Friday, October 19, 2007

can I help who's next?

This is just a little parable about making dialectal assumptions.

For some time, I've been bothered by a phrase I've been hearing a lot in shops and caf├ęs in Brighton. It happens where there is one (BrE) queue/(AmE) line for several (BrE) tills/(AmE) cash registers (note that BrE and AmE have both of these terms, but use them slightly differently, as discussed a bit back here). The (BrE) shop assistant/(AmE) clerk, upon finding him/herself customerless, calls out: Can I help who's next?

Now, this just sounds weird to me, and I don't recall ever hearing it in my native land. I'd have to say Can I help whoever is next? or Can I help the next person? So, I brought this up at dinner the other night with Better Half, lazybrain and the Poet. All insisted that I shouldn't call this 'British English' because it's 'ungrammatical' and 'lazy'. But, of course, that doesn't make it not British. Certainly not Standard BrE, but there are at least some English people who are saying it.

So then I decided to have a look on the web for the phrase, and what is the first hit that Google gives me? Why, it's a British linguist (Geoff Pullum), then living in the US, who'd noticed its use in American establishments, and therefore discussed it at Language Log. So, some of you may be thinking "Ha! I knew that such ungrammaticality must be an American aberration imported into the youthspeak of Britain!" But by Pullum's account, this is not a new construction, but an old use of who that had been thought to be extinct for at least 150 years. So, what's going on here? Is it that:
  1. this use of who died out in most places but survived in little pockets of AmE and BrE and may be making a comeback?
  2. this use of who is a natural development in English grammar that has erupted on two continents at vaguely the same time after going out of fashion for a while?
  3. the phrase can I help who's next? is an idiom that was (re)invented in one country and found its way to the other?
In the UK, I'm mostly hearing it from younger people (say, in their teens/20s). That doesn't mean that the youth are Americani{s/z}ed...I can't imagine that that many Marks and Spencer assistants/clerks spend a lot of time in the US picking up phrases that seem to be used by a minority of AmE speakers (not necessarily in the touristy areas). And it's not the type of phrase one would expect to hear a lot on The O.C., or whatever's replaced it. But the fact that I'm associating it with youth makes me lean against hypothesis (1). I'm liking (2), but really have no empirical evidence for it. (After all, my impression that it's younger people saying it may just be due to the fact that there are more younger people than older people working in such service industry jobs in Brighton.)

See Pullum's Language Log post for the grammatical gore. (Won't be answering comments this weekend, so please amuse yourselves with the topic!)

Postscript (25 October): Ben Zimmer at Language Log has posted a great clip about whoever versus whomever from the US version of The Office. See comments here for more discussion...

30 comments:

Christopher said...

While the language log commented that "who ever's next would be fine, I can't help wonder why it isn't "whom ever's next".
Has whom gone out of fashion nowadays on both sides of the atlantic?

bill said...

I think that this topic is somewhat related to what my girlfriend has taken to calling "The Death of the Adverb." In a lot of places nowadays you will hear "Get over here quick!" as opposed to "quickly." This happens in many other situations, "Tie it tight." etc. It seems to be a trend of shortening words as much as possible while still getting out the meaning of the statement.

lynneguist said...

Haven't left for the weekend yet, so I can comment on these ones!

The who/whom distinction, which is moribund in English globally--and has been for a long time. It pretty much remains the preserve of people who have been taught it directly (and cared to put it to practice), rather than a part of the language in its natural state. But in this case the who/whomever case is a bit more cloudy, since the who here is either/both the object of help or the subject of is next--so even those of us who pay lip service to whom might not naturally put it in this construction. (Try it with another pronoun in the object slot and a relative clause. Would you say: Can I help him who is next? or Can I help he who is next? To me, the latter sounds more natural (though not necessarily natural!), making the case that it should be a whoever, being in the second clause's subject position, rather than a whomever.

Bill, we've dealt with adverbs in another post, if you're interested. But I think there's a danger to these kinds of generali{s/z}ations. If you start looking for places where people 'shorten words', then that's what you find, while failing to notice the places where people are lengthening or maintaining the lengths of words. In both of these cases, the perception that people are leaving off parts of words these days is based on an idea of those words and their use that is not necessarily historically supportable. (Since, as Pullum points out, we can consider who's next to be an older form, rather than a new one. So, I'd be careful of such generali{s/z}ations...they smack a little of prescriptivist panic!

judyb said...

i was sure you were going to say something about the British use of "Can i...?" to preface polite commands, such as one overheard in a Scottish train station the other day: "Can we ask all passengers to move away from the edge of the platform?"

After having dated, and become engaged to, a bit of a pedant, i find my self always muttering, "i don't know, can you?" :)

Dan said...

I think the lesson here is that anyone who has to say the same phrase 7000 times a day for several years is going to start trimming out the less-grammatically-mandatory bits. (Or, if they're required by company policy to use an exact phrase, they'll start trimming out the less phonetically-mandatory bits.)

