Harry Bosch, trainee prescriptivist

The politics of English usage can show up anywhere. I was reading Michael Connelly’s 2010 crime novel The Reversal – gradually working my way through his back catalogue – when I found it depicting the spread of prescriptivism.

LAPD detective Harry Bosch and his 14-year-old daughter, Madeline, are at breakfast:

He checked his watch. It was time to go.

‘If you’re done playing with your food you can put your bowl in the sink. We have to get going.’

Finished, Dad. You should use the correct word.’

‘Sorry about that. Are you finished playing with your cereal?’


‘Good. Let’s go.’

Harry leaves Madeline with Sue Bambrough, her vice principal, for babysitting. He takes the opportunity to consult with the teacher:

Bosch checked the rearview. He wanted to ask a question but didn’t want to hold people up.

‘What is it, Harry?’

‘Uh, to say you’re done doing something, is that wrong? You know, bad English?’

Sue tried to hide a smile.

‘If she’s correcting you, that’s the natural course of things. Don’t take it personally. We drill it into them here. They go home and want to drill somebody else. It would be proper to say you finished doing something. But I know what you meant.’

Bosch nodded. Somebody in the line behind him tapped the horn – Bosch assumed it was a man hurrying to make drop-off and then get to work. He waved his thanks to Sue and pulled out.

Bambrough doesn’t call the usage ‘wrong’ or, despite Bosch’s prompt, ‘bad English’, instead stressing the primacy of communication. For her it’s a question of ‘proper’ English – itself a loaded idea, but less invidious. She’s a bit behind, though. Even prescriptive authorities, such as Wilson (1993) and Garner (2016), say done ‘finished’ has been around for centuries and is standard English.

michael-connelly-the-reversal-book-cover-ukI also wonder if the non-linguistic references to manners, in the form of driving etiquette, are an intentional parallel. I’d like to think so, even if Connelly’s style is generally to spell things out more explicitly.

The done/finished issue recurs a couple more times in the novel. At home one evening, Madeline upbraids Bosch again:

He slid the computer back to his daughter. And checked his watch again.

‘Are you almost done your work?’

Finished, Dad. Are you almost finished? Or you could say “done with.”’

‘Sorry. Are you almost finished?’

‘I have one more math problem.’

Later, Bosch is in the company of lawyer Mickey Haller. Haller is also Bosch’s half-brother, so he’s fair game for the detective’s newfound grammar chops, mar dhea:

‘So let’s not complicate things. Let’s keep our circles separate and go to trial and get this guy for killing Melissa Landy. And when we’re done that, we go up to Mulholland with shovels.’

‘Done with.’


‘When we’re done with that.’

‘Whatever, Professor.’

‘When we’re done that’ is, to my ears, somewhat strange syntax for a native-English speaker. It seems to be the only example of its kind in the Google Books corpus, which also has zilch for ‘when I’m done that’ but a few for ‘when you’re done that’. ‘When we’re done’, end of clause, sounds fine – as do the supposedly more proper ‘when we’ve done that’ and ‘when we’re done with that’.

The same applies to Bosch’s earlier ‘Are you almost done your work?’: even allowing for its informality it sounds slightly odd to me, though in other dialects it may pass unnoticed. But it’s the only example of ‘Are you almost done your X’ in Google Books, compared with dozens for ‘Are you almost done with your X’. ‘Are you done your X’ has a single hit. If I find time I’ll check other corpora.

Though the whole sequence in The Reversal is a bit belaboured, credit to Connelly for showing the mundane mechanics of the contagion of grammar-peeving. It’s often the ones you love and trust.

For more on the linguistics of Michael Connelly books, see my posts on his spelling kind’ve, and, at Strong Language, one on profane ambiguity.

Update: The Yale Grammatical Diversity Project (which bookended a links roundup here in 2011) has a page on ‘done my homework‘, with examples like I am done dinner and you’re done the tattoo:

The done my homework construction is a widespread characteristic of Canadian English, and it is also found in the United States among speakers in Philadelphia, Vermont, and New Hampshire […]. It has not been found in the dialects of the United Kingdom or elsewhere outside of North America.

