I’m Like, I Said

Or, In Defense of a Much-Loathed Linguistic Trend

So I was talking to my boss the other day and I was like, “Does anyone know what they’re doing on this project?” And he was like, “I wish.”

Now, what did I just say there?

People have been lamenting the decline of the verb to say for a surprisingly long time — at least as long as I’ve been around, which is enough. When I was growing up, the culprit was goes:

“So he goes, ‘What are you doing this weekend,’ and I go, ‘Going to a stupid family reunion’.”

I never liked goes very much. As a writerly type, I always felt an obligation to speak properly, whatever that meant, and to not give in to imprecision, trends, laziness or other bad linguistic habits. (That doesn’t mean I correct other people when they do it, but that’s for another post.) In college I took some linguistics courses — well, all of two, but it didn’t take much to change the way I think about language. The thing that struck me most was the distinction linguists make between being descriptive and prescriptive. As far as I had always known, as far as I had ever been taught, the only relevant issues concerning writing, speaking and language related to what you should do. Don’t end a sentence with a preposition. (Actually, it’s OK to do that.) Avoid double negatives. Make positive statements rather than negative ones (“I forgot” versus “I didn’t remember”). It hadn’t really occurred to me that it was possible to take a different stance: that of the impartial observer, dissecting the ways in which people bend and shape the language to suit their needs, just as they’ve been doing ever since they started talking.

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