Monday, December 7, 2009
Most of the book is a discussion of research and histories done by others. Nowhere does Mr. Bryson mention any original research done by him, and his name does not appear in the bibliography, so I’m guessing he has not published in this field previously. None of the books in the bibliography was published before 1931, and there are no primary sources, such as Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. There is no information about the author at all; his academic background and current profession are unknown. According to the blurbs all over the cover, this book was a hardcover bestseller and well reviewed, even earned the accolade of “scholarly” from the Los Angeles Times. The writing style is breezy and fun, more magazine than academe, which of course adds immensely to readability. But the author betrays such a fundamental lack of understanding of the basic structures of English that I am astounded he got his book published.
In his chapter on English grammar and its oddities, Mr. Bryson states that in English, “A noun is a noun and a verb is a verb largely because the grammarians say they are.” He supports this by giving a list of nouns that are also verbs, such as charge and towel. But the statement is arrant nonsense. A noun is a word that functions as a noun; a verb is a word that functions as a verb. In the sentence “The charge appeared on my statement,” the word charge is being used as a noun, and grammarians are as powerless to turn it into a verb as they are to turn it into gold. Only native speakers can decide how to use a given word, setting its function through use, and if they want to change its use, they have to construct a new sentence for it. The fact that English has so many multifunctional terms is a tribute to its unique versatility. A word’s function (noun, verb, whatever) is not revealed until it is actually used; no one can look at the isolated word charge and declare it noun or verb, because it has the potential to be either. This is a very neat trick, not a shortcoming, and cannot be done in many other languages.
Claiming that “the parts of speech are almost entirely notional,” Mr. Bryson offers the examples “I am suffering terribly” and “My suffering is terrible.” He says the grammarians would call suffering a verb in the first but a noun in the second, but in his opinion both sentences use “precisely the same word to express precisely the same idea.” Well, no. Technically, the first suffering is a present participle, a verbal adjective, and the second is a gerund, a verbal noun, both of which are derived from the same verb, suffer. It is thus not at all odd that they should express the same idea, but the verb has been inflected in different ways, to form a participle (adjective) to use in the present progressive tense and to form a gerund (noun) to use as a subject. Every English verb has the ability to become a noun or an adjective by the addition of -ing; which it is is strictly a matter of how it’s used. As a native English speaker, the author has automatically used terrible to modify the gerund and terribly to modify the participle even as he claims they are modifying “precisely the same word,” proving that the language center in his brain is operating better than the reasoning center. It isn’t a noun or an adjective because grammarians say it is; it’s a noun or adjective because that’s how it’s functioning. There’s nothing “notional” about it.
Having said one puzzlingly harebrained thing, Mr. Bryson reveals even deeper ignorance of how his language works (the language, remember, he has dared to write a book about). In the same paragraph, he writes, “Breaking is a present tense participle, but as often as not it is used in a past tense sense (‘He was breaking the window when I saw him’). Broken, on the other hand, is a past tense participle but as often as not it is employed in a present tense sense (‘I think I’ve just broken my toe’) or even future tense sense (‘If he wins the next race, he’ll have broken the school record’).” These cavils reveal such a complete misunderstanding of basic grammar I am left breathless. Throughout the book he cites Fowler, Copperud, and other well-known grammarians, but he has clearly been too selective in actually reading them. No authorities are cited in this section, but the lack of support for his pet peeve didn’t stop him from ranting. No research went into these inanities. There is nothing here but gibberish.
First off, there is no such thing as a “present tense” or “past tense” participle; a participle is an adjective and has no tense. Participles, present and past, are used to form various tenses. The present participle is used to form the progressive tenses present, past, future, and perfect: I am walking, I was walking, I will be walking, I have been walking, I had been walking, I will have been walking. Likewise, the past participle is used to form the perfect tenses: I have walked, I had walked, I will have walked. Reexamine the statements that “present tense participles” are often used in a “past tense sense” and vice versa, and you realize that his statements make no sense at all, present, past, or future.
It gets worse. Mr. Bryson follows this arrogant demonstration of ignorance with one of boneheaded wrongness. I can only quote; paraphrase will not suffice. “A noun…is generally said [to denote] a person, place, thing, action, or quality. That would seem to cover almost everything, yet clearly most actions are verbs and many words that denote qualities—brave, foolish, good—are adjectives.” These arguments are meant to shore up the assertion that “the parts of speech must be so broadly defined as to be almost meaningless.”
Not in my universe, bub. He has ignored or overlooked the fact that a noun expresses an action or quality in a different way than a verb or an adjective, and it is not uncommon to have closely related words (cognates) in multiple functional categories (e.g., sleep as noun, sleep as verb, sleepy or sleeping as adjective, sleepily as adverb) so that statements about a topic can be made in multiple ways. How is this a failing?? The noun is bravery, the adjective is brave; they both describe a quality, and each can be used to express a thought about heroism. How does that render the categories of noun and adjective themselves meaningless? Wouldn’t it be a bitch if we always had to use sleep as a noun and cast every sentence to accommodate that inflexibility?
I repeat, in English a word is characterized by how it is used, and native speakers decide how any given word may be used by using it that way and being understood. Mr. Bryson would seem to prefer a language in which the nouns were always and forever nouns and referred very solidly and concretely to things, and so on. This is not only impossible, it is supremely undesirable. It takes away all possibility of wordplay and inventiveness, not to mention growth and change.
I cannot believe this book was ever subjected to an editorial eye. No editor worth her salt would have allowed this nonsense to stand. Although I enjoyed other sections of the book, once I had read this chapter, I could no longer trust any statement the author made that I didn’t already know to be true. “Scholarly,” my ass. I rather doubt the reviewer read the whole thing. Who knows what other idiocies lurk beneath the breezy exposition? I usually resell or donate my unwanted books, but this one is going in the recycling bin as too worthless and too dangerous to pass on. I am as puzzled and outraged as if I had come across arguments for a flat earth in a book on geography.
This is article 18 in a continuing series. © 2009 Christine C. Janson
We interpret the spoken word differently than we do the written word. The spoken word is always context specific; the written word is always outside the context and must be specified. If the person next to you says “The house is on fire!” you hear the urgency, and you can probably turn and see the flames and feel the heat. If you read the same words, you’re probably far from the fire in time and space, but the quotation marks tell you someone actually spoke the words, and the exclamation point conveys the sense of urgency. Like tone and emphasis in speech, punctuation works with syntax to create meaning in a written communication.
When you address someone directly, that is, call them by their name or title or honorific (e.g., sir), that instance of direct address is grammatically isolated from any other part of the sentence in which it appears: we say to Bob, “I heard, Bob, and I laughed.” In speech, we can emphasize this separation by a slight pause, but because Bob is actually present, context alone makes the meaning clear. In writing, we must isolate the address with commas as a parenthetical element that is not participating in the grammar. (I.e., the commas are not replicating the spoken pause so much as they are visually fencing off that which is grammatically irrelevant.) If we do not set it off, Bob becomes the direct object of the verb heard because, grammatically speaking, that is how we must read the sentence as written: “I heard Bob and I laughed.”
Failure to set off a direct address with a comma may cause great embarrassment or great amusement. A desktop sign seen in a recent catalog reads “Work with me people.” This is clearly advice to work with egotists, not a direct address pleading for cooperation, which would require a comma: “Work with me, people.” “John get the phone” is pidgin for “John gets (or is getting or got) the phone”; a demand that the phone be answered requires an indication of direct address and the imperative: “John, get the phone.” “Don’t hassle me dad” is a Briton’s command to leave his father alone; “Don’t hassle me, Dad” is a plea from son to father for some peace. Note the capital D on Dad. A title used as an address is capitalized: “This is my aunt Mary,” but “Welcome, Aunt Mary!” Now note that without the comma to show direct address, this becomes a command: “Welcome Aunt Mary!”
Another thing that is always set off with commas because it has no grammatical role is an interjection. Many interjections appear in company with the exclamation point that underlines their emphasis: Hey, you, outta my yard! (interjection followed by direct address); Oh, man, is it cold! (two interjections back to back, or perhaps again an interjection followed by direct address); Haven’t seen you in, jeez, 30 years! (euphemistic interjection in midsentence). Swear words and obscenities not participating in the grammar are set off as interjections: “Shit, where’s my cell?” but “Get your shit together.”
There is a new animated Christmas special premiering this December called Yes Virginia. The first word is an interjection, and the second is a direct address, providing two imperatives for separating these words with a comma. I suppose it’s too late for them to change all the ads and titles and unembarrass themselves? Gee, guys, that’s a shame—on you.
If you’re talkin’ ta me, baby, you better get it right.
This is article 17 in a continuing series. © 2009 Christine C. Janson
Saying nothing at all ranges from the long-windedly verbose, like the seasoned politician who can speak stirringly for an hour and convey not one phoneme of real meaning, to the monosyllabically iterative, like those who “um” after every third or fourth word.
