Adjectives, danglers, and wretchedness

January 10, 2014

In Wretched Writing: A Compendium of Crimes Against the English Language (Perigee, 2013), compiled by Ross Petras and Kathryn Petras, I encountered the following remarkable passage showing the overuse of adjectives. It’s by Pel Torro, aka Lionel Fanthorpe, from his 1968 story Galaxy 666:

The things were odd, weird, grotesque. There was something horribly uncustomary and unwonted about them. They were completely unfamiliar. Their appearance was outlandish and extraordinary. Here was something quite phenomenal about them. They were supernormal; they were unparalleled; they were unexampled. The shape of the aliens was singular in every sense. They were curious, odd, queer, peculiar and fantastic, and yet when every adjective had been used on them, when every preternatural epithet had been applied to their aberrant and freakish appearance, when everything that could be said about such eccentric, exceptional, anomalous creatures had been said, they still remained indescribable in any concrete terms.

Rather than “wretched”, I would say it’s deliberately over the top, done for humorous effect. Extravagant repetition aside, the style is solid and rhetorically varied. But you can see why it’s been singled out.

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Non-restrictive ‘that’, that can be ambiguous

December 15, 2013

Non-restrictive relative clauses, which are structured like the one you’re reading now, are usually set off by a comma followed by the relative pronoun which or who. Very occasionally that is used, and its rarity (and sometime ambiguity) sounds my Curious Grammar Klaxon.

A note on terminology: non-restrictive relative clauses are also called non-defining or supplementary relatives, distinct from restrictive, defining, or integrated relatives. (There’s more on this and associated “which-hunting” in my oversized that/which grammar post.)

A Student’s Introduction to English Grammar says non-restrictive that relatives are “extremely rare and really only marginally present in Standard English”. True enough, but I tend to come across at least a few a year. Here’s an oldish one in J. W. N. Sullivan’s 1927 book Beethoven:

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More clichéd than previously thought

July 24, 2013

A lesser known cliché in journalism, especially science reporting, is the construction than previously thought. It doesn’t always take that precise form – sometimes it’s than originally thought, or than previously believed, or than scientists/anyone previously thought, or just than thought – but that’s the general structure, and it. is. ubiquitous.

Search for site:sciencedaily.com “previously thought” on Google, or try other news websites in the site: slot, and you’ll see what a journalistic crutch it is. I remember grumbling about it on Twitter once and then seeing it in the next two articles I read.

I’ve also mentioned it on this blog, in a comment a few years ago, where I described it as a meaningless and hackneyed device that may be meant to add novelty and excitement to a story, but doesn’t; instead, it implies that no scientist has any imagination whatsoever.

The number of times I’ve read than previously thought and thought, Actually, that’s not a surprise at all, or No, I’ve had that very thought before – well, it’s probably even more than previously thought.

But there is an upside. In its most elliptical form, than thought, it can generate amusing semantic ambiguities, as in this recent example from Discovery News (via @brandalisms): “Death Happens More Slowly Than Thought”, to which one might reasonably reply: It depends on the thought. (Cf. “Human genome far more active than thought”.)

Discovery crash blossom headline - death happens more slowly than thought

Yes, it’s a crash blossom (i.e., a headline with garden-path ambiguity), a mild one, but the first I’ve written about in a while. I guess the lesson is: When life hands you clichés, make crash blossoms (or other linguistic fun). Not always possible, of course, but maybe more often than prev—


A hovering dangling modifier

June 6, 2013

Dangling modifiers may seem pretty harmless, unlikely even to be noticed except by editors and eagle-eyed readers. But at their worst they can evoke images so silly or outlandish as to invite ridicule – or at least editorial protest.

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage calls danglers “a venial sin at most” and says they are “common, old, and well-established in English literature”. It offers examples from Shakespeare and Jane Austen, among others:

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The trouble with ‘fulsome’

May 4, 2013

The word fulsome is used quite regularly by public figures in Ireland, often politicians promising or demanding apologies. Whenever this happens, it is criticised as an “incorrect” usage: see for example this letter to the Irish Times, which supports its point by reference to the AP Stylebook.

This is not a new complaint, but it is a debatable one. The trouble isn’t that fulsome is being used incorrectly, but that it has more than one common and legitimate meaning in modern English. Compounding this is the awkward fact that some of its meanings are contradictory and used in similar contexts, so the speaker’s intent isn’t always obvious.

