Patricia T. O’Conner on Controlling Language

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Our word maven Patricia T. O'Conner talks about the belief among some segments of society that there’s a conspiracy by those in authority to control language. She also answers questions about our confounding and complex English language. An updated and expanded third edition of her book, Woe is I: The Grammarphobe's Guide to Better English in Plain English, has recently been published in paperback, and a paperback version of Origins of the Specious, written with Stewart Kellerman, was just issued.

Call us at 646-829-3985 with a question, or leave a comment below.


Patricia T. O'Conner

Comments [70]

Mary from Queens

How can we stop youth from overusing the word "like"? Will they ever grow out of it and speak like adults?

Just as maddening is the change in pitch at the end of declarative sentences that make them sound like interrogative sentences.

Where is this youth dialect coming from? MTV?

Aug. 05 2011 01:59 PM
connie from NY

In the sentence, 'Jack painted his old car purple", what part of speech is purple?

Mar. 13 2011 03:20 AM
Tim Krol from Brooklyn

My ears pricked up too when the word wacko was thrown around for all the reasons already mentioned; however more important: my heart sank when Leonard chose to begin a show like The Word Maven by immediately jumping into the gruesome topic of the Tucson shootings. I LOVE Patricia and enjoy the banter between her and Leonard very much... but maybe consider avoiding current events that are tragic or otherwise depressing? Maybe I sound like an ostrich with its head in the sand, but Word Maven has always been a way for me to ESCAPE the bad news of the day.

Jan. 20 2011 05:14 PM
Pat Bergen from Bloomingdale, NJ

Re: PT O'Connor segment on Grammar. I have been an enthusiastic listener for many years and especially looked forward to Ms. O'Connor's participation , until now. Listen to your 1/19/11 program and note how you insensively refer to the delusions of a very seriously ill young man with amusement. Terms such as "extremist wackos" and "far right grammar conspiracy theorists" perpetuate the widespread stigma that is at the very root of why mentally ill people and their loved ones do not get the support they need. Tuscon was a profound tragedy for all the victims. It should not have been trivialized as a lead-in for your segment on grammar.

Jan. 20 2011 11:13 AM
jack lansbury from Brooklyn

Hello Leonard! I'm a frequent listener of your show and enjoy it very much. Today, however, I was very frustrated listening to Ms. O'Connor and feel obliged to write to you; it's the first time I do so. I have spent a good part of my adult life teaching English in Spain where grammar is highly emphasized so I was looking forward to a good discussion of grammar rules and usage. What I heard today was a big disappointment and not because I particularly disagreed with anything that was said (though I could have sworn I heard your guest say that handsome was a noun), but rather because hardly anything was said at all. Unfortunately, Ms. O'Connor is not a dynamic speaker and she can't come up with examples and explanations in a quick, clear way. She hems and haws too much! And your interventions, which work so effectively in many cases, just served to confuse callers and listeners - your "dialectics" comment comes to mind. It would be of extreme interest to me to hear a knowledgeable discussion of English used in all its variances in the New York area. Today's program didn't offer that. Here's hoping next month's will! Cheers
Jack from Brooklyn

Jan. 20 2011 12:06 AM
Mike from Tribeca

Laura from UWS -- agreed! Ms. O'Connor is always the highlight of the month for Leonard's show. And thanks for the info about "myself."

Jan. 19 2011 02:29 PM
Farittee from Brooklyn

You have Ms. O'Conner on as an expert because she is well-qualified to answer questions about language and why oh why don't you allow her to do so.

Year after year...week after keep inserting your own responses to viewers' questions. In this case: Are you a grammarian? Or, alternatively, did you study historical linguistics?

Ms. O'Conner is very polite and always covers for you--but something arose today that clearly shows why you might think twice about doing this again..and it was the question about historical African-American Southern dialects.
Ms. O'Conner declined to answer the question, in part, I'm thinking, because it is very complicated, and, very, very political.
You, on the other hand...plunged right in there and began to hypothesize..which she nicely hushed up.

Sir--you have experts on your show for your listeners. Please, let them answer our questions themselves. That's what they are there for.

Thank you.

Jan. 19 2011 02:20 PM
e-lopez from Bronx, NY

If grammar is not used in the establishment of elite classes then what does Ms. O'Conner make of the Peabody test (PPVT-R to measure the ability to use standard English)? As a standardized test the Peabody is used by numerous experts as a measure of intelligence (at least verbal intelligence). Studies have shown that those scoring high on the test are not plagued by the educational and other societal issues that the less well to do have (meaning that high scores are associated with high Social Economic Status).

