H.L. Mencken > The American Language > Chapter 9. The Common Speech > 9. Other Syntactical Peculiarities
H.L. Mencken (1880–1956).  The American Language.  1921.
9. Other Syntactical Peculiarities
“Language begins,” says Sayce, “with sentences, not with single words.” In a speech in process of rapid development, unrestrained by critical analysis, the tendency to sacrifice the integrity of words to the needs of the complete sentence is especially marked. One finds it clearly in American. Already we have examined various assimilation and composition forms: that’n, use’to, would’a, them’ere and so on. Many others are observable. Off’n is a good example; it comes from off of and shows a preposition decaying to the form of a mere inflectional particle. One constantly hears “I bought it off’n John.” Sort’a, kind’a and their like follow in the footsteps of would’a. Usen’t follows the analogy of don’t and wouldn’t, as in “I didn’t usen’t to be.” Would’ve and should’ve are widely used; Lardner commonly hears them as would of and should of. The neutral a-particle also appears in other situations, especially before way, as in that-a way and this-a way. It is found again in a tall, a liaison form of at all. 102   1
  Various minor syntactical peculiarities may be noticed; an exhaustive study of them would afford materials for a whole volume. The use of all the further, as in, “it was all the further I could go,” seems to be American. It has bred many analogues, e. g., “is that all the later it is?” Another curious formation employs there with various negatives in an unusual way; it is illustrated in “there can’t anyone break me.” Again, there is the use of in in such constructions as “he caught in back of the plate,” apparently suggested by in front. Yet again, there is the use of too and so as intensives, as in “You are, too” and “You are, so.” Yet again, there is the growing tendency to omit the verb of action in phrases indicating desire or intent, as in, “he wants out” for “he wants to go out.” This last, I believe, originated as a Pennsylvania localism, and probably owes its genesis to Pennsylvania German, but of late it has begun to travel, and I have received specimens from all parts of the country. In the form of “Belgium wants in this protective arrangement” it has even got into a leading editorial in the Chicago Tribune, “the world’s greatest newspaper.” 103   2
Note 102.  At all, by the way, is often displaced by any or none, as in “he don’t love her any” and “it didn’t hurt me none.” [back]
Note 103.  Nov. 10, 1919, p. 8. [back]


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