Ending a sentence with 15+ prepositions

January 14, 2013

One of daftest and dustiest old grammar myths is the unfounded rule against ending a sentence with a preposition. This fake proscription seems to have been invented by a Latin-loving John Dryden in 1672 and, like an indestructible demonic meme, continues to gnaw at people’s minds centuries later. Some even believe it.

Avoiding preposition-stranding (as it’s known) can have deliberately comical results, famously in not-Churchill’s “arrant nonsense up with which I will not put”. And then there’s the well-known line contrived to end in a whole stack of prepositions: “What did you bring that book that I didn’t want to be read to out of [about Down Under] up for?”

A couple of those “prepositions” might be better described as adverbs, but anyway. Variations on this line abound; until lately, though, I had never seen one so extravagant as this 15-preposition-pile monster:

What did you bring me the magazine I didn’t want to be read to out of about ‘”Over Under Sideways Down” up from Down Under’ up around for?

See Futility Closet for context, involving recursion and lighthouses. After I linked to it on Twitter, a couple of people pointed out that the line cheats by ignoring the use–mention distinction – that is, many of the prepositions aren’t used as prepositions. (Also: adverbs.) But I think cheating is allowed here in the interests of silliness.


Non-cognate interlexical homographs text vote

December 6, 2012

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Viz comic - 'a manger' homographs

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A bit of seasonal silliness from the current issue of Viz comic (#221).

Image via @SpankTM.


Two poems, two polls

May 22, 2012

You might remember the Monster A Day drawing blog that prompted my short verse about a whispering shell. Here are two more whimsical rhymes, best read in tandem with the lovely illustrations.

‘The monster that waits in the cupboard of an abandoned house’:

In a comfy cupboard on the quietest floor
Of an empty house with the creakiest door
Sits a great big thing with its furry face stuck
In the cosy excitement of a paperback book.

‘The monster that steals your socks… for sock races!’

You’re probably wondering what happens your sock
When it darts with a blur past the grandfather clock.
I’ll tell you: your foot’s not the favourite place
Of a sock that just wants to be sock-monster-raced!

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On an unrelated note, I’m honoured to be included in Lexiophiles’ top language professional blogs and top language Twitter accounts 2012. Many thanks to the kind reader(s) who nominated me.

You can browse the lists for languagey goodness, and you can vote for me at Sentence first and @StanCarey, or for whatever takes your fancy.

Update: The results are in, and this blog and my Twitter page both placed respectably: #21 in the language blogs, #14 in the language Twitterers. Considering I mentioned it only in passing, and tweeted about it just once, I’m quite amazed. Thanks to all who voted, and to bab.la and Lexiophiles for the fun and games.


Ragbag of reduplication and ráiméis

April 2, 2012

Here are excerpts from my latest two posts for Macmillan Dictionary Blog.

A hotchpotch of reduplication is a brief introduction to, and survey of, reduplicatives. Reduplication is where “a word or part of a word is repeated, sometimes modified, and added to make a longer term”, such as aye-aye, hotchpotch, and ping-pong:

Reduplication can be categorised as follows: exact or repeating reduplication (bye-bye, hush-hush, goody-goody), rhyming reduplication (itsy-bitsy, okey-dokey, boogie woogie), and ablaut reduplication (chit-chat, tip-top, riff-raff). Ablaut is a term introduced by Jacob Grimm; it refers to vowel change, which in reduplicatives often follows certain patterns: zigzag, knick-knack, mingle-mangle, or criss-cross, flip-flop, sing-song.

Clusters of letters recur, as in shilly-shally, dilly-dally, silly billy and willy-nilly, while ‘h’ is a common first letter, appearing thus in helter-skelter, heebie-jeebies, hurdy-gurdy, hurly-burly, higgledy-piggledy, hocus-pocus, and hob-nob. Some reduplication is onomatopoetic or echoic: pitter-patter, splish splash, ding-dong and tick-tock… [more]

Poppycock, bunkum and rawmaish looks at our words for nonsense. Many of them, such as those listed in the next paragraph, are colourful, old-fashioned English terms; rawmaish is one that overseas readers are less likely to be familiar with: it’s an Anglicisation of the Irish word ráiméis, meaning nonsense or foolish talk.

Many words for nonsense have an entertaining, almost clownish feel. Think of baloney, balderdash, piffle, gobbledegook, gibberish, poppycock, flapdoodle, twaddle, tommyrot, hogwash, hooey, and a load of old cobblers. These are words to delight in, flamboyant terms that parade themselves in a sentence . . . .

Some have histories as curious as their sound and appearance. In her MED Magazine article ‘Talking Nonsense: old-fashioned terms for nonsense in English’, Diane Nicholls reports that poppycock originates in a Dutch dialectal word, pappekak, which translates literally as “soft dung”, while bunkum and its abbreviated form bunk hail from Buncombe, a county in North Carolina, owing to a minor political incident there in the early 19th century. [more]

Both articles have benefited greatly from the discussion in the comments, where readers have shared their favourite reduplicatives and words for nonsense, sometimes in verse form. More thoughts are always welcome, and my older articles are available here.