Jan. 19 2011 02:17 PM
Laura from UWS

WHAT? Over so soon? I wish we could do this all day!

Please tell me that Patricia T. O'Conner gets to see the entire comment thread!

P.S. For those who asked...."myself''s an extra form of politeness, or an attempt on the President's part to add an extra dimension of politeness, graciousness......even if the grammar isn't correct. The most common mistake people say when trying to sound polite is when people avoid "me" and use "I".....Ex: "He gave a gift to my wife and I"

Jan. 19 2011 02:03 PM
Frank from Morristown, NJ

I have a problem with the the usage of problematic as a synonym for "it's a problem." The word used to mean debatable or requiring discussion to resolve a question. This is an example of our losing a word that denotes a fine distinction. Seems to be a modern linguistic tendency perhaps thanks to the ubiquity of language crimes in the media in which repeated misuse makes it correct.

Jan. 19 2011 02:02 PM
Tim Krol from Brooklyn

Thanks for addressing my question on the air! I also enjoyed the "slender yellow fruit syndrome," and immediately thought of whenever the Pope is in the news.. and how almost surely he'll next be referred to as "the Pontiff."

Jan. 19 2011 02:02 PM
Doug Adcock from Suffern, NY

Your conversation seems to assume that a person uses one particular type of grammar. In my experience, most people are fluent in a variety of levels of usage, from very formal through several levels of informality, depending on whether they are speaking at a wedding reception, a funeral, to their families over dinner, to their friends over a few drinks, or to strangers on the street. What is appropriate in one setting may be "wrong" in another.

Jan. 19 2011 02:00 PM
Nic from Harlem, NYC

I think THAT the earlier caller has made good observations.

Facility with language is absolutely a social marker and it does indicate education level and social class. The saying goes "You can always tell a Harvard man..." etc.

I'd also agree that Sarah Palin appears to be speaking more coherently. She is able negotiate what her handlers are writing for her with greater accuracy and clarity. The 'just folks' part of her personality isn't calculated; it's who she is, but she has definitely, from a purely technical standpoint, improved her speech. It appears to be a conscious effort.

Jan. 19 2011 02:00 PM
Mike from Tribeca

Mr. bad -- do you honestly think you're going to be taken seriously by calling people "Grammar nazi's"?

Jan. 19 2011 01:59 PM
Leah from Brooklyn

I'm keeping the distinction between "nauseous" and "nauseated," thankyouverymuch.

Jan. 19 2011 01:58 PM
Laura from UWS

To relax = To lax again?

To defeat = to un-feat?

Just kidding...I imagine it all comes from the Latin in a haphazard way.

Jan. 19 2011 01:57 PM
kate shepherd from Bushwick brooklyn

My son enjoys using the word "amn't" as in amn't I allowed to eat dessert?
Is this correct?

Jan. 19 2011 01:56 PM
a listener from Brooklyn

I've noticed that in the past five years, people have begun answering "How are you?" with "I am well," instead of "I am good."

It's not that "well" is incorrect, but I don't think that they realize that they are using the adjective form of well, meaning, "not sick," and that "good" is not incorrect. It's meant to modify the subject, not the verb. If you were ill, you would answer, "I am sick," not "I am sickly."

Jan. 19 2011 01:56 PM
Helen from Oceanside, L.I.

Have you noticed how many people are starting sentences with the word "so"?

Jan. 19 2011 01:56 PM
al from Brooklyn

I've noticed that people sometimes start sentences with "anymore." Example: "Anymore, they don't charge for internet at hotels." They seem to be from Cleveland & Pittsburg (Anymore, go Jets!).

Jan. 19 2011 01:55 PM
A listener

I think some of the designs for new taxi cabs are quite handsome.

Jan. 19 2011 01:55 PM
Bill from Norwalk CT

Speak of the Devil after one walks into a room is similar to.. There he is. It is as if the person entering the room is being spoken of, a showing of importance of the person

Jan. 19 2011 01:54 PM
Mr. bad from NYC

Haloooooo Grammar nazi's! Greets from the sticks... Just thought I might make mention of a certain truth that should be obvious: that when a certain class "rules" and also speaks/writes a certain way it is irrelevant whether or not they "impose" their speech patterns and locutions on us - those that rule impose their ruling ways wholly, language included, style and comp notwithstanding. The false egalitarian note the guest strikes flys in the face or all experience.

