1576: "I Could Care Less"

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Re: 1576: "I Could Care Less"

Postby Pfhorrest » Sun Sep 13, 2015 4:50 pm UTC

[boos xtifr and applauds h4rm0ny]
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Re: 1576: "I Could Care Less"

Postby Inst » Sun Sep 13, 2015 6:48 pm UTC

H4rm0ny: I had a long post typed up but it was mostly incoherent; I'm STILL not sober despite not having drank for 18 hours, but that's what a week of drinking will do to you. It got deleted by a time-out, but I don't mind; it would have been rude to impose that on you.

That said, the two most relevant points is that British English is a prestige language in the United States, but it's not an acrolect. When I speak of acrolect or basilect, I talk about dialects within a society, and obviously people with less of an education are less likely to be pedantic and use the more novel form of language. Second, "I can care less" does have meaning when sarcastic, and sarcastic is a necessary part of speech in certain cultures.

As an aside, when we talk about context; well, you never mentioned poetry, right? Good literature can be subject to multiple interpretations, poetry, due to its conciseness, requires ambiguity to obtain the same density. At the same time, if it's too ambiguous it becomes incoherent and is no longer good art. That works as another example of when imprecision in speech is desirable.

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Re: 1576: "I Could Care Less"

Postby xtifr » Sun Sep 13, 2015 10:34 pm UTC

Ok, first I want to say that I may have been a little harsh in my last post. You have a twitch; I have a twitch. I twitch when people criticize this usage. In fact, I do more than twitch. My fists involuntarily clench. So, I think we both have things to work on. But I hope we're both rational enough that we can still have a calm conversation.

But I want to start with something you said near the end of your last post, because I think it's important:
h4rm0ny wrote:From what others here have said it sounds like the usage split is fifty-fifty even within the USA, anyway.


This is simply not true. It is about fifty-fifty worldwide, and absolutely dominant in the US.

Now, back to the main discussion.
h4rm0ny wrote:
xtifr wrote:
So naturally I dislike your presumption that you know why we dislike the term and telling us that it is because we're on a high-horse.

A. Claiming you're not on your high horse does not convince me that you're not on your high horse.


Well here is an interesting thing, much of your post is implications that I'm arrogant, egotistical or whatever it is you're implying, but it's not my aim to prove something to YOU. I was just conveying my point of view to any interested. Indeed, given that you are openly rejecting the premise that I'm telling the truth in favour of your own beliefs about what I actually think, I'm not sure how I actually could prove I feel what I say I feel. However, this post is not about you despite your assumption, and I'm sure there are plenty of people who will extend me the courtesy of not rejecting my statement. Especially as my given reasons are pretty common ones held genuinely by lots of people.


I didn't reject your premise (openly or otherwise). I merely stated that I wasn't convinced by it. The fact that I bothered to mention some other alternatives should make it clear that I was quite ready to accept that there were alternatives.

h4rm0ny wrote:
xtifr wrote:B. Beyond that, I think that assuming you're on your high horse is giving you the benefit of the doubt. The alternatives are worse, in my opinion. Either you're being willfully ignorant ("it can't mean that!") or you're being idiotic ("it's going to ruin the language!"1).


At this point, I'm going to point out those aren't the only two other options. On the fairly simply grounds that I already gave another option in the post you are replying to.

Actually, you didn't give another option. What you're describing as "semantic validity" is what I'm describing as "it can't mean that". Of course, in another post, I did admit that I overlooked one possibility. Many people find the word "moist" distasteful for some reason. This is one of the most common word-dislikes in the world, and I have several friends who share it. But the fact that you're now talking about semantic validity seems to clarify that your "twitch" is not in this class. Which pretty much leaves us back with the three possibilities I raised in my last post.

h4rm0ny wrote:That you reject liking semantic validity in language as a possible option is a limitation of your own, not ours.

Ah, because I accept more things than you do (things that don't fit your narrow definition of "semantic validity"), that proves I'm more limited?

In any case, I seriously doubt that you have the devoted love of semantic validity that you claim. Does the phrase "it's the cat's meow" bother you? Do you twitch when someone says, "he's a fox", about a member of the human race? Are you bothered by the use of the word "terrific" to refer to something that is, in fact, quite pleasant and enjoyable?

Heck, even cases where negation doesn't change the meaning of a sentence are not that unusual. A phrase like "Joe knows/doesn't know {squat, jack, beans} about X" means the same thing no matter which way you say it, no? Or how about one that strikes me as particularly UKish, since it's a bit odd in my own dialect: "You shouldn't play with alligators, I [don't] think." Why are these acceptable (assuming you do find them acceptable)?

This sort of thing isn't even confined to English. A famous example from French is the colloquial phrase "je sais pas", which started as "je ne sais", became "je ne sais pas", and now has started to lose the negating "ne".

I mean seriously, if you actually love language, I don't know why you're not reveling in this stuff, like I do. It's truly fascinating!

h4rm0ny wrote:
xtifr wrote:In my over-half-a-century on this planet, I have yet to hear any objection to something like this that made any sort of sense whatsoever.


Well isn't the point of this comic that the burden is on the listener to make sense of what is said to them, rather than on the speaker to make sense? :) Are you changing your position on this?

Say what? First of all, I don't think that's the point of the comic. I think the point of the comic is that real misunderstandings are a real problem, but fake misunderstandings based on linguistic prejudices (which are frequently class-based) are not, and people should stop doing that. Second of all, even if the comic said what you think it said, a contradiction between what the comic said and what I said would not be a case of changing position unless I'd stated that I agreed with the comic (or with your version of the comic), which I never did.

h4rm0ny wrote:Besides, based on other responses to my post, I'm confident my argument was intelligible to the rest of the readership.

