Grammar Girl Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing

Why "'Em" Isn't Short for "Them." The Subjunctive. Sussies.

Episode Summary

When you say "Go get 'em!" you think that's short for "Go get them," but you're wrong! We look at the fascinating history of some English pronouns. Plus, we look at how Neil Gaiman uses the subjunctive mood in "American Gods" to underscore moments of uncertainty.

Episode Notes

When you say "Go get 'em!" you think that's short for "Go get them," but you're wrong! We look at the fascinating history of some English pronouns. Plus, we look at how Neil Gaiman uses the subjunctive mood in "American Gods" to underscore moments of uncertainty.

WHY "'EM" ISN'T SHORT FOR "THEM"

Written by Valerie Fridland, a professor of linguistics at the University of Nevada in Reno and the author of a forthcoming book on all the speech habits we love to hate. She is also a language expert for "Psychology Today" where she writes a monthly blog, Language in the Wild. You can find her at valeriefridland.com or on Twitter at @FridlandValerie.

References

López, Ignacio. 2007. The social status of /h/ in English. "Revista Alicantina de Estudios Ingleses." 157-166. "em, pron." OED Online, Oxford University Press, March 2022, www.oed.com/view/Entry/85779. Accessed 11 April 2022.

Algeo, J., Butcher, C. A., & Pyles, T. 2014. "The origins and development of the English language." Boston, Mass.: Wadsworth Cengage Learning.

THE SUBJUNCTIVE IN FICTION

Written by Edwin Battistella, a professor of linguistics and writing at Southern Oregon University in Ashland, where he has served as a dean and as interim provost. He is the author of "Dangerous Crooked Scoundrels: Insulting the President, from Washington to Trump" (OUP, 2020), "Do You Make These Mistakes in English?" (OUP, 2009), "Bad Language" (OUP, 2005), and "The Logic of Markedness" (OUP, 1996).

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Episode Transcription

Grammar Girl here. I’m Mignon Fogarty, and you can think of me as your friendly guide to the English language. We talk about writing, history, rules, and other cool stuff.

Today, we’ll talk about the strange and fascinating  history of an abbreviation you've probably never thought too much about, and then we'll talk about an interesting use of the subjunctive in Neil Gaiman's book, "American Gods."

Whered we get the em in 'Go get em?'  Hint: Its not from 'them'

by Valerie Fridland

Most of us are familiar with the abbreviated form "‘em" standing in for a 3rd person plural pronoun in the expression, “Go get ‘em!” We can often be heard saying something like this in our casual speech, for instance, "I’ll pick ‘em up," or  "Gotta love ‘em."  Because it is so similar in meaning to the modern pronoun "them," it’s very reasonable to assume that this "‘em" is simply the result of our tendency to shorten things, in other words, chopping the "th" sound off of "them." Reasonable perhaps, but surprisingly wrong.

Will the real em stand up?

The actual etymological source for "‘em" is found in the original Old English (OE) pronoun system. In contrast, the modern pronoun "them" comes from the Old Norse borrowing þeim which itself was the dative form of the Old Norse pronoun þei (both of which are spelled with a letter we don't use in English anymore that is called a thorn and kind of looks like a lowercase P.)  This same Scandinavian (Norse) pronoun is what developed into the modern English "they." 

Before "they," though, there was "hem," a third-person plural pronominal form that pre-dated these Old Norse borrowings in the history of English. If you want to get technical, "hem" was the accusative plural of the Old English pronoun ["he" spelled H-I] "hi" (pronounced ‘he’) from which we get the modern English pronoun "he." Here's an example of how it was used in "The Knight's Tale" by Chaucer (line 945 in Part I): 

And wol nat suffren hem

(or in Modern English, "and will not allow them.")

If this all seems confusing, imagine what it must have been like in the Middle English period when "hem" and "them" co-existed.

Let the variation begin

In very early English texts, such as the "Anglo-Saxon Chronicle," first published in the late 9th century, we find the third-person pronoun "hem" used when referring to multiple people.

In contrast, the Old Norse pronouns from which we get our modern pronouns "they" and "them" only began to be used around the 12th century, and remained a form found mainly in more northern areas of Britain until a bit later in the Middle English period. As þei became more popular, it spread to southern dialects, and we find þei (again with the thorn spelling) used by Chaucer as a subject pronoun, though he still used the older "hem" pronoun when referring to grammatical objects.

Here is an example from "The Knight's Tale" (Part II 1621-22) where "þei" is the subject in the first line, and "hem" is the object of a preposition in the next line:

And thus þei been departed til amorwe,

Whan ech of hem had leyd his feith to borwe

(or in Modern English, "And thus they are departed until morning,

When each of them had laid his faith as a pledge.

