Grammar Girl Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing

Why Nobody Says 'You're Welcome' Anymore. Whose. Chimichanga.

Episode Notes

People often ask why people say "no worries" or "no problem" instead of "you're welcome," and we actually found an answer! Also, we look at whether it's OK to use "whose" for inanimate objects in a sentence such as "The chair whose legs are broken."

Transcript:  https://grammar-girl.simplecast.com/episodes/why-nobody-says-youre-welcome-anymore-whose-chimichanga

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References for the "you're welcome" segment by Valerie Fridland:

Aijmer, Karin. 1996. Conversational routines in English: Convention and creativity. London et al.: Longman.

Dinkin, Aaron. J. 2018. It's no problem to be polite: Apparent‐time change in responses to thanks. Journal of Sociolinguistics  22(2): 190-215. 

Jacobsson, M. 2002. Thank you and thanks in Early Modern English. ICAME Journal 26: 63-80.

Rüegg, Larssyn. 2014. Thanks responses in three socio-economic settings: A variational pragmatics approach. Journal of Pragmatics 71. pp. 17–30.

Schneider, Klaus P. 2005. ‘No problem, you’re welcome, anytime’: Responding to thanks in Ireland, England, and the U.S.A. In Anne Barron & Klaus P. Schneider (eds.), The pragmatics of Irish English,  Berlin & New York: Mouton de Gruyter. pp. 101–139.

References for the "whose" segment by Bonnie Mills:

American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage and Style. 2005. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company,  pp. 505-6.

American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. Fourth edition. 2006. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, p. 1965.

Burchfield, R. W, ed. 1996. The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage. Third edition. New York: Oxford, p. 563.

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 what happened to saying "you're welcome" after someone says "thank you," and about whether it's OK to use the word "whose" for inanimate objects.

You Bet! No Worries! Sure Thing!  What’s Behind Our Modern Ways of Responding to “Thank You”?

From our automatic “thank you” as we grab our caramel latte at Starbucks to the genuine “thank you” when a stranger lets your two items go ahead of their full basket in the grocery line, “thank you” is bandied about a lot in daily life.  But what seems to be waning is the well-worn “you’re welcome.” 

Instead, what we hear are things ranging from “no problem” to “you bet” to “sure.” But what ever happened to that old standby, “you’re welcome,” and why do we need so many other ways to respond to thanks?

A babe in the woods

Although it may seem like we’ve been saying “you’re welcome” forever, this expression is actually surprisingly recent. In Old English, “wilcuma” meant “pleasing guest,” and it was used to express good will toward a visitor.  It was not used as a courteous invitation to do something until the late Middle Ages (as in, “You are welcome to join us”). 

Even once we get to Shakespeare’s time, known as the Early Modern period, a study looking at the way thanking was expressed and responded to in written materials (including personal letters) turned up only two examples of “you are welcome.” As we get to the 20th century, responding to thanks overall becomes more common, and "you’re welcome" had morphed into the conventional response, no longer carrying its original meaning.

As well as not being all that old, “you’re welcome” is also not all that common outside of American English. Several studies that looked at the most frequent modern ways of expressing thanks or gratitude found that saying "you're welcome" is much less common in other English varieties, particularly those spoken in Britain where nodding your head is popular instead.

Another surprise is that responding verbally in any form is not a particularly prevalent habit among British or American English speakers, and researchers find verbal "thank you"-type responses more when they look in other languages such as Swedish, Russian and German.  And, if we wanted to point fingers, one recent U.S.-based study by linguist Aaron Dinkin might surprise you because he found that older speakers tended to respond less often than younger speakers in routine encounters like when they are thanked for telling someone the time.

Studying gratitude

But even if we don’t respond in the same way, thanking, and accepting thanks, are pretty routinized speech acts in most languages. What this means is that we have developed idiomatic ways of expressing appreciation and deflecting that appreciation so that they are automatically recognized as doing that specific social work when we utter them.  After all, if we didn’t have guidelines or strategies to guide how we thank each other – and how to respond – it would be harder to easily identify specific speech acts quickly and easily. 