There’s also brief discussion of the usage by Grammar Girl, and more at Language Hat.


28 Responses to Harry Bosch, trainee prescriptivist

  1. Anne says:

    To my ear, I think you can say “are you done taking out the trash”, ie, you could use a gerund there, but as you say, not a plain old noun.

    • Stan Carey says:

      Yes, same here. Connelly’s first example, ‘If you’re done playing with your food’, is fully kosher – except to extreme prescriptivists – but ‘If you’re done your food’ would not be, except perhaps in certain registers or dialects I’m unversed in. Hence the oddness (to me) of ‘Are you almost done your work?’ and ‘when we’re done that’.

  2. Mary Tonkinson says:

    I, for one, do not think “When we’re done” sounds fine. Those who use it sound grammatically “done for” to me–but I’m fussy like that. Donne’s famous “Hymn to God the Father” plays on done/Donne in final stanza, which seems worth noting here.

    • Stan Carey says:

      You’re entitled to dislike it, but the usage is fully standard and has been in common use for centuries, including in literary English by authors such as Shakespeare, Dryden, Dickens, Swift, and Twain – none of whom strike me as ‘grammatically done for’.

  3. Catbar UK says:

    To me ‘‘Are you almost done your work?’ sounds moronic, somehow.
    Whereas ‘If you’re done playing with your food…..’ sounds OK.

    • Stan Carey says:

      I wouldn’t say a variant usage sounds moronic. It turns out this one is dialectal.

      • Catbar UK says:

        I’m sorry, I should’ve used a better word than ‘moronic’ (just shows I should never attempt things like this in the evenings!).

        I can agree with the below, quoted from Tim Martin. I can hear this being said in a rich euphonic Irish accent, and it sounds most attractively listenable-to.

        “I do recall an Irish man who said that “I’m done me homework” sounded normal to him. ”
        [end quote]

        The below quote, from Grammar Girl, sums up what I had been trying to say.

        “I’d like to think that I am accepting of dialectic differences and give the benefit of the doubt that there is more than one right way to speak or write, but this sends me into near hysterics at how terribly wrong it sounds!


        Are you done your exams?

        Are you done that plate of food?

        Please tell me they’re wrong.” ”

        [end quote].

        • Catbar UK says:

          PS – I can’t remember if I ticked any ‘Alert me if anyone comments on this’ option. I hope I can still be alerted if this happens.

        • Stan Carey says:

          It’s useful to analyse one’s instinctive reaction to an unfamiliar usage, especially when it sounds wrong but is acceptable in other dialects or varieties. Many of us were conditioned through education to find non-standard English intrinsically objectionable, because ‘sub-standard’, and it can take conscious effort to overcome that. But if we had grown up in a community where ‘Are you done your exams?’ was routine, our attitude to it would be wholly different.

          • Catbar UK says:

            Thanks Stan, and I hope I hadn’t caused offense.

            Things said dialectically, with a lovely rich lilting accent (ie particularly Cornish or Irish), usually sound wonderful to my ears.

            It’s often when ‘non-standard’ things are said with this sort of ‘mockney’ accent – which is classed as ‘uneducated’ – that they can sound clunky and – well, what I’d called moronic.

            (Sorry – I don’t feel I’m writing at my best at the moment! Too much RL).

  4. Tim Martin says:

    I actually didn’t know that there was anything unusual about this way of speaking until a few years after college. I’ve always said things like “I’m done my homework” or “when you’re done your dinner, you can do such-and-such.” I grew up in New Jersey, and my dialect as best I can determine is Mid-Atlantic (one of the dialects you’d expect for the region.)

    When I found out that this grammar was not accepted by everybody, I quizzed some of my friends on what sounded normal to them. I believe this was while I was living in Japan, so I had English-speaking friends from all over. Some of them said these phrasings sounded weird; others said they sounded normal. I do recall an Irish man who said that “I’m done me homework” sounded normal to him. Apparently, Canadians are also known for leaving off the “with” in these phrases.

