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"What's That Say?" - the phrase
Is that phrase incorrect or inappropriate to use on a poster if that's they way people speak? Is it grammatically incorrect?
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2013/03/21
9:57am
Columbus, OH
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Something just came up at work and I'd love to hear how you all weigh in on this. I'll try to make this as to the point as I can. I work for the Libraries of The Ohio State University. In our main library on the first floor are metal inlays in the floor with various writing systems inscribed in them. They are very unique and are constantly noticed and remarked upon. Since people often wonder what language they are in and we get this question all the time, we created a brochure to explain them. There are 40 of them. In addition to this we created a sign holder for the brochures and the sign says "What's That Say?" by way of introducing the brochures and explaining what the floor inlays are all about.

We just got a call from a clearly agitated professor who is appalled that we have this up in our library since it is grammatically incorrect and is setting such a poor example to every student walking through our building. Mind you, this display has been up for 4 years since we reopened after our renovation and this professor has been in our building many times during that time and has just chosen to mention this now. No one else has seen fit to comment.

Is this a valid concern on his part? My take on it is that since it's basically like an advertisement for the brochure it is ok to word it as one would normally talk – and that is how the students tend to ask about the floor – they actually say "what's that say?" when enquiring. He also goes on to say that the contraction "what's" can only be used to stand for "what is" and since you wouldn't say "what is that say" then it is wrong. But couldn't the contraction also stand for "what does" and the apostrophe stand for the removal of the "doe?" I am curious about that aspect of the issue – now that I've been made to consider it.

One thing that might be a slight factor is that the upset professor is British and could this possibly be a little bit cultural? I have been to England many times and listen to their radio programs quite a lot and watch a lot of British television shows. I am a bit of an Anglophile. They do seem to have more of a tendency to say things in a longer, more drawn out way or a more proper way, where Americans tend to shorten or abbreviate the ways they say things (as a generality). This is something I only have purely anecdotal evidence for but it also ran through my mind as I was mulling this over. Perhaps if this gentleman just doesn't speak in this way then it would sound much more abnormal to him.

I think that most people take this totally as it's intended – as the way people speak – and to point out that many wonder about what languages are in our curious floor inlays. I actually got to design the floor inlays and it was a fascinating project for which I did a lot of research. It is wonderful that so many are interested and curious about them – enough so that we have to print up brochures to explain in full detail what they are.

I'd love to hear what some of you think of this issue…. can "what's" be grammatically correct for "what does?" It just sounds too stilted and formal for a college student to ask "what does that say?" It's not as if the poster needs to conform to a style guide one would use for writing a term paper or thesis.
thanks!

2013/03/21
11:11am
Ron Draney
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dieverdog said

He also goes on to say that the contraction "what's" can only be used to stand for "what is"

This is the whole problem, right here. Your professor is mistaken. While what's can stand for what is, it can also (as you note) stand for what does, as well as for what has (as in "What's been going on?").

Apostrophe plus s can also, in other contexts, indicate a possessive (and bear in mind the struggle so many have keeping its and it's straight), or even for us (example sentence: "Let's visit the library").

2013/03/21
11:51am
New River, AZ, USA
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For the purpose of a sign designed to attract the attention of visitors, I have no problem with informal grammar or contractions. As I understand it, an apostrophe can be used just about anywhere to represent omitted letters. For example: 'cause = because, o'clock = of the clock, readin' = reading.

In (informal) English, there are also many un-apostrophed contractions: gotta, wanna, shoulda, gimme. Your professor would likely also object to seeing those in print. I believe acceptance of informal constructions is one of the large differences between American and British English, whether spoken or written.

2013/03/21
3:55pm
Glenn
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I think it is good. While it isn't a contraction I would include in any formal writing, it is a real contraction made in speaking American English. As such, it has a proper place in some stylistic writing.

Your prof may feel that your sign is not one of those proper places. I disagree. When he objected, he shouldn't've.

Sidney Greenbaum writes in the Oxford English Grammar: “The contracted form 's is only occasionally found in writing: Who's she take after?, What's he say? It is more common in informal speech.”

2013/03/21
11:39pm
New River, AZ, USA
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S'long as we're talkin' 'bout informal contractions, why stop at one apostrophe per word? Check out this post at Wordnik suggesting "wouldn't've" as a contraction of "would not have."