"Intelligible" is not the same thing as making sense. If I said, "the Royal family is controlled by lizard people", that would be perfectly intelligible (and I could probably find a few people who would agree), but I doubt you would think it made sense! At least, I hope not. I engaged you in part because you seemed like one of the more rational of the "it's wrong and I hate it" crowd. :)

Seriously, we have people in here claiming that anyone who uses "could care less" is an idiot, despite the fact that it's widely used by scholars and statesmen and poets and linguists. It's possible that an idiot could get a PhD, but unlikely that so many would.

h4rm0ny wrote:
xtifr wrote:If you've got another explanation that isn't one seen a billion times on the Internet every time English usage is discussed, feel free to wow us all. But I'm not holding my breath. Nothing you've said so far gives any hint of any such thing.


I don't have any further explanations than the ones you have already (presumably) read. But I'll re-state just to keep this discussion close to the metal:
1) A love of language and clarity in meaning.
2) Coming from outside the USA and thus not having become inured to this weird inversion of meaning through over-familiarity.
2) An irritating feeling of dissonance whenever I hear it.

All that's fine, and I give you props for not saying, "it makes me twitch, and I wish people would stop." But what you didn't say is, "it makes me twitch, but I realize that's just due to unfamiliarity, and I'm sure I'll get over it in time." Which, unfortunately, encourages the folks who say, "nobody but an idiot would say that--see how it makes this guy twitch?"

But I have to ask you: is this "weird inversion of meaning" really that weird to you? Are the examples I listed above, where negation doesn't change the meaning of a sentence, really that alien to you? To me, they're bog-standard, all of them.

h4rm0ny wrote:
xtifr wrote:
Many of us just love language and / or also have a love of precision in meaning.

I don't believe it's possible to love both. Natural languages are inherently ambiguous and frequently imprecise. If you actually love language, you would love the ambiguity and imprecision, as I do. It allows for all sorts of humor and wordplay and poetry and free association. Without ambiguity and imprecision, languages would be dry, dull, and dead.


Again, you're telling a stranger on the Internet that they're lying about what they say. That natural language contains ambiguity and is not always precise, does not mean that language cannot be used clumsily or ineptly.

Of course language can be used clumsily or ineptly. But are you claiming that this particular usage is clumsy or inept? (Are you insulting an entire nation based on your own linguistic prejudices?) Or are you simply raising a completely irrelevant point?

I mean, honestly, I am trying not to be insulted here, but it's not easy. I am trying not to take your original "many of us just love language and / or also have a love of precision in meaning" as a sneer, but when you follow it up with something like this, it becomes very difficult.

Think carefully before you speak. You may think you're defending something "natural", but as my many examples above show (which themselves only scratch the surface), what you're objecting to is every bit as natural and quite commonplace.
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Re: 1576: "I Could Care Less"

Postby gmalivuk » Mon Sep 14, 2015 3:10 am UTC

Discussing language with prescriptivists is like discussing stars with astologers or water with homeopaths.

Sure, they say they care about and love and are interested in the properties of the thing, but they actually (don't?) know shit about it and have no interest in learning. Yet they will always find ways to twist that around and call the relevant scientists (linguists, astronomers, and chemists or doctors) and science enthusiasts stupid things like "close(d?) minded".

Though to their credit, at least, I don't think I've ever encountered anastrologer who thinks real astronomers and astronomy will lead to the downfall of the heavens, the way so many grammar fetishists seem to seriously believe some usage or other (and the acknowledgement by linguists that said usage is okay) will lead to the downfall of English.

Edit:
orthogon earlier claimed (incorrectly) that "literally" had come to mean the exact opposite, unlike "totally" and "really" and "very". But while "literally" in fact does not mean anything like the opposite of what it once did, many other words do, even to the point of currently having two opposed meanings. Yet somehow the pedants never seem to whine as much about autoantonyms like "dust" and "fast" and "cleave". I wonder why those aren't a sign of ~misuse~ the way "literally" and "could care less" are.
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Re: 1576: "I Could Care Less"

Postby Inst » Mon Sep 14, 2015 7:34 am UTC

I could actually bring up Japanese where linguistic drift is intended and intentional; i.e, Japanese has a register where you can be extremely direct, but that's considered rude. For euphemisms; "excuse me" is "sumimasen", which is "it never ends".

There's also issues with cultural preference for precision vs ambiguity; as mentioned before, Japanese uses ambiguity to indicate politeness; I can also point to Classical Chinese which is extremely terse and on top of that is intended to be implicative to compensate for the difficulty of writing the script.

Somewhere or another there's an anecdote about a French airline pilot, perhaps it's from Gladwell or perhaps it's from Anthony Burgess; the pilot mentions how despite being quite nationalistic about France, he can't imagine doing commercial international aviation in any other language but English, for its precision. At the same time, he can't imagine making love in any other language but French, either. Different languages, dialects, registers, etc; they have different preferences for ambiguity and directness.

===

That said, there are cases where a good argument for prescriptivism can be made; such as ones where semantic drift results in loss of meaning due to convergence; English is a language where at least 8,000 words are necessary for basic fluency, and part of that is to preserve finer modes of expression through words that are, while similar, not exactly synonyms. "I could care less" is not one of them; as mentioned before, "I couldn't care less" by itself has a double meaning, and "I could care less" introduces sarcasm to communications when sarcasm is called for; as long as the sarcasm is understood, it's less ambiguous than "I couldn't care less".

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Re: 1576: "I Could Care Less"

Postby orthogon » Mon Sep 14, 2015 8:23 am UTC

gmalivuk wrote:orthogon earlier claimed (incorrectly) that "literally" had come to mean the exact opposite, unlike "totally" and "really" and "very". But while "literally" in fact does not mean anything like the opposite of what it once did, many other words do, even to the point of currently having two opposed meanings. Yet somehow the pedants never seem to whine as much about autoantonyms like "dust" and "fast" and "cleave". I wonder why those aren't a sign of ~misuse~ the way "literally" and "could care less" are.

Well, I've been literally emboldened by this, so...