In current American idiom, there are several go-to phrases for saying nothing and filling the silence while you gather your thoughts. Two of the most dreaded are “you know” and “like.” Speakers in the habit of using these cannot be listened to for very long, because after the first two, every succeeding “you know” or “like” elicits a bigger wince, until the listener risks whiplash or assault charges.
There are also words that are mindlessly overused to the point that they lose all meaning. Right now, when I hear “amazing,” I am no closer to knowing what the speaker means, beyond general approval, than if he had not spoken. I’ve also heard enough of “actually,” which doesn’t actually mean anything most of the time. As for “toe-tally,” I’m not going there. These words could all be replaced with the nonsense syllable blah without changing the informational content one bit. However, blah would not carry the emotional charge, the thumbs-up of “amazing” or the emphasis of “toe-tally.”
Another way of using language to convey no information beyond emotional content was, until recently, not permitted in public. Now, only G-rated movies are guaranteed to be free of four-letter words and swearing, and obscenities can be heard on cable channels other than the pay-through-the-nose premiums. I am not against this. The words exist; people use them; I use them; it is unreal to portray the world entirely without them. However, I am no more inclined to listen to “fucking” three times per sentence than I am to listen to “you know” at the same frequency.
The constant bleeping of four-letter words on reality shows is bad enough. I am astonished that people resort to them as a matter of course, especially in front of cameras, knowing they will be aired (and bleeped) on national television. Swearwords are intensifiers, allow us to express pain, ill will, frustration, and anger without being specific. But a heartfelt “Jesus H. Christ!” when you stub your toe is one thing. A routine “Eat your fuckin’ vegetables, for Christ’s sake” at the dinner table is another. These words have no intended meaning beyond the expression of negative emotion, i.e., there is no actual reference to sex acts or deities. Language like this is a slap in the face, a confrontational way to say “Hey! Wake up! Listen to me! I mean it!” It’s hard for me to believe people are so ready to slap family, friends, and strangers alike.
Constant bleeping is bad enough; worse is the constant cussing on scripted shows such as The Sopranos and Deadwood. Lured to watch by rave reviews, I have never sat through an entire episode of either, because after the first ten or twenty uses of fuck and goddamn, about 5 to 10 minutes, I’ve had enough and hit the remote. Slap someone often enough and they’ll go numb. Intense language loses intensity through overuse, until intensity can only be maintained by increased density of use. When every utterance is redlining it linguistically (“The fuckin’ thing don’t fuckin’ work unless I fuckin’ beat on it”), the intensifiers lose all effect, and we are left with emptiness that echoes with negativity. The speaker is saying nothing just as vehemently as he can, shouting “Blah!” at top volume every few syllables.
I will, reluctantly, concede that perhaps people do talk to each other like this, with complete disrespect and belligerence, even within families. Reality TV is unpleasant proof of the ubiquity of bad language. I will not concede that such language is either necessary or acceptable as dialogue.
Drama may reflect life, but it’s life with most of the quotidian details mercifully left out. Real people visit a bathroom every few hours. That doesn’t mean we have to watch the characters in a play or movie interrupt the action to do the same in the name of verisimilitude. Unless it’s part of the story, we aren’t subjected to belches, nail biting, hiccups, nose blowing, or a thousand other common human acts. We don’t need to see every mouthful of food chewed and swallowed. We don’t want characters to spew “you know” and “like” multiple times in every sentence even though real people do, because they’re boring and annoying and turn the dialogue into Swiss cheese, riddled with empty spaces. And there’s no reason we should have to listen to a lot of meaningless cuss words that have had all the intensity sucked out of them. To hear “Fuck you!” once in a two-hour movie is shocking. To hear it thirty or forty times in a one-hour episode is just a bore, lots and lots of empty space between meaningful words. So much emptiness makes me yawn and go elsewhere, for characters who reveal the story through their words instead of slapping me silly with them.
This is article 16 in a continuing series. © 2009 Christine C. Janson
Sunday, November 29, 2009
Perhaps you use it as a journal for personal reminiscences and ponderings. Perhaps you have chosen a very specific topic, no doubt your own obsession, be it baseball or Star Trek or puppets. (Mine, of course, is language.) Perhaps you see it as your version of Oprah’s O magazine, presenting a variety of material all centered around your world view. Or perhaps you intend it as a way to keep in touch with family and friends, an ongoing version of the e-mailed Christmas letter detailing everyone’s busy doings.
The act of posting material to a blog, no matter its intended purpose, is equivalent to publishing it, i.e., making it public. You may choose to restrict the size of that public, or the quality of your writing may restrict it for you. I can envision several basic scenarios for composing and posting a blog entry. Each will produce a very different caliber of material, which will greatly influence whether others might want to read that blog or return to it. These scenarios apply to blogs that are primarily essays; those that provide a service or database or carry far more images and videos than words have other means to attract followers. However, a visitor is more likely to view an image or video if there are words to lure him in…
Slapdash and Sloppy
You’ve just been out on an exhilarating mountain hike and can’t wait to share the experience. Seconds after walking in the door, your hiking boots are off and you’re at the keyboard, logging into your blog. First you upload and arrange half a dozen photos and caption them minimally (e.g., “Me and Joey at the top”). Then, with the cursor settled into the composing window, you start to write. Your thoughts spill out one after the other as they occur, with no attempt to order or arrange them for a sense of progression or continuity, never mind paragraphs. You’re typing too fast to worry about typos. You aren’t concerned about and might not recognize misplaced commas, sentence fragments, or subject-verb disagreements. Clichés abound because originality takes time and thought. You fall easily into texting and chat room habits, abbreviating all sorts of things into technoglyphs (for example, l8r). When your thoughts have been exhausted or dinner beckons, you hit Post, wait impatiently for confirmation, and log out.
Prognosis: Poor. Only friends and relatives will have any reason to slog through this stream-of-consciousness lack of style, replete with misspellings, random punctuation, grammatical hash, and other aggravations that hinder comprehension and enjoyment. The writer himself isn’t interested in reading it, hasn’t bothered to go back to correct errors or organize. Even if the experience was extraordinary, the attempt to capture it in words was haphazard and lazy at best and a failure at worst. The account serves mainly as a record of events, and the purpose does not encompass either poetry or philosophy. This is the writing equivalent of a crayoned drawing, appropriate for family viewing on the refrigerator door, not good enough for a frame or display in the living room.
It is my impression and my fear that this is the method employed by a great many bloggers. If I am correct in this impression, there is a whole lot of unreadable crap floating around in cyberspace. That’s okay, provided nobody expects me to read any of it. (Unless, of course, we share genes, in which case I will find it charming, just as I would find the artwork on the fridge charming.)
Considered and Careful
You’ve had a great idea for your blog on wallpaper. Before logging in, you spend some time thinking not only about what you want to say but what order you should say it in. Perhaps you even jot down a few notes to refer to as you compose. You take your time while writing, think about structure and flow as you go. As a prose stylist, you reach for metaphor and simile, enjoy alliteration and humor. You choose the best images and arrange them to work with the text, caption them pithily. You then read over what you’ve written, correcting typos and punctuation, consulting a dictionary for suspect spellings, perhaps even reaching for a thesaurus to avoid using the same descriptors again and again. You discover and correct a sentence fragment, a discordant subject and verb, a dangling participle, an unclear antecedent. One more quick read satisfies you that your piece is presentable, and you post it. If you’re the skeptical type or just enamored of your own writing, you go immediately to the blog to view it and perhaps read it one more time. Once it’s been posted, you probably won’t change it and may never read it again.
Prognosis: Fair. Because the writer’s subject is near to her heart and she presumably has some expertise, the blog has a good chance of being interesting. Because she has taken the time and trouble to edit the original composition, it also has a chance of being both readable and comprehensible. A blog that is interesting and comprehensible will attract followers, if only among those who share her obsession. This is the writing equivalent of an artwork created for a gallery show, worthy of being framed for viewing by the people who visit the gallery, some of whom will appreciate it more than others. Forethought and afterthought have both been used to narrow the focus and streamline the progression; editing has been applied to root out distracting errors and points of possible confusion. A few errors will no doubt slip through, but not enough to be annoying.
This, in my opinion, is the minimum level of effort required to turn out a readable blog. Juicy content will only balance bad writing up to a point. Dry content will have even less weight. Regardless of content, better writing will always mean more readers. I would be willing to read a piece written to this standard, depending somewhat on the topic and the style, but the chances that I would go back for more are only 50-50, again dependent on the topic and style.
