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.
I 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.’
‘When we’re done with that.’
‘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.
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.