I guess it all depends what you linguists mean by "opposite", but it seems obtuse to deny that there is something about the "new" meaning of literally that isn't in some sense opposed to its other meaning. The word is specifically about saying that the statement describes the real circumstances or event: that the sentence is specifically not being used figuratively or metaphorically. You could argue that no two words are perfect antonyms in the same way that there are no perfect synonyms, and we could argue literally until the cows come home about whether your famous autoantonyms are more antonymous than literally. Furthermore, I could point out that those other words actually are confusing, and that, probably as a result one or even both meanings have fallen out of common use ("cleave", and particularly "cleft" sound pretty Authorised Version to me). Most people will think of cleave as being what a meat cleaver does; I was extremely puzzled by the phrase "cleaving to tradition" until I found out about its opposite meaning. Even there, the preposition to gives the game away, which may be why the "stick" meaning tends to be confined to set phrases. If I said "This generic gaffer tape doesn't cleave very well" it would be genuinely ambiguous, since that particular product is well known for its extreme stickiness and the ease with which it can be torn. Similarly there must be a region in which it is 100% ambiguous whether the thing literally described actually happened or not. "They were literally fighting over it": fisticuffs or hyperbole? It's harder to come up with a genuinely ambiguous example with fast, since the two senses barely overlap in practice; you have to be a bit clever with your definitions to make them sound antonymous.

ETA: to address your main point, I'm not a prescriptivist, but you yourself have pointed out that descriptivism doesn't mean that anything goes. There can be a stage in which something is a common mistake, like "should of" instead of "should have" or "pacific" instead of "specific". At some point a word might make the transition from common mistake to alternative meaning, purely by descriptivist weight of numbers. I would assert that this is what has happened with literally: speakers settled on it when they were reaching for virtually or practically and it became unstoppable. But my guess is that most words don't gain senses in this way. The word fast underwent its change of meaning via a number of incremental polysemous steps; each one might have seemed a reasonable extension of meaning, so perhaps there was never a time when people complained about it.
xtifr wrote:... and orthogon merely sounds undecided.

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Re: 1576: "I Could Care Less"

Postby Hiferator » Mon Sep 14, 2015 9:11 am UTC

Eshru wrote:[...]"I could care less, but that would require effort on my part." [...]

Ok, several people have brought up this or similar phrases that supposedly fix the literal meaning of the first part, but I just don't understand it. Can someone explain the above statement to me? As I read it the first part still means "I care more than zero" and the second part "caring less than I do would require effort". How does that make sense?

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Re: 1576: "I Could Care Less"

Postby Canard » Mon Sep 14, 2015 11:44 am UTC

The Moomin wrote:
sotanaht wrote:
Xenomortis wrote:When I was a young teenager (13/14), the phrase "I couldn't care less" was one I more than occasionally used (because I was teenager).
Then I heard people say "I could care less" and I was really confused by it. But I was (am) quite literal minded.


I just don't use the phrase at all. I'm not sure I ever did. There are plenty of alternatives, including the simple "I don't care" and the more versatile "I don't give a ______". Also, while I don't use it, "I could care" is perfectly valid.


I've always liked "I couldn't give a rat's arse". It implies that there is a situation in which someone thinks the suitable response is to give someone's a rat's arse.

"You've saved Timmy from the well Lassie. Good boy. Here, have a rat's arse."


I once had a colleague who kept a (very small) empty box on his desk labelled "Rats Arses", just so that he could point to it and say "I can't give you one of those, because I'm fresh out".

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Re: 1576: "I Could Care Less"

Postby gmalivuk » Mon Sep 14, 2015 11:54 am UTC

orthogon wrote:ETA: to address your main point, I'm not a prescriptivist, but you yourself have pointed out that descriptivism doesn't mean that anything goes. There can be a stage in which something is a common mistake, like "should of" instead of "should have" or "pacific" instead of "specific". At some point a word might make the transition from common mistake to alternative meaning, purely by descriptivist weight of numbers. I would assert that this is what has happened with literally: speakers settled on it when they were reaching for virtually or practically and it became unstoppable. But my guess is that most words don't gain senses in this way. The word fast underwent its change of meaning via a number of incremental polysemous steps; each one might have seemed a reasonable extension of meaning, so perhaps there was never a time when people complained about it.
I don't get why you think the use of "literally" for hyperbole (like "really", which is exactly analogous) is somehow more jarring than the use of "fast" for both "rapid" and "unmoving".

Also, when I say "prescriptivism" I mean the notion that some bit of language can be bad or wrong. That something can be objectively unclear to readers or listeners is a descriptive quality. "You might not want to say this because people often won't understand you in this context," is thus descriptivist advice, whereas, "Don't say this because it's wrong," is prescriptivist.
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Re: 1576: "I Could Care Less"

Postby peewee_RotA » Mon Sep 14, 2015 12:59 pm UTC

I'm pleased at how far this conversation got.

My two cents, which I hope mirrors other opinions.

This used to bother me until I realized that "could care less" is sarcastic whereas "couldn't care less" is sternly specific. The stern version provides a specific effect but it's more from a position of authority. The sarcastic version provides a cooler effect because it shows that you're removed enough to just be sarcastic about the whole thing. I think the longer form that people would enjoy is: "I don't care much but I could care less."

At least that's how I use it.
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Re: 1576: "I Could Care Less"

Postby orthogon » Mon Sep 14, 2015 1:00 pm UTC

gmalivuk wrote:I don't get why you think the use of "literally" for hyperbole (like "really", which is exactly analogous) is somehow more jarring than the use of "fast" for both "rapid" and "unmoving".

Partly because fast as an adjective in the sense of "unmoving" is pretty archaic, but mainly because I haven't seen a good example in which it could be ambiguous. The normal meaning of fast is the opposite of slow, and the "unmoving" use is the opposite of something like loose or moveable or something. You wouldn't say "that shelf bracket is a bit fast"; it's unlikely that something that might be expected to be fast (fixed in place / to something) would need to be described as fast (moving quickly); you'd think you'd pick up on it when it was merely moving a little bit. Even if you could concoct an example (the side panels of a Ferrari?), I think it would be clear from the context which meaning you meant. The point with literally is that it's very easy to construct a sentence that could either mean that the thing happened or that it didn't. The listener has to decide based on the plausibility of the statement being qualified.
xtifr wrote:... and orthogon merely sounds undecided.

