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Are you smarter than a fourth-grader?

Posted by Jan Freeman, keep until April September 30, 2008 03:18 PM

Today's "Curtis" has me utterly baffled. Why is it a good thing Coach Otlowski wasn't hired to teach English, aside from his general abusiveness? The only thing nonstandard in his speech is "chubbery," which seems like a reasonable enough coinage as a noun for collective chubbiness -- and more appropriate than "flab" for a bunch of kids.

Am I missing something?

UPDATE 10/5: Well, on Wednesday, "Curtis" made another stab at some bad English, when Coach said "It's them video games and textin' and iPods what's dunnit!"

Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage -- and if you're reading this you want to own MWDEU -- says of demonstrative them:

It has been in use for about four centuries, and has still not reached respectability. In writing, then, you can expect to find it in the same places you would find words of similar status: In reported speech, in fictitious speech (especially of little-educated characters), and, especially in the 20th century, in the familiar usage of educated people when they are being humorous.

And of what used as a relative pronoun ("what's dunnit"):

As a relative pronoun, what is quite old, apparently having been introduced into Old English on analogy with some uses of quod in Latin. . . . Our present evidence shows that relative what survives in the United States primarily in Midland and Southern speech areas and is used chiefly by the little educated. It was once in frequent use by dialect humorists.

As for dunnit, it's what is often called "eye dialect" -- it looks nonstandard, but the pronunciation it represents is the one we all use. It wouldn't sound odd to Curtis and his classmates.

The Ridger's suggestion -- that Curtis is glad this bully isn't teaching English, a class where he's vulnerable -- strikes me as too subtle, especially given the (lack of) development of the theme since Tuesday. But we'll see where it goes.

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Rules and realities of English usage from Boston Globe Ideas columnist Jan Freeman.
Jan Freeman, a former Boston Globe editor, has been writing the weekly column The Word since 1997. E-mail her at

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