The one that always annoyed me was at the sandwich shop in the student center when I was in college ("at university"?). I'd say "I'll have a turkey sandwich", and they'd respond "What's on it?". And I'd be thinking, what do you mean "what's on it?"? Nothing's on it yet, you haven't even started making it! Of course they meant "What would you like on it?", but that would take too long to say...

lynneguist said...

judyb, that's certainly not a Briticism. It's general English. And, again, it's a kind of made-up rule. People say can to mean 'may/would' until they're taught not to, and then they end up taking others to task for 'changing' the language! Can has at least four meanings as a modal verb, but it's only this one that people get per(s)nickety about!

And Dan, I think your analysis is too simplistic--otherwise they'd say "Next!" or "Who's next?"

Boy, I'm being critical today! But I do think that the situation is far less simplistic than commenters are making it out to be!

And with that, I'm off to Sweden!

johnb said...

I can see me using the same words as those poor counter assistants. In fact I am pretty sure I have done so :) But not quite in the way they are written in the original post.

Rather than one question, they form two questions, that are rolled in together.

"Can I help? Who's next?"

Jonathan Bogart said...

As anecdotal evidence, "Can I help who's next?" sounds perfectly natural, and probably the preferred form for the situation, to my Southwest-AmE ear. I certainly can't think of another set phrase that I've heard more regularly in its place.

Natural, not grammatical -- I'm enough of a pedant to notice non-Standard usage, but not enough of one to care.

zhoen said...

I suspect it's actually "Who's next?" smashed into "Can I help?" in a way that is supposed to sound less abrupt, the help offer there to soften the "Next!"

I'm sure I've heard it so often, it sounds normal Am/E to me. There's been quite a movement in businesses here to "improve customer relations" by scripting what employees say, trying to sound more polite.

Stephen said...

Zhoen has summed it up. The phrase 'who's next?' is so common an interrogative phrase that the fact it is strictly no longer interrogative here doesn't matter.

Can you tell me who's coming? is correct, because, as Pullum says in your link, 'who's coming' is interrogative, as in I wonder who's next.

Here the phrase who's next carries its interrogative quality along with it, even though it has officially lost it in the new phrase.

dearieme said...

Is anyone brave enough to try "May I help whomsoever be next?"?

mollmooly said...

Never heard this in Ireland. "Next, please" is where it's at. I also endorse zhoen's analysis and I believe the phrase is a once-off and not a precedent for further phrases with a similar construction.

Lowell said...

It seems odd to me because from a logical point of view it seems like they're asking two separate questions (interrogative clauses) without any connective between them. It seems as if they mean "Who is next, and can I help that person?" Which is only analyzable if you conceive of it as two separate questions, which only makes sense grammatically (to me, and I'd argue logically) if they're linked with a connective. The lack of connective is what makes the question seem odd to my ears.

As for a reason, I'm inclined to agree with zhoen and think that it is simply mashing together of "Can I help?" and "Who's next?" It still seems weird to do it without any sort of connective, though.

johnb said...

lowel - I suspect the two queries were not originally linked. both are standard comments for counter staff to use.

"Can I help you?" is generally directed at the next person in line for service.

"Who's next?" is used when the server isn't sure you they should serve next. And if you have ever worked behind a busy bar you will know that you can loose track of who is next in line :)

In my local mini-market, where we all queue in one long line for service at two or three tills, the counter assistants call out 'Can I help you?" when they are ready for the next customer. If that person isn't already walking towards them they add "who's next?" to try and attract the next persons attention.

Rampantheart said...

I personally am comfortable with "Can i help the next person?" That sounds pretty good,in fact.I have a small doubt here.Should it be "May i help.." or "Can i help..?"Is it correct to use 'can' here?Is "Can" used for polite requests?

dearieme said...

"Can" is almost always used in polite requests in Scotland. Ireland too? Northern England?

mollymooly said...

In Irish English: for doubtful possibility, "may" is a less common variant of "might"; for permission, "can" is unmarked, while "may" is formal, posh and/or twee.

Andi said...

Please take a hidden microphone into M&S ... without hearing the intonation, "Can I help who's next?" translates to my (BrE) eye as "Is it my fault that you're not at the head of the queue?". I like and would probably support the suggestion that it's "Can I help?" and "Who's next?" run together (the speaker's peers might be able to hear the separation into two phrases). Up north where I live, you're most likely to get "Next, please." Or that game where no-one says anything and you have to catch their eye so they invite you to step forward non-verbally. If anyone can help me with the full stops and quote marks in this comment I would be grateful.

johnb said...

Andi - I suspect it has to do with customer behaviour as well. As an agressive southerner (*grin*) I watch the tills when I am at the front of the queue.