Prepared and Perfected
It’s time to work up a new piece for your blog about politics, a subject about which your opinions have the weight of knowledge and experience. From a handy list of ten to twenty topics, you pick one and begin turning it over in your head, figuring out not only what you have to say but how to organize your presentation into a coherent whole. You want to create a suck-’em-in beginning, an opinionated, informative, entertaining center, and a satisfying conclusion. You love to find a title that’s clever or punny and will resonate with multiple meanings as the reader moves through the piece. The perfect opening sentence can take several days to construct, but once you have it the rest of the piece falls into place behind it in your head. You then compose your first draft, whether on paper or directly on the computer with Word (or whatever). As you write, you stop constantly to go back and make changes and check how the argument is developing. Once the draft is complete, you edit ruthlessly. Any mistakes missed while composing, including uncertainties of fact as well as spelling, are found and corrected now. Dictionary, thesaurus, and other references are in reach or standing by. You transpose words, sentences, even blocks of text to improve the flow, add things you forgot or thought of later and delete things that are irrelevant or interrupt the argument, no matter how interesting they may be. You agonize over word choice, not just for meaning but for meter and music, and delight in wordplay and truly original use of words. Irony, hyperbole, synecdoche, and all those other curiously named literary tricks are part of your writing toolkit. Finally, after going through the thing ten or twenty or thirty times, you have a piece that is perfect grammatically and polished stylistically. When you go to your blog and hit New Post to open the composition window, instead of typing, you simply paste in a copy of the file created with all the tools available in Word. You then go through it to restore lost formatting and format it further with the blog tools. After one final readthrough to ensure there are no errors, you post the piece and immediately go to view it. You can’t help but read through it one more time because you’re always tickled when you see your work “published.” It’s entirely possible you’ll find one or more small errors despite all the earlier editing and proofreading, and you make the effort to edit and repost the piece. Over the next few weeks you may actually go back and tweak the piece a bit as you think of ways to make it even better.
Prognosis: Excellent. This is the level of effort, talent, and sheer fussiness required to turn out a piece of writing that will delight as well as inform. Even if readers don’t share his obsession, his passion and persuasiveness will capture their interest. That interest will not be diverted by errors or infelicities of language but deepened by appreciation of his wit and his heart. This is the writing equivalent of a masterpiece, evidence of qualification for the rank of master, worthy of display, if not in a museum, then at least in a highly frequented public space. This is his best, created with every tool and skill at his command. There are no errors of composition or of fact (well, maybe a little one now and then; nobody’s perfect). The reader can simply enjoy the story or argument as it unfolds, be edified by reliable information and entertained by cleverness.
A blog written to this standard will attract numerous readers once word gets out, because it can be enjoyed by those who don’t share the writer’s genes or passion for the topic but can appreciate his skillful expression of it. This is the standard I strive for in my own writing. I would dearly love to discover blogs of this caliber on any number of subjects. Suggestions are welcome.
Whether you think my blog isn’t as good as all that or you think I’m meeting my goals splendidly, your comments are also welcome.
This is article 15 in a continuing series. © 2009 Christine C. Janson
Thursday, November 19, 2009
Myself, I have no memory at all of being taught the correct use of commas in school, elementary or high. I placed out of Freshman Composition, so I have no idea what’s taught at the college level, but I’m betting they don’t spend much time on commas either. I learned most of my grammar in Latin class, and I learned about commas by reading a style manual called Words Into Type when I was twelve, with a graduate course during my training to be a copy editor.
I believe many people use commas more or less at random, the “pause = comma” dictum their only guideline. Even in the classroom, mistakes often go uncorrected, and when a change is made, the mere deletion or insertion of a comma teaches nothing if there is no explanation. Indeed, the change itself may be wrong, as ignorance, misinformation, and idiosyncrasy are widespread, even among those we might account experts, such as English teachers. The bewildered student may well wonder why this comma was added or that one was taken away; few are interested or persistent enough to actually plumb the mystery on a case-by-case basis. Chances are the person who made the change can’t explain it logically anyway.
Years ago, as part of a class on writing for publication, I wrote several magazine-style articles, all of which used commas according to the rules. The instructor routinely added commas between subjects, between verbs, or between objects when there was more than one in a given sentence. Not one of them was grammatically defensible. His argument was that the reader “needed a break” within a long sentence. Hemingway I am not, and thus he was adding an extraneous comma or two to nearly every sentence. (I have since taught myself to construct shorter sentences, which is the correct fix.) He was a trained writer, a published author, and he was just plain wrong.
The rules for basic comma use in the construction of English sentences are actually very simple, very straightforward, and very logical. Summed up very briefly, commas are used between independent clauses, after introductory elements (some leeway here), between the items in a list, and to set off parenthetical elements. Believe it or not, that pretty much covers ninety percent of all licit commas. The rules can be bent for stylistic reasons, but you should know them before you start bending them.
Failure to use commas where they are required is one thing. Sticking them in pointlessly occurs just as often. Again summed up very briefly, do not use a comma (unless it is part of a list or parenthetical element) between a subject and verb or verb and object, between an adjective and its noun, after a conjunction, or to set off restrictive material. Again, believe it or not, that’s pretty much it.
Unfortunately, to use these rules, you have to be able to identify a subject, verb, and object, a clause, a conjunction, and both restrictive and nonrestrictive elements. Perhaps that’s where everything gets fuzzy and mysterious. So much easier to just stick in a comma at every pause…
These grammar-based rules are the standard in any well-edited publication, such as the New York Times, should you care to verify this assertion with a piece of writing other than my own. Notice that following these rules gives readers very clear traffic signals as they move along. Here’s a comma followed by a conjunction, so a new clause is coming up, a new subject, a new thought. A comma placed within a clause (for instance, between dual predicates: “I slapped him, and listened to him cry”) violates that expectation, and the reader has to back up and regroup to grasp the meaning. Syntactically, it’s like a stop sign in the middle of the block instead of at an intersection, and we all know how annoying those are. Profligate use of commas can make it necessary to read every sentence two or three times to determine structure and sense.
Because the rules are so clear cut, if you give the same piece of writing to two trained editors, they will make exactly the same comma changes, both insertions and deletions. Moreover, they will be able to explain the reason for every change, and I guarantee the word pause will not come up.
This is article 14 in a continuing series. Formerly posted as Comma Chameleon. © 2009 Christine C. Janson
Sunday, November 15, 2009
Now that I’ve just lost half of my potential audience, let me assume that the readers who remain know that grammar is not just for geeks. It is a tool, and like any tool, it can be used well or badly. People who disdain grammar or any formal study of how words are put together think they can just set their thoughts down on paper as they occur and they’re done. However, this is like assuming that anything created with crayons is art. What’s good enough for the refrigerator door (think memo or chat room) probably isn’t good enough for a gallery (think magazine or blog), never mind a museum (think hardback or website). Just so for words. Forethought, structure, and judicious editing are all essential to good writing. If it’s a memo to yourself, be as slipshod and sloppy as you like. If it’s something you expect other people to read, you’ve got to follow the rules. An architect can scribble away on the drawing board designing castles in the air, but if he expects other people to live in them, he’d better bring them down to earth and make them structurally sound. Writing is no different. Sentences and paragraphs are constructed, and if they are badly constructed, they will collapse as surely as an unsupported roof and stun the reader with nonsense or aggravation. To avoid that calamity, you have to follow the rules.
Now, let’s talk about participles. (I promise the word dangling isn’t going to come up even once.) Participles are adjectives that are formed from verbs (sometimes from nouns; more on that later) and act as modifiers with verbal force. They describe an action in progress (present participles) or one that has been completed (perfect or past participles).
Present participles end in -ing: a swimming dog, a horrifying accident. They are used to form the progressive tenses: I am walking, he was talking, we will be falling down. Do not confuse present participles with gerunds, which also end in -ing but are verbal nouns: swimming is good exercise, I like painting. Gerunds are lots of fun and often misused and will be the subject of a future article.
Past participles used to be called perfect participles because they are used to form the perfect tenses, but I guess grammarians got tired of all that perfection. For regular verbs, the past participle, like the past tense, ends in -ed; irregular forms must be learned on an individual basis. Memorization involves the infinitive (to be, to go, to do, to teach, to drive, to walk); the present tense (I am, I go, I do, I teach, I drive, I walk); the past tense (I was, I went, I did, I taught, I drove, I walked); and the perfect tenses (I have [had, will have] been, I have gone, I have done, I have taught, I have driven, I have walked). Only the last of these exemplars, walk, is a regular verb.
There is another kind of past participle. It is an adjective formed from a noun that has verbal force. Some of my readers have just gone cross-eyed trying to figure this out, so I will point out that eyed is an example of such a participle. It is formed from a noun (eye) and functions as an adjective (“eyed like an old potato”). This sort of participle causes more problems than the other sorts because of its complexity, not to mention its close association with hyphens as a unit modifier, or temporary compound.
