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Using ‘As’ as it Should be

Monday, February 25th, 2008

Barbara Zimmerman brought up a recurring question in connection with our recent Good Word mortify:

“Is it not more properly said: ‘Maud Lynn Dresser was positively mortified when she saw Portia Carr wearing the same dress as she at the spring cotillion?’ I say that because the full version of the partially unspoken clause is ‘as she was wearing’? You wouldn’t say ‘Maud Lynn Dresser was positively mortified when she saw Portia Carr wearing the same dress as her was wearing at the spring cotillion.’ Or at least I think you would not.”

Barbara is right, of course, I wouldn’t. But I also didn’t write “as she was wearing” but only “as her”.

The problem is that as, like most English function words, serves more than one function: it is both a preposition, which requires the objective case, and a conjunction, which requires no case at all since it introduces a full sentence. (It can also function as an adverb, by the way.) Using as as a preposition, it is perfectly fine to say things like: “as big as me”, “as round as the moon”, “as important as him”. Using it as a conjunction, we can say, “as big as I am,” “as round as the moon is,” or “as important as he is.”

So, to begin with, we can say “Portia Carr was wearing the same dress as her (Maud)” or “Portia was wearing the same dress as she (Maud) was wearing.” Both are perfectly grammatical and normal. However, it is also true that repeated phrases are consistently omitted in spoken and written English. So “Portia was wearing the same dress as she (Maud) was wearing,” may be shortened to “Portia was wearing the same dress as she was” or just “as she.” Again, either is perfectly grammatical and normal.

The issue here is not which is right or wrong but which is preferable in any given context. In most US dialects, the preposition as offers the same comparative sense as the conjunctive as, so both as she and as her are correct and acceptable.

Not all dialects outside the US allow the comparative meaning of the preposition (it has two or three others, too). This means that as her would not be acceptable or correct in those dialects. As is so often the case, the preference here boils down to which dialect we prefer—or your own personal preference.

Florida Oranges in Hot Wooder?

Wednesday, January 16th, 2008

Cynthia Green enjoyed both our Rebel-Yankee Tests and sent us this report:

“I took both of the tests and loved them. Fabulous job; it’s so interesting to see dialects presented in such a fun way.”

“My mother was raised in Florida and chronically “mispronounced” two words in particular to the neverending amusement of my sister and I. To her, an orange is an ‘AH-runj’, and the stuff that flows from the tap is ‘wood-er’.”

“I have never in my life heard anyone else use that pronunciation of H2O, and I’ve always been curious to know if this is a south Floridian thing or if my mom has been messing with my head for the past 35 years. :)”

I replied:

AH-runj is the careful pronunciation of “orange” pretty much throughout the South. Where I come from in central NC, however, we whittled this word down to one syllable: ahrnge (AHRNJ), i.e. iron (AHRN) plus a simple J. I pronounced it that way myself until cured in graduate school.

Pronouncing “water” (WAH-duh or WAR-der) as WOOD-er is a new one on me. It must be limited to a small area of Florida and I have no idea where it comes from—there must be something in your “wooder” down there.

In rural NC, this word was and is pronounced WAR-der. In the cities, however, where the accent of the upperclass British immigration prevailed, the preferred pronunciation is WAW-duh—no Rs. Today I pronounce it WATT-er, the result of living 50 years among the Yankee. But wooder? I can’t imagine. Must be something that drifted down there with the new immigration from New (as opposed to old) Jersey.

Dialectal Overcompensation

Friday, September 28th, 2007

Bill Taber today wrote about one of the most fascinating aspects of English dialects, overcompensation. He wrote, “Wash, warsh—seems most women say warsh and man say wash. Why?”

Kennedy-BunkerThe only linguistic explanation is that most women you know, Bill, come from a different background; their immigrant ancestors were the urban middle-class British. These British English speakers tend to say [warsh], [lawr], etc. It is overcompensation in a dialect where the R is regularly (yes, regularly, governed by rule) lost after the sound AH: car become [cah], marsh become [mahsh], and so on.

At some point some influential speakers of this dialect became aware they were dropping the Rs and tried to replace them. However, since they had never heard them from their parents, they didn’t know where to put them. As a result, they tended to put Rs after every AH sound, whether they were supposed to be there or not.

Various dialects show the same effort after the UH sound. Both the Boston Brahmins and my mother, a rural Southerner, pronounced Cuba [Cuber], Eva [eever]”, etc. This is because one of their ancestors tried to stop dropping Rs after UH in words like mother [mothuh], gather [gathuh], matter [mattuh]. Again, they were not sure where the Rs go, since their ancestors always dropped them, so they tended to put them everywhere. Some of the overcompensated Rs stuck in the dialect; others didn’t.

Overcompensation is the unfortunate result of guilt and shame felt by those who speak a non-dominant dialect. The ‘standard language’ is always the dialect spoken by the most powerful people in a society. All others are disdained, laughed at and, most unfairly, taken as a sign of ignorance. This latter prejudice leads to economic discrimination which makes no sense, as the explosive economic rise of the South after the invention of air conditioning demonstrates.

Overcompensation occurs elsewhere in the North. Those who followed the US TV series “All in the Family”, might have noticed that the Queens dialect of Archie Bunker reflected some inconsistencies. Archie pronounced bird [boid], murder [moiduh], and third [toid]. However, Archie’s toilet was his [terlet], his “dingbat” of a wife, Edith, cooked with [erl] rather than oil, and tended to [berl] rather than boil the spaghetti.

Again, the (brighter) speakers of Brooklyn and Queens dialect became painfully aware of one reason why their speech made those outside their dialect area laugh at them and they tried to repair it. Problem was, they didn’t know which OIs should be ER and which, not, since they had never heard ER in their neighborhood. The result was, again, overcompensation.

As I have said over and over again: a regional dialect is nothing more than variations in the grammar of a language that naturally arise when the language is spoken over a wide area. It has nothing to do with intelligence and the only difference between a regional dialect and the ‘standard’ or ‘literary’ dialect is the (lack of) power of the people speaking it.

La-di-da: Putting on the Dog

Monday, September 3rd, 2007

Hanne Quillevere, a Good Word subscriber living in Canada, was reminded by today’s Good Word, la-di-da,of a funny phrase now slipping out use. She wrote:

“If you are up to dealing with a phrase, rather than a single word, how would you trace the meaning of the phrase, “putting on the dog”? I have now looked through four reference works on idioms, slang and quotations, and while “dog” appears many times, “putting on the dog” does not. I have always thought it meant something along the lines of today’s la-di-da.”

The Oxford English Dictionary reports the phrase “put on dog”, e.g. in A. Gilbert’s No Dust in Attic (1962) xiv. 190: “Matron put on a lot of dog about the hospital’s responsibility”. Here the phrase uses “dog” as a mass (uncountable) noun. The phrase generally means “to splurge, to make a flashy display” or, as one of the OED citations puts it: “cut the swell”. I have always heard it as “putting on THE dog”, too, but I heard it only when living in the South.

This phrase means to do something up in a showy fashion, a synonym of that lovely British phrase, “(dress up like) the dog’s dinner”. (These phrases must have arisen during a stretch when all British dogs were show dogs.) It isn’t the same as “la-di-da” but both these phrases refer to situations that might well elicit a “la-di-da” or two.

More Southern Accents

Friday, August 24th, 2007

Every now and then I receive a letter from one of our visitors that doesn’t contain the sort of incisive insight most of my posts contain 😉 but is just downright pleasant and well-written. Larry Gilbert sent me one today (or recently) which I thought I might share with yall. Here it is:

For Dr. Goodword:Southern Accent
Just read your dictionary of Sourthern words and sayings. Might nice. Of course, it’s hard to be complete in so little space and, as we both know, there are differences in dialects within the South, too. For example, the people on the Outer Banks have their own dialect with many words quite different from folks in the Smokey Mountains. Likewise, there are differences between the speech of North Carolinians, Georgians, Texans and Mississippians.

Southerners from different areas do have different ways of pronouncing the same words. The one example I noted in your dictionary is pecan. While North Carolinians may say “pee-can,” that is anathema to Mississippians. In fact, that’s the way we hear damnyankees pronouncing pecan. In South Mississippi, a pee-can is a thunder jug, kept under the bed. South of Hattiesburg, the word is pronounced “puh-kahn” or even “p’kahn,” with a soft [p].

Finally, I’d like to throw another word your way, shouldna. It’s an abbreviation of “Should not have.” The word is usually used in conjunction with oughta, meaning “ought to have.” The example is “You shouldna oughta whacked that hornets nest,” meaning, “You should not have struck that hornets nest.”

Thanks for the great dictionary.

Larry R. Gilbert

My response:

Dear Larry,
Thanks for dropping by. I’m glad to hear you enjoyed your visit and hope yall* come back again.

Yes, we are well aware of the differences in southern dialects and have mixed them all together because we didn’t think it worth the effort to try to identify them all. Actually, no one has tracked them all down and located them, so we couldn’t have done it without a gumment grant and, the way we talk, we figgered we didn’t stand a chance of getting one of those.

People from all over the South have written in and, if we think their contributions worthy of the level of our work, we just add them. Someone from Morganton, NC wrote in this morning with the same comment, reminding us that dialects vary greatly from the northern to southern parts of Morganton. When I lived in Cumberland County, NC, I could distinguish people from three different parts of that county and distinguish them from folks over in Sampson County.

Our efforts are part heritage preservation (our words have been used in several heritage celebrations down South) and part fun. I’m surprised about puh-kahn in Mississippi–that is pure Yankee speech in NC. But then these dialect feature lines run ever which a way down there and it is hard if at all possible to keep them straight.

My academic colleagues at Bucknell, when I taught there, always laughed when I would say “I might could to that . . . ” since northern English grammar strictly forbids two auxiliary verbs. “Shouldna orta” is another example of that. I see no reason not to double up on auxliaries if you need two. It all boils down to simply sounding funny to northerners.  Who cares?

“Dr. Goodword”

*Northerners who think Southerners mistakenly use yall in the singular miss an important aspect of Southern culture (and you can’t separate language from culture): it is impolite to invite one person to your home without inviting their family. In the South, you can do that with one word, yall.

Tuckered Out of Tucker

Friday, June 29th, 2007

Glennis, Pat, Robert Patterson, and Rohn Rohnski are the first four subscribers to our daily Good Word to remind me that our word for today, tucker, is a slang term for “grub, food” in Australia and New Zealand (but it is only 7 AM at this point). Here are some of the examples they sent it:

  • We’ll go and have some tucker now.
  • The tucker the farm cook dished up was grouse, mate.
  • I’m hungry, time for some tucker.

(I like the adjective grouse, too.)

Tucker, in fact, has too many meanings: someone who tucks in sewing, a frilly neckpiece dandies of the past wore (later worn in concert with a bib), and an advanced US car that came out briefly in the 40s and was quashed by the big auto manufacturers (see the movie by the same name).

When we come across such words, given the limited space we have, we choose what we think is the most interesting (and it was a close call between the verb sense we chose and the noun sense mentioned by our friends from down under since speakers in North American and the UK are generally unaware of the NZ usage).

Since the noun in this sense is a different word, we may do it some day. I’ve put it on the list. We haven’t had a good Aussie word in a long time.

Robots with Stiffies?

Friday, May 18th, 2007

A stiffyI recently was informed by a translator in South Africa that he could deliver a translation to me “by e-mail or on a stiffy”. The latter seemed an unappealing means of delivery involving considerable inconvenience to the translator—if I understood him right. Suspecting that I didn’t, I immediately contacted my friend in South Africa, Chris Stewart, asking that he help me work out a clearer understanding of the translator’s intent.

The first computer disks were portable (removable) 5.5″ disks that were flexible. Rather than the obvious name, flexible disk, geekdom produced the term “floppy disk”. This same term is used in the US today to refer to the 3.5″ inflexible disks in hard plastic casing first introduced by Apple and that still have a place in some computers today (see picture above).

The South Africans, however, wisely concluded that if the flexible disk was a “floppy”, then the inflexible one must be a “stiffy”, ignoring any variation in the meaning of that term around the English-speaking world. The “stiffy”, therefore became the name of the small removable disks with the hard plastic shell that we use today.

Chris was the one who pointed out to me, after I distributed robot as one of our Good Words, that in South Africa a robot was a traffic light. He claims to enjoy watching the expression on the faces of Americans and Brits when he gives them directions to his house: “Take a left at the second robot on Suchansuch Road.

Has South African English been unduly influence by Scottish?


Monday, November 20th, 2006

Back in the spring Paula Gray was taking the Rebel-Yankee test and dropped a few lines about some terms used in Louisiana:

“The word bundlesome is still used in southwest Louisiana. Another word used by the same person is toucheous, meaning sensitive or painful to the touch, as in “That scrape on my arm will be fine, but it is still a bit toucheous today.”

“Also, several years ago, my young son coined the word gription, which is now popular in our family. He was complaining that the soles of his athletic shoes were wearing out. The vinyl or plastic soles had become hard and slick. He described them as “not having enough gription anymore.” I suppose it is a combination of grip and traction.”

Well, gription is a blend or portmanteau of just the two words Paula picked. Portmanteaus are that recent phenomenon of smushing two words together when the meanings of both apply and the result is a reasonably well-sounding word: motel (motor+hotel) and smog (smoke+fog) are the classical examples cited most frequently.

What is not as widely known is that blends are a common form of speech error, when we mentally look up a word for a sentence and find two that fit the context and they are phonetically similar or compatible. One of my students was speaking of the immaturity of her peers at the college and referred to it as “this universery”, a blend of university and nursery. We all got a laugh. If they stick, they are called portmanteaus because two words are packed into one.

Bundlesome and toucheous are more interesting. Bundlesome is a substitute for burdensome and may be a blend of burden and bundlesome. In any event is a correctly formed word in a class with loathsome, frolicsome, troublesome, though the connection between bundle and “heavy” is a bit flimsy.

Toucheous, however, comprises an Anglicized word touch mismatched with a Latin ending remindful of talkative–a mismatch which has survived. It is not from standard French but I wonder if it is from Cajun French? Not speaking that dialect, I cannot say for sure but suspect that it is another mismatch of an English stem with a Latin ending.

Why do Differnt Veterns Talk Diffrent from other Vetrens?

Friday, October 6th, 2006


Pardon my English but Susanne Taylor raised an interesting issue in her e-mail to me today, one that catches the attention of most US English speakers at some point in their lives.  She asked that veteran and veterinarian be added to our Most Often Mispronounced Words list.

The problem with taking this step is that it isn’t clear that these words are mispronounced, just syncopated differently in different parts of the English-speaking world.  All English speakers drop unaccented syllables in fast speech but most do so in regular patterns. Throughout most of the US, when either of the sequences [ere] or [era] occurs, and neither vowel is accented, speakers syncopate (drop) the first [e], so that veteran sounds like vetren, different like diffrent, several like sevral.

In Texas and the Southwest, however, the second [e] is regularly dropped in these words so that they sound like vetern, differnt, and severl. 

The point is, wherever you grew up, the fast-speech pronunciation is regular, so it is difficult to call it mispronunciation; rather, we are dealing here with just a variation in the rules for fast speech. It is often difficult to draw a line between correct and incorrect grammar. The sure sign of a grammatical rule at play, however, is consistency like this. 



Southern Accents Today

Wednesday, August 23rd, 2006

I just returned from my annual pilgramage down South (North Carolina) and was amazed at what I heard. To understand it, let me give a little background.

I was born in Fayetteville, NC but was raised in the rural area north of it, Eastover Township and Beard, NC (which used to have a post office but no longer does). The dialects I was exposed to differ significantly. The urban dialect of Fayetteville is very similar to the urban dialects of other Southern cities (Atlanta, Charlotte, Spartanburg, etc.)

The rural dialects and those of small towns are the funny ones, like Andy Griffith’s and Kyra Sedgewick’s. I started out with one of those since both my parents came from farms.

I spent a good deal of time last week playing with my grandnephews and grandnieces, all of whom live in rural areas or in small towns. They range in age from 6-12, so all have mastered their version of English. I was amazed that they all spoke the “standard” dialect of radio and TV announcers. In both Cumberland and Onslow counties we would seem to be no more than one generation away from losing the color and regional individualism of Southern dialects.

Those of my age still retain their accents, of course. As I discuss elsewhere,what is popularly called an “accent” is in fact a regional dialect. A regional dialect is a slightly different grammar of a language which is just as complex and rigid as the standard variant. Thus, like any grammar, it is “hard wired” into our brains as we learn language between the ages of 2 and 6 and this makes it difficult to change.

So the old folks I hob-nobbed with at my 50th HS reunion spoke pretty much like they did when we were in HS but their grandchildren probably speak like your average Yankee.

The mass media makes retaining regional differences difficult. In many US families today children hear radio and TV more than they hear their parents. Since we pick up language and whatever dialects it carries from those we hear speaking it, regional dialects in the US are probably doomed. It is just a matter of time.

One aspect of this disappearance, however, may slow it down. People who listen to little radio and TV—or restrict there conact with the media to country radio and the popular redneck humor of Comedy Central—tend to retain their accents longer. Hopefully, this will not strengthen the prejudict that an association exists between southern accents and lack of education or knowledge.

But this is just my impression. I know of no research that has been conducted on the subject. Maybe I am wrong. (I was once before back in November of 1983).