Jan. 19 2011 01:53 PM
Mike from Tribeca

tjcook -- re Canadians saying "eh" at the end of their sentences. I imagine it's their version of our "you know" or "do you agree?" By the way, my western Canadian relatives rarely, if ever, add "eh," whereas my eastern Canadian relatives use it often. Might be a regional thing. My British step-family has their own version, "oi." And my Spanish friends will often say "yes?" instead of the standard American "no?" at the end of a sentence when asking if I agree with a statement (or do I have that backwards?). It's quite confusing, but offset by their superb calvados.

Jan. 19 2011 01:52 PM

I wrote a book and the editor took commas out of sentences like "He thinks that the word 'truth' is objectively used in even a moral context, and that moral thinking is no more subjective than scientific thinking." Can a comma introduce a phrase like this? Or can it only introduce a full clause like "he thinks that moral thinking is no more subjective than scientific thinking"?

Jan. 19 2011 01:51 PM
Nancy from Bklyn

Have you discussed Lenny's use of the phrase "I'm well!" when asked the question, "How are you?"

Isn't "well" an adverb?

Jan. 19 2011 01:49 PM
Laura from UWS

"There he is" .."Ecce Homo"...Bible...
"Behold the man"...

Unused words in dictionary? Helps me read old books such as Thoreau's "Cape Cod"....

Language and "Ruling Class"? Not who the rules are, but what is fashionable. Now that we have mass media, our language seems to come from standard radio announcers, TV, and movies.

P.S. I LOVE these segments, I LOVE the show.

Jan. 19 2011 01:49 PM
Joe B from Brooklyn

By the way, I did not mean to double post. If I hit 'return' rather than click the post comment button, it looks as though nothing happened.

Jan. 19 2011 01:49 PM
William Lorentz from Maplewood, NJ

Why do you suppose that, even and especially among presumably well educated people such as politicians there is a usage becoming common -- and irritating -- of non-use of subject/verb agreement such as "there's many people who....." or "there's many ways of looking at a problem"?

Jan. 19 2011 01:49 PM
Helen from Oceanside, L.I.

Have you noticed how many people are starting sentences with the word "so"?

Jan. 19 2011 01:48 PM

the expression, " that being said" which seems to me to be unnecessary, is being used more often. How do you feel about it's use?

Jan. 19 2011 01:47 PM
charlie from harrington park nj

The use of the phrase "There he is" is as an honorific, such as referring to popes and monarchs in the third person. It is meant to imply that the person arriving is of such importance or such an object of affection that the room must be notified of having such a gifted presence among them.
Or at least that's how I've always saw it.
(just kidding, I know it should be "seen", okay youse guys?)

Jan. 19 2011 01:47 PM
Matthew from Brooklyn


I apologize if you might have already addressed this, but I really really really really disagreed with Farhad Manjoo's article on Slate this past week mocking those of us who keep the double-space convention after a period. He dismissed the argument "because that's the way everyone learned it" as foolish...I would think that's a perfect argument, and perhaps the best one possible. He also tossed off some nonsense about digital fonts and layout...since when have we made grammar decisions based on design.

Would you please pile on with your own ridicule?

Jan. 19 2011 01:47 PM
GLADYS from Weehawken

Amen to this caller who argues for correct speech. (Clinton vs Palin). Time and time again I have found Miss Patricia T. O'Conner (?) a revised spelling? to be an arbiter of her own taste and a penchant for makng up her own rules. I"m often tempted to call or write but you'd be hearing from me regularly. Of course it's correct to say 'an' historical event. Her grammar and speech and ideas leave a lot to be desired and she is definitely is Not Funny no matter how hard she tries; there definitely are rules to language or we'd all be mumbling and writing gibberish. Actually with each passing day I see gibberish seems to be the chosen path.

Jan. 19 2011 01:46 PM
Nicholas Messitte from Brooklyn

Okay, this is a big one for me:

"all right" versus "alright".

Please discuss.

The latter is an abomination in my opinion and here's why:

If "all ready" means "all is ready", and "all right" means "all is right", and "already" means "having happened before", then what the heck does "alright" mean?


Jan. 19 2011 01:45 PM
Dan K from South Orange, NJ

What is the accepted usage of the words that and which?

Should I say, "The dog, which is rabid, is ..."
or, "The dog that is rabid is..."

Also, sometimes you say, "That, which is ...."

Jan. 19 2011 01:45 PM
Susan from Yorktown Heights, NY

A pundit discussing the shooting in Arizona last week said the situation was "incredulous." Can a situation be incredulous? My husband and I spent 2 days arguing over this!

