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18 Februar 2005 @ 13:47
Telling right from wrong  

If I pick on the Toronto Star often, you must not imagine that this is because I think it a poor newspaper; on the contrary, it is because it is the only one I care to subscribe to. (I did recently reduce my subscription to six days a week, because I don't like the newly redesigned Sunday Star—I find the new format annoying (no text on the front pages of the sections?!) and the content insipid (three full pages on the rise and fall of Michael Jackson? No thanks; if I wanted tabloid drivel in broadsheet format I'd read the National Putz (which I will do when pigs fly))—but from Monday to Saturday it's a fine paper.)

Having used up a month's supply of parentheses at one go, I think I'd better start a new paragraph now. The point is, I'm about to pick on the Star again. Here's Peter Howell, reviewing a movie about a dog named after a chain of grocery stores in the southeastern United States:

"It's a good story," says pint-sized protagonist Opal (AnnaSophia Robb) in voiceover narration. "Let me tell it right."

Grammarians may shudder at this introduction to Because of Winn-Dixie, Wayne Wang's torpid and vapid screen adaptation of Kate DiCamillo's popular children's book. But truth seekers and film lovers have even more reason to bridle.

Truth seekers and film lovers, it seems to me, could hardly have less reason to bridle, or to shudder, than grammarians. What the hell is Howell talking about? There is absolutely nothing for a grammarian—even a grouchy prescriptivist grammarian—to object to in the two sentences he quotes.

I have two hypotheses about what happened here:

  1. There was a grammatical error of some sort in the original quotation, but it was helpfully corrected by a proofreader at the Star.
  2. Howell thinks that "Let me tell it right" is ungrammatical, because he is under the delusion that all adverbs must end in -ly.

Somehow, I'm inclined to give the proofreaders the benefit of the doubt, and lay the blame on Howell. But does he really shudder, or even imagine that anyone might shudder, at this use of right? It's neither non-standard nor innovative; a quick look at the OED (s.v. right, adv.) turns up the relevant sense under heading III.13.a.: "In a proper or fitting manner; in the required or necessary way; properly; duly, aright," with examples from sources as old as Beowulf and as dignified as Coverdale's Bible (Judges 12:6: "They bad him saye: Schiboleth, & he sayde: Siboleth, & coulde not speake it righte").

I'll concede that I probably wouldn't use right in this sense in formal writing—I'd probably go for something along the lines of properly instead. But I wouldn't use contractions in formal writing, either, and I don't suppose Howell objects to Opal's use of it's—he uses the same contraction himself three times in the course of the review. Both it's and right are entirely appropriate to the conversational register in which Opal appears to be speaking, and I expect she would sound a bit stilted if she said, "It is a good story. Let me tell it properly."

Of course, there's always hypothesis 3: Howell objects to something else entirely in Opal's first nine words, and I've missed his point. If you have any idea what it might be, perhaps you can set me right.

 
 
 
the_delithedeli on 18. Februar, 2005 21:36 (UTC)
Most Canadians don't understand "Southern".
At least not on the first take. That's all there is to it.
"It's a good story, let me tell it right." sounds as bizarre to Canuks as
"I'm done that book." sounds to a Southerner.

As for your reviewer's preconceptions about grammarians -
well, he is hardly alone.

Anyway - I'm glad you like your paper.
The Gazette blows.

Q. Pheevrq_pheevr on 19. Februar, 2005 10:34 (UTC)

But I really don't think this use of right is specifically southern. Of the OED's examples, all the sources I recognize are English. My favourite Ontario-born consultant informs me that the sentence doesn't seem wrong or odd to her. And a quick Google search for right in a suitable context in Canadian pages suggests that right is indeed used in Canadian English in the same sense in which Opal uses it.

Q. Pheevrq_pheevr on 19. Februar, 2005 11:09 (UTC)

By the way, I'd welcome further comments on this from other Canadian readers—does "It's a good story; let me tell it right" sound odd/wrong/ungrammatical/southern/un-Canadian to you?

Tishiewahooweena on 19. Februar, 2005 14:33 (UTC)
I'm not Canadian, but I was born and raised in Alaska -- does that count at all? It reminds me of people thinking, "She gave it to Lucy and me" sounds incorrect. "Right" sounds wrong because of the "ly" adverb thing, and, "and me" sounds wrong because for some reason everyone thinks, "and I" is always better.

I have a question. I know you aren't a grammarian, but I'll throw this out there anyway. When someone says, "How are you?" is it incorrect to say, "Good"? I am always hearing people correct children so that they will say, "Well" rather than "Good." I believe that well would be correct, but to me, it is also a proper reply to, "How are you doing?" where as good is not. Both well and good can be used as adjectives, can't they?

Erm, what I am trying to ask is whether, "How are you?" can be correctly answered, "Good, and you?" Or do you believe that doing is always implied, which would seem to make a reply of, "Good," bad.
Q. Pheevrq_pheevr on 19. Februar, 2005 16:16 (UTC)

The short answer is that I think "Good" is a perfectly acceptable response to "How are you?"; the long answer is... longer.

