Sexy Grammar and Pronunciation

I’m a slob.

I’ve always been a slob, and I come from a family of slobs. Mrs. Cornell, a non-slob, isn’t too happy about my whole slob motif, and I’ve tried to adapt to living in the real world where people expect you to have an ironed shirt and don’t want to find Filet-O-Fish wrappers on the floor of your car, but I’m still struggling with it. I just don’t care enough to pick up after myself. I’m the opposite of an anal retentive, which is a pretty gross metaphor if you interpret the original description literally.

So it’s all the more surprising that I’m a Grammar Nazi. Perhaps I’m overcompensating for my irretentive anus in other ways, but nothing peeves me off more than lousy grammar. This, too, is a source of endless annoyance to the lovely Mrs. Cornell, who is exceptionally bright and literate, but does not share my contempt for ending sentences with prepositions. Some of our most gruesome marital squabbles have centered on sentence construction. I don’t know who originally said this, but ending a sentence with a preposition is an effrontery up with which I will not put.

But just as she’s learned to tolerate a certain amount of detritus in my living conditions, I’ve bitten my tongue a number of times to avoid obsessing over irrelevant grammatical imperfections. Currently, I’m coming to accept that many people I love see the verbs “lie” and “lay” as interchangeable, and they can say the sentence “I’m going to go lay down for awhile” without feeling like they’re scraping nails down a chalkboard.

The correct thing to say would be “I’m going to go LIE down.” “Lay” always takes a direct object – you lay something down, whereas you lie down when you’re talking about yourself. Complicating the equation is the fact that “lay” is also the past tense of “lie,” so you can say “I lay down for awhile” if you’re talking about what you did yesterday. It’s all very convoluted and doesn’t really matter. It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter at all. Nope.

I’ve got problems.

It gets worse. When I went to USC, I took a class in phonetics, where I learned standard American pronunciation. I was already a grammar and spelling compulsive – I’m forced to correct these hastily written blog entries when I discover typos and trivial errors, like misspelling Karl Malone’s name yesterday or using the word “hoisted” instead of “foisted” – but this class allowed me to become a pronunciation freak as well. There’s a slight difference, though. Phonetic irregularities aren’t necessarily incorrect; they’re just regionalisms. Standard American speech eliminates regional dialects and makes everyone sound like they’re from an upscale Connecticut suburb. It’s the way all newscasters in the country speak, as well as many actors – Robin Williams is a pretty standard American speaker, and Kelsey Grammar is compulsively so.

What was interesting when I began the class was that my own dialect didn’t actually reflect the region where I grew up. I should have sounded like a Southern Californian, with a flat, surfery “O” vowel sound in “hello” or “no way!” Instead, I have the hard, Jimmy Stewartish R sound that comes when you roll your tongue too far back in your mouth. That’s very typical of the Salt Lake area, and I’ve since discovered that most American Mormons have that same regionalism in their speech, regardless of where they live.

A Utahism that really bugs me is the clipping of the vowel in words like “real” and “deal,” so that when you go to order a burger and fries, you ask for the “rill mill dill.” That little phonetic tick has never crept into my own speech, but you can never be too careful.

The danger in all of this is that your speech starts sounding affected and artificial, and that’s why I’ve allowed my Rs to revert back to their natural, Kermit the Frog-style default position. I can speak standard American if I want to, but I simply choose not to.

Crap. I just ended a sentence with a preposition. Time to go lay down for awhile.

Effluvia
Paula's drunk; Bowfinger's funny; Card is wise

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