Jan. 19 2011 01:45 PM
Joe B from brooklyn

I'm desperate. is there an opposite gender equivalent for the word misogynist?

and what is the word for this equivalent? it's not an antonym.

Jan. 19 2011 01:45 PM
Richard Friedman

I'm bothered that "than" is not generally considered a preposition. My understanding is that prepositions indicate relationship. If that is so, why is "he speaks better than I" proper and "he speaks better than me" improper? Thanks.

Jan. 19 2011 01:43 PM
Mary Brown from Grant City, Staten Island

I teach, so I'd appreciate the name of this common problem and a good way to correct it. Students frequently repeat the subject, first using a noun and then a pronoun, as in "Oscar Wilde, he was a playwright." Is it a mistake, if so, what's it called, and how do I explain how to fix it. Thank you for all you do.

Jan. 19 2011 01:42 PM
Amy from Manhattan

Is it ever ok to use 2 thats in a row? For example: I know that that is not true.

Jan. 19 2011 01:42 PM
Rudi from Queens

Oh, dear. Did I just hear Ms. O'Connor say "waLA"? Is there any part of France where "voila" is formally pronounced with a W?

Jan. 19 2011 01:42 PM
Michael from Greenpoint


It rankles me when you say "any number of..." Please stop.

Thank you!

Jan. 19 2011 01:41 PM
Sheldon from Brooklyn

Hey Carole. I was thinking the same thing when I heard Obama say it.

"Myself" has to be the most abused pronoun in the language, people seem to forget that it is indeed reflexive.

Jan. 19 2011 01:40 PM
Jayadev from West Village

Re hyphenated modifiers such as high-quality or often-used: the hyphen appears to be dropped more and more in the US. Is it to the point where it is now too fussy to use the hyphen in these cases?

Jan. 19 2011 01:40 PM

To the caller who asked the derivation of "there he is" it seems obvious that the term would have started as an answer to the question "where is he?"

Jan. 19 2011 01:39 PM
Shereen from Brooklyn

Ms. O'Conner claims that there is no ruling body establishing the standards, conventions, and "correctness" of grammar and that it is, in fact, a product of "the masses." This fails to account for the power dynamics that organize "the masses," and the ways in which our society is inherently racist, classist, sexist, heteronomormative, etc. Language is a tool used for colonial power and domination. Let's not forget that.

Jan. 19 2011 01:38 PM
Steve from Manhattan

Two questions:

I think I read somewhere a few years ago that English grammar is no longer taught in NYC schools and that a teacher can actually be fired if he/she attempts to teach grammar. Is that true?

What's the difference between "historic" and "historical"? "Historical" always sounds ridiculous to me.

Jan. 19 2011 01:38 PM
Stephen Mohan from Lindenhurst, NY

Recently read a Sherlock Holmes novel were one of the male characters described a beautiful woman as 'handsome.' I do not think that most women in modern times would appreciate being described as handsome. Has the meaning of the word changed over time?

Jan. 19 2011 01:38 PM
Mike from Tribeca

Re my previous comment -- Then again, Joyce is depicting the way the character in his story would speak (or in this case, think). And nobody in Joyce's works is among the economic elite. Petit-bourgeois, yes, but never the elite.

Jan. 19 2011 01:38 PM
A listener

I get more annoyed than I should when people use "anxious" when they mean "eager."

An example:

[[ NFL commissioner Goodell 'anxious to speak' to Walsh, hoping sides are nearing deal
Associated Press INDIANAPOLIS -- "The lawyers are still talking and we're anxious to speak to him. We're anxious to get an agreement to get him to come forth," Goodell told the Associated Press on Wednesday before the start of the NFL combine.]]

Jan. 19 2011 01:38 PM

Why do Canadians say "eh" at the end of their sentences??!!

Jan. 19 2011 01:37 PM
Mark from Mount Vernon

The State of New York is attempting to control usage. They have banned 'retard' and 'retarded' from government forms.

Yesterday on CNN, a host apologized for a guest using "crosshairs," and asked listeners to let them know when other
offensive terms were used on their air.

Jan. 19 2011 01:37 PM
Fafa from Harlem

I enjoy the segments with Patricia, but she seems NAIVE about language and power. Of course the "goodness" of language is arbitrary; language is always changing & evolving; the "erudite" today use words and phrases, formally, that were once slang, and so on. But there is nevertheless elitism in language. Those in power can discriminate (not hire someone, etc.) because of how someone speaks, regardless of how effective he/she communicates -- because he/she speaks a certain way based on his/her experience/ education which, of course, is affected by social factors, the resources of the parents, etc., which are often difficult to transcend.