By the 18th century, "hem" only stuck around as a colloquial form, like when saying things like “Stick ‘em up!”

Dropping those aitches

Given that both forms seem to have been around for a while, it might be tempting to dismiss this etymological story and just stick with the theory that "'em" comes from "them," but a key piece of evidence in support of modern "‘em" having come from "hem" is that there is no tendency toward omitting initial "th" sounds in the history of English. However, there is a strong precedent for "h" sounds getting omitted, especially at the beginning of words. It's so common it even has a name: "h" dropping.

Besides "‘em," there are many other words that once began with "h" that now are pronounced without it. For instance, our modern pronoun ‘it’ comes from the Old English pronoun "hit," related to same Old English pronoun "hi" that gave us "hem." In that case, we kept the pronoun, but got rid of the "h" that was once its leading consonant. 

This "h" dropping was not just something that affected pronouns — in fact, far from it. In Old English, one would have said ‘hlud’ (pronounced ‘h-lewd’) for our modern word "loud" and ‘hnut’ (like ‘h-newt’) for what became modern word "nut." In all these examples, the word initial "h" sound was dropped in the late Old and early Middle English period as part of a larger tendency towards not pronouncing "h" sounds. Linguists believe this happened because "h" sounds are made with a puff of air from the glottis, which can easily weaken to a point where they are hard to hear.

Far from being a thing of the past, this same process is still working its way through English. Not long ago, people pronounced words like "whale" and "which" with an initial  "h" sound, as in "hwale" and "hwich." This original pronunciation can still be heard in some English dialects; for example, it's sometimes used in what's called "received pronunciation" in Britain, which is often considered to be a prestigious accent, and it can also be heard even in some older southern American dialects.

Even more modern examples of this same "h"-dropping process abound, like when we hear someone saying "the ‘ouse," for "the house" or "'orse" for "horse."  This pronunciation is often stigmatized, especially in British English, but it is simply a continuation of something that has long been part of English, as can be seen in the development of "‘em" from "hem" and the fact that we never hear people complain about kids being too hloud anymore.

French lherbes, anyone?

This same pressure toward losing "h" sounds is found in many other languages, including Latin and French. So, sometimes "h"-dropping occurred long before a word was borrowed into English. For instance, a number of loan words like "herb" and "honest" came to English from French. When these words were brought into English, the "h" in the spelling probably represented how it was once said, but it probably wasn't pronounced any longer either in French or in English.

One might point out that standard British English says "herb" with an "h" sound, but a number of other British varieties and most American English varieties do not, suggesting that the "h"-pronunciation was not the typical one before the settlement of the American colonies. That, as well as variability in how it was written, has led scholars to believe the Middle English pronunciation was without the "h." So, the modern British "h" pronunciation ("herb") appears to have developed later based on how it was spelled (called a spelling pronunciation), which had the effect of restoring the original "h" sound.

Letting 'hem' have it

So amazingly, when you're saying something that sounds kind of informal, like "Go get 'em!" you're actually using a fossilized form of an archaic English pronoun. "Them" might try to take all "‘ems" glory, but given that "hem" referred to our plural third persons much earlier than "them" and was used throughout the Middle English period, it only seems fitting that it’s legacy lives on. So, how about we just give it to ‘em?

That segment was written by Valerie Fridland, who is a professor of linguistics at the University of Nevada in Reno and the author of a forthcoming book on all the speech habits we love to hate. She is also a language expert for "Psychology Today" where she writes a monthly blog, Language in the Wild. You can find her at valeriefridland.com or on Twitter at @FridlandValerie.

References

López, Ignacio. 2007. The social status of /h/ in English. "Revista Alicantina de Estudios Ingleses." 157-166. "em, pron." OED Online, Oxford University Press, March 2022, www.oed.com/view/Entry/85779. Accessed 11 April 2022.

Algeo, J., Butcher, C. A., & Pyles, T. 2014. "The origins and development of the English language." Boston, Mass.: Wadsworth Cengage Learning.

—————

The Subjunctive in Fiction

This next segment is by Edwin Battistella, so when I say "I," that's him.

"He wondered if he were hallucinating.” I came across that use of the subjunctive while listening to the audiobook of Neil Gaiman’s "American Gods."

