Patricia T. O’Conner

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Our word maven Patricia T. O'Conner answers questions about English language and grammar. An updated and expanded third edition of her book, Woe is I: The Grammarphobe's Guide to Better English in Plain English, is available in paperback, as is  Origins of the Specious, written with Stewart Kellerman.

If you have a question about language and grammar, leave a comment or call us at 212-433-9692!


Patricia T. O'Conner

Comments [73]

APJH from Brooklyn, NY

Great show about accents! I truly enjoyed it.

Now, on to this new trend of retail cashiers, bank tellers, etc. saying to a line of customers "Following guest, please step down."

Two things:
1. When did "customers" become "guests"?
2. Is it grammatically correct for cashiers to say "following guest," as opposed to "next guest"? I cringe every time I hear this usage.

May. 30 2012 01:31 PM
Chita from Bayside

I heard part of a discussion on Radio, 82.3 AM on New York accents. The guest was Barbara Kahn. I don't know who the host was because I only heard 15 minutes of the program. They were mentioning how people from both Brooklyn and New Orleans pronounce GIRL, OIL, TURNING, and TOLET as GOIL, EARL, TOINING, and TIRLET. Neither the guest nor host of the program knew how this came to be. I do. The connection between the two regional speech patterns dates way back to the days when shrimp boats traveled regularly from New Orleans to Brooklyn sea ports. That particular way of talking is referred to as the 'Yat' accent.

May. 11 2012 01:02 PM
Marie K from Pittsburgh, PA

Thank you so much for explaining so many things on this episode. I moved to Pittsburgh when I was 18 to go to school, and I didn't think I had a NY accent, but apparently I do. At least now I have proof that I am not just talking "wrong"

May. 10 2012 10:56 AM
Dorothy from Manhattan

I heard many years ago (perhaps in a linguistics class) that Emerson married a woman named "Lydia." However, he knew that Bostonians would pronounce it Lydier when it was followed by a vowel. Therefore, he had her change her name to "Lydian." Presumably everybody lived happily ever after.

May. 09 2012 01:58 PM
The Truth from Becky

Caramel please.

May. 09 2012 01:57 PM
Alison from Manhattan

where did
yous for you and
are for hour (should be promounced OUR) come from

May. 09 2012 01:57 PM
James from Greenwish Village

I grew up on Staten Island (pre-bridge). I recall growing up that my father insisted that the Verazano Narrows Bridge caused the Brooklynization of our accent. You can see how the accent changed from mine, the eldest down the ranks of my siblings.

May. 09 2012 01:55 PM

Something that struck me when I first moved to NYC from the South was that many, *many* people say the phrase "I know, right?" as an agreement, regardless of whether they already 'knew' what was spoken of or not. Now I say it all the time, too.

Another thing that's common to NYC is closing phrases with "my friend," which has always been a nice touch. I think it might be an immigrant thing. Whenever I'm back home, though, people always make fun of me for saying it too often.

May. 09 2012 01:55 PM
Richard from Queens

The New York accent is mostly an Irish accent modified by other immigrant languages. The reason New Orleanians sound like New Yorkers is because New Orleans also had a huge number of Irish immigrants before the Civil War.

Some New Yorkers will say "soder" instead of soda with the intrusive R.

Some New Yorkers will say "shtreet" for street.

A woman's pocketbook is pronounced "beeag" with a dipthong.

I new an older woman who said erl, berl and terlet for oil, boil and toilet, and would pronounce Earl the Pearl as "Oil the Poil"

May. 09 2012 01:53 PM
Maggie from JERsey City, New JERsey

I love the port city idea!!! New Orleans sounds like home to me.

May. 09 2012 01:52 PM
tom from astoria

In Robert McNeil's "the Story of English" they located the stand american english (used by national broadcasters) as located somewhere around northern PA, south of Western New York

May. 09 2012 01:52 PM
John from Brooklyn

Any thoughts on the (in my opinion, maddening) rise of people starting sentences with "so"?

May. 09 2012 01:52 PM
Matt from Brooklyn

Someone once told me that the Boston accent is as true of an American accent that there is, and that people from England before they came to America would have spoken like that, even before what we consider to be the "British" accent.

Is that true?

May. 09 2012 01:50 PM
Greg from Downtown

Great discussion. I'm Australian in NY for more than 17 years. Now, most people now understand me but a few things continue to throw New Yorkers/Americans -- e.g. my name Greg which comes out, to my ears, as Craig when pronounced locally and my late mother's name Marie which is always pronounced Maree -- what's up with that?