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Re: 1576: "I Could Care Less"

Postby peewee_RotA » Mon Sep 14, 2015 1:27 pm UTC

orthogon wrote: You wouldn't say "that shelf bracket is a bit fast"


Unless it's been fastened in place.
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Re: 1576: "I Could Care Less"

Postby HES » Mon Sep 14, 2015 2:18 pm UTC

It's either stuck fast or falling fast. But as orthogon says, the context makes it unambiguous.
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Re: 1576: "I Could Care Less"

Postby gmalivuk » Mon Sep 14, 2015 2:34 pm UTC

It's almost never unclear what "literally" means, either. Or "I could care less".

Unless you're learning English, but in that case you may not know enough of the other words to figure out "fast" or "dust" or "table", either.

Idioms are tricky across the board, so the question remains why people pick just a few of them to whine about constantly.
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Re: 1576: "I Could Care Less"

Postby orthogon » Mon Sep 14, 2015 5:20 pm UTC

I guess the discussion has revealed that I'm fairly happy with descriptivism at the level of words, though I set a higher threshold than some for the level of popularity at which something transitions from being a common mistake to a proper new sense. But I get increasingly uneasy as it's applied to higher levels. With a word, the only viable argument is that the meaning doesn't match the etymology, and in that case the etymology can go hang. I couldn't care less that hysterical was originally something to do with the uterus: it means what it means now and I refuse to get offended on anybody's behalf by something in the linguistic fossil record. But with an idiom, there's no ignoring that it purports to mean something at face value.

I've long been annoyed by the phrase "you can't have your cake and eat it": for one thing, have in the context of food usually means "eat" anyway, and for another, the conjunction could easily mean "then", in other words the possessing of the cake and the eating of it could be sequential in time; finally it's hard to imagine how you could eat the cake without it being in your possession, i.e. you can't eat your cake if you don't have it.

Cakes aside, my issue is that when there's a dissonance between the literal meaning and the idiomatic meaning, it's a bit like those tests where you have to say the colour of a word when the word is the name of a different colour.
xtifr wrote:... and orthogon merely sounds undecided.

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Re: 1576: "I Could Care Less"

Postby gmalivuk » Mon Sep 14, 2015 6:32 pm UTC

But there's always a difference between the literal meaning and the idiomatic meaning of idioms. That's what makes them idioms in the first place. Otherwise they'd just be literal descriptions of things.
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Re: 1576: "I Could Care Less"

Postby xtifr » Mon Sep 14, 2015 7:03 pm UTC

Canard wrote:
The Moomin wrote:I've always liked "I couldn't give a rat's arse". It implies that there is a situation in which someone thinks the suitable response is to give someone's a rat's arse.

"You've saved Timmy from the well Lassie. Good boy. Here, have a rat's arse."


I once had a colleague who kept a (very small) empty box on his desk labelled "Rats Arses", just so that he could point to it and say "I can't give you one of those, because I'm fresh out".


Heh, I like your colleague!

But it's worth pointing out that rat's arses are also one of those things that aren't affected by negation. They're used with and without:

"could give a rat's arse." About 14,800 results

"couldn't give a rat's arse." About 8,090 results

"could not give a rat's arse."  About 5,550 results

Pretty much equal in usage according to my quick google survey. And, of course, I think we'll all agree that all of those mean exactly the same thing. So your colleague could have kept a large jar full to the brim with much the same effect. Although I suspect we're all glad he didn't. :D

Anyway, the general non-negatability of "could/couldn't give a(n) {expletive}" is considered by some to be a probable influence on the rise of "could care less." (Along with sarcasm. Perhaps.) There's also some evidence that people are beginning to reanalyze "care less" (subconsciously, of course) to mean something different from what the individual words say. Google "didn't care less" (in quotes) to see some very interesting examples. But be prepared to twitch if you're the sort of person who twitches about this sort of thing.

The things you stumble across while doing research for an xkcd forums discussion.... :shock:

edit: separate issue --

orthogon wrote: With a word, the only viable argument is that the meaning doesn't match the etymology, and in that case the etymology can go hang.


That's not the only viable (but can-go-hang) argument. There's also "it's logical". For example, less vs. fewer. Fewer is used with countable nouns. (This is true.) Therefore, less should be used only with non-countable nouns. (Utter nonsense.) It would make sense if the words were designed to complement each other, but they weren't designed at all, and they're completely unrelated. This seems to stem from the prescriptivist notion that the rules are some sort of archetypal ideal set in stone, derived from some unknown but unquestionable source. Obviously, then, they have to be logical, because who would set illogical rules in stone? :)
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Re: 1576: "I Could Care Less"

Postby Pfhorrest » Mon Sep 14, 2015 9:16 pm UTC

I really hate to even engage in this conversation now that the anti-prescriptivists are out in force, but I'd like to note one thing that I think is important:

There have always been prescriptivists over the course of the evolution of natural language, and their critique of language is a part of what shapes the evolution of language as documented by descriptivists. Telling people to stop being prescriptive is in and of itself a kind of prescriptivism. It reminds me of normative relativists, who say that there's no such thing as being objectively right or wrong and therefore we ought to tolerate different behaviors (up to a certain, fairly subjective, threshold, it seems). That's fine if you want to argue that certain things ought to just be tolerated, but know that you're making a normative claim when you do so.

Likewise, it's a descriptive fact that certain constructions are contested by segments of the language using population (and that this kind of contest is a part of the evolution of language), and it's a prescription to tell them that they ought to give up contesting it because other people don't contest it and therefore it's fine and shut up.
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Re: 1576: "I Could Care Less"

Postby gmalivuk » Mon Sep 14, 2015 9:25 pm UTC

What the fuck? Being a descriptivist doesn't somehow rope me into being an ethical nihilist about everything else in the world. I can believe that language isn't the sort of thing where right or wrong exists external to usage, while at the same time making normative statements about things other than the mechanics of language, without any sort of contradiction happening.