And this somewhat more authoritative entry at Wiki suggesting "fo'c'sle" or "fo'c's'le" for "forecastle."

Beyond two apostrophes, I think we'd be approaching what they call "Bandwurmwörter" in German … literally "tapeworm words" that string together many modifiers as a single word. One example is "Donaudampfschiffahrtsgesellschaftskapitän" which translates to "Danube steamship company captain." That's 41 letters, and almost beats the English "pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis" at 45 letters.

2013/03/22
4:24am
Glenn
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Contractions of the past tense of the negative modals are well established. (See my shouldn't've in my previous post above.) But there are lots that are often spoken, seldom written.

can't've
couldn't've
he'd've
I'd've
mightn't've
mustn't've
oughtn't've
sha'n't
she'd've
shouldn't've
they'd've
we'd've
who'd've
wouldn't've
y'all're
you'd've

In most of the speech I hear, the final 've is reduced to a simple schwa with the final v sound omitted: canta, coodenta, heeda, ida, mitenta, mussenta, awtenta, sheeda, shoodenta, theyda, weeda, hooda, woodenta, yooda

Perhaps when pronounced in that way we shouldn't've spelled it with a final 've, but with a final 'e? e.g. shouldn't'e

Who'da thunk?

[edit: added the following]

Of course shan't, which is quite acceptable, is actually a double contraction of shall not, and if one should place an apostrophe in the place of all of the missing letter strings, one would write it as sha'n't. And don't get me started on won't = will not, which could likewise be written as wo'n't with the vowel sound shifted by the missing sounds.

[edit: added the following]

Here is the ngram for shouldn't've, which shows a crest in the 1990s and into the 2000s, with a high in 2000. If I were to guess, the recent drop-off might be due to an aversion or lack of facility with such complex grammatical constructions.
ngram for shouldn't've

[edit: added the following] By the way, my wife is a Buckeye, now an expatriate in New Jersey. She is fiercely proud of her education from THE Ohio State University, complete with its obligatory definite article. Our house is full of Buckeyeana, including our outdoor grill cover, storm door window sticker, SI signed covers, and the like. Next time we are in town, I will force her to take me to your library so that I can check out the floor in person! Is there any website link you can provide to show us pictures of the floor's writing systems clearly?

I think I can spot them at a distance in this shot:
Thompson Library Atrium

I found this video tour. This guy clearly needed the What's It Say brochure.
Video tour

2013/03/22
10:58am
Glenn
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OK. The Cyrillic one is odd. It includes several letters not found in the Cyrillic writing system. It looks as if some of the letters found in non-Cyrillic Slavic languages are added in -- like the Polish Ł, Ę, Ć -- although those letters more correctly belong in with the Latin alphabet writing system as extensions, like the more familiar Spanish ñ or French ç, â, è or German ü, ß and the like, or the English J, U, and W for that matter.

2013/03/22
11:14am
New River, AZ, USA
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Hey, Glenn, thanks for finding that video. It showed Dieverdog's tiles quite clearly.

Dieverdog said: In our main library on the first floor are metal inlays in the floor with various writing systems inscribed in them.

Dieverdog, those tiles are very nicely done. Not only the mix of scripts, but also the mix of tile shapes. You are an artist as well as a linguist! You say those tiles are made of engraved metal. Looks to me like either anodized stainless steel, or possibly brass. What metal did you use? And given that the tiles must be frequently stepped on, and 2-3 years old, how are they holding up to scratches? Also, why did you choose metal over ceramic? Seems like custom ceramic tiles would be even more scratch-resistant, but possibly most expensive.

2013/03/22
12:06pm
RobertB
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dieverdog, seeing as how impressive the inlays are (from the video), how wonders inspiring, the sign for your brochures could be something a little more serious, no? That could be part of what bothered the professor when he objected.

 

2013/04/09
1:09pm
Glenn
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At the risk of beating a dead horse, I just read an essay that contained "Because I've a limited time …" and it brought me up short. My first reaction was that I would only contract have when it is an auxiliary. e.g. I've seen the elephant but not I've three dollars in my pocket; They've gotten married but not They've a baby.. Not so, by the way, with is. e.g. It's old. It's a common occurrence.

But then I thought of "I've no idea."

