"Why can't us?"

« previous post | next post »

People here in Philadelphia are excited about the fact that our baseball team, the Phillies, will be in the World Series for the first time since 1993. And one outlet for the high spirits is a really interesting slogan.

It all started last Thursday, with a caller from Delaware on the XM Radio show Baseball This Morning, who seems to have intended to borrow a slogan from the Red Sox, but added his own morphosyntactic twist (as documented on The 700 Level blog):

Boston did it. The White Sox did it. Why can't us? Why can't us!

The rest, as they say, is history, including a line of T-shirts and other merchandise, a Facebook page,  numerous blog posts ("Overexcited Phils Fan Creates Grammatically Challenged Rally Cry", 10/16/2008; "Why Can't Us Movement is Spreading", 10/17/2008; etc.), and more.

The slogan neatly captures a certain, well, lack of a sense of entitlement, not to say bitterness and cynicism, that's characteristic of Philly sports fans, and to some extent of the city itself. And all of the coverage assumes — and even celebrates — the idea that the slogan is grammatically incorrect, as a sort of self-subverting emblem of this attitude.

But here at Language Log, when it comes to grammar, we don't complain, we explain. And if I didn't have a meeting to get to, I'd explain what I think is going on in this case. Meanwhile, enjoy the resonant concision of this little gem of folk poetry…



24 Comments

  1. Timothy Martin said,

    October 21, 2008 @ 9:29 am

    Confusion between "why not us?" and "why can't we?"?

  2. Robert said,

    October 21, 2008 @ 9:55 am

    It's treating 'us' as the object of can, rather than the subject of a reduced clause. Probably, they were thinking that verbs must always be followed by 'us'.

  3. Skullturf Q. Beavispants said,

    October 21, 2008 @ 10:03 am

    I'm probably reading too much into it, but one thing that occurs to me: it's a bit like he starts out saying "Why can't we?" but then at the last second decides to go for a phrasing that abandons agency in favor of fatalism. A last-split-second switch from "Why can't we do it?" to "Why can't it happen to us?"

    By the way, 1993 was also my team's last trip to the World Series — or to the postseason at all.

  4. Cephi said,

    October 21, 2008 @ 1:03 pm

    Agreeing somewhat with others, it seems to me to be a standard "Why not us?", with a "can" inserted to broaden the modal scope, thus making the question more plaintive (and therefore funnier).

  5. Mark P said,

    October 21, 2008 @ 1:43 pm

    It reminds me of Stephen Colbert's "I am America (and so can you!)"

  6. Josh Millard said,

    October 21, 2008 @ 2:17 pm

    Which suggests a Philly Fans For Obama motto:

    Yes Us Can.

    And sure enough

  7. Jim said,

    October 21, 2008 @ 2:35 pm

    Reminds me of the Steelers' "Who dey? We dey!" chant from a few years back…

  8. doviende said,

    October 21, 2008 @ 3:11 pm

    I find that amongst my circle of rather internet-inclined friends, there's great enthusiasm for the purposely incorrect grammar of the "lolcats" internet meme, which we frequently use when communicating in online chatrooms. Years before lolcats existed, there was the faux "hacker" talk that used number substitutions for look-alike letters, and also several specific forms of bad grammar.

    Is there a pattern with this love of fake grammar? To me it seems that "why can't us" is just another step along this path.

  9. Cephi said,

    October 21, 2008 @ 3:43 pm

    doviende,

    those trends don't seem to be enthusiasm for breaking standard grammatical rules in general, but rather for following a certain nonstandard grammar. A lolcat that doesn't follow the appropriate grammar, for example, is fail, and unfunny.

    "Why can't us?" doesn't seem to conform to the lolcat grammar; a lolcat, I think, would say something like "why no can we [do/has]?" or "why no we can [do/has]?" Obviously it doesn't conform to leetspeek either. So it's not an instance of either of those trends, and nor, I think, can it be taken to be an analogous trend, since it is an isolated sentence. That is, the other trends seem to be fads of adherence to a certain nonstandard grammar, whereas this isolated sentence appears not to be attempting to conform to any particular nonstandard grammar.

  10. Sili said,

    October 21, 2008 @ 4:24 pm

    Yes, us can! Yes, us can!

  11. Beth said,

    October 21, 2008 @ 4:41 pm

    Arthur Quinn has called this phenomenon "enallage," which he defines as "just the rhetorical term for an effective grammatical mistake." The examples Quinn points to are "We was robbed!" "You pays your money and you takes your chances" and "My patience are exhausted." (cf. Figures of Speech: 60 Ways to Turn a Phrase. Silva Rhetoricae defines the term somewhat differently here http://rhetoric.byu.edu/figures/Figures-Overview.htm)

    Quinn's discussion would suggest that the appeal of enallage goes back awhile, but it seems to me the appeal would be different than for lolcat or leetspeek. When you can communicate using a nonstandard grammar, you're showing that you're part of the group. But when you create an effective grammatical mistake, you're just being colorful.

    Now, if only someone could pin down what makes a particular grammatical mistake "effective."

  12. Lance said,

    October 21, 2008 @ 5:15 pm

    My gut reaction was what seems to be the prevailing opinion, that the speaker conflated "why can't we?" and "why not us", either mentally or by switching midutterance. I do want to note, though, that SQB's suggestion that it's

    A last-split-second switch from "Why can't we do it?" to "Why can't it happen to us?"

    doesn't really work, as far as I can tell: it's ungrammatical to say

    *It happened to Boston. It happened to the White Sox. Why can't us?

    where "…it happen to…" is elided. The switch really needs to happen as a switch to "why not us"; there's just no way to get "…can't us…" in there.

