    So on the one hand you have prescriptivists who are "conscious" of the language they use, even to the point of being annoying (and sometimes incorrect in the prescriptions)... on the other hand, you have people who speak the language they hear without much reflection (for example, my friends from high school, whose friends [excluding me] said "you and me should..." and whose families said "you and me should...").

    All of this to suggest that a pure "descriptivist" (i.e., a linguist) would probably have a hard time figuring out why I speak the peculiar way I do without acknowledging the influence of a lasting prescriptive influence. And in fact, I know you've secretly been through your own prescriptivist phase, and it seems to me that you've retained many of those speech patterns even though you're conscious that they are ultimately arbitrary.

    I've resorted before to the following strategy, and I think I need to again: You tell me what it is I'm getting at here, because I know that I'm having a hard time expressing it.

    {Maybe it's this: to the one who listens, all speakers are prescriptivists.}

    word verification: wutjd

  4. Any wisecracks about how oddly ungrammatial "lie out" is will be understood as prescriptivist in nature; proceed with caution.


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