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Wednesday, July 01, 2009


is an acronym used (I was really tempted to say "popularized," but I'm pretty sure that wouldn't be true) by David Foster Wallace in his essay "Authority and American Usage," in which he gives a book review of a guide to English usage, which is the sort of book meant to clarify where to put articles and commas and when to say "affect" or "effect." Though I think a fill-in-your-own-acronym challenge would probably produce some entertaining comments, I am going to go ahead and spoil the surprise: SNOOT stands for either "'Sprachgefuhl Necessitates Our Ongoing Tendance or 'Syntax Nudninks* Of Our Time;" which one it stands for depends on whether you yourself are or are not a SNOOT (Consider the Lobster, 69)

In case those defintions don't clear it up for you, a SNOOT is a person who enjoys and takes pride in searching out, ruminating on, and perhaps even correcting faults in others' use of language. I'm sure that many of you honorable readers recognize this quality in yourselves, and I'm even more sure that all of you recognize (and detest) it in me. DFW has many humorous and illumining (intentional SNOOT word) things to say about SNOOTs, but lest my preface wind up being longer than the rest of my article, I'll get to my point:

I bring up SNOOTiness because in a period of about an hour this afternoon I had no less than five distinct moments when I thought to myself "wow, that guy just did something funny with my language." (A quick way to gauge your level of SNOOThood: did you twinge when you noticed that I just [intentionally, for the express purpose of this addendum, yes, I do put lots of thought into some of these entries] wrote "less" instead of "fewer" in the previous sentence? The more disappointed you were with my writing, the SNOOTier you are.)

Now, perhaps to your surprise, I am not the SNOOT I once was. With each day that passes, each Korean/Chinese/Pidgin English/Piraha phrase that I learn, I feel myself drifting further away from the prescriptivists and more into pure bafflement and wonder at the fact that language works at all. Thus, I present the following utterances not in order to mock the utterers, but to try to figure out what's going on.

The first three came from, of all people, Wimbledon commentators. (Yes, I actually scrambled to find a piece of paper and write them down during the match. I am apparently more into linguistics than tennis.) Note that these are professional men and women who make their money because they are ostensibly good with words, not members of some lower-class group who were never taught to speak "proper/correct/real" English.

1) "This is the most amount of tennis he's played in a long time." I don't even know how to describe what's wrong with this. I'm tempted to say that because "tennis" is uncountable, you can't modify it with "amount," but it's easy to think of counterexamples that seem to invalidate that point. I'm also tempted to say that "the most," being a superlative, should be followed either by an adjective or a plural noun, and that "amount" is uncountable and so inelegible; but it's not too hard to imagine a sentence like "He has different amounts of x and y," so that can't be it either [ASIDE: This phrase is apparently commutative and could also be/have been written, "It can't be that, either."]. Maybe it's just an idiosyncracy or inconsistency of English that we can say "the greatest amount" or "the largest amount" but not "the most amount." Interesting how the commentator could have avoided the whole awkward fiasco by just making the sentence two words shorter in the first place.

2) "If Roddick was to break here, it's going to be a quick set." The problem here, aside from the use of "was" instead of "were," which is probably an archaic rule already, is that the speaker mixes his conditionals. Normally we English speakers have a pretty good way of dealing with this: we use different verb tenses and moods to indicate the probability of the event happening. i.e.:

present + present/future: a habit, or likely, or at least not unlikely, or maybe even a promise
present subjunctive (looks identical to the simple past) + conditional: unlikely but possible
past subjunctive (looks like past perfect) + past conditional: logically impossible

The commentator here mixes the 2nd and the third, which is why we (by which I mean "I") get that weird feeling of disjunction. Does the commentator think the event is likely or not? I can't tell.

For the record, from what I've heard, Chinese grammar doesn't make these distinctions and instead leaves it up to context. On Chinese TV, you'd probably hear the equivalent of "If Roddick break, be quick set." Italian, on the opposite end of the spectrum, avoids some of English's ambiguity by having a mood (the subjunctive) dedicated to counterfactuals. Because this mood rarely takes the same form as the simple present or past, people don't get confused about how to use it. NONETHELESS, Italians still avoid using the subjunctive and often use the plain imperfect/past progressive tense instead. Lazy.

3) "Even if he's tired, he could still serve big." I don't know exactly what's going on here either. Out of context, this phrase is probably entirely acceptable, since we often use "could" to make suggestions. But from the speaker's intonation here you could tell that wasn't the case. I think the speaker meant to convey the thought, "Even though he's tired, he can still serve big." So why change "though" to "if"? I suppose you can't be 100% sure whether or not the guy's tired, so you go with the hypothetical. But why use the conditional "could" when it's clear that the player currently is serving big? I don't even know how to elaborate any further on this one, which is probably just as well.

4) This one was said by an NPR reporter, again, someone who(m) I would expect to be a little better trained: "...Michael Jackson's death, which was probably inevitable...." I realize I'm just being picky, and what he most likely meant was that Michael Jackson, being Michael Jackson, was not likely to die a normal and straightforward death, and so all the less-than-interesting mysteries and shenangins we are now being affronted with were not wholly unforeseeable. Unless he meant to imply that he might just live on like, say, Elvis.

5) Finally, one from the guy working at the produce stand where my mother and I just purchased a few peaches. As we're checking out, I slide behind a wall and out of his field of vision. Bidding farewell to my mom in his southern accent, he says "You have a good day now." Then I pass in front of him and he stutters embarassedly and says: "Y'all have a good day now." To me, the "you" in his first sentence was plural, and so I thought what he had said was entirely natural and appropriate ; to him, though, the "you" was singular. He thought he'd failed to wish me well, so he redressed the slight by using the less ambiguous "y'all." Contrary to my SNOOTy understanding of "y'all" as a non-word, or at least a kind of brute, class-revealing term, in this case, it was actually used to be even more explicitly polite. How dumb is it that we don't have a pronoun for you (plural), anyway? What would you think if you were studying a foreign language and there were words for I, you (singular), he, she, it, you (plural), and they, but not for "we"? The word that comes to mind for me is "bogus."

Just one more fact, then I'll conclude. The Piraha language, spoken by less (SNOOT sense activated!) than 500 people in the Amazon, has the following pronouns (the superscipt numbers indicate tones):

ti³ "I"
gi¹xai³ "you" (sing.)
hi³ "he" (human)
"she" (human)
i¹k "it", "they" (animated non-human non-aquatic)
si³ "it", "they" (animated non-human aquatic)
"it", "they" (non-animated)
ti³a¹ti³so³ "we"
gi¹xa³i¹ti³so³ "you" (pl.)
hi³ai¹ti³so³ "they" (human?)
This raises some interesting questions, like: can Pirahas tease their friends by referring to them with pronouns that refer to aquatic or non-animated things? And how can a Piraha talk directly to a river dwellers if there's no aquatic "you" word? Imagine a life where the sentence "[baby voice] you're such a cute little anaconda, yes you are!!" is impossible. Tragic!

I am impressed if you made it this far. Actually, there is another entire section of this post which I meant to include but decided to leave out. Fear not, I'll get to it in the coming days. Thank you for venturing into my mind. You deserve a break.

*Sorry for the bogus link. I thought it was funny. If you haven't yet tried following the link, sorry for ruining it for you.