(If you honestly believe there is some sort of contradiction there, then it's people like you who make me sometimes feel embarrassed to admit that I was a philosophy major, because you give the rest of us a bad name.)

The fact that people have been wrong about how language works for centuries is no excuse for continuing to be wrong, any more than the fact that superstitious people have always opposed other types of science is an excuse for continuing to be superstitious and anti-scientific today.

And anti-scientific superstition really is what prescriptivist linguistics often amounts to. You're allowed to have personal aesthetic preferences about how people communicate, but please stop making so many factual errors when talking about what language is and how it works. Y'all are no more academically minded or interesting than Luddites about language change.
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Re: 1576: "I Could Care Less"

Postby Znirk » Mon Sep 14, 2015 9:51 pm UTC

Pfhorrest wrote:Telling people to stop being prescriptive ...


I don't think the descriptivist attitude is so much "prescriptivism is wrong" (which would indeed make about as much sense as "superstitions are bad luck"). It's more of a case of "prescriptivism is pointless limited in its effect to people who already agree with the prescriptivist in question". By the time there's a significant number of prescriptivists complaining about a specific change, implementing their preference globally would amount to rolling back a change which is at the very least already well in progress among that part of the language community who is clearly indifferent, if not opposed, to the prescriptivists' arguments. I for one prefer for people to each follow their own preference, and to quit whining at other, equally legitimate users of the language.

Myself, I don't really use either version of the "care less" construction. But I don't see the point of telling people off for using a commonly used and widely understood expression.

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Re: 1576: "I Could Care Less"

Postby gmalivuk » Mon Sep 14, 2015 10:10 pm UTC

Znirk wrote:(which would indeed make about as much sense as "superstitions are bad luck")
No, it would make as much sense as saying "superstitions are factually baseless and often harmful or at best counterproductive".

If you want something as sensible as "superstitions are bad luck", you'd have to invent a straw position like, "prescriptivism is ungrammatical". (Not "prescriptivists often advocate ungrammatical constructions" or "prescriptivists often break the very rules they claim to espouse", but "prescriptivism, as a linguistic philosophy, is itself improper grammar".)
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Re: 1576: "I Could Care Less"

Postby xtifr » Mon Sep 14, 2015 11:00 pm UTC

Even simpler: descriptivists don't hate prescriptivists. Descriptivists hate when prescriptivists lie! Even if (as is usually the case) the lie is based on gross or willful ignorance.

Of course, fanatics often have a hard time separating a criticism of their message from personal criticism.

If you don't want descriptivists to criticize you, go out and prescribe things that are true. Subject-verb agreement is a good one. There's hardly any exceptions at all to that. Heck, I can't name one, and tracking down bizarre language quirks is a major hobby of mine! :mrgreen:
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Re: 1576: "I Could Care Less"

Postby Pfhorrest » Mon Sep 14, 2015 11:09 pm UTC

gmalivuk wrote:What the fuck? Being a descriptivist doesn't somehow rope me into being an ethical nihilist about everything else in the world.

I didn't say that the situation with prescriptivism was a subset of the situation with normative relativism, but analogous to it.

I'm 100% behind keeping prescription out of descriptive activities, in language and otherwise. I don't want cultural anthropologists, in the process of documenting human behavior around the world and across time, to be talking about whether those behaviors are right or wrong in the middle of their documentation. But it's an unwarranted leap from there to saying that nothing is right or wrong; if anthropologists did that, and started telling the cultures they document to stop acting like some things are right or wrong because, if they were as educated as the anthropologists are, they'd know that that's really all a matter of baseless opinion, then they would be as out of line as if they started imposing their own cultural norms on the peoples being studied.

Prescription and description are separate activities -- if you were really a philosophy major, then you know of the is-ought problem -- and getting from "lots of people think this usage is correct" to "this usage is correct" requires a prescriptive premise in there (something like "if enough people accept a usage, it's correct despite others' non-acceptence of it"). It's that implied prescriptive premise that is the point of contention here, nothing about the actual description of who uses the language how.

In having this argument, you are engaging in linguistic prescriptivism (telling people to shut up and accept a usage just because lots of other people do), exactly the same way that a moral nihilist is engaging in moral discourse when he espouses his opinion.

xtifr wrote:prescribe things that are true

This is incoherent and belies the entire problem here. You don't prescribe truths; you prescribe goods. True and false are the domain of descriptive activity; right and wrong are the domain of prescriptive activity. If you think prescriptivists are saying anything about how anyone does use language, you misunderstand them; it's entirely about how one should use language.
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Re: 1576: "I Could Care Less"

Postby gmalivuk » Mon Sep 14, 2015 11:31 pm UTC

Even if you were to stop pretending you were doing any kind of linguistics, and admit that you're just doing some kind of ethics, you'd still need to also stop lying about what people say or what they mean when they say it or why. descriptivism is actually about.

Even if it doesn't make sense to prescribe what's true, but you could at least try to support your prescriptions with true things instead of bullshit.

(Also, I don't believe that it doesn't make sense to prescribe what's true. I prescribe true things about English grammar all the time, as it's literally what I do for a living. The difference is I prescribe grammar as it's actually used (including things like subject-verb agreement), rather than some made-up nonsense like prescriptivists usually whine about. Also, I do so based on the assumption that students want to communicate in a particular way, rather than on the assumption that there is objectively a "best way" to communicate outside of what does in fact get across the information people want to get across.)
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Re: 1576: "I Could Care Less"

Postby Pfhorrest » Mon Sep 14, 2015 11:35 pm UTC

gmalivuk wrote:stop lying about what people say or what they mean when they say it or why

Who is doing that and where?
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Re: 1576: "I Could Care Less"

Postby gmalivuk » Mon Sep 14, 2015 11:37 pm UTC

Yes, I suppose it is a bit much to say you're lying, as that would presume a level of understanding of the truth that you've never demonstrated.
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Re: 1576: "I Could Care Less"

Postby Pfhorrest » Mon Sep 14, 2015 11:38 pm UTC

Jesus flying fuck you're being even more of a condescending asshole than usual today.