May. 09 2012 01:50 PM
Steve from Brooklyn

Any thoughts on Thomas Wolfe's "Only the Dead Know Brooklyn"? Could that have reinforced the idea of a "Brooklyn" as opposed to a New York accent?

May. 09 2012 01:50 PM
Nate from Brooklyn

I want to comment on the idea of city life involving more contact with people than small towns. That's just crazy silly.

May. 09 2012 01:49 PM
April from Manhattan

Have you read Honks and Wonks by Tom Wolfe? He traces the upper class New York accent to Charleston, SC. Before what my great great grandmother would have called The Late Unpleasantness, the civil war, the two cities were close, They came up here in the summer. New Yorkers went down there in winters. Much trade. A friend who grew up in Brooklyn and Long Island says "sawr" for saw, like Sea Island African Americans. No one in the South when I lived there said any version of Oy, that I recall. Not even Jews I knew, who had moved straight from Berlin. My muthuh never used final Rs. I was laughed at by cousins in Mass. when I said I was afraid of spiduhs. Accents are changing everywhere. A friend here has a niece in Alabama who has no trace of any of the many Southern accents. I've noticed that Piedmont NC accents have moved West to the mountains, except among the old timers. I was devastated that Bear Waller road, when it got a road sign, was spelled Bear Wallow. There'd been vigorous dispute as to whether it was Bear Waller or Bear Water. I like various accents, and am sad we're losing them. The BBC used to have an upper class snobby accent, and noticed the diversity of accents in Britain were being lost. Now they have a variety, even American once in a while! As if there's an American accent. Why do some Jews sometimes put the emphasis on the first syllables, like WINter coat? It annoys me when a film set in Ohio or California characters use New York accents. And even if it's true that New York and New Orleans have similar accents, it seems wrong that Everyone in Streetcar except Blanche uses New Yawk accents.

May. 09 2012 01:49 PM
nina from brooklyn

can you discuss the difference between "on line" and "in line"
i am a new yorker and always get flack for people for saying, for instance, "i am going to get on line to get a hot dog"
my argument has always been that one gets ON the end of the line

May. 09 2012 01:48 PM
Helena Axelrod from Chatham, NJ

I was told a long time ago that the guttural sounds in the Brooklyn accent are a vestige of the Dutch. Any ideas if that's true? Certainly there are vestiges in place names like those that end in "neck"-Great Neck, etc.

May. 09 2012 01:48 PM
Janet from South Plainfield NJ

Nobody is taught the correct vowel sounds anymore!!! A is the sound in apple, E is eh in egg, I is ih in Indian, O is ah in ostrich and U is uh in umbrella (it works if you say them). My mother always said that if you heard English correctly spoken at home you'd have no problem with correct grammar and usage, but I guess that's rare now. Been all over people ask where I'm from, never thinking I am from the NY area.
PS The one that drives me mad is AX for ask.

May. 09 2012 01:48 PM
Charlie from East village NYC

I am a set designer and live in the east village nyc.
I am often asked to provide a "podium" when someone really means, "lectern".
I think the podium is the unit one steps on for elevation, and the lectern is what you might rest your notebook on.
Charlie K

May. 09 2012 01:47 PM
Nick from UWS

I cannot watch the TV series "Madmen" because nobody on the show has a New York accent. Completely and unforgiveably unrealistic...nonsense. New Yorkers in the early 1960s had STRONG New York accents.

May. 09 2012 01:47 PM
Patricia Newkirk from Manhattan

How and why did the doubling of the word "is" become part of our speech?
"the reason is is that ..."

May. 09 2012 01:45 PM
art525 from Park Slope

I'm from upstate NY and I don't hear the difference between marry and merry either. RJ from prospect heights mentioned the neutral vocie of subway announcements. Something I find incredibly annoying is that woman's voice who does the announcements on WNYC. She makes Siri sound personable. She is so prissy in her over enunciation and her precise articulation of foreign words. Creepy. And on one final note Brian and Leonard both say the word singer as sin-gher with a really hard g which I find harsh.

May. 09 2012 01:44 PM

I've always thought that Hollywood does a terrible job at portraying the "New York" accent because it's not recognized that New York has a collection of micro ethnic accents. There is an old-fashioned Irish New York accent, Italian New York accent, and Jewish New York accent and probably even divisions within those.

