Judge John Hodgman Episode 142: The Department of Corrections


Tom brings the case against his wife Kira. He says Kira is obsessed with proper grammar, and she comes across as a know-it-all when she corrects his speech. Kira says she prides herself on correct language usage, and that Tom should do the same. Who's right? Who's wrong? Only one man can decide.

We're joined this week by special guest and lexicographer Emily Brewster, Associate Editor for Merriam-Webster. Thank you, Emily!

If you want to join our conversation about this episode, please click on the Forum link below!

Thanks to Sandra Macke for suggesting this week's case name! To suggest a title for a future episode, like us on Facebook at Judge John Hodgman! We regularly put out a call for submissions.


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I realize I shouldn't take this podcast too seriously, but it did seem that Tom was treated shabbily by the good judge. Yes, Kira may have come across as more interesting, but Tom should have been able to speak for more than 5 sentences.


In 1971, my junior year in high school, my English teacher used the term "Irregardless." It's bothered me ever since.

What high school was that?

Brookline High School.

Yes, that Brookline High School.

Prescriptivists be damned

Save the M-W editor's two cents, only poor Tom's contribution to this episode was of any value. Know-it-all Kira knows very little about the English language. Anyone who advocates only for a fix "proper" or "correct"' English should also feel comfortable wishing we spoke the English of Beowulf, or possibly even the PIE.

Language changes -- at its lexical, morphological, syntactic, and discourse levels. Even an individual's language use changes from hour to hour (or minute to minute!) as we tend to adjust our usage based on our audience's expectations. And sure, stick with Standard/General during the cover letter and job interview. But the fact that "Mary and I" can also be uttered as "Me and Mary" around almost any company of people in the US, or that "firstly" and "most importantly" are now frequently used as sentence modifiers is of little consequence. People use all of the above. Speakers of the language, even fairly low-proficiency non-native speakers, understand what's being said.

Also, unkindly Kira doesn't understand that her argument lies in kowtowing to a variety of American English that has the most prestige, at least in her world. Hearing her utter, "I just want my husband to sound as smart as he is," she unconsciously follows a false belief that using a more prestigious variety of English is the same as being or being perceived as "intelligent." The Kiras of the world often judge the intelligence or worth of Southerners, New Englanders, rural Americans, or racial/ethnic minorities in the US for their shifted vowels, unfamiliar lexicon, or less often heard morpho-syntactic variations without knowing anything about how well those speakers (or writers) are adhering to the conventions of the variety of American English that they were raised to use.

What we have in Kira is a person who simply feels the need to put other people down, especially her husband. Her grammatical "corrections" probably serve as one tool for dominating their relationship. (Hear Tom's "I feel tense," and "I'll let her lead by example.") From the sound of things, this character trait is so fundamental to her that I suspect to question the underpinnings of this corrective wont would probably never occur to her, even after this episode.

JJH's own stacked modal

In the Judge's Ragnarok DVD buzz mktg section I noticed he says "I thought there might could be 500 people who agree with me." His own double stacked modal?

On the '90sness of GET SHORTY

May it please the court,

I'd like to answer Judge Hodgman's question 142 about GET SHORTY. What makes the movie feel so specifically of the 1990s -- without actually dating it -- is its lightness.

The actors' tone, the snappy editorial approach, John Lurie's musical score and the literal sunniness of the cinematography all combine to encourage the viewer to take pleasure in the story being told, and not to worry so much about the violence and brutality therein.

The window for movies like GET SHORTY was only open for a couple of years after the advent of RESERVOIR DOGS and PULP FICTION, where Tarantino demonstrated that cliched gangsters could have multiple dimensions, including compassion and intelligence. Barry Sonnenfeld built on that in GET SHORTY by letting the absurd joys of Elmore Leonard's story spiral ever outward, allowing us to share Chili Palmer's amusement at the posturing around him. It's fun because Chili has fun. It's innocent because Chili is innocent. And

By the time Soderbergh made OUT OF SIGHT and THE LIMEY, the pendulum was swinging back to darkness; the bad guys could still be the good guys in a particular story, but the stakes had to be real and even scary. (Even Tarantino's own JACKIE BROWN is a few shades darker than PULP FICTION just three years earlier.)

A contemporary spin on the material wouldn't be able to shrug off the beatings and occasional murder; it would have to engage with Chili Palmer's darkness to cater to a post-SOPRANOS audience. Even if the essential spine of the story remained comic, there'd need to be at least one scene of Chili being truly vicious or cruel before the big bright heart of Hollywood is shown to redeem him.