Are you confusing me with someone else in this thread in which I've barely participated thus far? Someone who shat in your cheerios maybe?
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Re: 1576: "I Could Care Less"

Postby gmalivuk » Mon Sep 14, 2015 11:42 pm UTC

Yes, because this thread is definitely the only time you've ever weighed in with your peculiar brand of "I know how people ought to communicate and never mind if it's how anyone actually does communicate".

(Also, I suppose it's less lying about how people use language, and more lying about what descriptivists are saying about it, which is something I feel you've misunderstood literally every single time we've had this conversation. I've edited my earlier post to reflect this.)
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Re: 1576: "I Could Care Less"

Postby rmsgrey » Tue Sep 15, 2015 12:32 am UTC

Pfhorrest wrote:In having this argument, you are engaging in linguistic prescriptivism (telling people to shut up and accept a usage just because lots of other people do), exactly the same way that a moral nihilist is engaging in moral discourse when he espouses his opinion.


The person saying "It's what people say; quit complaining about it" isn't necessarily saying it's right or wrong, merely that it is. There's no more of a value attached to a description of how people use language than there is to my saying that when I let go of my pen, it falls down. There is a value judgement in saying you shouldn't complain about how people use language, but it's a judgement of your actions in trying to apply ought-judgements to something that (in their view) is a matter of is.

If I tell someone who says that pens should stay where he releases them rather than falling that he should stop being a gravity-prescriptivist and just accept the way things are, I'm not saying that pens should fall; I'm saying that they do fall - my gravity-descriptivist position only gains a prescriptivist dimension once people start equating is with ought. My saying that you shouldn't espouse gravity-prescriptivist positions is prescriptivist, but it's not gravity-prescriptivist - it's a position about human behaviour, not about the effects gravity should have.

Saying "language is the way it is, and there's only true or false, not right or wrong, so it's wrong to have the opinion that a particular usage is wrong" is an entirely coherent position.

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Re: 1576: "I Could Care Less"

Postby Isaac Hill » Tue Sep 15, 2015 2:05 am UTC

"I could care less."
That means you do care.
At least a little.

"I could care less" sounds like it would mean, "I'm slightly interested". If someone asks you if you're looking forward to a sequel to a movie you kind of liked, you'd say, "Well, I could care less" to indicate that you might see it, but aren't making it a priority and will probably wait for it to show up on Netflix. But, I don't think anyone's ever used it in such a fashion, so there's no real ambiguity involved.

It's like "irregardless". Sure, it should mean the opposite of regardless, like regular and irregular. But, anyone intending the opposite of regardless would say regarding. So, it's not like we lose the usefulness of irregardless by having two conflicting definitions. There's no ambiguity, just a bit of a learning curve.

"I could care less" just means that I have so little concern for this topic, that I can't even be bothered to express my apathy in a grammatically correct way.
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Re: 1576: "I Could Care Less"

Postby gmalivuk » Tue Sep 15, 2015 3:47 am UTC

When I say it, it means I know exactly what I'm doing, and if in so doing I manage to piss of a pedant, so much the better.
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Re: 1576: "I Could Care Less"

Postby Pfhorrest » Tue Sep 15, 2015 3:49 am UTC

rmsgrey wrote:trying to apply ought-judgements to something that (in their view) is a matter of is.

There are no "matters of ought" and "matters of is", if you mean subject matter, i.e. the thing the ought-judgements or is-judgements are being applied to. There are descriptive and prescriptive attitudes that are possible toward any matter. And "accept it, there's nothing wrong with it" is a prescriptive attitude, no matter what "it" is.

If I tell someone who says that pens should stay where he releases them rather than falling that he should stop being a gravity-prescriptivist and just accept the way things are, I'm not saying that pens should fall; I'm saying that they do fall

Saying that something isn't wrong isn't the same thing as saying it's right, so you don't need to be saying "pens should fall" to be making a prescriptive judgement about pen falling. All you have to say is "pens falling is OK", which you're doing if you say someone with the opinion "it's not OK that pens fall" is wrong in that opinion. Saying "well they do fall", with the implication of "and there's nothing we can do about it, so even if you think it sucks (about which I'm not arguing either way), there's no point worrying about it" is fine and not engaging in any kind of gravity-prescriptivism. But saying "there's nothing wrong with pens falling; sometimes it's good for pens to fall, that's desirable behavior, even if at other times it'd be nice if they didn't, so it's fine that pens are able to fall and, even if we could do anything about it (which we can't), we shouldn't ban gravity to stop it from happening" is a prescriptive opinion about gravity, and the sane one that hopefully everyone has, along with the the "there's nothing we can do about it so why worry about it" opinion before.

A better example than this might be if someone said "the second law of thermodynamics sucks", meaning that it's a bad, undesirable fact that it's impossible to build perfectly efficient machines and that the entire universe is winding down inescapably. Unlike the absurd pen-falling example, hopefully this is an opinion more people might share; the second law of thermodynamics is absolutely true, sure thing, no questioning the science, but it's a real damn bummer that it's true, isn't it? If you say "no it's not a bummer, there's some very good reasons why we should be happy the second law of thermodynamics is true..." they you would be engaging in thermodynamics-prescriptivism; and depending on those reasons, there might be a good point to be made there. I can see a coherent argument being made about why we should be grateful or ungrateful for the existence of the second law, why it's a good or bad thing that it applies. "It does apply therefore it's fine that it applies" would not be a good argument there, though. But the "there's nothing we can do about it either way so even if it sucks there's no point worrying about it" argument still applies good and well.

With language though, we're not talking about a law of nature, we're talking about a human creation that is constantly being made and remade by humans, so there is something we can do about it, even if each individual can do very little about it. There's therefore room to argue about what we should do about it; what changes should we encourage, accept, or shun? "Accept all changes" is a logically consistent opinion, sure, but it is a prescriptive opinion still, and "because they're happening" is not a good argument for it.