The disputed meaning of fulsome – “abundant, copious, full” – is the earliest sense of the word, dating to Middle English and described by Merriam-Webster’s Concise Dictionary of English Usage (MWCDEU) as “the etymologically purest sense”. It fell out of favour but returned in the 20th century, attracting criticism. Though often considered a less than proper usage, it is popular, and broadly applied:

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Howling ambiguities

November 25, 2012

As a lazy Sunday offering, a selection of entries from Denys Parsons’ entertaining book It Must Be True: Classic Newspaper Howlers, Bloomers, and Misprints.

They’re not referenced in detail, unfortunately, but I’m willing to believe they’re all genuine instances of accidental ambiguity. Some can be found elsewhere online.

  1. After using your ointment my face started to clear up at once, and after using two jars it was gone altogether. (Ad in Bristol paper)
  2. Dyke stated in his complaint that the defendant owned a large dog that walked the floor most of the night, held noisy midnight parties, and played the radio so that sleep was impossible. (Australian paper)
  3. Wrap poison bottles in sandpaper and fasten with scotch tape or a rubber band. If there are children in the house, lock them in a small metal box. (Philadelphia Record)
  4. Its lone peal summons the faithful to worship while the others are dismantled and repaired. (Bucks Advertiser)
  5. Mrs. Oscar Maddox is able to be up after being confined to bed for several weeks with malaria fever, to the delight of her friends. (Thomasville (Georgia) Times-Enterprise)
  6. The Nilotic race is remarkable for the disproportionately long legs of its men and women. They extend on the eastern side of the Nile right down into the Ugandan Protectorate. (From a book by Sir Harry H. Johnston)
  7. …and a few moments after the Countess had broken the traditional bottle of champagne on the bows of the noble ship, she slid slowly and gracefully down the slipway, entering the water with scarcely a splash. (Essex paper)
  8. LOST Antique cameo ring, depicting Adam and Eve in Market Square Saturday night. (Ad in Essex paper)
  9. The thing that first caught my eye was a large silver cup that Charles had won for skating on the mantelpiece. (short story)
  10. The native inhabitants produce all manner of curios, the great majority of which appear to command a ready sale among the visitors, crude and commonplace as they frequently are. (Bulawayo Chronicle)
  11. When the baby is done drinking it must be unscrewed and laid in a cool place under a tap. If the baby does not thrive on fresh milk it should be boiled. (Women’s magazine)
  12. Discovered at 5.06 a.m. the flames starting on the third floor of the Midwest Salvage Co., spread so rapidly that the first firemen on the scene were driven back to safety and leaped across three streets to ignite other buildings. (Cincinnati Times Star)
  13. Princess B__ wore a white and gold lace gown which she’d saved for the occasion. To give you an idea how elaborate it was, the centre-piece was a mirror 13½ feet long with elaborate matching candelabra of fruit-baskets. (Los Angeles Mirror)
  14. From Llandrindod you proceed along the lovely valley of the Ithon, growing more beautiful as you proceed. (Motor Cycle)

Many of these ambiguities are anaphoric. Anaphora is something everyone’s familiar with, though they mightn’t know the term. It’s the use of a word or phrase to substitute for an earlier element – the antecedent.

So in #1′s it was gone altogether, it is an anaphor referring back to an unidentified blemish, but technically it could also refer to my face, hence the ambiguity. Here, the absurdist interpretation comes more naturally.

In A Dictionary of Linguistics and Phonetics, David Crystal says anaphoric reference is a way of “marking the identity between what is being expressed and what has already been expressed”. See the lyrics of Christine Collins’s ‘Linguistics Love Song‘ for a play on it. Cataphora is similar but involves forward reference, e.g., Consider the following.

Grammatical jargon aside, which is your favourite ambiguity here, or do you remember other examples?


A grisly crash blossom

February 8, 2012

What would you do to escape prosecution?

Crash blossoms, as you may know, are headlines that can lead you up the garden path, semantically speaking.

Today’s Irish Times has a mild one. The word to, commonly used in headlines to indicate futurity (as in the example above), here inadvertently generates an alternative meaning in which the Dutch TV presenters ate human flesh in order to escape prosecution.

It’s a wild idea.

The headline is unlikely to be misunderstood, but it has the potential to cause a momentary miscue — replacing to with will would avoid it — and it is grammatically interesting.

There are more crash blossoms here, at Language Log (including the recent gem “Does Donald Trump support matter?”), and on the Crash Blossoms blog.


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