Oxford commas, Nelson Mandela, and Stephen King

September 15, 2014

The Oxford comma (the one right before and in the title of this post) has been in the news again. It never really goes away, but now and then it intrudes more noticeably into general and specialist discussion. I’ve a couple of brief points to make about it, but anyone unsure of the terrain should first read my earlier post on the Oxford, Harvard, or serial comma, as it is variously known.

The Oxford comma is one of those in-group niceties that some wordsmiths use to mark their editorial or writerly identities. It has become a sort of tribal badge of style, reinforced by whether your preferred authority prescribes it – for example, the Chicago Manual of Style strongly recommends it, while the AP Stylebook says leave it out.

It’s remarkably divisive, so I’ll restate for the record that I’m not a die-hard Oxford comma user or leaver-outer. I like it, and I tend to use it, but not always. Neither its use nor its omission is a universal solution – ambiguity can arise either way, so it doesn’t make sense to be inflexible about it.

This tweet is a case in point:

@socratic tweet - oxford comma on mandela, 800-year-old demigod and dildo collector

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Fear of feet and relative ambiguity

September 3, 2014

In Lucy Ellmann’s sharp comic novel Varying Degrees of Hopelessness there is a minor but interesting ambiguity:

Later, she formed an alliance with a man much younger than herself, a man with small feet that didn’t scare her, a man who earned his living by entering supermarket competitions and the occasional raffle.

The question is, what didn’t scare her (she being the narrator’s mother) – the man or his small feet? I don’t think the book mentioned fear of feet elsewhere, so my first inclination was to assume that that in a man with small feet that didn’t scare her referred to the man.

But then why use a man who in the next clause? If the variation is meaningful, and not motivated by whimsy or euphony, etc., we could reasonably assume the fear refers to the feet. But I wouldn’t bet on it.

In a post on animals and pronouns, I summarised as follows: that can refer to things or people, which refers to things but not normally people, and who refers to people (and sometimes animals, or entities that are humanlike or have an implication of personality).

So a man with small feet which didn’t scare her would definitely imply that the feet didn’t scare her, while a man with small feet who didn’t scare her would connect the lack of fear decisively to the man. But that is ambiguous. How would you read it?


Join your child (to the library)

August 8, 2014

I noticed this banner ad on the window of my local city library:

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stan carey - galway city library - join your child for free

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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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