Sunday, April 12, 2009

What does William Safire "do?"

William Safire has just finished complaining about use of the phrase I don't do X, as in the time ex-alleged president Bush was asked by a reporter about the "nuance" of his answer and he replied that Texans "don't do nuance."

Safire is a language maven; these are people who have little or no formal training in linguistics but who nevertheless believe, perhaps by virtue of the fact that they can speak and write, that they are experts on the subject of language.* The schools are filled with "language arts" teachers who pretty much fit this category. For language mavens language change is generally anathema, which is ironic since many of their favorite English authors spoke and wrote in Englishes that were very different from those that they speak and write in- but that's another blog post.

Safire provisionally traces the history of don't do X to the stereotypical line delivered by women hired as domestic servants: I don't do windows. He is informed that don't do X has become a "phrasal template," and this is where things get a little weird:
But does the ready acceptance of this “phrasal template” mean we are living in syntax, undermining the rules of order and word relationships in sentence structure on which we base our grammar?
What, if anything, does this mean? Syntax is "the rules of order and word relationships in sentence structure on which we base our grammar." So, in Safire's view, we are undermining syntax by "living in" (whatever that means) syntax?

I don't get it; but then, I don't do crazy.

*Sort of like me claiming, on the basis of the fact that I eat, digest, and poop every day, that I'm an expert on gastrointestinal functions.

1 comment:

  1. De mortuus non sed bonum. But the obituaries seem to think he was a linguist. Oh Well.

    But just what is going on with "I don't do ..."? It seems to allow any word at all in its ... I don't do whom. (I personally do, but most people don't). I don't do is. (the speaker is a speaker of a relatively extreme Black American dialect.)

    I find that remarkable.


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