Why should nouns be turned into adjectives, and how can they imply action? That’s just the way English works, and it’s one of the things that make English so fantastically versatile. You can’t say “fair-haired boy” in French, any more than you can say “Diana’s dress”; in French you must employ prepositional phrases and say “the boy with fair hair” (le garçon aux cheveux blonds) and “the dress of Diana” (la robe de Diana).
One very common error with participles is omission of the -ed ending. Sometimes the error is so commonplace it becomes accepted. One example is ice cream. Because it means cream that has been transformed with ice, it is properly called iced cream, but the error has become ingrained in the language. The same thing is happening to iced tea, a participle modifying a noun, which is more commonly seen as ice tea, which is two nouns side by side. We know what it means, but grammatically it is uncoordinated.
Things get even more complex with modifiers created by combining an adjective with a participle formed from a noun, as in cross-eyed. Here too, the common error is to leave the participial -ed ending off the noun portion. An old-fashion candy is like a blue-eye boy, grammatically uncoordinated; these modifiers should be old-fashioned and blue-eyed. Logically, an old-fashion candy might be candy that prefers old fashions; we need the verbal force of the participle to give the sense that the candy has been fashioned in a time-honored way. Similarly, a blue-eye boy might collect them, not have them; here the verbal undertone implies that he has been endowed with eyes of blue. To quote one grammar manual,* “With past participles…the noun being modified is the object of the verb underlying the participle.” Thus, in blue-eyed boy, boy is grammatically the object of eyed, which is not the case with the noun in blue-eye; blue modifies eye, but eye does not refer to boy in the way eyed does.
What follows is a sampling of ed-less constructions culled from random sources. These samples are presented as they appeared, with or without hyphens, because the proper use of hyphens is a subject so involved it could well carry three or four articles.
From an ad for Kendall-Jackson wines, we have “Red Tail Hawk”; this should be red-tailed hawk, hyphenated, not capitalized. This beautiful raptor has an entry in the dictionary as well as in any field guide to birds, and one wonders why they didn’t bother to look it up before featuring it prominently in their ad. Because participles are so often used in temporary compounds, the dictionary won’t always be able to resolve problems, but in this case laziness was at fault. A catalog page of four shoe styles, all with fringe, weirdly gets it wrong and right in the same space: the incorrect “fringe bootie” occurs three times, right next to the single correct “fringed clog.” Another catalog offers “one dozen long-stem roses,” but it should be offering long-stemmed ones. Yet another catalog says its “long-sleeve, mock-neck top is semi-fit,” thus making the ed-less error twice; I’d rather have a top that is long-sleeved and semi-fitted. (Don’t get me started on mock-neck; it isn’t really a turtleneck, but I guarantee you the neck is real.) The editing at Martha Stewart Living magazine is usually faultless, but a recent issue had both “fan-shape leaves” and “balloon-shape calyxes”; both of these noun-noun combos need to be shaped up. A grocery store circular offered savings on “select sodas,” but I am certain the sodas are neither superior nor distinguished, just selected to go on sale. A clothing catalog described a sweater as having “full-fashion sleeves,” using an adjective-noun combo when what’s needed is an adverb and participle. Full-fashion sleeves might appeal to a trendy fashionista; fully fashioned sleeves are a hallmark of good construction in a knitted garment (not a knit garment). Finally, trout that have been split apart and laid open to resemble a butterfly are butterflied trout; the genetic engineers haven't got around to breeding butterfly trout yet.
Now we turn from the edless to the be-eded, where people get confused and put -ed on the wrong word. The J. Jill catalog offered a “capped-sleeve cardigan sweater.” Cardigan sweater is redundant, and the sleeves are not capped with anything; they are cap sleeves, and the cardigan is cap-sleeved. The Talbots catalog wants us to consider a “mix-stitched cardigan,” but there is no mix stitch in knitting that I know of. The cardigan instead has a mix of stitches and is mixed-stitch. The West Elm catalog has for sale a “blocked paisley print duvet cover,” but I’m sure the print has not been blocked in any way. The action here is not blocking but printing. The use of a carved block of wood to stamp a fabric with a repeating design is known as block printing, and this item should have been described as a block-printed paisley duvet cover. The final example has no specific source but is an error I have seen again and again, involving confusion between advance (adjective) and advanced (participle). Advanced ticket sales must involve some new technology for selling tickets; advance ticket sales offer tickets in advance of the event.
Please don’t get down on me for taking examples from catalogs, advertisements, and magazines. These publications are less likely to be subjected to a trained editorial eye (some magazines excepted) and thus more closely represent the language as it is used by the average person, educated to some extent in its use but not dedicated to its study. Through chat rooms and blogs and e-zines, writings by such people are being “published” more widely than ever, and they are one of the groups Crotchets is intended to reach.
My point is that communication is not automatic. You have to work for it; you have to enable it; you have to construct it. For that you need to have the right tools and know how to wield them. Those tools include dictionaries and style manuals. Anyone who writes something intended to be read by another, even if it’s just a blog or a catalog description, owes it to her readers to use those tools to get it right. As with ice tea, we may understand it even if it isn’t exactly right, but we’ll have a better chance of understanding if it is right.
Communication is a two-way street. If you will do your best to be comprehensible, I’ll do my best to comprehend you. Write like you don’t give a damn, and neither will I; I’ll turn the page, close the window, surf away, and you will have wasted your time and mine. Do you want to reach people or repulse them? The choice is yours. (You might want to avoid mentioning participles in the opening sentence.)
*The McGraw-Hill Handbook of English Grammar and Usage, which I generally find far too apologetic and accommodating.
This is article 13 in a continuing series. © 2009 Christine C. Janson
Friday, November 6, 2009
I am of course referring to the relative pronoun who and its kin whom and whose. English prefers the use of who to refer to humans: “He is a man who drinks good beer”; “I admire people who play an instrument.” Increasingly over the last 20 years, however, writers have been replacing who with that: “a man that drinks good beer”; “people that play an instrument.” This grates on my ear and my sensibilities. I think writers (and speakers) avoid who because they are uncertain when who should morph into whom. “She is someone whom I like” isn’t as easy a construction as “She is someone that I like.” Since either is technically correct, writers turn coward and choose the sure thing, demoting animated humans to the status of inanimate objects.
The who problem belongs in the general category of pronoun problems that involve case. Unlike Latin and Arabic, English no longer inflects nouns for case—for their grammatical function—except for pronouns. The pronouns change depending on whether they are used as subjects (I, she, we, they) or objects (me, her, us, them) or possessives (my, her, our, their as adjectives; mine, hers, ours, theirs as nouns). We learn to ring these changes as infants imbibing grammar along with vocabulary, and we make the changes easily—as long as we don’t have to think about them. No native English speaker is going to commit errors like “Them told we to go home” or “Us gave he a hard time,” but these examples involve simple subjects and objects in simple independent clauses. More sophisticated structures such as dependent clauses requiring relative pronouns are not so straightforward.
As a simple pronoun and subject, especially in questions, who retains its vigor and can never be replaced with that. No one is going to say “That goes there?” or “That am I?” On the other hand, who is often used incorrectly in place of whom: “Who am I speaking to?” should be “Whom am I speaking to?” or, more elegantly, “To whom am I speaking?” The more elegant formation tells us why whom is correct; it is the object of the preposition and must be in the objective case.
There are various ways to test whether who or whom is correct; among the simplest is to replace it with he or him. It also helps to turn a question, which inverts subject and verb, into a statement, which puts all the elements into their accustomed order. For the example above, these two operations produce “I am speaking to him,” and the need for the objective form becomes clear. In analyzing the sentence “She is the writer (who, whom) I admire the most,” it is again helpful to put the elements into a simpler grammatical form. It is the business of relative pronouns to coordinate two related thoughts. If we separate them, we get two independent structures, in this case “She is the writer” (independent but incomplete) and “I admire her the most.” The use of her as the object of the verb admire tells us to use whom: “She is the writer whom I admire the most.” A simpler test is that if the dependent clause has its own subject (in this case I), the objective case is most likely to be correct for the relative pronoun that introduces it. If the pronoun is followed directly by a verb, the pronoun is most likely the subject, and who will be correct: “I’m the one who knows what’s going on.”
An entirely different problem arises with whose. People generally use it correctly but confuse it with its homophone who’s when writing. Like your and you’re and its and it’s, one is a possessive pronoun (whose, your, its) and the other is a contraction of a pronoun and a verb (you are → you’re, it is or it has → it’s, who is or who has → who’s). The only way to write it correctly is to know what you mean. If you don’t know what you mean, you have no business expecting people to read what you write. ’Nuff said.
Don’t let cowardice and ignorance toll the death knell on our beloved relative who. Stick up for the difference between people and rocks! Be someone who gives humans the dignity of their special pronoun, and never let that dehumanize them again!
