Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Woe is we!

Correct speech doesn't always sound right.
That's the headline that ran over this week's Barbara Wallraff's Word Court. Some honest speaker of English writes in with questions about how to avoid sounding "ignorant or affected" and gets told (I kid you not) "If everybody else jumped off a cliff …".

The judge volunteers a discussion of the merits of "Who can you trust?" and "woe is me" ("sound good") versus "Whom can you trust?" and "woe is I" ("are correct"). She uses the me form as an example of her efforts not to go "overboard with grammatical correctness". And she directly calls woe is me "ungrammatical".

Sigh. She's clearly assuming that the copula here is the old "=" sign and doing the "it is I" thing peevologists love so much. But this is an old dative form, and like other such forms you often get it with "to" or "unto" in there. I'm not exactly a Bible-reading kind of guy, but check out this comparison (from here):
New American Standard Bible (©1995)
For if I preach the gospel, I have nothing to boast of, for I am under compulsion; for woe is me if I do not preach the gospel.

King James Bible
For though I preach the gospel, I have nothing to glory of: for necessity is laid upon me; yea, woe is unto me, if I preach not the gospel!
Almost exactly a year ago Jan Freeman talked about this very phrase, here. Since Jan is one of the handful of well known language columnists in our country and since Woe is I is the title of a popular book on usage, you'd figure the Judge would have gotten THIS memo, at least. Let's quote Jan here:
woe is me has nothing to do with the predicate nominative. Woe is I is not "technically correct," and that is not just "a matter of opinion." "Woe is me" has been good English not merely "for generations" but (linguistically speaking) forever.
Who can you trust? Once again, you're overturned on appeal, Judge.

13 comments:

Adam Ussishkin said...

Excellent!

The Ridger, FCD said...

Alas and woe to her.

goofy said...

I wonder how people like this handle the cognitive dissonance that is produced by believing that what is correct does not sound right.

Monica said...

Great comment, Goofy. Exactly the right way to look at it.

Ellen said...

I don't get how they got "woe is I" rather than "woe am I". "Is" with "I"?

Mr. Verb said...

I assume the parallel is the 'it is I' thing, where they think of the copula as something that takes a nominative 'on both ends'.

The Ridger, FCD said...

Ah... back in the day Chaucer wrote "It am I". Now there's the power of the nominative for you. Why don't we go back to that? How did we let it slip away?

The Ridger, FCD said...

ps - I like to tell my students to think of the Russian copula (well, to be fair, I teach Russian), which can take nominative but more often takes instrumental. Since English doesn't have an instrumental case form, default to accusative! Whee!

Mr. Verb said...

Me and a bunch of people are using the oblique or objective or nominative or whatever it is more and more.

Richard Hershberger said...

The sad thing is, Wallraff is one of the better language columnists. She isn't actively hateful, and she occasionally thinks to wonder what people who actually study language have to say on some topic. This puts her far above the usual rabble. As usual, however, Jan Freeman is the only one of the lot who is consistently interesting and informative.

ellen said...

Thanks, Mr. Verb (for your reply to my comment). That makes sense.

Mr. Verb said...

Thanks, Richard Hershberger. I agree that Wallraff isn't hateful or arrogant, etc. But it's pretty depressing that someone so unqualified (copyediting ≠ understanding language!) and disinterested in learning about the subject is in such a prominent position. Language is a rich and infinitely engaging thing, not something for people who obsess and get angry about comma placement.

And yes, Jan Freeman is the best out there. (I take it the other bright light -- Nathan Bielema -- isn't writing for the Chicago Tribune anymore, which is a shame.)

Anaristos said...

I appreciate your clarification. I am a bit concerned, though. For one thing one has to take your word for the fact that "woe is me" is the dative since there is no tell-tale inflection. What concerns me more is the fact that English grammar has a transient quality to it. Grammatical correctness seems to be a function of how people feel like speaking at the time. Emily Post claimed that dangling prepositions were correct because Sir Winston Churchill used them. Merriam Webster dictionary defended "Hopefully, it will happen" on the grounds that it has been in common usage for many years and then went into an contortionist act to show why it was grammatically correct. So the idea is that if one wants to speak in a certain way all one needs to do is change the grammar on the fly. I accept the fact grammar changes over time, but for instance, in the case of declensions all that happened to the language was the loss of inflection which was merely replaced by constructs. "Hopefully, it will happen" tells us that adverbs no longer have to modify a verb or an adjective. We are told that this is correct without showing how the new rule derives from the old. We will now speak this way, at that makes it correct.
At a glance it seems that the original users of such construct didn't understand the English grammar, neither the ones that copied them. I am surprised the "it is real good" is not officially correct yet. It is a good idea to simplify speech patterns up to a point, but it seems to me that at the rate the English language is being "modified", we will be back to using grunts for communication once again. Grunts are much, much easier to use and their meaning are only limited by the imagination of the listener.