With gratitude expressions, the academic label for such thanking routines, a “thank you” serves to recognize some favor or benefit that was bestowed upon a speaker. The response to that thank you then serves to help restore any social imbalance that doing that favor may have created.  In other words, it acknowledges the thanks and lets the thanker off the hook of holding some debt for that favor. 

In her research on gratitude expressions, Swedish researcher Karin Aijmer discovered that there are three main strategies that people tend to follow when they are thanked.  One option is to show mutual appreciation for the thanker by saying something that indicates they are admired and worthy of the effort like “you are so welcome” or “you’re welcome.” This makes the thanker feel valued, and thus restores social equity.

Another strategy is to indicate that the favor one did was also pleasurable for the giver, and so did not incur any debt.  This usually inspires “pleasant” expressions like “It was my pleasure” or “the pleasure was all mine.”  Clearly, we understand that this is a merely polite, not literal, response since bringing someone a dinner order is really not anyone’s favorite activity.

Finally, people being thanked can try to defray any thought that there is a debt owed by denying that there was any imposition, a strategy referred to as “minimizing.”  It is this final strategy that drives a large and growing set of formulaic terms designed to be recognizable as such thanking minimizers — things like “No worries,” “Not at all,” or “No problem.”   Some may find these responses rude as they suggest there was the potential for there to be a problem, but just like “my pleasure” or “you’re welcome,” these responses no longer carry literal meaning but should be understood simply as formulaic expressions designated to perform a social task. In fact, younger people have been known to view "you're welcome" as pompous because they see it as emphasizing or pointing out that "Yes, indeed, I did do you a favor." We can see this sentiment expressed in the song "Your Welcome" in the 2016 Disney movie "Moana," in which the demigod Maui is so full of himself that he sings "You're welcome" about his many accomplishments without the need for anybody’s thanks.

Now how about the familiar “okay” or “sure thing” we sometimes hear?  Maybe unexpectedly, this minimizing category of responses also includes what on the surface seem like simple affirmatives such as “sure,” “you bet,” or “absolutely.”   Such answers offset the sense of imposition as they suggest that the favor or good deed was simply part of an agreeable exchange between equals, in other words, not a big deal. The takeaway again being that you don’t owe me anything. 

A cornucopia of choices

But why do we have so many types of responses in this final category but only a couple of variants on the same single theme in the first two categories?  The answer likely has to do with the fact that “thank you” is often used for very routine favors (like handing someone a coffee or telling them the time) and to close down conversations.  In such cases, the traditional “you’re welcome” can seem to be too formal or even a bit gloating.  A short little affirmatory response, in contrast, casually responds without this risk.  And, since we have a lot of routine ways of affirming in English ("okay," "all right," "sure," "you bet," "yeah," etc.), we have a lot of affirmatory thanking responders to choose from.

Also driving the popularity of such terms, there appears to be a shift, especially for American English speakers, away from the mutual appreciation strategy that was preferred until very recently toward the minimizing strategy.  This has led to the rise of terms like “No worries” and “you bet” where “you’re welcome” once reigned supreme. 

So, whether it's pleasing, minimizing, or appreciation you are aiming for, it looks like the time has come to “welcome” a few new tricks into our gratitude repertoire.

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 language book called "Like, Literally, Dude" about all the speech habits we love to hate. You can find her at valeriefridland.com or on Twitter at @FridlandValerie.

'Whose' for Inanimate Objects

A listener named Mike Murphy wrote in with this question:

"The car whose windshield wipers weren't working was driving in the fast lane. The tree whose leaves were falling seems to be dying. Whose seems like it must refer to a person or animal but not to a car or a tree, and it does not sound correct. Is it correct to use whose in this manner? And is there perhaps a better way to construct the above sentences?"