I've no idea. Idiom? Exception? Idiolect? Your thoughts?

2013/04/09
1:38pm
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Glenn,

Although I do not think I use it, I have noticed it before. It has always seemed British or higher class to me.

Emmett

2013/04/09
6:02pm
Columbus, OH
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Thanks all for the nice and positive comments on the floor inlays. They are brass, although they are silver in color – I always imagine brass as more of a gold color but apparently it can be silver, too. It was a wonderful, interesting and very challenging project. I had no say in the choice of brass (the architects did all that) and although that was fine and they seem to wear fairly well, the company that made them did weld some of them and the weld lines show and it disappoints me to no end that they did that, it's very distracting and looks awful to me. They still attract a lot of attention and raise questions from visitors and the brochure continues to get requested.

Thanks also for the votes of support on the use of the contraction in the poster. I used that particular phrase because it is what the students actually say time and time again when they see the inlays. I felt it was fine to be informal since our main audience is college students – they tend to be very informal in their language! So far my boss has not raised the issue of changing it… it would bother me if we would choose to do that because of one person's comments on it unless there was some truly valid reason -- which is why I asked here what people thought. It doesn't seem, from what I'm hearing, that this is a case of incorrect grammar (assuming we are ok with informal speech). I wanted to know if "What's" can stand for "what does" and it seems that it can.

As for the specific comment about the Cryillic alphabet… this was vetted by our Librarian who is from that part of the world and Russian (I believe) is his native language and he uses that alphabet. He asked we show all the letter forms for several Cryillic languages from several eastern European countries – apparently they do have differences in their alphabets and he wanted it to be all-inclusive. We had as many of the inlays vetted by either our staff who specialize in various areas or other professors on campus from their respective areas of study so we would limit our chances for mistakes, given that these would be here for a VERY long time! We also avoided having them "say" anything representational, other than the music notation one, which is our University's song. But mostly we tried to show letter forms or symbols and not phrases or sentences etc. That is what led to the headline "What's that say?" since the answer is "it doesn't actually SAY anything." Then comes the full explanation.

Thanks to everyone who has commented and shared their thoughts so far, I appreciate it! I welcome any further comments from anyone else who has an opinion on this.
Dieverdog

2013/04/09
8:49pm
Jackie
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"At the risk of beating a dead horse, I just read an essay that contained "Because I've a limited time …" and it brought me up short. My first reaction was that I would only contract have when it is an auxiliary. e.g. I've seen the elephant but not I've three dollars in my pocket; They've gotten married but not They've a baby.. Not so, by the way, with is. e.g. It's old. It's a common occurrence. But then I thought of "I've no idea." I've no idea. Idiom? Exception? Idiolect? Your thoughts?"

 

Glenn, I do say things very similar to your examples all the time.  I'm not British or high class.  

2013/04/09
9:26pm
Robert
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Glenn – … "I've no idea." I've no idea. Idiom? Exception? Idiolect? Your thoughts?

The contraction seems to help to emphasize the 'no.'  The affirmative form needs to be 'I've got an idea.'  Similarly, 'I've got limited time.'

2013/04/12
6:16am
Glenn
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dieverdog said
As for the specific comment about the Cryillic alphabet… this was vetted by our Librarian who is from that part of the world and Russian (I believe) is his native language and he uses that alphabet. He asked we show all the letter forms for several Cryillic languages from several eastern European countries – apparently they do have differences in their alphabets and he wanted it to be all-inclusive.

This may be a simple matter of terminology. I would check back with your Slavic bibliographer on this point. It sounds to me as if he decided to create a pan-Slavic inlay, including all Slavic writing systems, both Cyrillic and Latin, rather than one for the Cyrillic alphabet(s). If you refer to that inlay as pan-Slavic, you will be correct. But it is not correct to refer to it as Cyrillic.

If your brochure calls it Cyrillic, I suspect he will agree to edit that to pan-Slavic in your next edition of the What's It Say brochure.

2013/04/12
6:28pm
RobertB
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dieverdog said ".. college students – they tend to be very informal in their language"

Sorry but that brings up a possibly contentious question-- one analogous to prescriptivism vs. descriptivism discussed else where in this forum though that's not the point-- which is: who should take the lead in an institution of learning, the faculty or the students? 
Just sayin
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