    Strangely enough, a google search just now on “I’m done my homework” produced this map, titled “Are you done your homework – A map of where people would say this sentence without putting “with” before “your.” !
    I can’t find any way to determine who made the map, but look at that clustering around the mid-atlantic region! Could be a result of non-random data collection, but it suits me fine :)

  5. mollymooly says:

    Some different things going on here:

    a1 I have finished.
    a2 I am finished. [less formal than a1]
    a3 I am done. [less formal than a2]
    a4 ?I have done. [I can’t use this in the same sense as a1-2-3. Maybe others can.]

    b1 I have finished talking.
    b2 I am finished talking. [?less formal than b1?]
    b3 I am done talking. [less formal than b2]
    b4 I have done talking. [less likely than b3, about as formal]

    c1 I have finished my work.c
    c2 I have done my work. [different shade of meaning from c1]
    c3 I am finished my work. [less formal than c1]
    c4 ?I am done my work. [not possible for me]

  6. Just a confirmation that Canadians say “done my…” all the time. I’m from California, and when I up to Vancouver 10 years ago, it sounded so adamantly wrong to my ears. Now I use the construction all the time!

  7. David Keith Johnson says:

    Interesting to put this next to the rural American usage of “done” as an intensifier. Examples: “I done dropped the egg.” “I done killed that coyote.” From a verb construction point of view, it appears entirely superfluous. But as an expression adding some intensity to the related verb, (perhaps contributing an air of finality to the action,) it is indispensable in these dialects, and serves as an in-group signifier. Educated folks only use this in a comical fashion, or as a fond evocation of rural ancestry, but I have heard it used seriously among dialect speakers in my native Nebraska and other parts of the US.

    • Stan Carey says:

      I think the “I done X-ed” feature is especially common in southern US dialects and in Black English or AAVE. Though often used as an intensifier, as you say, I think it can also function just as an auxiliary verb in the construction, in place of have. This paper (PDF) suggests it’s a Scotch-Irish contribution to Appalachian English, but I haven’t looked into it much.

    • Catbar UK says:

      I also love that rural American dialect – ie, ‘I done….’ in place of ‘I have….’ [whatever the action might be].

      These sorts of genuine dialects, to my ears, have a sort of feisty independence which is very attractive.

  8. I was tickled to see that New Hampshire was listed in the Yale Grammatical Diversity Project as one of the states whose citizens frequently say “done my homework.” I’ve lived in NH most of my life, and I’d agree that this construction is, indeed, widespread — around these parts anyway!

  9. brokenyogi says:

    I think it’s rather common for people in ordinary dialog to drop unimportant words from a sentence when they are rushed. In this case, “with” is implicit, whether spoken or not. “Are you done playing your food?” looks terrible on paper, but in real life, said fast, it’s just a sign of someone in a hurry cutting out unnecessary words. It’s good writing, therefore, because it conveys something about the scene and the speaker without having to use a descriptor, like “…he said in a rush.”

    • Stan Carey says:

      That’s true, but I think it’s more likely in this case to be a question of dialect.

      • brokenyogi says:

        Except that in this case, the speaker really was in a rush and trying to get his daughter out the door. I’ve heard that in some places, like Canada, this might be dialect. But the story takes place in LA, and I doubt it’s a dialect there. So it’s really just a matter of being rushed and careless with phrasing.

        • Stan Carey says:

          It’s not that it ‘might’ be dialect – it is dialect, and not just in Canada but scattered throughout the US. The map at that link shows many reports of the usage in California, consistent with Bosch’s and Haller’s location and background.

          As for being rushed: When Haller says, ‘when we’re done that’, he’s not in a rush at all. And in the earlier examples, if it were elliptical phrasing because of hurry, why would Bosch’s daughter correct him? If he had said, ‘You ready?’, she would hardly have countered with ‘Are you ready, Dad?’

          Conclusion: It’s almost certainly not about being ‘rushed and careless’.

  10. […] Reporting on a grammar debate in a crime novel by Michael Connelly, I remarked that the politics of English usage […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s