Grammar Paranoia and the Double Negative Dilemma

Hello, everybody. My name is Joanna, and I suffer from Grammar Paranoia.

I had a fit today. The potential error beamed out of the screen at me like a beacon, gloating at my lack of perspicacity. I immediately showed the typical first symptoms: increased heart rate, shivering, and battering my forehead with the palm of my hand. Then I broke out in a cold sweat. I dropped everything I was doing, and trawled through grammar guides, gnawing anxiously at my fingernails as my stomach did somersaults. Should I really have written “Me, Beyoncé and the hideous hag”? Wouldn’t “Beyoncé, the hideous Hag and I” have been better? (At least I hadn’t forgotten the comma that saves Beyoncé from being a hideous hag. Or does it?) Welcome to the mess I call my brain.

Grammar police

An example of what MM is capable of doing. (Photo credit: the_munificent_sasquatch)

As I have already mentioned on this blog, I am a fully paid-up member of the Punctuation Police. I come out in spots and start muttering obscenities under my breath when I spot a greengrocer’s apostrophe. I tell shop owners in hushed tones that there is a spelling mistake “just here“, whilst my children burn up with embarrassment – they don’t understand that a spelling mistake is as embarrassing as having a bogey hanging out of your nostril. So when I find a mistake in my own writing, I chew off my own arms in despair.

The grammar guides were formal: “I” is used for a subject, and “ME” for an object. So why did my instinct say “ME”? Before my parents threw out the telly, the first BBC educational programme I used to watch as a child was called “You and Me“. Could the BBC have knowingly given their programme a name that was a grammatical minefield? Wouldn’t the Grammar Gestapo have screamed blue murder and burned their dictionaries in front of the BBC’s offices if it had been wrong?

My grammar paranoia turned into an internet hunt using the term “me and you”. It resulted in an impressive list of references to films, books and songs, including that great song, “Me and You and a Dog Named Blue“. I doubt it would have been a hit if he’d sung “You and I and a dog named Blue”. And what about Me and Mrs Jones? Would they still have had a “thing” going on if he’d waffled, “Mrs Jones and I are having a spiffing little fling” instead?

This set me off on a new track about the liberties that the music and film world take by breaking grammatical rules. One of these things is the extremely common double negative. There ain’t no getting rid of that dang double negative. No, siree.

When I switch on the radio and sashay my way around the kitchen, everything goes fine until that fateful moment when the singer spits out that double negative, and I spit my coffee over the hob. Puff Daddy drives me nuts with his eyebrow-raising title “Can’t nobody hold me down“. Nor will I waste any time listening to Justin Timberlake whimpering “I ain’t got no money, I ain’t got no car…” in his song “The way I are”. (I’m sure there must be some deep, philosophical explanation for that conjugation of the verb “to be” apart from it maybe rhyming with “car”, but I ain’t got no time to look, as Justin would say). And last but not least… tadaaaah… our friend Beyoncé. Not only is she the “most beautiful mother in the world”, but she achieves an absolute best of four negatives in her song “Get me bodied”. (Whatever that means. I’ve heard of disembodied, but not bodied). “I ain’t worried, doing me tonight, a little sweat ain’t never hurt nobody“. OK, we’ll take your word for it, Mrs B.

Beyonce Awesome Reaction

Beyoncé during her Olympic quadruple negative exploit (Photo credits: Giphy)

Yet modern-day singers are just continuing an age-old tradition – some of the best singers in history sang to us in double negatives. When Louis Armstrong warbled “I ain’t got nobody”, nobody got their grammar knickers in a twist about the fact that two negatives make a positive, so if he “didn’t have nobody”, he actually had somebody.

It’s too late for me. I’ve tried, tried and tried again, but when I hear Mick Jagger singing that he can’t get no satisfaction, I feel like washing his cavernous mouth out with soap and sending him to bed with a grammar book. If I’d been at Islington Green School when they asked the pupils to sing for Pink Floyd, I’m pretty sure that my mother would have tied me to a chair at home then hammered some sense into the authors with a heavy copy of the Oxford English Dictionary.

