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Keep It Fresh

I prefer the view that “like” is a verbal tic indicating hazy tentativeness


Last time I mentioned Columbia University linguistics professor John McWhorter in these pages, it was to roll my eyes at his take on the ubiquitous conversational “like.” In his New York Times column on language, he suggested that far from being merely a form of wishy-washy hedging, it’s actually a sign of “people attuned to one another,” used by a speaker to anticipate mistaken thinking on the part of his interlocutor.

So, for example, if someone says, “We looked in, and it was so crowded. And not just a few kids. There were, like, grandparents and cousins in there. We had to go somewhere else,” the function of “like,” per McWhorter, is “to imply, ‘You might think it was just some kids, but actually…’ ”

In a more recent column, he took another crack at “like,” quoting University of Victoria professor Alexandra D’Arcy for the idea that if “someone tells of someone else unexpectedly showing up and says, ‘It was, like, him!’ — it functions as a shorthand way of indicating a proposition: Pull your mental camera back and imagine the scene: I’m doing my thing, suddenly the doorbell rings, I open the door, and of all people, it’s him!”

For D’Arcy — who wrote a book reviewing no fewer than 800 years of “like” — using the word to guide “your listener to share your sense of surprise is a way of soliciting closeness. You step outside of your mind and invite your comrades in.” In other words, it’s all about sensitivity and fellowship and achdus, you see. Why, before you know it, to paraphrase Country Yossi, it’s gonna be the little vertelach like “like,” that make Mashiach come.

Personally, I prefer the view that “like” is a verbal tic indicating hazy tentativeness, or in McWhorter’s words, “a messy hedge that The Kids use too much.” I admit, however, that the positive spin McWhorter and D’Arcy offer is touching, making them clear favorites for the Berditchever Legacy Foundation’s 2022 Award for Judging Favorably.

McWhorter strikes me as a practitioner of laissez-faire linguistics, if not quite an advocate of anything goes. It’s a perception he actually addresses in another recent piece in which he takes up the indiscriminate use of quotation marks:

I love it whenever I see it: “Free Pickup and Delivery,” “Fresh Fish” and the like. I refer to signage on which quotation marks are used to indicate neither quotation nor irony but just upbeat promotional emphasis, as if the quotation marks were substitutes for capital letters, or perhaps jazz hands.

For years, when I lived in Jersey City, I was delighted every time I passed a neighborhood laundromat that had “CAROLINA’S” — including the quotation marks — emblazoned across its facade, almost as if there were something hypothetical about its washing machines and dryers…. One senses that this usage of quotation marks is sometimes a matter of nonnative speakers creatively reworking English conventions, and sometimes it’s a reflection of the reality that written and spoken language is driven by everyday usage as much as by the strictures of elementary-school teachers, newspaper editors and professional grammarians.

I’ve long thought of this use of quotation marks as something that should be embraced as a permissible norm. Quotation marks have evolved to encompass a new function — somewhere at the intersection of italics, exclamation points and diacritics.

Which is certainly no problem, especially if you favor the linguistic anarchy that allows “nonnative speakers” to “creatively rework English conventions.” Quite a constellation of euphemisms, that. And it’s my placement of quote marks around them that tells the reader that what McWhorter is actually trying to do is to legitimize the butchering of English by people who don’t speak the language — because that’s what quotation marks, at least the irony-conveying kind, are for.

McWhorter acknowledges that “some would say that there is a problem, and it is that I, as a linguist, am so open — too open — to throwing out the rule book. I get that sentiment, but my flexibility on such things is because of how things have always gone….” He goes on to cite examples where various rules of punctuation have been disregarded in the past, such as the rule that a period comes only at the end of a full sentence.

But the “crowning example” of this, he writes,

is the Oxford comma, also known by its more quotidian moniker, the serial comma. You know: “Philadelphia, Berkeley, and New York” rather than “Philadelphia, Berkeley and New York.”

Yes, failing to use it can create confusion now and then. Suppose union rules deny you, a delivery driver, overtime pay for “the canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of” such things as agricultural produce. Are you denied overtime pay for packing things for shipping and distribution, but eligible for overtime pay for just distribution? Only a comma after “shipment” could tell us definitively.

There was a case that hinged on just this, and the drivers won their demand to be paid for distribution alone. But at times, the Oxford comma can confuse matters.

What the good linguist doesn’t tell readers is that the 2018 case — which, the New York Times noted, had “electrified punctuation pedants, grammar goons and comma connoisseurs” — went all the way up to the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit in 2018, which ruled that the missing comma created enough uncertainty to side with the drivers — what in the language of Bava Comma would be called a teiku.

The decision forced Oakhurst Dairy, a family-owned dairy company in Portland, Maine, to settle the case by agreeing to pay its drivers $5 million in overtime pay. Which might make elementary school kids who balk at learning proper punctuation because “what difference does it make” think twice.

Ultimately, the English language is defenseless against those who would do it lexicographic violence, I mean, creatively rework its conventions. If John McWhorter wants to be a serial comma killer, so be it.

And if a sign that reads “Fresh Fish” tickles Mr. McWhorter’s fancy, that’s fine too. But perhaps he’s not familiar with the story of Shloime from Shnipishok, in the Lita of my zeideh’s youth, who owned a fish stall in the marketplace there.

He was proudly putting the finishing touches on a sign over his new gesheft that read Fresh Fish Sold Here Daily, when along comes a nudnik, Yankel, who stands there for a few moments, studying the sign intently, and then bursts out: “That’s a ridiculous sign!”

“What’s wrong with it?”

“Well, ‘Fresh’ — why do you need to say that? And if you do, it just makes people think it might not be.”

“You know, Yankel, you have a point.” Shloime takes his paint brush and paints over the word “Fresh.”

But Yankel was just getting started. “’Sold’? Well, of course it’s sold! What are you, a food bank, giving it away?!”

“Hmm, you’re right.” Shloime paints over “Sold.”

“ ‘Here’ has to go. Where else would you be selling it, across the street?” Out comes “Here.”

“And ‘Daily’? Well, of course you sell it every day. What are you, Rothschild that you only work three days a week?”

Shloime obligingly takes out “Daily”’ and hangs up a sign that now says “Fish,” and not a word more.

Just then, along comes Chatzkel, an even bigger nudnik than Yankel, who takes one look and exclaims, “That’s a ridiculous sign!”

“Now what’s wrong?”

“Your fish everyone can smell from a mile away!”

In Shnipishok, at least, with or without quote marks, “Fresh Fish” would just not do.


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 899. Eytan Kobre may be contacted directly at kobre@mishpacha.com)

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