Sunday, November 15, 2009

Edless and Be-Eded

Let’s talk about participles!

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

No comments: