Dr. Goodword’s Language Blog

In the Floor for Discussion

Here is an interesting question that arrived today from Dwaine Byrd of Detroit:

“I consider myself to have a fairly decent mastery of the English language, but living in the Detroit area, though raised in the South, I hear an occasional giggle when I use a term that is typically heard south of the Mason-Dixon. One of the terms I have a very hard time getting past is ‘in the floor’. I am told that it should be ‘on the floor’, which I perfectly understand and don’t argue at all. However, down home, ‘in the floor’ is very common and understood. I suppose it would be akin to getting in the bed at night to go to sleep. One doesn’t get ‘on the bed’, he gets in it. And when I take my clothes off, I put them ‘in the floor’.”

“You know, after proofreading this, it sounds a lot stranger than it actually is, but is ‘in the floor’ as common as I had always supposed it to be? Or is this term just completely taboo?”

Well, I’m from rural North Carolina, which is pretty far south and an area where turns of phrase pretty alien to Yankees are commonplace (see my Glossary of Quaint Southernisms for a sampling). However, I’ve never heard this phrase before either from North Carolinians nor from people I know from elsewhere in the South.

Of course, that fact does not deter a proud former academic like myself from expressing an opinion. I have talked about dialects several times in this blog and I may have even mentioned idiolects, dialects that are constrained to a very small area, even to a single family or person. I think that is what we are dealing with here.

In and on have an interesting relationship which I might even look into some day. While Dwaine doesn’t sleep on the bed, he does, I’ll bet, sit on it. Saying that something is “in the floor” suggests that it is logically located there. In this case, if something was dropped out of place on the floor, I would expect “on the floor”. 

But I’ll bet this is not the case in Dwaine’s idiolect. I would guess that it is simply idiomatic, in a category of oddities like the use by New Yorkers of “standing on line” rather than “in line”. Why do they do that? Probably someone of prominence, an immigré no doubt, used this expression a long time ago and, despite its going against the grain of linguistic intuition, it stuck. If so, then there is no explanation. It is there for the same unreason we call a long, fat pastry a ladyfinger and a fuzzy caterpillar a wooly bear (more on this).

You shouldn’t be embarrassed, Dwaine. This little phrase helps distinguish you from the crowd. That isn’t bad. However, if it is too much for you to handle, you might try hanging your clothes up when you go to bed. That way you won’t have to use the phrase and I’m sure someone in your family will appreciate it.

RSS Feed

11 Responses to “In the Floor for Discussion”

  1. Gary in Durham, NC Says:

    An apt contrast to mention here would be the British “in the street” vs. the American “on the street” (where one lives).

  2. Laura Says:

    While I hadn’t thought of this particular construction in quite some time, as a native West Tennessean, “in the floor” was quite common where I grew up. Most often heard in expressions like, “Don’t leave your clothes/toys/dolls in the floor.”

  3. waisgubbima Says:

    Sweet blog. I never know what I am going to come across next. I think you should do more posting as you have some pretty intelligent stuff to say.

    I’ll be watching you . 🙂

  4. pfirsch Says:

    I, too, am from rural North Carolina and “in the floor” is extremely common. We also say that someone is “in the bed” instead of “in bed.” It’s actually mentioned in the book “Mother Tongue” that Tarheels use that expression.

    Having lived elsewhere and now working in my old high school, many of the expressions that were also met with giggles when I left Eastern NC, are alive and well at my school. The odd thing is that some of the things I’ve always heard, but never said, because they were the language of “old” folks have made a comeback. I’ve actually heard students talk about “eating places” instead of restaurants.

    It’s reassuring to know that there are still some things that keep us unique.

  5. Andrew S. Says:

    To me this reads as “I know this is not correct, but a lot of people here do it so it’s fine.” Laying in a bed is acceptable because the blankets on the bed are treated as layers of the bed. When a person is under the blankets, they are underneath the surface layer and are thus in the bed. If they were just laying on the surface of the bed, then in the bed would be incorrect. If a solid object is on the floor, then the only correct way to say it is that it is on the floor.

  6. Dwaine Byrd Says:

    Wow! After this was originally published, I never came back to look at it until this evening when I was talking about this with a friend of mine. So I showed her this page–and after 4 years, I finally saw the comments! I do appreciate what Andrew S. said, but I still find great comfort in knowing that I’m not the only oddball and that I’m not unique. (Well, not in this way, anyway….). Thank you for your comments; they are greatly appreciated as well as affirming!

  7. J.P. Says:

    I grew up in northwest Georgia, and we used “in the floor” all the time with respect to toys, clothes, etc. I’ve lived in Minnesota now for 17 years now and my 12 year old son is mortified every time I use the phrase! I’d never noticed it before. It seems to be a southernism as far as I can tell from Google searches, though not a well documented one.

  8. Susan Says:

    I grew up right on the Georgia/Tennessee line, near Chattanooga. I actually looked this up because as a writer, I was proofreading my novel and used the phrase “in the floor”. It took several readings for me to pick up on the fact that I probably should have used “on the floor”, and after coming across this thread, I’ll definitely change it. However, I’ve used the term “in the floor” my entire life. Examples: “The book fell in the floor.” “Stop throwing your clothes in the floor.”

  9. nikki Says:

    Susan, I have heard “in the floor” used by people from Texas, Georgia and Alabama. If you are writing a novel with southern characters I would leave the phrase alone. Regional dialects help make characters real.

  10. judy Says:

    “In the floor” was common when I was growing up in Texas. It is often used to describe something that is on the floor but shouldn’t be–e.g. “Why are these papers in the floor?” I discovered this post because I just used the phrase and my husband, who is not from the US, had never heard it and couldn’t imagine what I was talking about. Until now, I had never actually realized that this is a Southern expression, but I guess it is!

  11. Michael Says:

    As a Yankee, the phrase “in the floor” was foreign to me until I encountered it in Cormac McCarthy’s “No Country for Old Men”. He is my favorite living author and after seeing it used multiple times in the novel I had to seek it’s origin. For what it’s worth, I didn’t even notice it on my first read several years ago, but for some reason I noticed and keyed in on it this time ’round.

Leave a Reply