When Meryl Streep played a nun in the Bronx in Doubt, her performance was praised, but I couldn't understand why she sounded exactly like a Jewish New Yorker if she was a nun.

May. 09 2012 01:44 PM
Ivy Brown from NYC

when i say draw as in a draws you have your clothes in it sounds like drah what is that?

May. 09 2012 01:44 PM

I've always thought that Hollywood does a terrible job at portraying the "New York" accent because it's not recognized that New York has a collection of micro ethnic accents. There is an old-fashioned Irish New York accent, Italian New York accent, and Jewish New York accent and probably even divisions within those.

When Meryl Streep played a nun in the Bronx in Doubt, her performance was praised, but I couldn't understand why she sounded exactly like a Jewish New Yorker if she was a nun.

May. 09 2012 01:43 PM

That Mary Merry Marry lack of distinction is also very common in the Binghamton area. A linguistic professor explained this in class and I didn't believe him, until I met a new friend from that part of New York. I thought her name was Merry (as in Meredith) but when she gave me her contact information I found she was really named Mary!

May. 09 2012 01:43 PM
Linda from Jersey Shore

Living in NJ and being from Rochester NY I get what the Buffalo caller was saying. We have a funny "a" sound in our local speech (as most of the great lakers do). My big one I get teased on is the name "Gary" I guess I pronounce it GEEEry, but I don't hear it. Also I think NJ'ers pronounce the word "drawers" pretty stangely. DrAUers.

May. 09 2012 01:43 PM
Maggie from New JERsey

What's with the vase vahse aunt ahnt pronunciation. the second versions sound like affectations.

I am over 60 , grew up in Jersey City and what you say is true except puhleez note:
NO NEW JERSEYAN EVER SAYS "NEW JOISEY." Even the strongest Jersey City accented speech pronounces Jersey as the rest of the world does.
Please stop with the Joisey. It annoys NJans, only because it's so inauthentic.

Also the "aw" in coffee sound is not so strong/drawled as LL is pronouncing it, but it's there in a softened form. Love the show.

May. 09 2012 01:43 PM

HILARIOUS!!! I'm from Buffalo originally (and have in my speech the influence of everyone I ever talked to, I think - but one day I went to the hardware store in Manhattan (when we had them....) - and I told the fellow behind the counter that I needed some caulk.

All hell broke loose - can't say thins on the radio!!!


May. 09 2012 01:43 PM
Nick from UWS

Anyone who doesn't understand or discounts the difference in pronounciation between "caught" and "cot" cannot be considered an expert on the English language.

May. 09 2012 01:43 PM
Harry Zernike from NYC

What about Harry vs. hairy?

I constantly fight against this. Many seem unable to pronounce "Harry".... I ask them to pronounce "Hat" first.

May. 09 2012 01:42 PM
N. S. from NJ

In casual short-form writing, like on a blog, do you think minor deviations from correct grammar usage distract the reader from focusing on the story being told or the point being made? In my case I write short stories on my site,

May. 09 2012 01:42 PM
swpop from Brooklyn

A great depiction of the Brooklyn accent and word usage can be found in "Only the Dead Know Brooklyn" by Thomas Wolfe, The New Yorker, June 15, 1935.

Look it up for a good laugh.

May. 09 2012 01:40 PM

What about number disagreement. For instance: Instruct the patient to eliminate caffeine from their diet.

May. 09 2012 01:39 PM

The peculiar similarities between New York and New Orleans accents probably has a lot to do with the history of jazz music as a common tongue. Jazz performers traveled the road between those cities a lot by the time the stylized New Yorkese accent came to prominence by the 40s. The speech associated with jazz musicians from pre-ragtime to bop has been fluid and encompasses a lot of cultural influences.

May. 09 2012 01:38 PM
Steve alcott from Inwood

Hobbes to Calvin: "verbing weirds language".

May. 09 2012 01:37 PM
David Moriah

Would you comment on how the word "impact" has come to replace effect and affect? I always thought the only things that are "impacted" are teeth and stools! Is it hopeless to reclaim the original meaning of the word?

May. 09 2012 01:37 PM

Speaking of conductor-speak, when in DC I always love to hear how each conductor pronounces "Judiciary Sq." Always different, always entertaining.

