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From Phyllida's Desk

An Earl Like I

(with apologies to Grace Burrowes and Anita Loos)

"Good morning, brother! ... Dare I hope that you, like I, are coming home from a night on the town?" (The Heir, by Grace Burrowes. Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks Casablanca, c2010, p. 85)

"Are you talking to me?" the earl of Westhaven said.

"I don't see anyone else in the road," said his brother, Valentine.

"Oh, please, stop it," Westhaven said. "Just because we're characters in a book written in the twenty-first century doesn't mean we have to talk like groveling shop assistants or illiterate servant girls. Or like deranged hackney drivers and the thuggish actors who portray them."

"What are you going on about? It's 1812 or so, isn't it?" Val said.

"Supposedly," Westhaven said. "That's what makes it so irritating."

"All I asked was if you, like I--"

"God damn it! You're the son of a duke, for Christ's sake! Talk like one!" Westhaven ejaculated.

"That's disgusting!" Val said. "Your cum hit me in the face."

"Very funny," Westhaven said. "You know perfectly well that I merely made a verbal exclamation. I was not relieving myself sexually, on horseback, in the public road, and any liquid that struck your face was spittle, not semen. And there's no need to use that ridiculous spelling for the word 'come' when it's pronounced the same, any more than we need 'luv.' "

"It's an aid to readers, indicating the sexual context," Val said. "A modern convention, just as the word 'luv' signifies a working- or lower-class idiom. And in Britain, you know, it's not all pronounced the same. There's Midlands speech, Yorkshire, West Country, not to mention Scots, which is practically a separate language."

"A lesson in English usage from a man who just said 'like I' is pitching it rather rum," Westhaven muttered.

"You're upset that I made a reference to the twentieth-century film 'Taxi Driver' in a conversation set during the English Regency," Val said. "And I object to your characterization of Robert De Niro as thuggish. He's one of the greatest actors of all time."

"For my money, Jack Nicholson is the more accomplished performer."

"Ye gods!" Val said. "What have you been smoking? Or drinking? It's queered your judgment. At least I hope it has. If you're sober, I can only assume you're dicked in the nob."

"As you're the one playing the sodomite," Westhaven said, "it might be prudent to avoid these homosexual terms."

"Now who's spouting anachronisms?" Val said. "Words like 'queer' and 'dick' didn't take on their sexual connotations until very late in our century, somewhere in the 1890s. And, for the record, I'm simply acting effeminate as a way of avoiding marriage."

"Well, good luck with that," Westhaven said. "You might be surprised by some women's preferences. No, I'm upset that you are a nobleman's son, brought up as a nobleman, and you don't know the difference between the subjective and the objective case."

"The what? I could care less about Latin."

Westhaven sighed. "I suppose it's a lost cause. But with the common perception of romance novels as being badly written, I cringe whenever I encounter dialog like that."

"You're just jealous," Val said. "You thought Phyllida and the Brotherhood of Philander was such a terrific book, and then when our story and author were praised so extravagantly, by the same critic who gave Phyllida its best review, you felt betrayed when you heard me say 'like I'."

"I admit it," Westhaven said. "But it jolts me right out of my suspension of disbelief. I don't want to be a character in such a misconceived world. I don't even want to go on reading it."

"I don't see what the big deal is," Val said. "It's not as if I said 'ain't' or 'he don't'."

Westhaven groaned. "You still don't get it. 'Ain't' and 'he don't' aren't wrong. 'Ain't,' a contraction of 'am not,' has been demonized by moronic pedants who demonstrate their grasp of the King's English by mangling it. Any day now they'll convince every housemaid and clerk in the kingdom to say 'I are' instead of 'I am,' as they've taught them to use the interrogative 'Aren't I?' And 'don't' may simply be a clipped, aristocratic pronunciation of 'doesn't.' If you read Georgette Heyer, or other great twentieth-century writers like Dorothy L. Sayers and P. G. Wodehouse, you know that's how we upper-class johnnies talk. We're huntin', shootin', fishin' English gentlemen, by God, not over-correct, social-climbing merchants' wives afraid to say the word 'me'."

"But that's not authentic Regency either," Val said. "It's more 1900 than 1800. I suspect Heyer, great as she was, used the speech of her own time as much as ours."

"That may be," Westhaven said, "but there's no excuse for 'like I'."

"Chill," Val said. "Language evolves."

"Yes, meanings change," Westhaven said. "That's why twenty-first century writers no longer use 'ejaculate' to mean 'exclaim,' even though it would have been unexceptional in our time. But grammar is fixed. 'Like I' is always wrong."

"Actually," Val said, "Lord Byron used 'I' incorrectly, by your standards. And Shakespeare."

"If that's true," Westhaven said, "it should silence those crackpot Oxfordians once and for all. A glover's son might say 'like I,' but anyone to the manner born would sooner swallow his own tongue."

"Eew! And how do you explain Lord Byron?"

"No mystery there. He was a commoner, brought up by a rackety, neurotic, widowed mother, who inherited the title from his great-uncle after his father and grandfather died young."

"Are you seriously arguing that Shakespeare and Byron are bad writers?"

"Not at all. Quite the opposite. They're gifted individuals who rose from obscurity because of their genius. This particular error has nothing to do with good writing. It's a marker of social class, of bourgeois worries over 'proper' speech."

"You mean we nobles speak improperly?"

"No, we speak good English naturally, effortlessly, without overthinking the grammar," Westhaven said. "Romance fiction will never climb out of the genre ghetto if it tolerates errors like this. Readers are obsessed with spotting the slightest anachronism of clothing or etiquette, yet a writer who, according to her 'About the Author' text is a 'practicing attorney' and should know better, writes this hideous phrase for you to speak, and it gets past the copy editor. Assuming there was a copy editor."

Val frowned. "It's not such a hideous phrase as all that. There's a famous book of the twentieth century called A Girl Like I."

"Oh. My. God," Westhaven said. "Or do I mean OMG? The author, Anita Loos, is a brilliant satirist."

"Not so brilliant if she puts a big hideous grammatical error in her book's title," Val said.

"It's meant as a joke."

"Yeah, a joke nobody gets."

"I give up," Westhaven said. "When I think how Ann Herendeen was forced to remove the word 'magenta' from her wonderful book because it didn't enter the English language until after some obscure Italian war of the 1850s, and how she had to change a character's hilarious confusion of the words 'philately' and 'philander' because postage stamps weren't invented until the 1840s, and yet a duke's son can say 'like I' without a word of censure--"

"Oh, get over yourself," Val said. "The truth is, you're in love with Phyllida, the heroine of that 'wonderful' book. Why don't you just transfer into that universe and court her? Doesn't she write some sort of trashy novels herself? You can dazzle her with your superior command of upper-class English."

"I don't think it works that way," Westhaven said. "I think I have to stay in this world, whether I like it or not. Besides, Phyllida is kind of a hoyden. I doubt she'd make a good wife for an earl."

"Ha! Her husband, Andrew Carrington, heir to the earl of Newburn, doesn't share your opinion."

"Well, precisely so," Westhaven said, sounding confused. "That's how it should be. He's that story's hero, not me."

"Don’t you mean 'not I'," Val said, dodging his brother's fist in the nick of time.

"Careful, brother," Westhaven said. "You'll push me too far. But honestly, I'd rather stay here and find out what's going on with my mysterious housekeeper, Anna Seaton."

Val laughed. "So, you agree that grammar has nothing to do with being a good writer, and that our own Grace Burrowes is a wonderful storyteller?"

"Between you and I, I do!" Westhaven ejaculated forcefully.
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