Thanks for your question, Mike. If you used "whose" in those two sentences, you’d be in the same company as Shakespeare, Milton, and Wordsworth—all famous writers. (1) You might, however, annoy a few modern complainers who think you should use "whose" to refer to people and animals only. 

'Whose' to refer to people and animals

"Whose" is the possessive form of both "who" and "which." (2) It makes sense to say that "whose" is the possessive form of "who" because "who" is in the word. As you know, you use "who" to refer to a person or sometimes an animal, and this person or animal you’re referring to is called an “animate antecedent.” “Animate” refers to living people and animals (but not plants), such as my son, Jake, or his pet fish, Gary. An antecedent is a word you’re referring back to. So in the sentence “Jake fed Gary, whose favorite food was dried worms,” “Gary” is the antecedent of "whose."

'Whose' to refer to inanimate objects

There is no dispute about using "whose" to refer to people or animals. There is, however, some argument about whether it’s OK to use "whose" to refer to something that’s not a person or animal: a car or a tree, for instance. That’s what Mike was asking about: whether it’s OK to use "whose" to refer to what’s known as an “inanimate antecedent.” Cars and trees are not alive in the same sense as people and animals. Of course trees are living plants, but plants are considered inanimate. I guess they can’t talk or communicate in an animated fashion.

In short, Mike is perfectly right when he uses "whose" to refer to "tree." Although some people don’t like it, "whose" is the only English word we have to refer to inanimate antecedents. Perhaps someone will invent a new word for this purpose, but for now we’re stuck with "whose." Going all the way back to the 14th century, you’ll find many literary examples of authors referring back to an inanimate antecedent. (1) Fowler’s quotes Milton’s "Paradise Lost": “Of man’s first disobedience, and the fruit Of that forbidden tree, whose mortal taste Brought death into the world…” (3)

'Whose' versus 'of which'

Some sticklers prefer you use "whose" to refer to animate antecedents only, but Fowler’s refers to this preference as a “folk-belief.” (3) Fowler himself wrote in 1926, “Let us, in the name of common sense, prohibit the prohibition of ‘whose’ inanimate; good writing is surely difficult enough without the forbidding of things that have historical grammar, and present intelligibility, and obvious convenience, on their side….” These folk-believers think you should substitute the phrase "of which" for "whose." I’ve been trying to reword that Milton quotation by using "of which," but I can’t manage to create a palatable sentence. I’m having the same trouble rewording both of Mike’s examples: “The car whose windshield wipers…” and “The tree whose leaves…” They just don't work with "of which."

So in some cases, you might be able to use "of which," but most of the time your sentence will sound stilted and your sentence flow will be ruined. The three major sources I referred to all agree that "of which" is not an ideal solution to the "whose" conundrum. (1, 2, 3) The American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage and Style says, “This is one case in which the cure could be worse than the disease.” Funny how it didn’t state it this way: “This is one case whose cure could be worse than the disease.”

Should you avoid using 'whose'?

Sometimes, the best way to deal with this problem is to reword the sentence to avoid "whose" altogether. Let’s try it on one of Mike’s sentences: “The car whose windshield wipers weren't working was driving in the fast lane.” You could rewrite this in a number of ways. I like “Although the car’s windshield wipers weren’t working, it was driving in the fast lane,” but it does create a feeling of connection between the two parts that wasn't there in the original sentence too. Maybe the point was to just identify the car rather than to criticize it for driving in the fast lane without wipers.

So if you want to use "whose" to refer to an inanimate antecedent, go ahead and use it. If, on the other hand, you choose to rewrite sentences to avoid using "whose" to refer to inanimate antecedents, check that your sentences flow nicely together and that the meaning doesn't change. I do discourage you from using "of which" unless you’re sure the sentence doesn’t sound too awkward. And, of course, be sure to spell "whose" W-H-O-S-E, not W-H-O-apostrophe-S, which is a contraction of "who is."

That segment was written by Bonnie Mills, who has been a copy editor since 1996.

Finally, I have a fun famliect story.