This is article 12 in a continuing series. © 2009 Christine C. Janson
Sunday, September 27, 2009
The apostrophe serves multiple functions. To begin with, it is the sign of the possessive, and where it appears depends on whether the noun is singular or plural: lady’s and ladies’, man’s and men’s (not mens’), child’s and children’s, and passion’s and passions’ are all correct, but only one of each pair will be correct in a given context.
The need for an apostrophe and its placement are simple to determine if you will just stop and think for a moment, not only about whether your noun is singular or plural, but also about whether it’s acting as a noun or as an adjective. For the phrase (taken from an article in TV Guide) “one of televisions most well-known doctors,” ask yourself: Is televisions meant in a plural sense? No. Is it the object of the preposition of? No, doctors is the object. Ergo, it is acting as an adjective modifying doctors, and the s is a possessive s in need of an apostrophe, not an s forming a plural: “one of television’s most well-known doctors” is what the writer meant. (As an aside, English has a perfectly good word expressly devised to convey the idea of most well; the word is best. “One of television’s best-known doctors” would be a preferable construction.)
This kind of analysis, known as parsing, is becoming a lost art. Like sentence diagramming, it’s a skill most people are happy to forget, assuming it ever made its way into memory—assuming it was ever taught at all, a presumptuous assumption nowadays. Without this skill, it is impossible to construct a sentence logically, which is why there are so many college grads out there writing error-riddled semiliterate prose.
The possessive pronouns are a particular cause of confusion, because, unlike possessives formed from common and proper nouns, possessive pronouns do not have an apostrophe. It’s is a contraction of it is (see below); the pronoun is spelled its. I don’t think I will ever see hi’s, but I have actually seen her’s, their’s, and even the incredibly unlikely its’ in pieces written by Ph.D.’s, so mere length and depth of education are no cure. This is where it helps to know the difference between a contraction and a possessive adjective, pronominal or otherwise. If you don’t, you will be one of the legions of “educated” people who write things like “put laundry in it’s place.” Office Depot’s recent thick catalog displayed “can’t find what your looking for?” prominently atop every right-hand page in large type, and nobody who looked at it prepublication caught the error. It’s not rocket science, people, but you do have to pay attention and remember a few rules.
The apostrophe is also used to form plurals for single letters: one A, ten A’s (not As, which is too easily read as the word as). This is pretty much the only legitimate use of the apostrophe in plurals. (There is one other, and it appears in the previous paragraph. Can you find it?) I’m tired of seeing things like Busy Bee’s (a maid service), stereo’s, and zinnia’s. Generally, when you see ’s, think possessive, not plural. A recent ad for Juicy Couture exhorts us to “Do the Dont’s.” To which I reply, the Dont’s what? As written, dont’s can only be the possessive singular of dont, but dont is not an English word. To use the contraction don’t as a plural noun, just add s: don’ts. The rule applies to numbers as well. The term 1990s refers to the entire decade; 1990’s is a possessive indicating belonging to the specific year 1990. People in their 50s are middle-aged, and lots of them were born in the ’50s (not 50’s or ’50’s).
These examples illustrate another very important function of the apostrophe, to indicate that something has been omitted, whether as a contraction (isn’t, o’clock, who’s, don’t) or as a clipping-off (singin’, ’tis, ’50s). Again, errors such as dont’s result from a failure to analyze words logically and identify their grammatical functions (they knew there should be an apostrophe in there somewhere!). Here too, written expression is more demanding than oral; there is no need to distinguish between dont’s and don’ts in speech. An audience will understand what you mean, but a reader can best (not most well) judge your meaning by interpreting the words you have written down. If the words you’ve written down aren’t the words you mean, communication fails or is compromised.
And finally we arrive at the heart of this installment of Crotchets: the many misuses and abuses of the apostrophe in word pairs joined by and. For example, the phrase rock and roll is usually pronounced as if the and had lost both its opening vowel and final consonant and all that remains is the en sound. The result is written as rock ’n’ roll, because a letter has been clipped from both the front and back of the central word. Two apostrophes are needed, one for each omission, and yet about 95 percent of the time only one is used, and it’s a toss-up on which side of the n it will appear. Illustrating my point nicely are two current TV shows. One, on the History Channel, is called Lock N’ Load with R. Lee Ermey. The other, on Showtime, is a new reality series called Lock ’n Load. They’re both wrong, but the History Channel scores extra wrongness points for the capital N, and Showtime scores evading-the-issue points for capitalizing every letter in the onscreen title. Such ambidextrous nonsense makes me want to lock and load.
Sometimes people go the extra mile and use two apostrophes only to get lost in the punctuation forest. A Frederick, Md., business that deals in sound systems and recording equipment is named, according to their ad in the Yellow Book directory, Make ‘N’ Music. There are so many things wrong with this it’s hard to know where to start. First off, the name is not a contraction of make and music; the paired apostrophes are wrong. I assume that what the owners intended was making music with the g clipped, or Makin’ Music. The fact that Make ‘N’ Music and Makin’ Music sound about the same is no excuse. This error arises from a failure to think logically enough to transform speech sounds into grammatically and orthographically correct words.
There is another error here as well, a bit harder to notice. The first “apostrophe” has been turned and is actually an opening single quotation mark, transforming its mate to a closing single quotation mark in the process. These linguistically challenged people have not only mistaken the clipped -ing ending for a truncated and; they have taken the wrongly derived n, capitalized it, and then quoted it: Hey, guys, let’s make ‘N’ music, whatever N might be. Are you shuddering? I did when I first encountered this thing. (I’ll say this for the editors/typesetters at Yellow Book: the listing below the ad had two apostrophes. Well done!) But then I realized the people who devised this name had been led astray by a word-processing program that is mindlessly quoting the apostrophe.
On old-fashioned typewriters, there was no differentiation between single quotes (‘/’) and apostrophes (’) or between opening and closing quotes (“/”); the marks went straight up and down ('/', "/"), and the same key sufficed for both. Only printers with sophisticated typesetting equipment had apostrophes that curved right and quote marks that curved left to open and right to close a quote. Early word-processing programs made you enter symbol codes if you wanted curved marks. Later versions gave you curved double quotes, but always in pairs. The first time you hit the double-quote key, it gave you an opening quote; hit it a second time, and you got a closing quote. This worked fine unless you forgot to close a quote somewhere, after which every quote began with a close-quote symbol and ended with an open-quote symbol. I have edited many papers with this error, and it’s a pain to fix. Why is it they never forgot twice and set things back to rights? Why did they never notice all the backwards quote marks?
Current versions of Word operate on a different set of rules. The program decides which mark to use as a function of position. If you hit the double-quote key following a space or to start a new paragraph, you will automatically get an opening-quote symbol. Hit it after any character, and it will give you a close-quote symbol. This works perfectly for double quotes. Unfortunately, the program can’t differentiate between an apostrophe and a single quote. The same rules apply: hit the key after a space, you get an opening single quote that curves left; hit it after a character, and you get a closing single quote or apostrophe, which are identical, curving right. Most of the time this works just fine, but few people notice when it goes awry.
Most contractions occur in the middle of the words—isn’t, didn’t, you’re, let’s, o’clock—and thus the apostrophe appears correctly oriented as you type. But if you’re typing something like ’tis,’50s, or this ’n’ that, where the apostrophe follows a space, the program is going to give you an opening single quote, viz., ‘tis, ‘50s, this ‘n’ that. The only way around this is to type the symbol immediately after the word and then go back and insert the space (this’n’ that → this ’n’ that); the program will give you an apostrophe and will not change it when you add the space. However, most people will not notice that they have a single opening quotation mark instead of an apostrophe, and thus I have been noticing nonsense such as Loud ‘N Clear (a personal sound amplifier) and Make ‘N’ Music everywhere I look. It’s not bad enough that few recognize the need for two apostrophes; now they need to recognize that they haven’t got even one. And what is it with the capital N? The word and is never capitalized, and its remnant certainly doesn’t merit such star treatment. Even the Rock ’n’ Roll Queen gets a lowercase n.
And so I beg you to unquote your apostrophe and apostrophize your quote, to say “O quote, I need you to do an about-face and become an apostrophe, lest my poor orthography make me the object of scorn and ridicule.” It will not want to cooperate, you must make it do your will, but in the end you may prevail and take pride in your awareness and your right(eous)ness.
Over ’n’ out!
This is article 11 in a continuing series. © 2009 Christine C. Janson
The first pet peeve is misuse of the phrase “back to deuce.” I insist that this phrase cannot be used when the score first hits 40-all. The players have arrived at deuce; they cannot go back to deuce until they have played the first one. No exceptions, guys. To say “It’s back to deuce” after the first six points is absurd.