I've heard it pronounced correctly a couple of times, but I most loved the conductor who just gave it up altogether and announced,

"Jishy Square."

May. 09 2012 01:36 PM
Kate from Brooklyn

Teachers and speech therapists use the word "present" in the same way as doctors.

May. 09 2012 01:36 PM

My father, who was born in Brooklyn a century ago, had a classic Brooklyn "dees," dems," toidy-toid street" accent. I thought it was charming. (I lost my New York accent years ago.) When I gave private English classes to a Dutch fellow, he spoke the same way. Is this because Dutch and German were spoken in New Yawk way back when?

May. 09 2012 01:36 PM
Howard from New City, NY

Wondering if Patricii could clarify a comment she mentioned sometime ago, that the British in colonial times had an accent similar to ours now, while the American colonists spoke more like the British accent we know today. Thanks!

May. 09 2012 01:35 PM
Jim B

I've noticed that a friend who was born in Spain and learned English by listening to suburban speakers and television here nonetheless sometimes sounds like she has the old New York accent. I think there's something to Spanish that lends itself to that.

May. 09 2012 01:34 PM
Ramin Ganeshram from Westport, CT

We also can't discount the Americanization of world media as an accent influencer. I am from New York City of Trinidadian and Iranian descent. My young relatives IN Trinidad speak English with more of an American vs. West Indian or British accent (a feature of past colonialism). They credit American TV, the Internet, and music. I know that personally, my accent is very indicative of 1st generation children of immigrant parents (regardless of country of original origin) who spoke English at home, primarily, and went to very certain types of Manhattan schools (specialized and private.) I am only discerned as a New Yorker outside of New York. I live in CT now and hear an almost Ohio, western-NY, Pennsylvania accent here.

May. 09 2012 01:33 PM

Not sure "lazy" is the way to characterize British R-dropping.

I heard one Brit critique the American hard R as far, far too punctilious.

May. 09 2012 01:32 PM
jgarbuz from Queens

I used to be ashamed of my old Brooklyn accent, and it did hinder me in many ways, but now I am proud of it. To me a true Brooklynite has a Brooklyn accent.

May. 09 2012 01:31 PM
Estelle from Brooklyn

A language pet peeve of mine is the use of "kids" instead of "children" even in newspaper articles, etc. As a former high school teacher, I sympathize when this is an attempt to avoid calling teenagers "children." I used "students" when referring to those in my care. My teachers would never have tolerated this use of kids and would promptly say, "Kids are goats."

May. 09 2012 01:30 PM
RJ from prospect hts

I wonder about the influence of the absurdly neutral subway announcements.

May. 09 2012 01:30 PM

I grew up nearby New Orleans, and it's always been my understanding that the similarities between that accent and the Brooklyn accent is due to the first schools in NOLA being staffed by nuns from Brooklyn. I have no idea if there's any truth to it, but it's a popular local story.

May. 09 2012 01:29 PM
David from Scranton

When I traveled in Holland in the early 1970's I met a professor who had studied English in American, rather than British, pronunciation. His teacher, according to him, spoke standard American English, but the professor spoke with an accent that sounded very much like classic Brooklyn. He thought it was the combination of American and Dutch pronunciation.

May. 09 2012 01:29 PM
Jeff from Queens

I heard from my old linguistics professor that the Brooklyn accent was a bowlderized Dutch accent.

May. 09 2012 01:29 PM

I noticed that a former editor of mine who grew up in Harlem and Mayor Bloomberg who's from Boston both pronounce idea "ideer."

May. 09 2012 01:29 PM
anne from hell's kitchen

I'm so glad you mentioned New Orleans. I grew up there and remember my great-aunts and -uncles who said "toidy-toid" and they washed the dishes in the "zink." These relatives were of German descent and lived with lots of French and Irish around. N.O. was the second largest port and reception place for immigrants right off the boat. The city had the same influx of immigrants as NYC.

Love you, Patricia!

May. 09 2012 01:27 PM
Hope from Hastings-on-Hudson

My children always knew when I was talking to my mother on the phone, because I started speaking what they called "the Brooklyn flu." My favorite sentence in Brooklynese is, "Give it ta huh" (meaning: Give it to her.)

May. 09 2012 01:27 PM

if ya wanna heah de accent, ride da SI ferry.

May. 09 2012 01:26 PM
amy from Jersey Shore

Having moved from Brooklyn a while ago, I find my only remnant of a city accent is when I (sometimes) pronounce "th" differently. It's hard to describe, but it's almost as though the tongue remains in the mouth, as opposed to the tongue touching the front top teeth.