I look to see which counter assistant is going to become free next, and start walking towards them as soon as the current customer walks away. I am halfway to the till before the cashier has even thought about calling the next customer forward.

Rarely, do they get the chance to summon me forward with any phrase :)

lynneguist said...

I'm surprised you're the first to mention that, Andi, since it was a friend's first reaction upon reading the title here.

The intonation on the question, as asked at M&S, is the same as it would be if they asked:

"Can I help John Smith?" (Assuming they had a way of knowing the names of the people who were waiting.)

I think in the interpretation that you're getting here, there has to be a more of a falling tone on 'help'. (But not being a very musical person, I'm fairly (BrE) rubbish at describing intonation.)

Mark said...

I am almost certain that the actual phrase being said is "Can I help? Who's next?"

lynneguist said...

"Can I help? Who's next?" has a very different prosodic (intonational) pattern than "Can I help who's next?" and the latter is what I am talking about. I can recogni{s/z}e the difference!

Anonymous said...

I am American and I've heard and used "Can I help who's next" at all reatil jobs I've had. Never found it odd or British.

James said...

Is it possible to say when 'whom' died?

Anonymous said...

I had a hunch about this, so I've been listening around. I usually hear "I can help the next person" or "I can help the next person in line." This is in Northern California (real Northern California; north of San Francisco).

Anonymous said...

I see that it's been several months since this thread has been active, but I recently Google'd this phrase to see if there was anyone else out there who may find this phrase odd or even offensive. I've heard this phrase being used in more and more establishments lately, particularly in coffee shops and fast food restaurants. Personally I find it quite offensive. I understand that this thread is primarily about the grammatical use of the phrase, but I think it's important enough to address the way that this phrase (and variations of it, such as "can I help the next customer?" or "can I help the next guest?") can be interpreted.

I find that this phrase is most often used when there is a single line of customers with one person assigned to tend to the folks in that line. In these situations, it is very clear who the next person in line is, because the person is (or should be) directly addressed by the person behind the counter. It's the very first person in the line behind the person who most recently was helped. There is a personal element of the experience that is removed when the pronoun "you" is substituted with "the next customer", when "you" are the person being directly addressed by the person behind the counter.

Now consider the situation where there is more than one line of people being tended to by more than one person. Also assume that the next customer to be helped by any of the attendants could come from any line. In this case, it is not necessarily clear to the attendant who the next customer would be, so the question of who the next customer should be is left up to negotiation between the folks at the front of each line. Here the phrase "can I help the next customer?" is much more appropriate, since no individual is being directly addressed.

Anonymous said...

Obviously, as it is referring to the next putatively helped person as an object, it ought to be: "Can I help whom is next?"

enitharmon said...

Two parts to this one, I think.

Part one is what the shop's policy is. A lot of supermarkets and other retail chains have got hold of the idea of 'service' as practiced in the US and insist on checkout staff using a script, often involving "Can I help you?". This doesn't sit well with the British temperament, and especially that of young people who would rather be doing something more lucrative and less dull. Or perhaps even chatting informally with the customers without needing to blindly parrot a script.

Part two is cutting to the chase and asking what they really want to ask, which is "Who's next?"

By running the two together the management are kept at bay and assert their individuality at the same time.

David Crosbie said...

Andi

without hearing the intonation, "Can I help who's next?" translates to my (BrE) eye as "Is it my fault that you're not at the head of the queue?".

Not a very plausible remark in the circumstances. But we're much more likely to hear the construction in an exchange between people who know each other's character and one is saying

[Don't look at me. You've only got yourself to blame.] Can I help who you go drinking with?

Now although this is different in meaning from the usual sense of Can I help who's next?, it is actually identical in syntax.

The 'normal' syntax is for who- clause Direct Objects to be 'indirect questions'. The verb of which they are the object has some sense of question/answer Can I ask who's next?, Did she say who's next? or even dismissing a question Do you care who's next?. The indirect question' remains when the 'direct question' element is missing. They're asking who's next, She'll say who's next, I don't care who's next.

I agree with those who see echoes of fragments of other utterances such as Can I help someone? and Who's next? In addition I'd say that there are echoes of 'indirect question' sentences such as Can I ask who's next?

Grace said...

As a New Englander (in my 20's) who's worked several customer service jobs, I've both heard and used 'Can I help who's next?' It sounds quite natural to me. Most people here seem to favor the idea that it's a smashing together of two questions, but I disagree. The main reason for this is that when I ask that question, I am almost never asking who is next. It's an orderly, single-file line. I know who's next. In fact, if the wrong person came up, I would turn them back and say that they weren't next. No, I am only asking if (or really, to be more precise, how) I can help the next person in line. Personally, I think the sense of the sentence is best preserved if it's read as 'Can I help [the person] who's next?' Alternatively, 'who' could be a shortening of who(m)ever, but again that implies an uncertainty that isn't usually present.