My second pet peeve is directed at ESPN2, which is carrying the U.S. Open for the first time this year, in concert with the Tennis Channel and CBS. The 2 clearly stands for second rate, or at least second class. Every moment of every game is spoiled by the endless parade of scores and trivia across the bottom of the screen. It’s hard enough following the tennis ball getting smacked around the court at tremendous speeds; loss of 10% of the screen and the consequent foreshortening of the relevant image make it even more challenging. If the intrusion was a simple, steady right-to-left flow, it might be possible to ignore it. But no, the words jump and dance and skitter and bounce, a constant annoyance and distraction. I ended up covering the bottom of my screen with duct tape (it took two layers) so I could concentrate on the game. Am I the only one who finds this disrespectful not only of the viewers, but of the sport itself? I always enjoyed Wimbledon on HBO and the U.S. Open on USA. I wish the tennis tournaments would return to the networks that treated them with more respect.
Finally, one of the commentators (it might have been Darren Cahill) misspoke and crossed two clichés to make an amusing hybrid. Referring to a player who had gone from being up a break to losing the set, he said that change in fortune had “knocked the wind out of his socks.” This amalgam of “knocked the wind out of his sails” and “knocked his socks off” raises interesting images of a player being blasted out of his tennis shoes, probably with a noise much like a raspberry or a fart. I don’t think the phrase will catch on, but I did enjoy it.
This is article 10 in a continuing series. © 2009 Christine C. Janson
I refer, of course, to the repetition of the verb in phrases such as “The thing is is that” and “What it is is,” usually followed by a complete sentence that is in no way modified or affected by this pointless introductory phrase. A related polysyllabic emptiness, “The reason…is because,” is likewise redundant and dispensable, but at least it doesn’t repeat itself.
Whence this stutter-step, this hiccup, this tiny echo? As a lingual blip, a slip of the tongue in extemporaneous speech, it can be explained. The speaker starts out to say “The thing is,” followed directly by the subject (“The thing is, we can’t explain it”). Halfway through, his brain decides to go for a dependent clause instead (“The thing is that we can’t explain it”), leading to the iterative “The thing is is that we can’t explain it.” But this sort of mental-shift error simply would not occur as often as I have been hearing this doublespeak.
The oddest thing about it is, the repetition sounds right, or at least okay, which by the laws of common usage would argue that it is acceptable, if inelegant. (Notice that I did not repeat the is in the preceding sentence.) But I’m not buying it. Redundancy is never good form, and pointless repetition of even a syllable is to be avoided. I can forgive this imitative pipsqueak in off-the-cuff speech, but elsewhere it is anathema.
With apologies to the Rolling Stones: Hey hey, you you, get offa my clause!
This is article 9 in a continuing series. © 2009 Christine C. Janson
Surely there isn’t a person in the United States who hasn’t heard of France or seen a map of it. (Whether they could find it on a map without prompts is a different matter for concern.) I love maps and have spent many hours poring over them. Most college students cover their dorm walls with posters of pop stars; I had a map of the world on mine. Maybe that’s why I reacted with a frisson of horror when, flipping through a shoe catalog, I came upon a page of items identified as black, brown, and “bordo.” The last term appeared beside shoes and a handbag of wine red, and clearly this monstrosity was a phonetic misspelling of bordeaux. The city of Bordeaux in France has lent its name, which translates as waters’ edge, to some of the finest wines ever produced as well as the garnet red color associated with wine. This information has escaped the notice or memory of at least one person at Naturalizer, which manufactured the items so identified. I say at least one person, but with reference to the very first article in this series (Who’s To Blame), anywhere from two to ten people other than the Frankenstein who created this monster had to look at it and okay it. Frankly, I am appalled. I wonder whether the persons who put the catalog together had to force themselves to reproduce this misshapen thing or whether, like the perpetrator, they didn’t notice or care.
Now let’s get really down and dirty and talk about compost. Far from elegant, the black gold produced from organic waste by natural agents of decay has become quite chic, a way to feed the earth instead of landfills. Composting is a slow process; even with optimal composition and conditions and regular turning, it will take three to six months to transform dead leaves and manure and food scraps into a nutrient-rich soil amendment. Creative minds have been at work devising ways to accelerate the process. The word accelerate is built from the Latin root celer, meaning swift, plus the prefix ad, meaning for or toward; in the compound, ad becomes ac for easier pronunciation. The person who invented and named Bio-Excelerator as a composting aid either didn’t know how to spell accelerator (and couldn’t be bothered to look it up) or was creatively making a pun on excel. Call me cynical, but I’m betting it’s error, not wordplay.
The next item is from TV Guide, which generally does a good job of editing its material, with few misspellings or grammatical errors. However, they recently committed a major homophonic boo-boo, a category of error that has become increasingly frequent even as the incidence of misspellings has decreased. I attribute this trend in large part to computer spelling-check programs, which offer alternatives but not definitions. A short article on the reality show Celebrity Apprentice, which admitted that many of the “celebrities” were unknown to the average viewer and identified each briefly, was accompanied by several photographs of the better known and more beautiful. One of the would-be apprentices’ tasks was to sell cupcakes on the streets of New York to raise money for charity, and there is a photo of three lovely young women with the caption “Roderick, Jordan and Kardashian hock their wares.” Oh, dear. Hock has several meanings, the most familiar of which have to do with pawnshops and debt. The word the writer was thinking of is hawk, defined in my dictionary (Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate) as “to offer for sale by calling out in the street,” which is exactly what these young women were doing. Confusion between homophones is a difficult problem to fix. There are lots of homophones, whether in pairs (not pears or pares) or in multiples (including the infamous two, too, and to), and it’s very easy to think/speak the right sound and write down the wrong word. What’s the answer? Look up every word that has a homophone? The thought that any given word might have a soundalike may not occur in the heat of composition or under the pressure of a deadline. Let me diffidently suggest that those without the talent for spelling (you know who you are) should look up any word that is not part of their ordinary daily vocabulary when they are writing something intended for publication. Now let me put on my suit of armor to survive the projectiles that will be thrown my way for daring to suggest something so time-consuming and tedious. What I actually want to suggest is that they look up every word, because so many common words have soundalikes (you're and your and it's and its among them, all surely part of anyone's daily vocabulary), but even I know that's impractical.
Perhaps I should add broadcast to publication in making this diffident (foolhardy?) suggestion. Television may be a vast wasteland, but one would like to assume the news shows cleave to a higher standard. Unfortunately, I am losing count of the errors stupid (note that stupid is the adjectival form of stupor and does not refer to intelligence) and ludicrous that have appeared on screen to accompany news stories. A story discussing the proper use of parking lights versus headlights on cars told viewers that parking lights, as the term suggests, should be used only when the vehicle is stationary. The caption on my screen, however, had the word stationery. Perhaps I should use my personalized stationery to write a letter of protest. Then there was the piece on a celebrity who was well known as, according to the caption, a “ladies man.” This is just ignorant. The caption writer had two choices, lady’s or ladies’, but completely failed to recognize the need for a possessive. One station now has a with-it dude on the Thursday night 11 p.m. news to let viewers in on weekend happenings. One of these was a sneak peek opportunity for a movie; the onscreen graphic had it as “sneak peak,” surely a peak experience in anyone’s leisure life. Here’s another outrageous suggestion: Hire people who know how to use the language to write onscreen captions or an editor to vet them before broadcast. Or both.
Finally, we have a puzzling piece of nonsense from the funny pages. The comic strip Parallel Universe made a play on the name Chex Mix, a crunchy snack food based on Chex brand cereal. The caption reads “Czech’s Mix…a delicious snack with just a hint of Slovakia.” I will forgo a rant on the misuse of the ellipsis, because there is a much bigger problem to worry about. In the cartoon illustrating this punny caption, the bag the man is holding bears the words “Chech’s Mix.” Chech it out!! The cartoonist created a neologism that destroys the pun! (The second definition of neologism in my dictionary is “a meaningless word coined by a psychotic.” I love reading the dictionary!) Why does the error appear in the cartoon but not in the caption? This strip is attributed to two people, Patellis and Whelan. Does one write and the other draw? If the writer knew there was an error, why didn’t he get the artist to fix it in the illustration?
Stuff like this puts me in a really rotten mood, and that’s enough stink for one potpourri.
This is article 8 in a continuing series. © 2009 Christine C. Janson
Saturday, April 4, 2009
The answer is simple and complicated: English is a mongrel of astonishingly mixed parentage. And like all mongrels, it displays exceptional vigor and a hodgepodge of traits.
The language began, more or less, with the Angles, for whom England is named. They were one of several peoples to overrun that green and pleasant land, along with fellow Germanic-speaking Saxons and Gaelic- and Gaulish-speaking Celts, not to mention marauding Danes, Norsemen, and Vikings. Some of the marauders stayed and founded settlements, such as the Viking outpost that became the great city of York. The languages spoken by these peoples had little or no written expression. Even if there was a writing system, there was no need to write for a population that couldn’t read, material to write on was rare and expensive, and the rulers were little different from the ruled in refinement and education.