My only qualm on the topic is the people who seem to make the argument (like the comic seems to, and plenty here seem to be agreeing) "Accept any changes to language that happen, because they're happening". People who just want to note that people actually do/don't speak a certain way or accept certain speech patterns? Fine with me, so long as it doesn't become "therefore you should accept that they speak that way too". People who want to argue that we should accept certain speech patterns, for reasons other than "because they happen" (like the people giving "it's sarcasm" explanations for the sense of "I could care less")? Fine with me! People who want to argue that other arguments about not accepting certain speech patterns are based on faulty premises (e.g. false etymologies)? That's awesome! Just so long as it doesn't become "it happens this way, therefore there's nothing wrong with it happening this way, and you're dumb if you think there is because it happens so obviously there's no problem with it and no counterarguments could possibly stand against that", then I've got no problem.
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Re: 1576: "I Could Care Less"

Postby gmalivuk » Tue Sep 15, 2015 3:53 am UTC

Then you've got no problem and have wasted thousands of words arguing against a position no one has.

(I think you're dumb for holding some of your views not because I think all language uses are fine, but because I think all the arguments you've ever put forth against particular uses are vacuous.)
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Re: 1576: "I Could Care Less"

Postby Pfhorrest » Tue Sep 15, 2015 3:56 am UTC

Then what is the argument being put forward by the comic, and the people like you telling other people to accept a change in their language that they find unacceptable?
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Re: 1576: "I Could Care Less"

Postby gmalivuk » Tue Sep 15, 2015 4:00 am UTC

As I hinted in my edit, it's not a matter of "be content with all language change", it's a matter of, "be aware that language will continue to change with or without your 'approval', and stop making shitty arguments to justify what is essentially nothing more compelling than your personal aesthetic preference for which changes are okay". Because if your argument is divorced from facts about usage, it is purely aesthetic.

Edit:
You're like a 19th-century eugenicist who wants to guide human evolution despite your lack of understanding of genetics and your lack of interest in learning about the environment in which the evolution is happening. You have ideas about which traits are inferior, but don't know anything about the genes that code for those traits and don't care much about how those traits actually interact with the environment.

Also, saying, "You're wrong to say that pens falling is bad," is most definitely not the same as saying, "Pens falling is okay." It could also mean simply, "Pens falling is value-neutral, because gravity is not the sort of thing about which it even makes sense to make value judgments."
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Re: 1576: "I Could Care Less"

Postby xtifr » Tue Sep 15, 2015 5:29 am UTC

Pfhorrest wrote:
xtifr wrote:prescribe things that are true

This is incoherent and belies the entire problem here. You don't prescribe truths; you prescribe goods. True and false are the domain of descriptive activity; right and wrong are the domain of prescriptive activity. If you think prescriptivists are saying anything about how anyone does use language, you misunderstand them; it's entirely about how one should use language.


No, that has nothing whatsoever to do with prescriptivism. You know how I know? Because 100% of all descriptivists are willing to opine on how language should be used. I am perfectly happy to tell someone when I find their phasing infelicitous or ambiguous or awkward or stilted, or that they're using the wrong register. What I don't do is lie and tell them that that their awkward or stilted phrasing is ungrammatical when it's not. (I will, however, tell them it's ungrammatical when it is. As I pointed out, subject-verb agreement is an actually valid rule, confirmed by observation of native speakers. The idea that descriptivists believe "anything goes" is pure straw man.)

If you don't like the word true, fine, pick something else like, say, grammatical. My point still stands. I have no objection to prescriptivists as long as they don't lie. Unfortunately, in my experience, they lie all the time. Stop lying. If you don't like something, say you don't like it, but don't tell people it's wrong unless it is! Tell them it's awkward or inappropriately colloquial or regional slang that's unlikely to be understood by a broader audience or whatever you want as long as it's the truth! Don't tell people that their native dialect is wrong, because it's not. It's their native dialect. Calling it wrong is extremely offensive, as well as not true. Yer posh bint! ;)

And if all you have to offer is aesthetic judgments, don't be surprised if others disagree with those judgments. Not everyone like klezmer music or grindcore or gamelan. But most actual prescriptivists do not believe they're offering aesthetic judgments. They actually believe they know the actual rules of the language, as handed down from on high. And they are almost all completely full of crap.
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Re: 1576: "I Could Care Less"

Postby Pfhorrest » Tue Sep 15, 2015 6:32 am UTC

xtifr wrote:don't tell people it's wrong unless it is!

So you believe there's such a thing as "wrong" in language? Actually wrong and not just "is thought wrong by some people"? (Because that's not the same thing as "wrong"; wrongness is inherently prescriptive, and that would just be descriptive).

If so, what is that? On what grounds, besides "some [enough?] people think that's wrong", is it OK (in your opinion) to argue that language usage is wrong?

I, of course, think there are some such grounds, but I strongly get the impression from people like gmalivuk that people like he (and you?) think there are no such grounds. There's just "is thought wrong" (which apparently doesn't count anymore when enough people disagree with that thought), never "is wrong".
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Re: 1576: "I Could Care Less"

Postby xtifr » Tue Sep 15, 2015 7:19 am UTC

Pfhorrest wrote:
xtifr wrote:don't tell people it's wrong unless it is!

So you believe there's such a thing as "wrong" in language? Actually wrong and not just "is thought wrong by some people"?

Of course. The fact that it's not always easy to determine whether something is wrong or merely extremely rare doesn't mean that those aren't distinct categories.

Pfhorrest wrote:If so, what is that? On what grounds, besides "some [enough?] people think that's wrong", is it OK (in your opinion) to argue that language usage is wrong?

Linguistics is a science. The science of language. Language and grammar have rules. You determine those rules by examining the evidence. The evidence is what people say and write. Like most sciences, you have to examine the evidence, form hypotheses, test those hypotheses by gathering and examining further evidence, and gradually form theories, and so on.