Octopoem

October 25, 2011

On Twitter some time ago, I had a chat with Kory Stamper and Jeremy Kahn about the plural of octopus (octopuses? octopi? octopodes?)

This prompted Jeremy to write a rhyme, Plurals of the many-footed, in which he posed the question: “Would they think us all wusses / not to embrace the octopuses?”

I responded with eight hurried lines of nonsense, reproduced here for the pleasure (or more likely pain) of posterity:

Octopodes, they swim not run,
They have a beak but not a bill.
Larger things they tend to shun,
Littler things they tend ta kill.
But what an octopus might think –
Whether singular or plural –
Is hidden in a cloud of ink
Obscuring all things cephaloneural.

Jeremy’s post links to Kory’s helpful and popular video for Merriam-Webster about the various plurals of octopus, and to an excellent Stæfcræft & Vyākarana post on the same subject.

To these I will add this useful discussion at bradshaw of the future, who notes that “usage trumps etymology every time”.

I prefer the plural octopuses, except where rhyme or rhythm warrant one of the alternatives. An adequate summary of their merits would require several paragraphs, which would be pointless given the links above: all are worth a moment of your time, if the topic interests you.

Wikipedia also has a decent, well-referenced account.


A pun to hand in Wonderland

January 27, 2010

On this day (27 January) 178 years ago, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson was born in Cheshire, England. Better known as Lewis Carroll, he became a mathematician and author, among other things. Today he is remembered chiefly for the playful and protean prose he penned, especially his Alice books, and for his enduring nonsense verse, such as The Hunting of the Snark.

In honour of his birthday I offer a clutch of Carrollian clippings, beginning with an excerpt from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, which inspired the title of this blog.

“Let the jury consider their verdict,” the King said, for about the twentieth time that day.
“No, no!” said the Queen. “Sentence first — verdict afterwards.”
“Stuff and nonsense!” said Alice loudly. “The idea of having the sentence first!”
“Hold your tongue!” said the Queen, turning purple.
“I wo’n’t!” said Alice.
“Off with her head!” the Queen shouted at the top of her voice.

Commenting on this much-beloved book, Carroll wrote:

I think a child’s first attitude to the world is a simple love for all living things. And he will have learned that the best work a man can do is when he works for love’s sake only, with no thought of fame or gain or earthly reward.

Speaking of rewards, Carroll knew well the satisfaction of a good pun, incorporating many of them into his books and puzzles. Here is one of the latter:

John gave his brother James a box:
About it there were many locks.

James woke and said it gave him pain;
So gave it back to John again.

The box was not with lid supplied,
Yet caused two lids to open wide:

And all these locks had never a key—
What kind of box, then, could it be?

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And last, some links,
for laughs and thinks:

Solution to the puzzle above.
A useful and instructive poem.
Eight or nine wise words about letter writing.
Centenary exhibition at the Harry Ransom Center.
Jabberwocky translations, parodies, and explanations.
Lewis Carroll at the Victorian Web, including: Through Bergson’s Looking-Glass and “Lewis Carroll”: A Myth in the Making.
John Tenniel’s illustrations for the Alice books.
Other artists’ illustrations of Wonderland.
The Lewis Carroll Society.
Wikipedia page.


Finding a folly euphonic

November 22, 2009

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Amphigourie

Qu’il est heureux de se défendre
Quand le coeur ne s’est pas rendu!
Mais qu’il est fâcheux de se rendre
Quand le bonheur est suspendu!
Par un discours sans suite et tendre,
Égarez un coeur eperdu;
Souvent par un mal-entendu
L’amant adroit se fait entendre.

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Translation:

How happy to defend our heart,
When Love has never thrown a dart!
But ah! unhappy when it bends,
If pleasure her soft bliss suspends!
Sweet in a wild disordered strain,
A lost and wandering heart to gain,
Oft in mistaken language wooed
The skilful lover’s understood.

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I found this poem and its translation in Literary Frivolities, Fancies, Follies and Frolics (1880) by William T. Dobson, who in turn found them in Isaac D’Israeli’s Curiosities of Literature (1791–1823). Some lines seem rather loosely translated, but no matter. Dobson writes that the French author Claudine Guérin de Tencin once sang this verse to the writer and scientist Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle, who was impressed enough to request that she repeat the performance. When she pointed out that the verses were mere nonsense, he admitted that they were “so much like the fine verses I have heard here, that it is not surprising I should be for once mistaken!”

An amphigouri, also amphigourie or amphigory, can be considered a burlesque equivalent of what is known in English as a nonsense poem or nonsense verse. The OED says the word is a learned jocular formation from amphi- (Greek for around, about) and allégorie, where the Greek -agoria means speech or speaking. Alternatively, the latter part of the word may have come from gyros, Greek for circle or ring: like these entities, an amphigouri is well-rounded and attractively presented, but has nothing of substance inside. As Dobson put it, the verse is “richly-rhymed, elegantly expressed, but actual nonsense!”

Nonsense it may be, but my ears prefer it to the non-rhyming, inelegantly expressed nonsense that sometimes passes for meaningful communication.


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