"WR6_gUnUj-ztiW07KQcOCnTel9A"/> Notes From Atlanta: Q and A on American English Grammar and General Usage

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Q and A on American English Grammar and General Usage

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.


I’ve received several questions from readers over the past few months. I apologize that I’m only just now getting the chance to answer some of them. In the coming weeks, I will answer many more questions that I'm not able to answer this week. 

Question:
Prof., I have a question for you. I was watching an American movie and a girl asks her rival: “Why are you helping me?” And the other girl says: “No, I’m helping me!" Is there a problem with that sentence?

Answer:
Yes, the sentence deviates from the syntactic and grammatical norms of contemporary Standard English. It should read, "I am helping myself," not "I'm helping me." The "ungrammatical" use of "me" in the sentence is called the "personal dative," and is a feature of the informal, nonstandard English of the American South and the Appalachian Mountains (a poor, rural, coal-mining area of America that stretches from the northern state of Pennsylvania to the southern state of North Carolina). 

However, this nonstandard (some would say uneducated) speech pattern is quickly percolating into American conversational English, although it is still looked down upon with contempt in educated circles. American linguist Laurence Horn, in a 2008 article, called attention to many pop-culture uses of the personal dative that could be responsible for its grudging but growing acceptance in America’s colloquial English.

He identified Toni Braxton’s hit song titled “I love me some him” (which would be rendered as “I love him” in Standard English), American footballer Terrell Owen’s popular slogan “I love me some me” (which would be “I love myself” in Standard English), former Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry’s failed 2004 attempt to connect with rural Ohioans by asking a rural shop owner “Can I get me a hunting license here?” (instead of “can I get myself a hunting license here?”), etc. as popular instances when the personal dative was used outside the rural South and the Appalachian Mountains. Kerry was severely criticized in the American conservative media for his linguistic condescension. 

So, in essence, avoid the personal dative in formal and polite circles. It is, as Horn points out, “uneducated redneckese,” that is, the distinctive language use of poor, rural, uneducated white people (who are derisively called “rednecks”) in America. Interestingly, the personal dative is actually a surviving linguistic remnant of Old English, that is, the English spoken in England up until about 1100.  
 
Question
Based on the principle of stative verbs, which of the following is grammatically right: "seeing is believing" or "seeing is believed"? And please shed some light on stative verbs.

Answer:
To cut the jargon, stative verbs are verbs that can’t be rendered in the continuous tense, that is, verbs you can’t add “ing” to. Examples: see (as in: “I see that he gets it now.” You can’t say “I am seeing that he gets it now”), agree (as in: “I agree that he is an idiot.” You can’t say “I am agreeing that he is an idiot”), own (as in: “He owns 30 cows.” You can’t say “He is owning 30 cows”), love (as in: “I love my wife.” You can’t say “I am loving my wife”), etc. 

Stative verbs express thought or opinion (e.g. “know,” “believe,” “think,” etc.), emotions, (e.g. “love,” like,” etc.), possession (e.g. “own,” “contain,” etc.), senses (see, touch, smell, hear, etc.), and so on.

The opposite of stative verbs are “dynamic verbs,” to which you can add “ing” to express a continuous tense because the verbs, by their nature, express an activity, a process, or an action. Examples: play (as in: she is playing football), disappear (as in: the fog is disappearing now), jump (as in: he is jumping), etc.

Some verbs are both stative and dynamic; others are exclusively static or dynamic. However, American English is blurring the distinction between stative and dynamic verbs. A classic example is McDonald’s advertising slogan “I’m lovin it.” That’s grammatically incorrect. “Love” is a stative verb that does not take the “ing” form. That’s why no one says, “I’m loving my daddy”; everyone says, “I love my daddy.” I read somewhere that McDonald’s deliberately murdered grammar to piss off grammarians in order to generate publicity—and to call attention to itself. It’s a case of an advertising gimmick changing the rules of the language.

Perhaps because of the success of McDonald’s grammatical chutzpah, Americans have turned many stative verbs into dynamic verbs. Examples are “want” (such as: “He is wanting to talk to me” instead of “he wants to talk to me”) and “hear” (such as: “I am hearing you” instead of “I hear you”).

 “Seeing is believing” is a fixed expression, so its lexical and grammatical properties are unchangeable and not subject to debate. “Seeing is believed” is both ungrammatical and unidiomatic. “Seeing” and “believing” in the expression are used as gerunds, that is, as nouns formed from verbs through the addition of “ing.”

Question:
I am deaf. My fellow deaf often write: “The deaf can do anything except hear.” I am of the opinion that the statement ought to be “The deaf can do anything except hearing.” I had a disagreement with some of them during a summit last week. So which of the two statements is correct?

Answer:
Unfortunately, yours is grammatically wrong. The first sentence is the closest approximation of the expression popularized by Dr. I. King Jordan, former President of Gallaudet University, who told a news organization during an interview that “Deaf people can do anything, except hear.” Jordan is the first deaf person to become president (i.e., vice chancellor) of a university in the United States. 

“Hear,” as you saw earlier, is a stative verb, so it does not take the “ing” form, although Americans, as I’ve shown, like to say “I’m hearing ya” in informal, conversational contexts to indicate that they understand what you are saying. However, as “Grammar Girl” points out, “no native speaker would say, ‘I’m hearing the concert.’” 

Question:
What’s the difference between a house wife and a house maker?

Answer:
They mean the same thing. However, the term I am familiar with is “homemaker”; I haven’t heard a lot of people say “house maker,” although it seems perfectly correct.  The original term was “house wife.” Over the years, however, some women thought “house wife” was cold, detached, and sexist. So “homemaker” was invented to take the place of “housewife.” Homemaker is gender-neutral and can refer to both a man and a woman. But my sense is that the term didn’t quite catch on. The alternatives to “housewife” that enjoy currency and social prestige are “stay-at-home mom,” “lady of the house,” and “woman of the house.”

But “homemaker” is coming in handy now given that an increasing number of men in the West are choosing to stay at home to take care of the family while their wives go to work to support the family financially, reversing centuries of stereotyped gender roles. According to US census records, there are 176,000 stay-at-home dads in America as of 2011. Male homemakers are also called “house husbands” (sometimes spelled “househusbands”), “Mr. Moms” or "stay-at-home dads."

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