Take the example I've mentioned several times: subject-verb agreement. Studies of large corpora reveal that people essentially never violate this rule. People say, "I am here", but nobody ever says "he am here" except with humorous intent or in extremely rare and isolated cases that share no other common markers and can reasonably be considered simple error. On the other hand, some people say "he be here", and there are common markers in the surrounding speech which indicate this is part of a dialect (or dialects). So "he be here" is clearly dialect, but it is reasonable to conclude the "he am here" is simply wrong. (Barring new evidence contradicting this hypothesis, of course, but that should go without saying, since we're talking about science here.)

Pfhorrest wrote:I, of course, think there are some such grounds, but I strongly get the impression from people like gmalivuk that people like he (and you?) think there are no such grounds. There's just "is thought wrong" (which apparently doesn't count anymore when enough people disagree with that thought), never "is wrong".


Well, I can't speak for gmalivuk, but he does seem oddly confrontational about the whole thing. Enough so that it's making me a bit uncomfortable. But I'm not entirely sure where he's coming from. If he honestly believes that a usage can't be wrong, then I disagree with him, of course. Unless he's willing to offer evidence for a particular usage. Because I'm always willing to change my opinion of a usage if the evidence is clear. Or even withdraw judgment if I'm shown evidence that shows my former conclusions may not be tenable.

That is what I consider being a descriptivist to be: someone who is interested in studying the evidence, instead of sticking to pre-formed, pre-judged prescriptions that may or may not be correct. I don't think wrongness is a matter of aesthetic judgment (though I'm willing to make aesthetic judgments). I think it's determined by examining the evidence. And that is why I get annoyed by people who insist on pseudo-rules that have clearly been disproven by science. These people usually identify themselves as prescriptivists. I'm not actually sure the term "prescriptivist" is a useful or particularly meaningful label, but I'm not in charge of labeling. :)

edit: I should mention that I even think there's such a thing as common errors. For example, "should of" vs. "should've". This is just too easy to explain as a simple mistake based on the pronunciation, and there is absolutely no evidence to suggest that "of" is more generally being reinterpreted as a variant of "have". (No one says, e.g., "I of a bag.") Therefore, Occam's razor tells us this is simply a common error. Of course, that reinterpretation thing may actually be happening below the surface, and the evidence just hasn't been found yet. But until it is, I'm sticking with common error.
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Re: 1576: "I Could Care Less"

Postby Pfhorrest » Tue Sep 15, 2015 8:08 am UTC

xtifr wrote:
Pfhorrest wrote:If so, what is that? On what grounds, besides "some [enough?] people think that's wrong", is it OK (in your opinion) to argue that language usage is wrong?

Linguistics is a science. The science of language. Language and grammar have rules. You determine those rules by examining the evidence. The evidence is what people say and write. Like most sciences, you have to examine the evidence, form hypotheses, test those hypotheses by gathering and examining further evidence, and gradually form theories, and so on.

That is evidence of what people think is wrong, not evidence of what is wrong. That's all descriptive investigation and so can't say anything about what's right or wrong, which are prescriptive notions.

It's like trying to tell what's morally right or wrong by examining what behaviors get people censured or punished. That tells you what people's opinions are, but not which (if any) of them are correct.

Which is still a very useful thing to do and I wholly approve that there are people out there doing it, but it's a different thing to do than what people who get called "prescriptivists" seem to intend to be doing. Which is kind of my whole stance on the matter. These are different, but both valuable, activities, both having to do with language and both with a history of being called "linguistics", but they're not two different approaches to the same project, they're different projects entirely, though concerning the same subject matter, and not keeping them separate leads to a bunch of unnecessary conflict.

That is what I consider being a descriptivist to be: someone who is interested in studying the evidence, instead of sticking to pre-formed, pre-judged prescriptions that may or may not be correct.

I think there's kind of a false dichotomy there, which reminds me of Gould's "non-overlapping magisteria", where science is called the approach of describing reality by means of reason and evidence, and religion the approach of prescribing it by dogma and faith. And on that matter I say no, first of all that religion makes plenty of descriptive claims (still appealing to dogma and faith), but more importantly that you can approach prescription with reason and evidence as well (though I'd hesitate to call it "science" for the descriptive connotations that carries). There's definitely two different things going on, description and prescription, that need to be kept separate and distinct, but I think the same (or at least analogous) approaches can be taken to both. You can take a pre-formed, pre-judged attitude to description too, but thankfully in the modern world we've agreed that that's not the way to do it, in that domain. And you can take a reasoned, fallibilist approach to prescription too, though sadly almost nobody seems to give that idea a second glance.

And I mean all of that generally regarding any subject matter, but about language in particular too. We can talk about what an ideal language would look like, which is like teleology; and we can talk about what are allowable changes to make in the language, which is like deontology. We could even, if we wanted to (though it seems unlikely the conversation would get this far given the resistance to talking about this kind of stuff at all), talk about resolving potential conflicts between those two approaches to such a project, as people think there are in ethics (though I think the two are not really at odds). And now that I think about it, given things like the Académie Française, we could talk about something like political philosophy of language (can there be an organization legitimately in charge of a language? if so, how and when?), though as a philosophical anarchist and the linguistic analogue thereof kinda don't want to give anyone any ideas in that area.

All of which is completely unrelated to the project of documenting who does use language how, other than also being on the subject of language.
Forrest Cameranesi, Geek of All Trades
"I am Sam. Sam I am. I do not like trolls, flames, or spam."
The Codex Quaerendae (my philosophy) - The Chronicles of Quelouva (my fiction)

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Re: 1576: "I Could Care Less"

Postby orthogon » Tue Sep 15, 2015 8:38 am UTC

xtifr wrote:People say, "I am here", but nobody ever says "he am here" except with humorous intent or [...]

I wanted to link to a sketch from Series 4 Episode 4 of Absolutely but Channel 4 are exercising their rights and you have to watch it on 4 On Demand. Anyway, I have used the phrase "What in Swansea are going on here?" regularly since watching it in the 90s. (Perhaps that could become an idiom?)
xtifr wrote:... and orthogon merely sounds undecided.


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