  13. Brandon said,

    October 21, 2008 @ 5:44 pm

    I'm willing to subscribe to the theory that, perhaps in the midst of the feverish excitement present in a radio call in, he forgot that he raised "Why" and "can't" past the subject, and just treated [First Person Singular] like an object instead of a subject, do to it's relative word order.

  14. Ralph Hickok said,

    October 21, 2008 @ 7:22 pm

    @Beth:
    Joe Jacobs, the colorful boxing manager who complained "We wuz robbed" (please note the correct spelling) originated the oft-quoted "I shoulda stood in bed," which I think also falls into the enallage category.

  15. Rick S said,

    October 21, 2008 @ 11:29 pm

    I, too, believe the caller accidentally conflated the 2004 Red Sox' "Why not us?" with "Why can't we?" He may even have been consciously trying to resurrect that Red Sox fan spirit, intending to change it to "Why can't we?" to make a uniquely Philly version, then stumbled at the last second.

    "Why not us?" was a terrific catch phrase. It's short and perfect for chanting, and it became associated with the image of the 2004 Red Sox as working stiff heroes fighting (and eventually beating) the baseball establishment represented by George "buy the World Series" Steinbrenner.

    "Why can't we?" has the same appeal, but "Why can't us?" is even better because it flouts the academic establishment as well, marking its adherents as unabashedly working class. It's also something you're not likely to hear outside this context, so it's like a "secret handshake" for Phillies fans, promoting community spirit.

  16. Tim McKenzie said,

    October 22, 2008 @ 12:36 am

    "The slogan neatly captures a certain, well, lack of a sense of entitlement, not to say bitterness and cynicism, that's characteristic of Philly sports fans, and to some extent of the city itself."
    A wise man once taught me to ask questions when people make assertions like this. Questions like "What's the effect size?".

    [(myl) In a meta-analysis of 13 studies with 10,343 subjects in total, d= 0.42.

    Seriously, there's a difference between 1) casual, unsupported, and perhaps untrue generalizations; and 2) casual, unsupported, and perhaps untrue generalizations masquerading as the result of scientific research.

    Among the appropriate responses to 1) are "do you have any evidence for that?", or "that's not the way it looks to me", or "you're full of it", or perhaps "the results of so-and-so's study suggest that you're full of it". But if no one was allowed to make general statements about everyday things without citing statistical evidence, life would be rather bland.

    It's different when someone claims the authority of science for a specific generalization, especially a contested one with significant policy implications. That's when remarks about effect sizes and the like are in order.]

  17. Peter-Arno Coppen said,

    October 22, 2008 @ 9:52 am

    Interestingly, the use of object pronouns as subject is more common than the use of subject pronouns as object. In European languages, there are more examples of subject pronouns that used to be object (Danisch 'hun', Dutch 'u' and controversially, Dutch 'hun'). Moreover, English 'them' and 'me' are sometimes used as subject as well. Substandard, of course, but nevertheless. Using 'us' as subject does not seem that strange in the light of these examples.

  18. Jesse Tseng said,

    October 22, 2008 @ 9:47 pm

    Afrikaans is an even better example: ons is standardly used for both 'we' and 'us'. But knowing this really doesn't make "Why can't us?" sound less strange to me in English…

  19. Tim McKenzie said,

    October 23, 2008 @ 2:44 am

    Just to be clear, my comment was intended to be somewhat playful, and the first line of your response seems to recognize this. Nevertheless, I am interested in the reasoning in the rest of your response, but I don't want to drag this comment thread too far off-topic by continuing the discussion here.

  20. ajay said,

    October 23, 2008 @ 12:30 pm

    "Why can't us?" doesn't seem to conform to the lolcat grammar; a lolcat, I think, would say something like "why no can we [do/has]?" or "why no we can [do/has]?"

    I would say, based on no logic whatever, that a lolcat would say "WHY NO CAN HAS?" or "WHY WE NO CAN HAS?" – it sounds more likely than "WHY NO CAN WE HAS?" or "WHY NO WE CAN HAS?"

    The capitals are important.

  21. John Cowan said,

    October 26, 2008 @ 11:27 pm

    I often revert to a little scene that made a considerable impression on me once: in a grocery store, where the clerk was showing me two things much alike, he remarked, "It doesn't make any difference", then looked me full in the face and instantly corrected himself to "It don't make no difference."

    This second form was an improvement on the first, having a higher degree of what literary critics call texture. It meant (a) it doesn't make any difference, and (b) you look to me like a schoolteacher, and no one's going to catch me talking like one of them. If he said, "It don't make no difference", it was not because he did not know the accepted form, but because he did know it….

    Northrop Frye, The Educated Imagination

  22. Sports Blog said,

    October 28, 2008 @ 7:35 pm

    Not a big fan of the slogan. I would like to see something much more original. Why put the white sox and Boston into your slogan.

  23. Anonymous Cowherd said,

    November 6, 2008 @ 8:30 pm

    @ajay: It's spelled "HAZ". It's hard to do lolcat grammar with no visual aids, but I would think the most logical thing (assuming they hadn't won already) would be

    PHILLY CAN HAZ PENNANT?

    possibly followed by

    DO WANT

    possibly followed by

    Invisible pennant.

  24. Recent Philadelphia Phillies Blog Posts « The Philadelphia Phillies and Ira Riklis said,

    August 20, 2010 @ 2:42 pm

    […] Language Log » "Why can't us?" – previous post | next post ». People here in Philadelphia are excited about the fact that our baseball team, the Phillies, will be in the World Series for the first time since 1993. And one outlet for the high spirits is a really … […]

RSS feed for comments on this post