August 10, 2005


Prescriptive grammarians routinely disparage innovative usages as introducing ambiguities: speaker-oriented hopefully, logical rather than temporal since and while, and on and on. Non-standard usages, like multiple negation, are sometimes attacked on the same grounds. Yet everyday language (even in conservative and standard varieties) is jam-packed with ambiguity, not all of it easily resolved in context. We end up having to ask whether someone meant 'spicy hot' or 'hot in temperature', 'funny-ha-ha' or 'funny-peculiar', 'just now' or 'just-only', etc.

Non-standard varieties not infrequently have usages that help to disambiguate; the choices in AAVE between a tensed copula ("They are sick"), the zero copula ("They sick"), and invariant be ("They be sick") is a famous case in point. This morning the New York Times (8/10/05, p. A15) provided another example, having to do with the ambiguity of have 'own, possess' vs. 'have on/with one'.

The example comes in Michael Winerip's "On Education" column, "Essays in Search of Happy Endings", about teachers and students in the disfunctional setting of Locke High School in Los Angeles:

They were supposed to do a half-hour of silent reading and write about it, but only a handful brought books. The rest... were allowed to write an essay on why it's important to bring your book. "If I write, 'I ain't got it; that's why I don't got it,' is that worth points?" asked one of three boys who taunted the young teacher the entire two hours.

I've boldfaced the relevant bit, in which the 'own, possess' sense is conveyed by negation with ain't, while the 'have on/with one' sense is conveyed by negation with don't. The student could have said, "If I write, 'I don't have it; that's why I don't have it'...", but that would have been just baffling. The student could have said, "If I write, 'I don't own it; that's why I don't have it with me'... ", that would have more or less worked (though own isn't quite the right verb here, since students don't usually buy their books, but have them issued to them). What the student did say was both clear and succinct (brevity is also a much-touted virtue), though seriously non-standard.

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Posted by Arnold Zwicky at August 10, 2005 01:30 PM