"Hi, I'm calling with a familect story. As a single mother to my young kids, money was tight but one of my main delights was my 2008 Jeep Wrangler that took us camping and off roading as well as shuttling us all between school and work. Unfortunately, Jeep Wranglers have their issues. One year my Jeep began to have a particular suspension problem that's well known in the Jeep community At speeds above 40 mph, if I hit a bump in the road, the suspension would be thrown in to complete chaos, the steering column would shake and shimmy, and the whole front half of the vehicle would buck and wobble as if it we're literally falling apart. The noise was intense, and it could last several minutes at worst. The good news is that there was an easy solution when it happened. You just need to slam on the breaks, down shift, and steer into it, and it jolts the Jeep back in the balance, and suddenly it's all back to normal. So well it can feel terrifying if you don't know what's happening, I thought it was a slightly manageable problem and needed to find a way to explain it to my children. My kids are about seven and nine years old at the time, and I wanted to preempt any potential trauma. So next time the kids were in the jeep with me, I explained that the jeep was getting a little bit bouncy and that when that happened, it's called a chimichanga, and that we all need to loudly shout out chimichanga and raise our hands up. Have no idea why I chose this word, but it worked because my kids were in hilarious, animated glee each time it happened. It kinda became a fun game, and each time I would get out as quickly and safely as I could As time progress the chimichangas just got more frequent and intense and eventually I was able to save up enough money to get my jeep in to the shop and get it fully fixed. My youngest was with me as we shuffled up to the counter to pick up the Jeep, and as I chatted with the man at the counter, who also a Jeep enthusiast, he casually remarked "yes, the death wobble can be really scary." My kiddo's eyes widened, and there was a long pause as he looked at me with confusion. "Death wobble?" he questioned. And you could see him trying to wrap his brain around the new term."Is this the same as a chimichanga?" he asked. And I smiled at him, our eyes both wide, "Yes, Tegan it is the same thing. I made up the name chimichanga so you guys wouldn't be afraid." And at that Tegan smiled a huge grin, and our laughter wouldn't stop. The game is chimichanga. It's our own familect, for what is well known in the Jeep lingo world as the "death wobble." Thanks.

Thanks so much for that. I haven't had a chimichanga in years and years, but I used to love them, and I'll never look at one the same way again. And, also, uh, Grammar Girl, definitely *not* brought to you by Jeep this week.

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, and I might play it on the show.

Grammar Girl is a Quick and Dirty Tips podcast. Thanks to my audio engineer Nathan Semes and my editor Adam Cecil, who has 32 blank emails in his Draft folder—and wonders what those messages were going to become. Our ad operations specialist is Morgan Christianson, our digital operations specialist is Holly Hutchings, and our intern is Brendan Picha.

I’m Mignon Fogarty, better known as Grammar Girl. That's all. Thanks for listening.

References for the "you're welcome" segment by Valerie Fridland:

Aijmer, Karin. 1996. Conversational routines in English: Convention and creativity. London et al.: Longman.

Dinkin, Aaron. J. 2018. It's no problem to be polite: Apparent‐time change in responses to thanks. Journal of Sociolinguistics  22(2): 190-215. 

Jacobsson, M. 2002. Thank you and thanks in Early Modern English. ICAME Journal 26: 63-80.

Rüegg, Larssyn. 2014. Thanks responses in three socio-economic settings: A variational pragmatics approach. Journal of Pragmatics 71. 17–30.

Schneider, Klaus P. 2005. ‘No problem, you’re welcome, anytime’: Responding to thanks in Ireland, England, and the U.S.A. In Anne Barron & Klaus P. Schneider (eds.), The pragmatics of Irish English, 101–139. Berlin & New York: Mouton de Gruyter.

References for the "whose" segment by Bonnie Mills:

American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage and Style. 2005. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, pp. 505-6.

American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. Fourth edition. 2006. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, p. 1965.

Burchfield, R. W, ed. The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage. Third edition. 1996. New York: Oxford, p. 563.