Weekend Word Wrap: Shakespeare, Ebonics and the verb to be revisited

I'm not sure if you can read the text in the picture below, but it's from a novel I'm presently writing. The sentence I'd like to bring to your attention is the one that reads: The person he was referring to was an acquaintance of mine... etc.

For fun, I had MS Word go through the document and underline what it thought were mistakes. For those of you familiar with this feature, you already know that a green squiggly under a word or phrase means the application has taken issue with your grammar. Clicking on the squiggly opens a window with suggestions on how to fix the problem.

worddoc.jpgSo, in the sentence above, Word suggested, as you see in the box, the word be for was, which would have given me this sentence had I accepted it: The person he was referring to be an acquaintance of mine
I smiled, as hopefully you just did, but then got to thinking about proper uses of the verb to be that sound all wrong to my ears, but actually aren't.
Two came immediately to mind:

1. Though grammarians are still clinging to the proper antiquated use of the subjunctive mode in the was/were debate (what I call "the mode of doubt") (correct: If I were you/incorrect: If I was you), they don't seem to fret much over the loss of the following use of the subjunctive, which I've plucked from Shakespeare's play Cymbeline:

Act I, Scene 6: Iachimo: If she be furnish'd with a mind so rare, she is alone the Arabian bird"¦

Act II, Scene 3:Cloten: If she be up, I'll speak with her...

Curious, ain't it?

2. African American Vernacular English (AAVE), better known as Ebonics, a dialect defined by its own coherent grammar and pronunciation rules, is big on making a distinction between habitual action and currently occurring action. For example, She is blogging and She usually blogs are two different concepts, one expressed by omitting the verb to be and one expressed by including the verb to be, though not in a way the majority of us are accustomed to (at least not yet).

She bloggin' = She is blogging
She be bloggin' = She is usually blogging

It's an important distinction, and one most people who aren't familiar with Ebonics generally don't understand because they simply assume She bloggin' and She be bloggin' mean the exact same thing, when in truth, they really don't.

So there you have two interesting and completely correct uses of the verb "to be," that don't sound correct to many of us, all thanks to the brilliant suggestion of Microsoft Word. Care to share any other funky MS Word suggestions you've come across? Go ahead, make us smile. The interactive part of the Wrap starts now!

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6 Wordsmiths Who Couldn't Spell

This month marks my 6-year anniversary blogging for mental_floss. It also marks's 6-year anniversary in the blogosphere. To celebrate the more than 2,000 daily posts, I'll be republishing some of my favorite posts from these last half-dozen years, starting today, running to the end of the month. Hope you enjoy this stroll down memory lane...

(Originally published on Feb. 3, 2009)

1. Alfred Mosher Butts

Best known for: inventing Scrabble (first called Lexiko, and then later, Criss Cross Words)
But did you know: We owe our Scrabble addictions to the Depression? Butts was an architect who suddenly found himself unemployed. With nothing but time on his hands, he set about to invent a board game (he must have been, er, bored, without work).
So how bad was his spelling? By his own admission, Butts says he wasn't a good speller, and was delighted when his Scrabble score hit 300. Apparently his wife Nina, a former school teacher, usually outplayed him.

2. William Faulkner

faulkner.jpgBest known for: his stream of consciousness technique in such celebrated novels as his 1929 classic, The Sound and the Fury
But did you know: the title of the novel comes from a Macbeth soliloquy? "It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."
So how bad was his spelling? One of Faulkner's editors at Random House, Albert Erskine, said, "I know that he did not wish to have carried through from typescript to printed book his typing mistakes, misspellings (as opposed to coinages), faulty punctuation and accidental repetition. He depended on my predecessors, and later on me, to point out such errors and correct them; and though we never achieved anything like a perfect performance, we tried."

3. F. Scott Fitzgerald

f-scott-fitzgerald-1921.jpgBest known for: The Great Gatsby
But did you know: The novel didn't sell well during Fitzgerald's lifetime? (fewer than 25,000 copies)
So how bad was his spelling? Preeminent American literary critic Edmund Wilson described This Side of Paradise as "one of the most illiterate books of any merit ever published."

4. Ernest Hemingway

hemingway.jpgBest known for: those great stoic characters, like Robert Jordan in the 1940 novel For Whom the Bell Tolls
But did you know: Hemingway was decorated as a hero after being injured during WWI? And served as a war correspondent in both the Spanish Civil War and WWII? (in case you ever wondered how he got all those Spanish Civil War details down so well in For Whom the Bell Tolls)
So how bad was his spelling? Whenever his newspaper editors complained about it, he'd retort, "Well, that's what you're hired to correct!"

5. John Keats

john-keats.jpgBest known for: the 1820 poem, Ode on a Grecian Urn
But did you know: tuberculosis took the young Keats in 1821, at only 26 years of age? The same disease had already claimed his mother and younger brother.
So how bad was his spelling? In a letter to his great love Fanny Brawne, Keats spelled the color purple, purplue. This generated a longer conversation between the two, as Keats tried to save face by suggesting he'd meant to coin a new portmanteaux - a cross between purple and blue.

6. Jane Austen

HI08_JaneAusten_1.jpgBest known for: her elegant novels, like Pride and Prejudice, published in 1813
But did you know: she'd actually written the novel a good 15 years earlier, under the title First Impressions, but the publisher rejected it? (Let this be a lesson to all ye aspiring writers!) Then, after Sense and Sensibility was published in 1811, there was interest in the older story, which, after some editing, was eventually published with the title we know today.
So how bad was her spelling? She once misspelled one of her teenage works as "Love and Freindship" and is infamously known to have spelt scissors as scissars.

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Phrase Origins: The Real McCoy and On The Wagon

We use these hackneyed expressions all the time (hence the hackneyed element), but where do they come from? I’m reviving the Weekend Word Wrap feature from years ago to take a look at a couple each week or so. First up, The Real McCoy.

The Real McCoy

Our version is actually a variation of the original Scottish phrase dating back to the mid 19th century, “A drappie o’ the real MacKay" What’s interesting here is that the ay in MacKay is actually pronounced like “eye.”
But what about the real meaning? Well, there are a few interesting theories. The first refers to a brand of fine whisky that was made in Scotland in the 1850s and then was marketed as 'the real MacKay' starting in 1870. Another theory involves Elijah McCoy, a Canadian inventor who was educated in Scotland, who invented a successful machine for lubricating engines that wound up spawning myriad copies, all inferior to the original. The design was patented in 1872.

On The Wagon

The term “On The Wagon” also has a few origin stories but my favorite derives from prisoners who were on their way to jail on the back of a wagon. They were allowed one last drink in the local pub before the enforced temperance inside their cells. The other popular one, and the one many say is more accurate (though one can never be sure) is about being "on the water wagon." Back in the day, water wagons would come through town hosing down the streets to keep the dust from getting out of hand. So if you were sitting atop this wagon, you were drinking water, not alcohol.

Have any phrases or expressions you want me to take a look at next week? Leave your suggestions in the comments below.

Check out past Weekend Word Wraps here.


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