Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Tell you what, the thing is, here's the deal, I'm here to tell you....

The other day, I wanted to use the expression, "I'm here to tell you..." in a piece of writing.  The more I thought about it, the more I wasn't sure how widespread that expression is.  I associate it with Alabama, but maybe it's said in Tennessee, too.

I googled it and found nothing about that expression.  I did come across a site where a Russian is attempting to teach American expressions to other non-native English speakers.  He had been reading a book in which a sentence started with "Tell you what".  He made a fairly good guess as to its meaning, but I thought he might have missed some regional subtleties.  Others had commented on this, including one person who wanted to know the difference between "The thing is..." and Tell you what..."

Urban dictionary informed me that "I tell you what" is a southern expression.  I am frequently surprised when I hear that words I commonly use are "southern".  Having lived in the South all of my life, I hear and use expressions that I assume are common to the whole U.S.  I must admit, though, that we southerners do come up with lots of ways to add emphasis to our sentences, and all of the phrases I've mentioned are intended to do just that.

Anyhow, this Russian speaker was pulling 50 American idioms from a work of fiction and was going to learn them and teach them. Seeing English through his eyes and the eyes of his readers made me realize just how rich our language is. As we all know, English is a hybrid of several different old languages, and new phrases borrowed from various ethnic groups are being added all of the time.  Not only that, but we do use a lot of slang and idioms and regional variations which gives a lot of color to our speech.

We all recognize a phenomenal amount of phrases.  When hard pressed to define the subtleties among them, I'm not sure that I would always be able to come up with a perfect explanation. But, I do understand the distinctions when I hear them and use them when speaking.

How would you explain the following expressions to a non-native speaker?  Here's my attempt.  Let me hear your comments about your understanding of these phrases.

"Tell you what." I normally would use this to introduce a compromise in a discussion or to volunteer a way to help someone out of a dilemma.

Sister #1.  My friend just invited me to go to the movie.  I really want to go.

Sister #2.  Why don't you?  You've finished your homework.  I think mom would say yes if you ask.
Sister #1   The thing is, I promised her that I would clean my room tonight.
Sister #2   Tell you what.  I'll clean your room for you tonight, if you'll clean mine on Friday.
Sister #1.  Thanks.

I know that "I tell you what" can be used just as a means of emphasis, either at the beginning or the end of a sentence.  Supposedly it is used this way most often in Texas.  I lived in Texas for a short time and don't particularly remember that it was used there more than in Tennessee.  Perhaps, it was, and I just brought it back to the southeast with me.  Anyhow, I think we'd all know what someone means if they say, "I tell you what; that test was hard."   I've also heard people say, "Man, I tell you, that test was hard.  I'm afraid that I flunked it."

To me, "I'm here to tell you..." begins a sentence in which you want to add emphasis.  For example:
"I'm here to tell you that you ought to clean your room before you go to the movie."

"The thing is..." introduces a new fact or opinion to a conversation.  Usually, I would use this when explaining why someone should change their mind about something or when I need to bring up a point that someone hasn't considered.  Sometimes, it's my real reason for objecting to something. In my example of the sisters, one sister uses it to explain the obstacle in her way of going to the movies.  Here's another way I might use this phrase in a conversation.

Friend #1.  My car is in the shop.  Would you drive me to my cousin's house tonight?
Friend #2.  You mean right now?  I don't see well at night.  I don't feel comfortable driving across town.
Friend #1.  Oh, you'll be all right.  Let's go.
Friend#2.  The thing is, I'm nearly out of gas, and the stations are closed.  So, you see that I can't drive you tonight.  I will be glad to take you in the morning as soon as the stations open and when I can see well enough to drive.

 I'd use "The deal is..." or "Here's the deal..." in the same way.

Here's another way it might be used.  Suppose two friends in New York meet and they talk about a third friend.

Friend #1:  Why is Anne upset with me?"
Friend#2:  You told that joke that put down Tennessee football."
Friend#1:  So, I didn't mean anything by it.
Friend#2:  The thing is, Anne is from Knoxville.  She moved up here from Tennessee, and she's a diehard Vols fan.
Friend#1.  Oh, I see.  I'll apologize to her tomorrow

"Tell me about it," is a phrase that I associate with the north, though I and nearly every other southerner I know uses it now.   I would say it in response to an emphatic opinion with which I agreed.

Someone might say to me.  "It's hot today.  A real scorcher."
"Tell me about it," I might say, as I wiped the sweat from my brow.
I don't literally mean that I want them to tell me anything.  I am agreeing with the statement they just made.

I applaud the Russian speaker for tackling the complexities of American idioms!

What say you?  How do you use these and similar expressions?   Are some particular to Tennessee and the South, or are they common throughout the U.S.?




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