Imagine being a copy editor way back then and finding the lyrics of “Another Brick in the Wall” in your inbox. I would have needed a double dose of Xanax just to get over the opening line, “We don’t need no education, we don’t need no thought control”. If Joe Bloggs had written these lyrics instead of Pink Floyd, his masterpiece of bad grammar would have been arrested and put in Pedant’s Prison on multiple charges of taking the English language in vain.

I’ve scratched my head a lot about this, and have decided that singers sacrifice good language use to achieve a familiar, “boy next-door who’s just fallen out of the pub and thrown up beside you on the pavement” style of speaking. So, snot fair. We bloggers ain’t got no right to artistic licence wiv grammar, but them singers duz.

I have gone back to my post and changed the title to something less worrying. I’m sure that Muphry’s Law will apply here, and someone will find at least one mistake somewhere in my diatribe about other people’s mistakes. So be it. A little humility ain’t never hurt nobody. Now I’m off for a little lie down – I ain’t got no energy left.

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Inter-Atlantic English: A Tale of Fannies, Bums and Boots.

English Dictionaries

English Dictionaries (Photo credit: jovike)

On my arrival in the States, I really thought that apart from a few minor details, we spoke the same language on either side of the big pond. Yet there I was, battling to make myself understood, in desperate need of an UK English-US English dictionary and an aspirin.

The garage forecourt was littered with huge cars, and our host, a drawling, cigar-puffing man who looked like he’s escaped from a 1970’s episode of Dallas, was attempting to fob off a dented Buick on these wet-behind-the-ears European newcomers. Communication was proving difficult, and my enthusiasm was waning.

“Excuse me, ma’am? You wanna put your what in the what?” The heat of the Florida sun beat down on my confused head, and I ruefully rubbed my back as the inhabitant of my uterus made a brave attempt to do a cart-wheel.  I pointed at the huge airbag tacked to my front, where my inside-out tummy button strained at my t-shirt like a nipple on a Zepplin-sized boob.

“I’m expecting a baby in two weeks. I just want a car with a boot big enough for my pushchair,” I sighed. A huge grin split the car saleman’s face in two, followed by a high-pitched hee-haw of a laugh that strangely mismatched his farm-hand physique.

1954 Plymouth Like My First Car

When is a car not a car? When you’re English and the salesman is American (Photo credit: pabear26)

“Ma’am, you want a vee-hikkel with boots?” He looked at me expectantly, eager to hear the next mistake of his unexpected stand-up comedian.

It was my turn to smile at his pronunciation of the word “vehicle”. “Vee-Hikkel” was as funny as the “Alooooominnum” wheel hubs he’d pointed out earlier. Did we really speak the same language?

The huge difference between British and American English was giving me serious trouble. In the UK, elephants have trunks, not cars. Cars have boots. In the US, bonnets are hoods, windscreens are windshields, gear sticks are gear levers, number plates are tags, petrol is gas, tarmac is pavement and pavements are sidewalks. You don’t turn at the junction, you turn at the intersection, where you may have trucks, but not lorries. Buying baby equipment was also confusing: pushchairs are strollers, nappies are diapers, dummies are pacifiers. It was just the beginning of a complete linguistic meltdown.

As I had an alien life form practicing kick boxing on my bladder, I quickly discovered the American terminology for the toilet. The term “rest room” was amusingly evocative of a room providing armchairs for tired old gents, not bog-standard loos. And whilst we’re on the subject, ladies, the inappropriately named “bathroom” does not necessarily contain a bath.

pondering life

Resting in the rest room (Photo credit: Chimpr)

I  blinked when I was told to come to a picnic wearing pants.  I was surprised my friend could believe that I let it all hang out beneath my clothing-I always wear pants. Clean ones, every day, in case I get run over by a double-decker bus and the world gets an unexpected view of my M&S undies. If you go out wearing just your pants in the UK, you’ll get arrested. And cold, too. So a word of warning to any American setting up shack in Britain: If you ask for pants, you’ll get underwear, and if you ask for trousers, you’ll get pants. Oh, and whilst we’re on the subject of underwear, if an American date tells you that he likes wearing suspenders, there’s no need to run… because American suspenders hold up trousers, not lace-topped stockings.

