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Subject:  Re: My pet peeve of the year Date:  11/19/2003  8:49 PM
Author:  Daddyswish Number:  3092 of 14846

"I was like," is one of those phrases that grate on me like fingernails on a slate blackboard. I even hear people older than 18 - who should know better - using it.

"He went" for "he said", is just as bad.

While I love engaging in nitpicking on this board and consider it quite fruitful, here is a situation in which I must come to the defense of the many informal constructs commonly applied in spoken dialogue. In fact, with no disrespect to any of my fellow logophiles here, I would go as far as to say that intolerance of various forms of appropriately applied slang is one of my bigger language-related pet peeves.

A phrase such as, "I was like 'Oh my God!'" in an informal conversation conveys the emotion and surprise of the described situation, particularly when combined with an excited tone of voice and other non-verbal cues, far more effectively and succinctly than a more formal construct. It also subtly implies that "Oh my God" is not necessarily what was literally said. That might merely be what the speaker was thinking, or it might be a very abbreviated version of what was actually said, depending on the context. In many cases, a more formal version of the sentence will come across as awkward or flat.

The truth is, young people are by far the most important and active linguistic innovators in society. What older generations see as corruption and impurity in usage are often trends that actually help the language better reflect the contemporary world. This is, in fact, the case with the examples in this thread: interpersonal relationships tend to be much less structured and rigid than they used to be, and in kind, informal language constructs are much more common. A similar example is the increasingly frequent use of "they" as a gender-neutral singular pronoun, which reflects the contemporary importance of avoiding the appearance of sexism sometimes exceeding the importance of proper formal grammar.

This may cause you to ponder, "Swish, why do you even post here if you don't care if the English language goes to hell in a handbasket?" My first answer would be that I love advancing the use of formal or forgotten language in appropriate contexts, and that in such situations, consistency and propriety (i.e., adherence to the "rules") play a very important role. But more specific to this discussion, there's a very fuzzy line between incorrect or inappropriate usage and informal usage. I would argue that "I was like" is not actually grammatically incorrect because the phrase is an idiom that serves as a transitive verb. Conversely, if the phrase were, "Me and Dave are going to the concert," I would argue that "Me and Dave" is not an idiom, it's simply a grammatically sloppy substitute for the semantically identical phrase "Dave and I," which I strongly prefer even in informal dialogue.

Another consideration that plays into my educational background is the fact that the study of Cognitive Linguistics has advanced considerably since linguists stopped dismissing constructs that violate traditional usage guidelines as unimportant anomalies. It's the exceptions to the rules that provide the most insight into the way the human mind works. For example, can anyone tell me what the past tense of the verb "sping" is? Well, technically there is none, since "sping" is not an English word. But if it were? I'm sure everyone would answer "spang," and even "spung" for the past participle. But did any of you know there was a rule for creating past tense by ending certain words with "-ang?" Here we all thought that "sing, sang, sung" was an exception. But I digress. The point is that contemporary informal usage of the word "like" is also a very interesting phenomenon with sociological implications. Embracing the anomaly is far more productive than decrying it.

However, the most important consideration of all is the setting. In virtually all written contexts, and in many interpersonal ones, the informal usages above are highly inappropriate. In business settings, proper language usage plays an important role in conveying professionalism, and in other situations proper language conveys respect. I would argue that it's very important to know the rules and to use correct formal English when appropriate. But in many situations, the informal constructs serve as a worthwhile aid, and not a hinderance, to communication. So relax, take a deep breath, and hug your nearest teenager. She will become a much more effective sentinel for the English of the future if you don't write her off.

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