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A Word, Please: How to be an idiom savant

August 06, 2013|By June Casagrande | By June Casagrande

Here's my favorite sentence: "Aren't I?" In recent months, I've trotted it out half a dozen times to end an argument about grammar. It works. Better than any other sentence I know, "Aren't I?" illustrates an important fact about grammar: It's not all about grammar.

Let me explain.

When you're trying to determine whether something is correct in English, you can often turn to a dictionary. For example, if you want to know whether you should say "I have brought" or "I have brung," it's right there in your Webster's (or Merriam-Webster's or American Heritage). Just look up the word "bring," notice that right after the main entry word is "brought," and if you understand how dictionaries work you know that "brought" is the word you want.

So the dictionary is one of the major determinants of correctness in English.

Another is syntax, which usually just means grammar. The sentence "Me cake much wants vanilla" is ungrammatical. "Me" isn't a subject, "wants" isn't a first-person conjugation, "cake" should come after the verb, and so on.

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So syntax — that is, grammar — is another thing that determines correctness.

There's one other, very important determinant of correctness, but a lot of people don't like it: idiom.

Idiom means common usage. More precisely, says Webster's New World, it's "a phrase, construction, or expression that is recognized as a unit in the usage of a given language and either differs from the usual syntactic patterns or has a meaning that differs from the literal meaning of its parts taken together."

Example: By the rules of syntax, you can't ask, "Who did you meet?" You must ask, "Whom did you meet?" That's because the object of the verb "meet" is supposed to be in object form, like "whom," and not subject form, like "who." But using "who" in a sentence like this is idiomatic. That means it's OK.

But for some people, idiom is too slippery a slope. It raises the question: "If common usage is all that matters, couldn't you argue that any popular grammatical atrocity is correct?"

The question of how and when we can slap the "idiomatic" label on an ungrammatical sentence is tricky. For example, academics debate whether "Where are you at?" is an idiomatic alternative to "Where are you?" I'm not authorized to say where we should draw the line on these matters. The point is that there is a line. And nothing shines a light on it better than "Aren't I?"

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