Jan. 19 2011 01:37 PM
Joel from Fair Lawn, NJ

Which is correct bragging rights or bragging rites. I did a Google and found references to both.

Jan. 19 2011 01:36 PM
Stephanie from Park Slope

Could Patricia comment about subject-verb agreement--or rather its increasing absence? I just saw a whopper in the Times today, where the verb agreed with a plural noun in a prepositional phrase, not the actual singular subject of the sentence. Is this getting so common that it's no longer incorrect?

Jan. 19 2011 01:36 PM

Please explain proper use, (and decline) of the hyphen. I am bothered by the recent book, "No Impact Man," and wonder why there is no hyphen between No and man. Doesn't this confuse the meaning???

Jan. 19 2011 01:36 PM
Michelle from Long Island City

Why do some British phrases seem to be missing pronouns that Americans tend to add in. For instance, on the BBC they always say, "the two parties *agreed a contract*," while Americans would say "agreed ON a contract." Is this an example of language becoming more redundant as it evolves? Or are the Brits just naturally more efficient with language?

Jan. 19 2011 01:34 PM
Glenn from Manhattan

Mad TV the politically uncorrect show that went off the air had a great skit - a job interview where the black woman character used the non-word 'skill-less' and was called on it. It was a joke about how blacks (try to) use race to shame whites for correct usage.

Jan. 19 2011 01:34 PM
Emily from New York

I've always wondered why New Yorkers say "I"m standing on line" and everyone else says "I'm standing in line." Any ideas?

Jan. 19 2011 01:34 PM
Daniel from Munich

I live in Germany and am a physicist. In my field everyone, regardless of proficiency with the language, writes in English. I've found that grammar is not just about being perfunctorily correct. When the grammar is better (by academic standards) the writing is easier to understand, especially for non-native speakers.

Jan. 19 2011 01:33 PM
Rob from Austin, TX

Are boon and boom interchangeable? In terms of good fortune or a windfall?

Jan. 19 2011 01:33 PM
jeremy from village

Any legitimate sociolinguist would disagree fiercely with O'Conner's naive claims concerning the irrelevance power relations in determining what "counts as" grammar...

Jan. 19 2011 01:33 PM
A listener

Is there much hand wringing these days in the news business over correcting grammar in direct quotes?

Jan. 19 2011 01:32 PM
a g from n j

just to clarify- i am in no way shape or form defending the tucson shooter. lest there be any doubt.

Jan. 19 2011 01:30 PM
Tim Krol from Brooklyn

I did write a Facebook request about this last night; however just as a reminder I'm curious about overusing the word "that." Example: "I know that I love you" vs "I know I love you," which seems to read "cleaner." I have found when writing, I can then "weed" a few thats, and it results in cleaner copy. Ever notice this?

Jan. 19 2011 01:27 PM

Please explain proper usages of the term nauseous? Nauseous is frequently used to describe one's feeling of nausea, as in 'I feel nauseous.' My mother, (a long-time registered nurse with a life-long interest in language) has always maintained that 'I am nauseous' connotes 'I am someone who causes others to experience nausea.' Properly, one might say, 'I am experiencing nausea,' or 'I feel nauseated.' She presently concedes that due to its long and common use, 'I feel nauseous' has assumed acceptability.
What do you think?

Jan. 19 2011 01:26 PM
Mike from Tribeca

Carole from NYC -- "myself" has always been confusing to me (and/or myself) as well. For example, I was just reading James Joyce's story "Araby," which includes the line, "Her name sprang to my lips at moments in strange prayers and praises which I myself did not understand."

"I myself" sounds to these ears like a redundancy. But who are myself to question the Master?

Jan. 19 2011 12:34 PM
Carole from NYC

I would like your guest to explain how people misuse the reflexive pronoun, "myself." This morning, I heard Obama say. "On behalf of Michele and myself, I would like to thank......
I hear it used like this all the time, but it never sounds quite right to me.

Jan. 19 2011 12:15 PM
a g from n j

i hope we all can understand, that whether there is a "plot" or not to contol language,not having some secret centralized ruling cabal,does not mean that language is not influenced and controled by all manner of omission,downplay,attack[outright or subtle]. control, influence, and coersion,can operate on many levels. they can be "side-efects", of media conglomeration. my point, is to be wary of portraying this, as something that is either 100% tangible and ascertainable, or non-existant. that would be a false choice in the absolute[lit. and fig.]

Jan. 19 2011 10:35 AM

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