Thursday, November 23, 2006

'Correct grammar': What are the rules of this game?

I assume that William Safire, secure in his willful ignorance of the most basic notions about how language works (structurally, cognitively, socially, historically), at least has a clear purpose in what he does: He’s an unabashed elitist, trying to promote what sociolinguists think of as standard language ideology and enforce a certain set of norms. (Rosina Lippi-Green’s excellent English with an Accent is a good place to read up on this.) And he sees it as within his personal purview to declare what’s good and bad, right and wrong. Given how often he does this without checking facts or standard reference sources, we can usually smell the rank Air of Superiority oozing from his pores. (That his constant, simple blunders go uncorrected, unregulated and unpunished by the New York Times has damaged or destroyed the paper’s reputation for some of us.)

A very different case of norm enforcement is Barbara Wallraff’s Word Court, a column and a website that’s decidedly less pretentious than anything Safire would have his name on. Her shtick is that she’s a judge of language disputes, an arbiter of correct grammar. This week’s column in the local paper here runs under the headline: “Better not use phrase ‘we best’”. It’s about a parent bothered by their three-year-old coming home using the construction ‘we best do X’. She asserts that ‘you better’ or ‘you best’ are wrong: “you need ‘had’ – or ‘‘d’, as in ‘I’d’ – for the phrase to be grammatically correct.” Says who?

This form is listed in the standard sources one would consult for such purposes: I checked Merriam-Webster’s 11th Collegiate, which dates it to 1914 and gives the example sentence “you best listen”, calling it a ‘verbal auxiliary’. OED On-line takes it back to 1831 and regards it as colloquial (and surely colloquial English is fine for a three-year-old; the kid can learn a few things before she writes her dissertation) – originally an Americanism. Greenbaum’s 1996 Oxford English Grammar, p. 583, treats it as one of the set of auxiliaries and semi-auxiliaries that don’t inflect (like ought to, must, etc.). The Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage treats 'better' rather than 'best' and quotes Copperud's American Usage from 1970 already as arguing that the "consensus is that it is not open to serious criticism".

I’m no legal scholar, but isn’t a judge obligated to uphold the law, not create it? Even if we buy into standard language ideology, what’s her basis for this? Are these people so extreme that sources like the ones cited here are regarded as contributing to the downfall of the language? This needs to be overturned on appeal and the judge deserves a reprimand, if not impeachment.


Anonymous said...

Hello, Mr. Verb,

These sources paint a somewhat different picture -- or so it seems to me. (Sorry about the loss of formatting.)

From the American Heritage Dictionary:

Usage Note: The idioms had better and had best resemble an auxiliary verb in that their form never changes to show person or tense and that they cannot follow another verb in a phrase. In informal speech, people tend to omit had, especially with had better, as in You better do it. In formal contexts and in writing, however, had or its contraction must be preserved: You had better do it or You'd better do it.

And from the Oxford English Dictionary:

b. In the idiomatic I, we, you, he, etc. had better, the original construction was me, us, etc. were betere (or bet) = it would be more advantageous for me, etc. (Cf. me is betere, etc. in 4.) The dat. pronoun was subsequently changed into the nominative, I, we, were better (perh. because in ns. the two cases were no longer distinguished). Finally this was given up for the current I had better = I should have or hold it better, to do, etc. (Mr. F. Hall has shown that in these changes, better followed in the main the analogy of liefer and rather.) See HAVE. you'd better believe: you may be assured. colloq. (orig. U.S.).
971 Blickl. Hom. 25 Him wære betere {th}æt he næfre {asg}eboren nære. c1160 Hatton Gosp. Mark ix. 42 Betere him wære {th}æt [he] wære on sæ {asg}eworpen. a1320 Maximon in Rel. Antiq. I. 122 Betere me were ded {th}en {th}us alyve to be. 1393 GOWER Conf. III. 241 Him were better go beside. a1450 Knt. de la Tour 31 Hem were beter take the furre. 1465 MARG. PASTON Lett. 534. II. 250 The Duck [= duke] had be beter..that it had never be don.
c1370 K. Robt. Cicyle 55 Bettur he were..So to do then for hunger dye. 1470-85 MALORY Arthur (1816) I. 33 Ye were better to give me a gift..than to lose great riches. 1594 T. B. La Primaud. Fr. Acad. 512 We were better to support the domesticall imperfections of our brethren. 1601 SHAKES. Twel. N. II. ii. 27 She were better loue a dreame.
[c1435 Torr. Portugal 1186 Better he had to have be away.] 1537 Thersytes, Four O. Plays (1848) 69 They had better haue set me an errande at Rome. 1594 HARINGTON in Nugæ Ant. (1804) I. 168 Who livethe for ease had better live awaie [from Court]. 1613 SHAKES. Hen. VIII, V. iii. 132 He had better starue Then but once thinke his place becomes thee not. 1875 JOWETT Plato I. 15, I had better begin by asking you a question.
1856 Yale Lit. Mag. XXI. 171 (Th.), You'd better believe, I'll live in the clover. 1872 O. W. HOLMES Poet Breakf.-t. x, My old gentleman means to be Mayor or Governor or'd better b'lieve. 1968 Globe & Mail (Toronto) 17 Feb. 42 (Advt.), You'd better believe it... We've got 'em.

(b) With had omitted (occas. with pronoun also omitted). colloq. (orig. U.S.).
1831 S. SMITH Major Downing (1834) 65 My clothes had got so shabby, I thought I better hire out a few days and get slicked up a little. 1846 J. J. HOOPER Some Adv. Simon Suggs (1851) I. 154 You better mind the holes in them ere rocks. 1865 Major Jack Downing of Downingville Militia (1867) ix. 70 You better believe we've been in an awful excitement here. 1904 A. BENNETT Great Man xii. 120 Miss Foster she says her name is. Better show her in here, hadn't I? 1910 C. E. MULFORD Hopalong Cassidy xi. 73, I reckon you better pull out{em}you ain't needed around here. 1946 K. TENNANT Lost Haven (1947) i. 15 Well, we better get back to the house. Ibid. iii. 53 Brace better meet that train. 1968 Listener 9 May 596/2 You better get those two guys inside.

Barbara Wallraff

Rosina Lippi said...

Mr. Verb:

You are a brave man, taking on the Grammar Police State. Two things I'd like to say:

1. thank you for the kind mention of my book;

2. you can't win this argument because the BW's of the world prefer make-believe to reality. BW can dredge up citations, but in the end the spoken language flexes its muscle with no concern at all for convoluted and self serving rationalizations.