Like, Literally, Dude: Arguing for the Good in Bad English by Valerie Fridland - review by Florence Hazrat

Florence Hazrat

The King’s English? Forgeddabouddit!

Like, Literally, Dude: Arguing for the Good in Bad English


Viking 321pp $30

Does the misuse of the word ‘literally’ make your toes curl? Do the vocal tics of young ’uns set you worrying about the decline of the noble English language? You are not alone. But your fears are misplaced – at least according to the linguist Valerie Fridland.

Fridland’s Like, Literally, Dude does an excellent job of vindicating words and ways of speaking we love to hate. Tracing your ‘verys’ and your singular ‘theys’ across centuries and continents, Fridland offers a history of linguistic pet peeves that are much older than we might assume and have more important functions in communication than most of us would like to give them credit for.

Take intensifiers like ‘totally’, ‘pretty’ and ‘completely’. We might consciously believe them to be exaggerations undermining the speaker’s point, yet people consistently report seeing linguistic booster-users as more authoritative and likeable than others.

Then take ‘um’ and ‘uh’ (or ‘umm’ and ‘uhh’, and their consonant-multiplying siblings). Both receive an undue amount of flak for being fillers, supposedly deployed when the speaker is grasping for words, unsure what they want to say or lacking ideas. But this is not so. Fridland explains that they typically precede unfamiliar words or ideas, as well as complex sentence structures. Such non-semantic additions do what silent pauses and coughing can’t: they help the speaker speak and the listener listen. Similarly, the widely abhorred free-floating ‘like’ does not cut randomly into a ‘proper’ sentence but rather inserts itself, according to the logic of the language, either at the beginning of a sentence or before a verb, noun or adjective. It’s a form of ‘discourse marker’, used to ‘contribute to how we understand each other by providing clues to a speaker’s intentions’, writes Fridland. She points out that Shakespeare used discourse markers frequently, while the epic poem Beowulf begins with one (Hwæt!).

If what we think is ‘bad English’ is so good, why is nobody encouraging us to use those little flashy friends like ‘dude’, ‘actually’ and ‘WTF’? Corporate career guides and oratory platforms like Toastmasters warn against too many interrupters. The reason is that they supposedly make you sound insecure, weak, inexperienced and right-out dumb – like a young woman, basically. The world of power and prestige is rife with bias against ‘like’ and company, and so are our day-to-day interactions with friends and neighbours, who may judge us for that extra ‘literally’ or spontaneous ‘oh’. It’s precisely this prejudice that Fridland sets out to dismantle, arguing that linguistic change is a natural occurrence and that pronouncements on the bad and the good of language are socially motivated.

When we devalue a group’s speech habits, we perceive otherness fuelled by differences in race, class, gender, sexuality and education. To say ‘three dollar’ rather than ‘three dollars’ is not sloppy, Fridland states, but part and parcel of consonant loss at the end of English words that has its roots in the late Middle Ages, when the stress patterns of Norman French and Old Norse led to final letters being cast off. Why should we embarrass others for similar habits?

Fridland does well to burst the bubble of mockery around Californian girls’ vocal fry (think the creaking voices of Paris Hilton and the Kardashians), unpicking the social meanings we attach to verbal patterns we find unacceptable. We tend to dislike (and believe reprehensible) what we’re not regularly exposed to. And that often happens to be the language of vulnerable communities, such as black and brown people, teenagers and women. These groups often propel linguistic change. Children and teenagers, for example, are voracious speakers, eager to explore and play with new forms of language as their speech patterns haven’t quite settled. Women – particularly young women – are the Formula 1 drivers of language change, and have always been. Fridland explains that many modern English forms, such as the S ending of the third-person singular verb (‘it does’ rather than ‘it doth’), were pushed on by women and girls, whose ears tend to be more sensitive to linguistic nuances. While men are likely to snap up already-current words, such as ‘bro’, in order to signal social affiliation, women create new verbal spaces into which other people eventually step. ‘What women [bring] to the fore’, Fridland says, is ‘novelty in the form of this expressivity, not greater expressivity itself’. Once a change has become widely accepted, there is no difference in gender use, despite our perceptions.

Fridland tracks the historical vagaries of language change, convincingly pointing out that new forms have long been rejected by one generation before being welcomed into the fold of acceptability by the next: ‘The only difference between the intensifiers of today and those of yore is how the passage of time has influenced our perspective.’ The book amply shows how myopic it is to express disdain for certain ways of speaking. It encourages the reader to revel in the playful metamorphoses language performs, because change lies at the heart of its function and purpose. Fridland invites the reader to marvel at the language feelers we all possess, including our ability to take the subtlest of social cues from the absence or presence of a glottal stop.

A minor gripe is the relative dearth of connective tissue between the chapters. It also seems a little silly to bleep out swear words textually (‘f@#k’) in a manifesto for naughty language. Attention to languages other than (American) English here and there could have provided some intriguing points of comparison, while the influence of social media on current trends is only touched on – though Fridland’s tendency to look back to where words came from rather than predict where they are going is a welcome turn away from focusing on the internet and its ubiquity in our daily lives.

Fridland offers the right balance between linguistic concepts and popular science, making Like, Literally, Dude a smooth, fun and educative read. Fans of the grandes dames of culture through the ages will be relieved to know that they all get their say, from Chaucer’s pilgrim ladies to Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Cher from Clueless. This book is just, like, totally giving the rizz!

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