This gets complicated, in part because the words good and well can be used in various ways—both as different parts of speech and with different meanings. I think the simplest way of sorting out my thoughts would be to provide some examples of potential full-sentence responses to "How are you (doing)?" and what I think they mean:

I'm well.
= 'I'm healthy; I'm not ill.' (See, the problem with well is that it doesn't mean exactly the same thing when it's an adjective that it means when it's an adverb.)
I'm good.
If I interpreted this literally, I would take it to mean 'I'm a virtuous person.' In the relevant context, however, I'd understand it idiomatically as a fairly casual way of saying 'I'm fine; things are going well.'
I'm doing well.
Now well is being the adverbial counterpart to good. 'I'm fine; things are going well.'
I'm doing good.
= 'I'm performing good deeds.' For some speakers, though, good is its own adverbial counterpart, and this sentence can thus be understood as equivalent to 'I'm doing well'; this is a non-standard use of good that will annoy many prescriptivists.
I feel well.
= 'I feel healthy.'
I feel good.
= 'I am in a good mood; things are going well; I'm fine.'

I think this last example is the key. I would interpret "Good" (in response to "How are you?") as being short for "I feel good"—in which case good is being used as an adjective, and in a context in which it would not normally be taken to mean 'virtuous'. The people who insist on "Well" instead of "Good" are probably assuming either that "Good" would be short for "I'm doing good" (which would either be non-standard or inappropriately self-congratulatory) or that it would be short for "I'm good" (which they then interpret as 'I'm virtuous').


(The safest response is probably "Fine, thanks; and you?"; fine means next to nothing, and does so both as an adjective and as an adverb. Anyone who attempts to correct "Fine" to "Finely" deserves to be sifted.)

(Anonym) on 26. Februar, 2005 13:33 (UTC)
"doing good"
I think that your "I'm doing good" actually represents two different sentences: In the first, "good" is a noun, and in the second it's an adverb (nonstandard). The "I'm performing good deeds" meaning is not a reasonable response to "How are you?" and isn't relevant to the analysis.
the_deli: BOTTLE OPENERthedeli on 21. Februar, 2005 08:52 (UTC)
Searching Canadian pages on google hardly stands for an account of language usage in the country. However, if you make a rough search of "tell it right" under broad criteria, you'll find few pages, and even fewer genuine usages (i.e. lots of quotes form US citizens in there).

This use of right is not specifically (capital-S) Southern - you will find this usage in the American southwest, too. It is also common in BVE, wherever it is spoken. While it is the most common phrase (maybe an idiom?) in the South for that particular expression, I have never heard it in the many years I've lived in Canada - and I've been to most provinces. I listen closely wherever I go. I would be shocked to hear that expression anywhere but maybe in the most rural (anglo) regions.

I am a Southerner (Louisiana) who lives in Canada, so perhaps I'm engaging in a little self-reporting here. However, the other day I used that expression in front of a friend and anglo Montrealer, to see if I could get a reaction. My friend didn’t appear to flinch at the time of usage, but a couple of hours later he asked, “Do you think your southern accent has gotten worse since you moved here?”.
Q. Pheevrq_pheevr on 21. Februar, 2005 12:45 (UTC)
Searching Canadian pages on google hardly stands for an account of language usage in the country.

Well, no. I didn't mean to suggest that it did; I was merely using it as a quick-and-dirty way of estimating whether the relevant sense of right was likely to be at least attested in Canadian English.

I'm not sure exactly what you're referring to as an idiom here—do you mean "tell it right" specifically, or right as an adverb meaning "in the appropriate manner" more generally? Even if right in this sense is infrequent in Canadian English, Howell's column is the only evidence I've ever seen to suggest that it's actually ungrammatical to Canadian ears. And even this is inconclusive—I don't know whether Howell thinks it's ungrammatical in the sense relevant to linguists, or whether he just thinks that it would be frowned upon by prescriptive grammarians.

Tishiewahooweena on 19. Februar, 2005 20:28 (UTC)
So what are we really asking when we say, "How are you?" Are we asking about health in particular? I'm not. I'm asking something more like, "How are things with you?"

Perhaps I'll start replying, "The opposite of bad, thanks. And you?"
Tishiewahooweena on 19. Februar, 2005 20:29 (UTC)
I swear I replied under your reply to me!
Q. Pheevrq_pheevr on 20. Februar, 2005 10:10 (UTC)

I don't think the question is primarily about health; to the extent that it's anything more than merely phatic, I agree with your intuition that it's a more general, "How are things with you?" sort of question.

Just watch out for people who think the correct response is "The opposite of badly."

Komodo Dragon Expert: Shaviancalieber on 2. Marts, 2005 06:27 (UTC)
Would Howell classify "get it right" or "do it right" as nonstandard usages?
MC Dorks-A-Lotmrfishes on 30. Maj, 2005 13:55 (UTC)
maybe he just wanted her to say "correctly". . . .