That’s Why I’m Here

“Fortune and fame’s such a curious game/
Perfect strangers can call you by name/
Pay good money to hear ‘Fire and Rain’/
Again and again and again.
That’s Why I’m Here,” James Taylor

A couple of months ago, a journalist e-mailed me asking if I would talk to him for a language piece he was working on. His topic: why some people feel the need to point out to others that they have (supposedly) made mistakes in grammar or usage, such as saying “decimate” when they didn’t really mean that one in 10 were killed, or perpetrating such constructions as “Our friends invited my wife and I to their daughter’s wedding.” I said I would be delighted; rare is the day when I pass up a chance to pontificate. But then I hemmed and hawed, and hemmed some more, tortuously laying out the areas I felt I would and would not be able to comment on. After a few back and forths, the writer wisely said, basically, “Hey, it’s not you, it’s me, but maybe it would better if we talked for some other unspecified story some indeterminate time in the future.” (He wrote the piece and it unsurprisingly turned out that he did fine without me.) Our exchange bemused me a little bit. Normally, when somebody wants to talk, I’ll just talk. Why all the qualifications and demurrals in this case? Over time, I think I’ve come to some understandings about my reactions. In my heart of hearts, what I wanted to say to the journalist was this: “Thanks for reaching out! I love thinking and talking about language mistakes and ‘mistakes.’ I am fascinated by the process in which a onetime solecism gets whitewashed by the passage of time, and watching where in the process various usages and constructions stand is one of my favorite spectator sports. I even wrote a piece for your very own outlet, Slate, that half-humorously, half-seriously, proposed a mathematical formula for how long it’s viable to stick to the legacy meaning of such terms as nonplused, literally, hopefully, disinterested, and, well, viable. I am deeply interested in the discourse over whether usages deemed ‘wrong’ by prescriptivists—’invited my wife and I,’ for example, or singular they—do in fact have grammatical standing. [Typographical note: Even though most of the rest of this post continues to quote from my imagined response, I am going to dispense with quotation marks at the beginning of the ensuing paragraphs, since they would be too clunky.] Ever since I wrote a book on the parts of speech, I’ve been especially interested in anthimeria, meaning a POS shift. Right now, I’m obsessed by the change in the word Hi, from interjection to a salutation—though one different from the most popular traditional salutation, Dear, in that it makes no sense as an adjective. You can see this played out in the punctuation at the openings of emails. Hi or Hello, like any interjection, were customarily followed by a comma; but when used as salutations, they are not. There’s a possibly relevant precedent in the expression Hello there, which shows up in the Google Books database in the 1880s. In its early years, the hello is sometimes followed by a comma and sometimes not, but dating from the early 20th century, the comma-less form reigns, as in this quote from a 1917 story in Pearson’s Magazine: “The flock of flying leaves whirled off around the corner, there was the crunch of wheels, a team drew up by the door, and a man’s voice called out a hearty: ‘Hello there, Jonathan, hello! You inside?’” In any case, a hi/hello no-comma salutation now seems to be the custom of everyone who’s not a hidebound stickler and/or aged. Thus the most recent relevant items in my inbox:

  • “Hi Professor Yagoda.” (Student)
  • “Hi Bloggers.” (Lingua Franca editor, age not disclosed)
  • “Hi Prof. Yagoda” (Student)
  • “Hi all.” (Colleague, probably in early 40s)
  • “Hi Beb.” (Greeting card website. I told them my name was “Beb” so I would know if any junk came from them.)
  • “Hello Ben Yagoda.” (Librarian, Library of Congress, age not disclosed.)
  • “Hey Ben.” (Colleague, early 40s)
  • “Hi Ben.” (Friend, around 50)
  • “Hi Ben.” (Business associate, age not disclosed.)
  • “Hi Ben. (Friend, retired professor of classics, 70s [!])

And so on. I have to go back to mid-July to find a “Hi, Ben,” this one from a friend (late 50s) who is the stickler di tutti sticklers. I love it that he wrote, “Hi, Ben,” but if someone asked my why he was so determined to stick that comma in there, I would be literally nonplused. And that brings me back to my hesitation when you e-mailed me. It comes from that word why and all that it entails. I have a really hard time imagining other people’s motivations and the rest of their interior lives. I’ve always been that way and I’m sure I always will. When we’re watching the news and some politician makes a particularly vile, demagogic, or untrue statement, my wife usually asks the valid and interesting question, “What do you suppose people like that tell themselves?” My response is almost always, “Whuhhh? I have no idea.” I think that even before I was consciously aware of this motivational myopia, I recognized it deep down, and it bothered me, so much that I formulated a sort of compensatory formula. It goes something like this: People’s use of language is a good, and maybe the best, manifestation of who they are. And since I seem to be constitutionally sensitive to language, I will pay really close attention to it. At the very least, I will be gathering a body of significant data about people’s behavior. And maybe, just maybe, it will one day build to such proportions that I’ll get an inkling of what it says about their motivations and feelings. That day hasn’t come, hence my hesitation in talking to you. Good luck, and try me again.” My pieces for Lingua Franca have been by way of building that body of data. They have been a very pleasurable way of keeping myself off the streets, but I now reluctantly take a leave of absence to try to finish a book (not about language). Goodbye [no comma] everybody. Thanks for listening, and see you next year, hopefully.

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