May. 09 2012 01:25 PM
Carolyn from Brooklyn

An old landlord of mine is Dutch. He has a thick accent and I first heard the "erl" (as in oil) sound from him as well as others you're describing. Could all this have evolved from the Dutch in NY!!??

May. 09 2012 01:25 PM

As a longtime resident of New Jersey, with roots in New York, I am loving this discussion. I often correct people from more remote parts of the country when they say to me, "oh, you are from New Joizey?" I tell them, "No, we from Jersey do not say 'Joizey" - it's people from Brooklyn who say New Joisey!"

Thanks for another good show (however you say it...)

May. 09 2012 01:24 PM
Deborah from Greenwich Village

What about the metal and bottle 'click'. As in met-ul or bot-ul?
My Dad a native New Yorker born 1918 (year of the Armistice)' always said those words with this click

May. 09 2012 01:24 PM
Gwenn Claytor from New Jersey

PLEASE tell me is it "going to Prom" or "going to the Prom" - We used to say going to the Prom but now my daughters say going to Prom and it drives me crazy!

Thanks so much love the show and this is one of my favorite parts

May. 09 2012 01:24 PM
Karen from Manhattan

My father, who is 91 and grew up in Flatbush, tells the story of the corner newsboy who announced, "Hoyt is hurt". (Hoyt was the name of a player for the Dodgers.) Only it came out sounding like "Hurt is hoyt!"

May. 09 2012 01:24 PM
The Truth from Becky

Outside of NY I draw the most attention when saying Caramel or Chocolate, walk or talk, Hot Dog or Frank, there are so many more dead give aways that I am a native Nyker.. Please let me hear your pronunciation of Caramel.

May. 09 2012 01:23 PM
jgarbuz from Queens

Hey, this used to be New YAWK, not New York! There is no "or" in Yawk! Tired of all these people with real or affected British accents coming here and annihilating our beautiful Brooklyn accents. I thought they left in 1787! What did we have a Revolution for if we can't have our own native Brooklyn accent?

I'm tired of flowery British accents! Bring back the down-to-earth Brooklyn accent! Brooklyn without the Brooklyn accent, as without the Dodgers, can never be the same.

May. 09 2012 01:23 PM
Nat Benchley from NYC

Re: NY accents: there is a wonderful (possibly apocryphal) story about Bert Lahr showing off his new cement window boxes. His visitor said, "Cement? But, Bert, do you get any drainage?" Lahr is reported to have replied, "Drainage? Of course you get drainage. The good thing is that none of the mersture excapes."

May. 09 2012 01:23 PM
Alice B. from Williamsburg, Brooklyn

I always think that the New York (or at least the Long Island) accent is just a relaxed or lazy form of the English accent....the way, for instance we both don't pronounce our Rs.

May. 09 2012 01:21 PM
allison from manhattan

When did the verb " to do" start to be used for example on the subject of seeing a museum or traveling to a foreign country, like "Let's do France," or "Let's do the Guggenheim." It makes the visit sound like a chore you can't wait to get done with and implies there's no enjoyment.

May. 09 2012 01:21 PM
Joe from nearby

Patricia O rocks!

Btw, where does the expression "rocks" come from, rock n' roll?

May. 09 2012 01:20 PM
Laura from UWS

Some decades ago an engineer told me he sat through a class given by a Brooklynite on the topic of what the speaker called "Erl boiling berlers"

May. 09 2012 01:20 PM

Leonard drops his R's when he says the word "forward." A very NY thing to do.

May. 09 2012 01:20 PM
Laura from UWS

FYI, if there was any confusion at 1:00 today:
a mohawk vs. a mohican..........(always keep Google and Wikipedia handy during "A History of the World in 100 Objects".....)

"The mohawk (referred to in British English as a mohican) is a hairstyle in which, in the most common variety, both sides of the head are shaven, leaving a strip . . . . . "

May. 09 2012 01:10 PM
Adam Holland from Bay Ridge

Here's my question about New York accents: are they caused by nay-cha or noy-cha?

May. 09 2012 12:03 PM
Laura from UWS

Which is better:

Correct grammar or what sounds right?

And....any comment on the New Yorker article about grammar books such as "Elements of Style"?

May. 09 2012 11:43 AM

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