Cosa Nostra Grammatica

Yesterday’s t-shirt (by lyonscc) offered on the Woot site:

It comes with a chilling story:

Alberto entered the room, sweat beading on his brow. With hands clenching spasmodically, he wrung the brim of his peaked cap as he approached the long, low desk.

“Yeah boss?” He stammered.

“Alberto…Alberto…Alberto…” A voice came from the high-backed chair facing the window. “Alberto, my friend: sit down. Relax.”

The young Sicilian chewed his lip as he sat. The boss had never talked to him like this. Maybe he was finally getting the recognition he deserved in the family.

“I did it like you told me to. I did it real good.” Alberto’s face broke into its natural smile. The man behind the desk remained silent. His chair creaked. Then:

“Say that again.”

“Say what, boss?”

“Say what you just said. Again.”

“I just said…I said…I did it like you told me to.”

“Uh huh. What else?”

“And, umm…” Alberto was shaking visibly now, the brim of his hat destroyed. “And that I did it real good.” Silence again.

“I thought that’s what you told me to –”

“You come into my home. And you end a sentence with a preposition?” The man said, swiveling in his chair.

“Aw shucks, boss. I didn’t think –”

“No. You didn’t. You didn’t think. And what have I told you about using ‘like’ as a preposition…? And ‘good’ as an adverb?” The man pointed to a shadowed figure behind Alberto, and the young Sicilian slumped in his chair, a pool forming at his feet.

The tale is not about typos, of course. And it’s distressing to see that zombie Dryden’s Rule (against stranding prepositions) treated as genuine — with the added confusion that the infinitive marker to is mistakenly labeled as a preposition here. Even if Dryden’s Rule were a valid generalization about English grammar, it wouldn’t apply to cases of Verb Phrase Ellipsis stranding the infinitive marker.

OED2 has this on stranded to:

Used absolutely at the end of a clause, with ellipsis of the infinitive, which is to be supplied from the preceding clause. rare before 19th c.; now a frequent colloquialism.

Stranded to is certainly common in conversation, but for quite some time now it’s been appearing in serious expository writing. I have piles of examples from the editorial pages of the New York Times, from book and theater reviews in various publications, and similar places. It looks like the OED‘s entry dates from about a century ago; it’s certainly not an accurate description of the current state of the language.


4 Responses to “Cosa Nostra Grammatica”

  1. Jan Freeman Says:

    Also, shouldn’t the boss be objecting to “like” as a conjunction, not “like” as a preposition? (“Like you told me to.”)

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      Well, yes. Once you start objecting to these peeves, there’s almost no end …

      • Jan Freeman Says:

        I didn’t mean I was finding another possible peeve; I meant that the boss rebukes Alberto for “using ‘like’ as a preposition,” but what he means is “using ‘like’ as a conjunction” It’s a Muphry’s Law mistake …

  2. boss | Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] In any case, we have a fairly clear referential sense of boss. Like other inherently relational nouns — being a boss means you’re the boss *of* people — boss can then be used vocatively, as an address term to someone who’s your boss. As when the NCIS staff address their boss, Supervisory Special Agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs. as boss. Or when a Mafia underling addresses his Mafia boss this way, as in this cautionary tale. […]

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