The Romans brought luxurious baths, straight roads, and straiter Latin, which became the common language, spoken and written, of the educated in every Roman-occupied territory. The arrival of Christianity vastly increased the spread of Latin, so that eventually even humble serfs were exposed to it in church. Along with Latin came Greek, because when Rome conquered the Greeks, they recognized the superiority of the Greek culture in the arts, sciences, and other fields, and Greek became the language of the Roman upper class. A great many Latin words have Greek roots, and much of the vast English lexicon derives directly or indirectly from Latin.
The fall of Rome brought on the Dark Ages, and the young Roman Catholic Church struggled to protect its heritage through the monasteries, which served as centers of learning and repositories of knowledge. Outside the monasteries, the unschooled masses went about their hard daily lives, and the highly structured language of the Romans began to devolve and meld with the vernacular tongues of the natives and the invaders from points north and east, which themselves devolved to lesser complexity and precision. The Romance languages, principally Italian, French, and Spanish, retained gender distinctions for masculine and feminine but lost neuter; they also lost case distinctions for nouns other than pronouns, letting position determine a word’s function within a sentence. They retained multiple verb conjugations and a different suffix for almost every person for every tense and mood.
English devolved further than the Romance languages. It gave up gender distinctions altogether except in reference to creatures that actually had gender. It did so despite its origin as a Germanic tongue that used all three genders, as present-day German still does. I have never seen the point of assigning gender to nouns. When gender determines declension, it makes sense. The nominative ending tells you the gender; for instance, in Latin, -us is (generally) masculine, -a is feminine, and -um is neuter, and each is inflected differently to form the genitive, dative, accusative, and ablative cases. (Never knew what English was missing, did you? Actually, English does retain some of this, but only for pronouns, and you’ve been inflecting them for case since you first imbibed grammar with your mother’s milk.) But when inflections for case and declension disappear, so do gender clues. Remembering the perfectly arbitrary gender of every single noun becomes an enormous effort. Also, associating gender with the word rather than the person leads to needless ambiguity. In French, both His Majesty and Her Majesty are Sa Majesté, because the word majesté is feminine. This makes no sense to me. If someone says “Go wake up Sa Majesté,” do you go to the king’s chambers or the queen’s?
Just as it had done away with gender, English also gave up making adjectives agree with their nouns in number. We have one blue flower and five blue flowers, whereas French has une fleur bleue (feminine singular) and cinq fleurs bleues (feminine plural). Perhaps the Saxons were thumbing their noses at the French-speaking Normans who were the last to successfully invade the sceptered isle (the Normans themselves began as Norsemen, ceded a coastal province to stop their raids on Paris upriver). English also left behind the second-person singular pronouns and verb forms; thou, thee, thy, and thine have passed beyond old-fashioned to archaic. French retains the familiar tu for intimate conversations with a spouse or with God.
Most English verbs require only five permutations to create every person, tense, and mood, with the help of a mere handful of helper verbs, also with limited permutations. For example, the verb to see can appear as see, sees, saw, seen, and seeing. In French, the equivalent verb, voir, has five different forms for the present tense, another five for the present subjunctive, five more each for the simple past and future, and three for the imperative. Yikes! My French dictionary (published in France) has 27 pages of a table, presented sideways in small type, that spells out every one of the multiple forms of verbs regular and irregular in four different conjugations. The same information for English verbs, a simple alphabetical list that includes every form for every irregular verb, fills only four pages in full-size type. The phrasal infinitive in English is particularly neat; the infinitive form is identical to the verb stem, which simplifies many derivations, including future, subjunctive, and imperative.
Finally, English let go of many plural forms inherited from various of its parents; the plural schoen became shoes, although the -en plural ending survived for men, women, and children, among other very old words. (Speaking of very old words, many of the world’s languages have a word for mother that includes the phoneme ma. Desert-born Arabic, however, uses umm for mother and reserves the nurturing ma as the word for water.)
All these changes simplified the English language. Speakers and writers of English didn’t have to worry about the gender of sexless objects and concepts. They didn’t have to parse every sentence as they formed it to make sure all the nouns were in the correct case; they only had to put them in the correct order. They had only one verb conjugation, irregular verbs notwithstanding, and many fewer forms to wade through. They didn’t have to match adjectives to their nouns in number or gender (which gives English a propensity for dangling participles, but that’s another rant).
These simplifications helped make it easy for English to embrace new words. There was no need for an authority to assign a gender (what gender is blog?), no worry about adapting case or tense inflections (blog, blogs, blogged, and blogging cover all the bases), no problem with making it plural. (For most nouns, just add s; if that looks odd, try es. Do not use ’s, or I’ll smack you down.) English accepted words from Arabic (algebra, safari) and Malay (amok, kapok), Japanese (origami, sushi) and Tibetan (lama), Hawaiian (lanai, lei) and Hindi (veranda) with equal ease. There are more words in the English lexicon than in any other language, and the total increases daily as we invent new words for new things and new processes (photocopy, Internet, and website come to mind).
However, the diverse provenance of this vast vocabulary is reflected in the wide diversity of spelling rules that shaped the words in their native tongues. Also at work are different styles of transliteration for words from languages with different alphabets or no alphabet at all. (For instance, Peking became Beijing and Mao Tse-tung became Mao Ze-dong when the system for transliterating Chinese changed.) English spelling has no overriding logic, no simple set of universally applicable rules. The spelling of old English words evolved over centuries and only began to be codified after the invention of the printing press spurred the production and dissemination of written works at a pace impossible for hand copying. The words borrowed and adapted from Latin had the benefit of standardization by generations of scholars and clerics, but borrowings from the Romance languages were less straightforward.
The English words for food animals are mainly of Anglo-Saxon origin: cow, pig, calf, deer. But the words for the meat of these animals are often of French origin, their spelling Anglicized: beef, pork, veal, and venison. This dichotomy is a potent reminder of who could afford to eat meat after the Norman invasion. Embarrass has two r’s because that’s how the French decided to spell the Portuguese word embaraçar (baraça, by the way, means noose). Arabic words involve transliteration from an alphabet that has several versions of d and h and awards the glottal stop its own letter (the hamza) but dispenses with those pesky vowels, which it reduces to optional diacritical marks. (The glottal stop is what you do with your throat if you try to say “a apple” without interposing an n. In other words, English purposely avoids it.)
There have been attempts to derive rules, but they all have loopholes. Everyone remembers “i before e except after c,” but then we have weird and heir, among others. The suffix -ize is used to create verbs in American English (sanitize, verbalize), but not every word that ends with that sound is spelled with a z: surprise and advise are just two examples. Britons spell most such words -ise (summarise, memorise) but have to remember the exception prize.
Spelling is a talent. Without it, you have to memorize every single word added to your vocabulary, which usually has mixed results. (At least we don’t have to remember gender and declension and multiple conjugations too.) The talent for spelling is a form of eidetic memory, the ability to make and retain very detailed mental images. A person with this ability doesn’t have to remember exactly how to spell curious; he has a picture of the word in his head against which to compare the word he writes on the paper. If the pictures don’t match, an alarm goes off, and he’ll fiddle with the written word until it jibes with the mental image.
If you weren’t fortunate enough to be born with eidetic memory, don’t despair and don’t beat yourself up. The ability to spell has nothing to do with intelligence. Extremely bright people can be terrible spellers, making everyday errors such as tommorow, surprize, and seperate. (Word is programmed to outright fix all three of these without a by-your-leave, that’s how common these errors are.) With hard work and sheer determination, a person might memorize as many as a hundred thousand words, but not everyone’s willing to make that effort, especially now that Spellcheck can rescue the hapless. However, the effort to turn on the spelling check feature of your word-processing program should be considered an absolute minimum. Mine is always on. Most of the time it has very little to do; I am one of the lucky ones with an eidetic memory. When I am writing fiction, however, and see squiggly red lines on the screen, I know I’ve been especially inventive—it’s a good thing. Use the spelling checker! It won’t take long and can spare your reader paralyzing confusion and spare you embarrassment (getting caught in a noose).
One major caveat: the program will only tell you if the word you’ve chosen is misspelled. It won’t tell you if you’ve chosen or correctly spelled the wrong word; it can’t. The title of this article contains two misspellings, only one of which (mispellers) upsets the spelling checker. Untie is a misspelling of Unite that happens to be a correctly spelled word, so the program won’t flag it; you have to proofread. See Crotchets articles 1 (Who’s To Blame?) and 4 (Eat Here, We Have Heavy-Metal Windows!) for cautionary examples of failure to use a dictionary to check meaning as well as spelling and failure to proofread.
This is article 7 in a continuing series. © 2009 Christine C. Janson
Thursday, February 12, 2009
Of course it’s all-new, if it’s indeed new at all. There is no such thing as a partly new episode, I argued. I perceived no difference between a new episode and an all-new episode, putting this monstrosity in the Department of Redundancy Department category of nonsense.