To me, the subjunctive mood—the “if he were”—sounded odd with the verb “wondered,” and it stuck in my ear. Then again, I don’t use the subjunctive very often. I tend to use it sparingly, on the rare occasions when I am being directive or when I say things like “If I were you, I’d …”

Grammarians will tell you that mood is the way that a speaker’s stance toward a statement is shown, whether it is a statement, command, wish, etc. Experts differ on how many moods English has, but the language is not particularly moody. The indicative is used to make statements. The imperative is for commands and prohibitions. The conditional is used for various prerequisites (like “If you wash the dishes, I’ll put them away” or “I’ll give you a ride, if I can.”).

The subjunctive mood with a bare verb is used after verbs that express a demand, recommendation, request, or necessity (as in “I insist that everyone be punctual,” “I suggest you be careful,” or “It’s required that everyone show identification”). The subjunctive with were is used in expressions that set up situations that are unreal, hypothetical, or contrary-to-fact, or in suppositions or wishes (“Were I living on Mars, I might have super-strength because of the gravity,” “If I were at my computer, I could look that up,” “Were I stranded on a desert island, I don’t suppose I’d survive long.”).

The subjunctive also crops up in some fixed phrases, like “As it were,” “Be that as it may” and “So be it.” It had been a more vital feature of grammar in Old and Middle English where the subjunctive was used to signal indirect speech and a range of dependent clauses. Over the centuries, many of its functions were taken over by other grammatical tricks.

Getting back to "American Gods," I was puzzled by the use of “if he were” after the verb “wondered,” since the wondering seemed to me to conflict with the idea of things being hypothetical or unreal. The character Shadow just wasn’t sure if he was hallucinating. (Spoiler alert: he probably was, because he had just been talking to his dead wife, and a squirrel is about to offer him a drink of water from a walnut shell.)

It seemed to me that I would write things like:

All of these sound odd to me with the subjunctive were substituted for was.

But it turns out that Gaiman’s use of the subjunctive is not all that unusual. Print usage seems split. A quick search of Google books revealed authors using examples like:

But also examples like these:

Writers and editors I asked were split. Some said they would use “was” in casual conversation, but use “were” in writing. A couple indicated that their intuitions on the matter were influenced by French or Spanish grammar, where a more robust subjunctive is used to indicate uncertainty as opposed to fact. Perhaps Neil Gaiman (or his editor) was influenced by French.

What’s more likely is that Gaiman is using the were-subjunctive as a purposeful bit of formality to add some drama to the character’s perplexity. At an earlier key moment in "American Gods," we find another example: “Czernebog looked as if he were about to protest; and then the fight went out of him.” Here too, the subjunctive seems to underscore the uncertainty of the moment. Yet, at other places in the novel, where there is less tension, Gaiman uses the simple past tense: “He wondered if she was taking tranquilizers,” “Shadow wondered, coldly and idly, if he was going to die,” “For one moment, he wondered if the man was crazy.”

H. W. Fowler called the subjunctive “moribund” in his 1926 Dictionary of Modern English Usage, but noted that a few uses were surviving. For writers of narrative, this may be one of them.

That segment was written by Edwin Battistella who teaches linguistics and writing at Southern Oregon University in Ashland, where he has also served as a dean and as interim provost. He is the author of"Dangerous Crooked Scoundrels: Insulting the President, from Washington to Trump," "Do You Make These Mistakes in English?," and "Bad Language." This piece originally appeared on the OUP blog and is included here with permission.

—————

Finally, I have a familect story from Melissa:

"Hi Mignon. My name is Melissa Schubert, and I live in Florida, and I love your podcast. So enjoying it and I have a familect to share with you. My whole growing up my mom and dad would bring us little surprises from different places they would visit, and they called them 'sussies,' S-U-S-S-I-E-S. So all growing up I thought that was a real word until I was probably 25 years old, and I got a package from someone while I was standing with a friend, and when I opened the package I said 'I got this little sussie!' and she said 'Sussie? What are you talking about?' and that was a moment I realized that that was a familect. That no one else knew what that word was except for my family and me. So just wanted to share that. Again, love your podcast and very enriched by it. Have a great day."

Thanks, Melissa! I love those stories when people use a word for years without realizing it's only their family that uses it.

If you want to call with the story of your familect, a word your family and only your family uses, you can leave a voicemail at 83-321-4-GIRL. Call from a nice, quiet place, and I might play it on the show.

I’m Mignon Fogarty, better known as Grammar Girl.

Thanks to my audio engineer, Nathan Semes, and my editor Adam Cecil. Our marketing and publicity assistant is Davina Tomlin, our Ad Operations Specialist is Morgan Christiansen, and our intern is Brendan Picha, who accidentally ended up on a 20-mile hike loop while camping in Glacier National Park. He says it took all day to hike but was the most beautiful hike he's have ever done and while his feet did regret it, he certainly didn't.

That’s all. Thanks for listening.