Monday, June 4, 2007

Dag nab it! Mind yer informal and regional English!

Some time ago, a "Grammar Gremlins" column in our Sunday paper asked the question, "Is the expression 'put up,' as in 'Put up your toys, it's time for bed, ' grammatical?"

Grammar Vizier Don K. Ferguson described "put up" as a "phrasal verb" -- i.e., a verb made up of more than one word, often a verb and a preposition, as in "deal with," "work out," "phase out," "get rid of."

"Some experts advise against using such phrases because they often appear wordy," wrote Ferguson. "For example, some suggest using "handle" instead of "deal with" and "resolve" instead of "work out." Ferguson then noted that other experts feel that these expressions are fine, as long as they sound natural in the sentence. Fair enough.

The particular example of "put up" also leads us to two other Harbrace rules, addressing "informal" and "regional" words, respectively:

19b Use informal words only when appropriate to the audience, the purpose and the occasion.
Words or expressions labeled informal or colloquial (meaning "characteristic of speech") in college dictionaries are used by writers every day, particularly in informal writing, especially dialogue. On occasion, informal words can be used effectively in formal writing, for example to add emphasis, but they are usually inappropriate. Unless an informal expression is specifically called for, use the unlabeled words in your dictionary.

INFORMAL dopey gypped* bellybutton (*also offensive to gypsies)
FORMAL stupid swindled navel

Contractions are common in informal English, especially in dialogue. But contracted forms (like won't or there's) are usually avoided in college writing, which is not as casual as conversational English is.

19d Use regional words only when appropriate to the audience.
Regional or dialectal usages should normally be avoided in writing outside the region where they are current, since their meanings may not be widely known. Speakers and writers, however, may safely use regional words known to the audience they are addressing.

REGIONAL We were fixing to swim in Joe's tank.
FORMAL We were ready to swim in Joe's pond. [OR lake]

This last item leads to many different observations about our favorite East Tennesseeisms, as documented regularly by News Sentinel humor columnist Sam Venable.

It also brings to mind not only the good fortune available to political candidates who can speak in a facile and genuine manner in the Scots-Irish dialect of the Southeast, Texas and much of the Midwest, but also the embarrassments awaiting those who have a tin ear when it comes to NASCAR patois.

(Note that, in deference to U.S. Senator James Webb (D-VA), author of Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America, the previous sentence did not employ a derogatory term that Webb dislikes but has neverthless made a great career for comedian Jeff Foxworthy.)

1 comment:

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