Thursday, June 29, 2006

How many ways can you say "say"?

I first learned the grammatical term "historical present" while studying Latin, although I'd of course encountered it in stories and conversation before. Simply put, it's the practice of using the present tense while narrating a past event, as in, "So I go up to my boss, and she says to me..." I sometimes find it distracting when reading entire novels written in this manner, though I acknowledge that it lends a certain amount of vividness to the prose.

What does bother me, though, is the multitude of substitutions one hears for the verb "to say" in the historical present. As mentioned in the reference linked above, it's curious that a nonstandard conjugation for the first person singular is sometimes used, i.e. "I says [sometimes spelled sez] to him..." I hear this mostly among older people, especially those who haven't had much formal education.

The younger crowds have branched out further, incorporating other verbs and other parts of speech. When I was a child, my expression of choice was the verb go, as in, "I go, 'What are you talking about?' and he goes, 'You know what I'm talking about.'" Whether due to age or relocation, however, I find myself these days frequently employing the overused like: "I'm like, 'What are you talking about?'" A close friend of mine who's lived in California most of her life has yet another variation. "I'm all, 'What are you talking about?'"

It's difficult for me to explain why exactly I'm bothered by all these expressions, except that I do tend to be fairly conservative about language evolution even as I acknowledge that it's inevitable. The use of "I says" irritates me the way many grammar errors do. As for the other expressions, I think they invite imprecision. If someone uses the verb say, I'm at least certain that she's talking about something uttered from a person's mouth. But with "I'm like" or "I'm all", I wonder: is she saying it, writing it, or just thinking it?


Marve said...

*raises hand* Guilty. "Like" is a very versatile word around here. :D But I've always felt that "I'm like" had the connotation of revealing the speaker's state of mind more than what they actually said out loud.

Karen P said...

I must admit I use the "I'm like---" expression a lot... since English is not my native language I sometimes worry about sounding to conservative - speaking text-book-British to English speaking people.

Language Lover said...

That's a very good point, Karen. I think a large part of language mastery is adopting the speech patterns of native speakers while recognizing that it may not match what you have learned in the classroom. I'm always impressed by foreigners who use American slang expressions such as "I'm, like,..." My complaint was about the language evolution caused by the native speakers themselves, which I think decreases our ability to be precise and vivid. But given that this evolution is happening, you show yourself to have excellent observational skills and adaptability. Congratulations!