Food is tricky, too… Uh-oh. Maybe I should change that word to “difficult”. I recently asked lovely blogger Jenn, “How’s tricks?” One highly entertaining exchange later, I discovered that  the word “trick” is associated with prostitution in the States. Luckily for me, Jenn has a great sense of humour-check out her blog, called “Mashed Potatoes” (or potato, as we Brits say).

Anyway, back to food. At the burger bar with PF’s colleagues, I ordered chips… and got crisps with my steak. No wonder they looked at me strangely. But not as strangely as the person who grabbed his cigarette packet and rose from the table, telling us that he’d be back in five minutes. My innocent enquiry raised the roof: “Are you off outside to smoke a fag?” Whilst the word “fag” designates a cigarette in the UK… smoking a fag in the US involves beating up a male homosexual. You live and learn.

Moments to Remember - Jayne Mansfield ... &quo...

A tramp who has just fallen flat on her fanny. What a bummer. (Photo credit: marsmet531)

What really unhinged my jaw with astonishment, however, was when a male friend told me that he had fallen flat on his fanny. In the UK, only women have fannies, and they certainly don’t talk about them at the dinner table. A fanny in the States appears to be what we Brits call your bum. Which, in the States, refers to what the English call a tramp. Which in turn, in US English, refers to an easy woman. As you can see from this interesting linguistic exercise, our languages are just not the same.

Traps were everywhere, and MM happily fell into them one after the other. One memorable event was when I asked the person next to me to lend me his rubber…. I was told with a smirk that he didn’t have one, but if he did, he’d gladly give it, but would not want it returned. A good job he didn’t, too: I’ve never seen anyone rub out a mistake on a form with a condom. Apparently, what I wanted is called an “eraser” on the other side of the pond.

Woman in kitchen, 1939

“And today, ladies, we will be learning how to fit a stick of butter into a cup” (Photo credit: Seattle Municipal Archives)

Measurements were another problem. Particularly for cooking: making a dessert in the US was anything but a piece of cake. Please can someone American explain why you buy sticks of butter, but measure it in cups? I suspect that this measuring system was an evil idea dreamed up by 1950’s men to keep their wives occupied forcing butter sticks into cups all day. Is there some kind of Holy Grail reference vessel for US culinary purposes? If you use a really small cup, do you get a cup cake? (Unless it’s a “small” cup from Starbucks, of course. I could have swum laps in the first “small” coffee I ordered – it would have made a cake big enough to feed the five thousand.) Or do you have cake cup sizes like for women’s bras: “A” for a cup cake, “B” for a cake to share en amoureux, “C” for a family dessert and “D” for a birthday cake?

I gave up, and made friends with the Pillsbury Doughboy. Whatever the size of a cup, I never worked out how I was supposed to squish a rectangular cuboid of butter into it. As they say on the other side of the pond, go figure….. Whatever that means.

Wonder Woman and le Franglais.

Just before Christmas, PF nabbed the family car, and hence thwarted my evil plan to use the necessary purchase of pepper corns as an excuse for stocking up on British yummies and buying his Christmas present in the nearby jewellers shop. The next day I turned on the radio and discovered that if I had gone to the jewellers as planned, I would have been rudely interrupted by two numpties in balaclava helmets who had run into the shop and sprayed all its occupants generously with tear gas before smashing the glass cabinets, grabbing all they could fit in their backpacks and running away with it. So hip-hip-hooray for P.F, my loveable and unwitting hero.

However, what really surprised me for just a minute was hearing on the radio how they had left the crime scene: on a scooter. I laughed, as despite my many years in France, when I heard the word “scooter”, I imagined them making a speedy getaway with this:

trotinette

But in French, it’s actually this.

Kymco G3 Mark II.

