Sunday, July 29, 2012

The English Language and Relativity

In Florida, I got to know an architect who was a Florida native and a well-educated person. He was born in a little town east of Orlando and I enjoyed, without having to ask him about this, observing the cultural difference of two people who had been born on opposite coasts of North America. Though lots of people in Florida have a twangy accent, he did not.

America is very homogeneous, so there wasn't much of a gulf. But there was one thing he said that hit my ear like a clang: his use of the word "whenever." He seemed to use it in place of "when" for indefinite times in the past. Ouch, that really grated.

I was reminded of it this morning, when I read a quote in my newspaper about two American climbers whose bodies had been found after an accident in South America. A man who found them said: "Unfortunately, they died whenever they fell because they had been there long in the snow."

Since the speaker didn't know when the men fell, "whenever" might be not entirely incorrect here. But they did fall at a definite time which is probably knowable. So "when" sounds more correct to me.

Websters Unabridged Dictionary gives us a definition of "whenever" only as: "at whatever time," and that would make the quote in the paper not incorrect.

"When" is a relative interrogative adverb; a relative pronoun and noun. "Whenever" is a relative, indefinite adverb, and it is the indefinite part that grated on my ears when my Florida friend would use it, because he would use it in place of "when" as in: "Whenever I went to the store I found the razors."

For more answers, I looked up "whenever" in my Concise Oxford Dictionary and it has several more meanings to choose from:  "At whatever time, on whatever occasion, as soon as, every time that."  The definition: "as soon as" stood out. "As soon as" is exactly the meaning the man used in this morning's newspaper quote, and it is similar to the usage of my friend in Florida.

Because I had only read the word used in literature to mean a relative, indefinite time, I reckoned without the colloquial or archaic usage meaning "as soon as" in small pockets around the country. And since I heard my friend use it this way, I have heard it other times as well, often when people from the South are quoted.

I'm writing this because I was reminded of it by the quote in today's paper, and I'm curious to know if any of my readers have heard the word "whenever" used in this way. Did it sound odd to you--or is it just me?

Add to 
Google Reader or Homepage
Subscribe to Robin Chapman News


Don Meuler said...

I have not heard the word used in this way (and I'm sure it would sound Just Plain Wrong to me), but whenever I do, you'll be the first to know.

Robin Chapman said...

Whenever I write about it and hear it, that's whenever it bothers me.

Don Meuler said...

Whatever... No, I agree. :o)