Thursday, December 20, 2007

Cadences and Rhythm

Short post today, but this deserves more attention and will probably get more later. One of the items in the David Foster Wallace English essay that I thought was really interesting was his admission that he uses incorrect language sometimes because it sounds better. His example was "Where's it at?" for "Where is it?" You can hear the difference between the two if you say them. I think this is also a reason for the prevalence of "ain't." We want a one-syllable negative, and "isn't" is just too bulky sometimes. Imagine Hank Hill saying, "That boy isn't right." (I think, by the way, that this relates to why it's a good idea to read your work aloud while editing--a good topic for another post.)

What favorite incorrect expressions do you have that sound better than their correct counterparts?

4 comments:

Lyric said...

When I taught English as a Second Language to middle school students, one assignment I gave some of them was to draw and caption their own comic strip.

One of my students created a comic strip about this wild girl who couldn't get along with anyone. The last frame showed her doing some pretty wild kung fu sorts of moves and was captioned with the phrase, "She fight with all!"

It was incorrect, but something about the phrase captured an urgency, an excitement. I quickly composed mental edits: she fights with all of them, she fights with everyone, she fights, she fought them all. My revisions seemed far too clunky. In the end, I think I just praised his word choice.

That part of teaching a second language was hard - sorting out the mistakes from the poetry.

Tim Susman said...

That's great! I love "She fight with all!" and you're right about the alternatives sounding more clunky. This is also probably behind the appeal of the "kitty pidgin" captions on the lolcats. "I can has cheezburger" has a more fluid sound than "can I have a cheeseburger," for example. I think a large part of the grammar of kitty pidgin has to do with cadence and rhythm... and that's probably also part of another post.

Lyric said...

It adds a new twist to the descriptive/prescriptive debate, because while some of my friends would probably peg me as a prescriptivist ('they' as a singular pronoun still makes me cringe, though I'm getting better)...there are times when I'd definitely choose one phrase over another based upon cadence alone. I also tend to write a lot of poetry, so I don't know if that is part of it, though prose definitely has its own rhythms and can be approached similarly.

Tim Susman said...

I don't write much poetry, but you're really right in that prose has its own rhythms. I think I mentioned before struggling to find just the right sentence to end a story. A large part of that is the rhythm of the sentence. Here's a great one, from James Blish's "There Shall Be No Darkness" (great werewolf story): "He smiled, put aside that last of all his purposes, and died." (Also observes the rule of three, you'll note.)

And hey, if you write poetry and have any for New Fables, please send it along! I'm very short in the poetry department this issue.