This event got me wondering about other English words that the French have adopted and now use with great confidence, sometimes describing totally different things than their real English cousins. A thick slathering of French accent apparently makes it convincing enough for the Académie Française to slip it quietly into the French dictionary. English words are made French with an exotic little “le” or “la”, like  “le weekend” and “le burger” (which has so much more gastronomic sex appeal when pronounced “beurre-geurre”). Then there are the “English” nouns that the French have invented by simply by adding a cute little -“ing” to a verb to give it an « oh so charm– ing » lilt.  Like “le parking”: “Excuseuh-me, where eez ze parking?” When you say, “Urr, do you mean the car park?”, you will then be informed with a hurt expression that this is an English term. Si, si, Madame.

Another favourite of mine is “un lifting”, a far more honest vision of a face-lift. When your hairdresser proposes “un brushing”, she’s not going to brush you down like a shedding St Bernard, she’s suggesting a blow-dry.  Also “un jogging” is a difficult one – either a track suit or a jog, depending on the context. When you see a car accident on the autoroute, your passenger will invariably tell you to switch on your “warnings“, with the “w” pronounced in a hard German manner. Hands up who knows what “un living” is? It’s English, and it exists. Si, si. Give up? It is… a piece of furniture. You live and learn.

Tower crane operator cabin

Necessary equipment for a French facelift.

I particularly remember a language quandary at an infant school meeting. I had unwisely arrived late, and ended up sat on a tiny chair beside Wonder Woman. Wonder Woman is a frightening mother. (More about her here for anyone who wants more.) She goes to all the meetings, and is always on time. Her kids never lose their fair trade lama hair mittens, but she’s sewn a printed name label into each of them- just in case. She looks elegant all the time, even with her knees jammed behind her ears on an infant school chair. I, on the other hand, am fully paid-up member of the badly-organised mum squad: I sidle in at the last minute, then dig through pockets full of paper tissues and sweet wrappers to find an abandoned colour crayon and a supermarket receipt to jot down the essentials.

The teacher smiled magnanimously at us and said “Of course, your children will need a pair of baskets and one or two sweets, as the weather may be rainy and cold during the day”. I  looked blankly at her, then peered discretely over my neighbour’s shoulder as she diligently recorded everything bar the teacher’s bra size in a dainty notepad she’d pulled from a perfectly organised handbag. She had neatly penned “2 x sweets, plus baskets” with an ultra-feminine pink biro.

I nudged Wonder Woman in the ribs, and politely whispered into her ear. She glared at me; serious parents do not talk when the teacher is explaining Important Stuff. She looked condescendingly down her nose at me before stabbing a perfectly manicured claw at her immaculate handwriting. “Des baskets et deux sweets. It’s  English, after all!” she snarled at me, then turned her attention back to the teacher before she lost Brownie points for not paying attention.

Tagada

Fraises Tagada, alias the French secret weapon against the cold. (Photo credit: hellolapomme)

I switched off and started wondering. Did the French have a secret use for candy? I thought it was just plain edible, but maybe you can be saved by pulling a family-sized bag of fraises tagada out of your anorak pocket after crashing into the freezing depths of the Alps? Set a match to them, and hey presto! An emergency sugar torch to heat everyone up and attract the attention of any superheroes who happen to be flying by. What on earth were the baskets for? Mushroom picking?

Back in the real world, Wonder Woman was gazing at the teacher and thoughtfully sucking the end of her pink biro, much to the delight of the two daddies who had been forced to go there. She nodded her head with knowledgeable approbation as the teacher explained how many pairs of spare knickers we had to provide for the day’s outing. I seriously considered hot-footing it out of the door, hiding behind her Range Rover and mercilessly lapidating her with aniseed balls before she had time to say “Harrods”.

I asked the mother on my right, who appeared less worried about being put in the corner. She had written the word correctly: “sweat”, and amiably pointed to the child sitting beside her.  I finally clicked. Think Rocky working out in the gym. Think Sarkozy running in a park. Ah, ok. A sweat shirt. The baskets turned out to be “basquettes”: laced sports shoes.

That’s your lot for now. I’m off to dream about summer, when we’ll be able to have a barbecue in the sun without hearing the Tramontane wind howling around the house. That’s right, a “Barbe- euh-cul” – which translates from the French as “beard -um- backside“. Bon appetit.