As it turns out, I was wrong. There is indeed such a thing as a partly new episode in the universe of network television programs.
Successful shows that enjoy a long life, several seasons or several years, occasionally run out of steam. Ideas dry up, the pile of scripts dwindles to a few dogs, the actors want some time off. One solution is to create a portmanteau or retrospective episode, wherein the characters review past events. The (usually very thin) story line generally involves as few of the cast as possible and intersperses a minute or two of acting/dialogue with clips from previous episodes. Voilà, a partly new episode.
I have conceded that all-new is not necessarily redundant in this context. However, I still have a beef, because these partly new episodes are advertised as all-new. No fair, guys! We demand truth in advertising! Portmanteau shows should be labeled as such, to save us all the trouble of watching or recording cobbled-together tidbits from earlier shows. Don’t promise us steak and serve hot dogs. You don’t have to admit it’s only partly new. But you must omit all and describe it accurately as simply a new episode, or the Nitpickers’ Guild will be on your case.
As an aside, let me point out that all-new must be hyphenated whether it precedes or follows the noun. In this phrase, all is being used adverbially; compare with the obvious adverb partly in partly new. The rule is that adverbs that end in -ly are never hyphenated to the adjectives they modify, because their grammatical function is clear, but those that do not end in -ly usually should be hyphenated to prevent misreading. Here, all must be hyphenated so that it won’t be read as either a collective noun (I gave it my all) or as an adjective (we danced all night): All of this is new = This is all new (noun, no hyphen), versus This thing is entirely new = This is all-new. I don’t believe I have ever seen all-new with a hyphen on my TV screen. This does not surprise me.
This is article 6 in a continuing series. © 2009 Christine C. Janson
Thursday, January 29, 2009
So there is leeway in defining terms that express size or quality, and we acknowledge the absurdity of juxtapositions such as jumbo shrimp. But lately I have been noticing absurdities created by an apparent unwillingness to pick just one term.
I recently purchased onions at the supermarket. Putting them away at home, I paused to read the sticker that carried the PLU code and discovered that I had purchased “Large medium yellow onions.” Huh? Are they large, or are they medium? I will not consider the possibility that medium is referring to the shade of yellow. For one thing, there’s no hyphen. Surely the growers of all people ought to be able to establish sensible standards, whether by size or weight, diameter or ounces. Most disturbing, however, was that this sticker was attached to onions that I had chosen as being on the small side, i.e., smaller than average, i.e., neither large nor medium. The bin was labeled “Loose onions,” but my receipt had “Onions yellow sm.” Ah hah!
Is the size classification of yellow onions so exact that we need a subcategory poised between large and medium? I doubt it, especially when the produce in question didn’t belong in either category. If “large medium” is being applied to smaller-than-average specimens, can we look forward to buying onions classified as jumbo, colossal, and gigantic? I fear this is some kind of marketing ploy, although the purpose escapes me.
A second absurdity came from a different sort of aberrant thought process. A television ad for a fast-food place (let’s not dignify it as a restaurant) ballyhooed their sundaes, served with “warm hot fudge.” Huh? Is it warm, or is it hot? Actually, I think I have a handle on this one. The person who committed this was seeing hot fudge as a unit, the specific name of a specific thing, a fudgy sauce, its temperature irrelevant. Either the eatery didn’t plan to keep the stuff really hot (I don’t eat at such places partly because the food is never hot enough to please me), or the writer knew from experience that fudge sauce cools off very quickly once in contact with ice cream. Either way, he didn’t want to misrepresent the dish that customers would receive, and so he opted for warm, apparently not caring that the result was absurd, joined in that indifference by the corporate types who okayed this inane language.
As long as it’s heated above room temperature (vide supra), it’s hot fudge sauce. If you don’t heat it at all, it’s simply fudge sauce, and it won’t be a nice contrast for your ice cream. Likewise, if it’s bigger than medium, it’s large; and if it’s smaller than large, it’s medium. Just pick one, you vacillating (oxy)morons!
P.S. Okay, there is now (six months later) a red onion labeled Jumbo sitting in my onion basket. There were no "Small" or "Medium" red onions to compare it with. It is a good size, but not big enough to justify the hyperbole of jumbo versus simple large for something that tends to be on the big side anyway. The price was a bit more than usual. These are disturbing omens.
This is article 5 in a continuing series. © 2009 Christine C. Janson
Tuesday, January 27, 2009
A fine example of PR myopia and carelessness appeared in a recent issue of a tabloid-sized advertising publication called The Merchandiser. Under the banner head “Featured Restaurant” appears a half-page ad for a newly opened place in downtown Frederick, Md. There is a four-color photograph of an unidentifiable food construct (it might be caviar atop a slice of cheddar cheese atop a very thin cracker) balanced on the back of a spoon. Beneath that are six short paragraphs in a very readable sans serif typeface, followed by the hours of operation, address, phone number, and website. Despite the oddity of the food image, the ad gives a good impression—until you read it.
Let’s start with two ludicrous errors in word choice, both in the homophone category. In paragraph three we are told that the restaurant’s Main Dining Room (their capitals) is “awash in a palate of amber and burnt rose.” Burnt anything offends my palate; the confusion of palate with palette offends my sensibilities. Then, in paragraph five, we learn that there is a “vintage palladium window overlooking Market Street.” When did they begin making windows out of a metal related to platinum? Such a window would weigh a ton and cost a fortune and not be at all transparent. A Palladian window, on the other hand, would look very handsome. To make matters worse, the sentence in which this imbecility appears is a grammatical mess.
Who made these errors? Who wrote this copy? I can only speculate and deduce. I was told by someone associated with the restaurant that they work with a PR firm. Perhaps there was a meeting at which the client requested that the ad mention the colors of the main dining room; the client may even have specified that the palette was amber and burnt rose, and the error here is entirely the copywriter’s. If the client prepared the copy and actually had the word palate written down, the PR firm should have caught the error; that is part of their job. Regardless of whether they made the error or failed to catch it, this howler is a blot on their reputation.
The confusion between palladium and Palladian is on another level entirely. I can envision several possible scenarios, all of which involve Spellcheck. It’s a certainty that the client knew what a Palladian window is, and the fault here belongs solely to the PR firm. Perhaps the client wrote Palladian but misspelled it; perhaps the copywriter mistyped it into the computer; or perhaps the client said Palladian and the copywriter heard it wrong or wrote the unfamiliar word down phonetically. My Spellcheck program offers both Palladian and palladium as alternatives for a likely misspelling, and I see the copywriter picking one without bothering to look it up even though he obviously didn’t know the meaning of either. For shame! May the shade of Andrea Palladio haunt you! (If he did know the meaning and used palladium anyway, his ignorance extends well beyond language.)
Now we come to the biggest problem with this ad. It has nothing to do with grammar, word choice, or punctuation, but it is something a good editor would have queried. The six paragraphs of text in this half-page ad for a restaurant tell us a great deal about the nineteenth-century brownstone that houses it, the décor and ambience of its various rooms, and its location in Frederick’s historic district. Oddly, only half a sentence mentions the food served in this marvelous edifice, and that only vaguely. To quote every word of it, we can look forward to “seasonal entrées” that “showcase classic flavor combinations prepared with fresh, local ingredients.”
So what kind of cuisine does this restaurant offer? New American? Classic French? Thai? The restaurant’s name, a shortening of the executive chef’s last name, isn’t much of a clue. His name is Italian; do we assume the cuisine is Italian? Turns out the place espouses a food philosophy called locavorism—that’s vor as in omnivore and loca as in local, not as in crazy. Call me crazy, but I believe most people debating where to go for dinner don’t choose a place because the architecture is exceptional. Some might be moved to try this one simply because it’s new and sounds elegant. But most people decide where to eat based on the kind of food that might be offered, and they have been given no useful information. This fundamental oversight is a fatal flaw.
This PR firm has produced an ad that doesn’t tell us the most important thing about the business being advertised and uses an unappetizing image to boot. (“What is that? Caviar on cheddar? Yecch!”) The promise of seasonal entrées, classic flavor combinations, and fresh ingredients is not very enticing. You expect that much from any fine restaurant. Good advertising sells the sizzle. This ad isn’t even selling the steak. It’s telling us all about the walls. Is the cuisine less appealing than the décor? Isn't the locavorism philosophy worth one paragraph out of six?
The client’s advertising budget has been ill-spent on an ad that contains not one but two laughable errors and will not entice nearly as many people as a well-conceived, well-written, and well-imaged one would have done. If this were my business, I’d probably be looking for a new PR firm. I would also make a point of proofreading all copy before giving it my approval to avoid embarrassment in the future.
This is article 4 in a continuing series. © 2009 Christine C. Janson