Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Cabbages & Kings

One linguistic tic that seems pre-programmed to annoy is using the name of the person being addressed to punctuate a sentence, e.g. -
"I have a few questions about your report, Bill."
"There's something I don't understand, Joan."

Unlike placing a name at the start of the sentence, where it asks for someone's attention, using the name at the end seems patronizing, a mark of presumed superiority. With it the speaker takes a stance. It's even more pompous used in writing than in speaking, when it's completely clear to the reader that s/he is the person being addressed.
"There's one thing that sits oddly with me about your comment, Nathan."

A friend in the office says this linguistic device is taught in business school as a way of "establishing closeness with an employee." Gack. More like a way of demonstrating bossdom. To me it's the linguistic equivalent of someone poking you in the chest when talking to you.
I do admit there are times when it could be used simply for innocuous emphasis. But even in a positive sentence it seems weird, e.g. "I really like this cake you made, Bill."
Does that make it seem like the speaker was expecting not to like the cake?

I'd be interested to know what others think. I should take more time to read linguistics! Maybe I will.

Anyway, in a tenuous segue from linguistics, my poem Liaoning Snapshot is up at A Clean, Well-Lighted Place. Ages ago I taught and studied in Liaoning province in a city named Dalian, another huge Chinese city no one has ever heard of, whose cabbages inspired the poem.


Kathleen said...

I loved your poem (seen yesterday at the mag!) and am glad to have a chance to click it here (as yesterday was still a blurry rush).

I'm going to be thinking about that direct address issue, Sarah.

(I made myself laugh. I hope I made you laugh!)

And what about the lack of commas when names are used? I see that a lot now. Is that an Internet usage trend, like no capital letters?

kenc said...

Neat poem, that. And forced me to look up "Liaoning," too, which I first thought was something you do, not some place you visit (though I never will, China not being on my thimble list).

Sarah, you should also know that names placed at the beginnings and endings of sentences are called vocatives. The lesson of the day is, set vocatives off with commas!

Useless Knowledge & Kings... another story (read: my biography) entirely.

Lady MacBeff said...

When I think about it, I use this construct a lot. It's a reminder at the end of a thought that my words are personal and that I'm still paying attention to the person to whom they're addressed. For example, "Happy New Year!" is generic and impersonal. "Happy New Year, dear Sarah!" is meant to convey that the sentiment is sincere and personal.

That said, your post is funny. I could picture characters on Mad Men speaking that way; patronizing being characteristic.

It also reminds me of the lyrics during the bridge of They Might Be Giants' song, "Snowball in Hell." --> the part starting, "I didn't expect to see a salesman drinking coffee this late in the morning...."

SarahJane said...

Hi Beth -
I was going to make a footnote about how using the vocative (thanks, Ken!) is neutral in expressions of a salutatory nature, e.g. "thanks a lot, Bill!" I do that, too, also in writing.

An American colleague of mine in the office and I spent an afternoon putting each other's name at the end of each sentence when we addressed one another, and it indeed sounded very condescending. In any case, it was far from natural, and the intended emphasis was negative, except when it was hilarious.

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