Anyway, that's the long answer. The short version is that GET SHORTY feels like the quintessential '90s movie because it's one of the few motion pictures that was made at the precise moment when the culture was primed to receive it. And it will be bright and shiny forever.

Norm Wilner

Thank you.

This is Hodgman Actual. I am very grateful for this. I think you have put your finger on something, but I would argue it also feels strange archaic because there is no actor in it who is younger than 30. This was a time when adults still went to see movies.

In any case, the court thanks you.

That is all.


That's an interesting point ...

I wonder if that happened because Barry Sonnenfeld had just made two ADDAMS FAMILY movies and wasn't interested in the restrictions of making another movie with underage actors, even if one of them was Christina Ricci, who was 13 going on 35 when I interviewed her for ADDAMS FAMILY VALUES.

You're right, though; most movies would have stuck a kid in there somewhere, just to cover that demographic. Give Gene Hackman's character a sullen teenage kid, maybe, or assign Chili a protege. But maybe Sonnenfeld intuited that Chili himself serves that purpose; his innocence and glee are essential to maintaining the movie's light-hearted mood.

Looking forward to seeing you at the Public on Friday,

- N.

it is i

I saw a New Yorker cartoon from the 30s in which a pith-helmeted man is banging on the door of a thatched hut while spears whiz by, the caption reads "Very well then, it is I."

Took me a while to get it (I was a child, soon to achieve a high SAT score, now forgotten) but get it I did.

Worse than "John and ME went to..."

Worse than hearing someone say something like "John and me went to the party last night" is the incorrect overcorrection to this error that I hear all the time. For example, something like "Thanks for talking to Maria and I last week" or "He gave it to Tom and I" drives me absolutely nuts. I now wish that no one ever corrected the original, simpler error, so that this horrific and (obviously) incorrect overcorrection would never have come to be.

Best regards,
Closeted Grammar Hobbyist

p.s. I don't mean to troll, but: one space or two at the end of a sentence?

I agree!

The incorrect use of "I" is so irritating, mostly because people really think they sound more "educated" when they do it!

The overcorrection you mention does seem to be the problem, and it seems to stem from not actually teaching the difference between object and subject in a sentence but instead just having a knee-jerk reaction against a particular word. Part of the problem with the way children (and even adults) are taught grammar is that there's not enough discussion of how a word functions in a sentence. Or enough discussion of different Englishes and how they also have grammatical structure. Not to mention stylistic choices you might make for effect, whether you know the "rule" or not.


Spaces are largely an issue of layout. Style guides like the MLA ask for two, but in some ways that is a holdover from a fixed font universe and the desire to make manuscripts the most legible for editing. When one moves to the design stage, double two spaces are usually dropped in favor of one, as they create conspicuous white spaces.

A pal

Kirk Douglas on "feel bad"

Feeling badly

From the OED:

orig. U.S. to feel badly: to feel guilty, regretful, or sorry.

1825 W. S. Cardell Story of Jack Halyard (ed. 3) iii. 30 When Mr Halyard came home, they told him what had been done. He felt badly, but did not say much.

1853 E. K. Kane U.S. Grinnell Exped. (1856) xxxi. 266 It makes a man feel badly to see the faces around him bleaching into waxen paleness.

1936 Z. N. Hurston Let. 10 June in Life in Lett. (2002) 382 Of course I do not feel badly at paying $100 to have the letter circularized.

1976 A. Hayley Roots (1977) xxxvii. 167 Kunta felt badly for having wished sometimes that he might strike the man in the darkness for moaning so steadily in his pain.

2003 N.Y. Times (National ed.) 26 Oct. v. 6/1, I feel badly that we would carry somebody [who is disabled] down airstairs in an office chair.

Quotes required to be dragged out for these discussions

Ira Gershwin, badly: replying to someone who "felt badly" that he had lost at a game: "Would you have felt goodly if I had won?" (possibly apocryphal).

Churchill on prepositional placement: "This is the kind of pedantic nonsense up with which I will not put!" Frequently rendered "This is the sort of English up with which I will not put!" (Yale Dictionary of Quotations).

Isn't it the same as saying

Isn't it the same as saying "I feel poorly." Which seams to be acceptable. Also, one space after a sentence unless you are using a manual typewriter.