Pompous language is a weapon

November 5, 2014

People have different motivations for using gobbledygook instead of plain language. They may wish to sound impressive and assume, incorrectly, that fancyisms trump familiar words. They may use it as a technique of avoidance or obfuscation, if they want to hide the truth or are unsure of what they’re talking about. Or it might simply be habit or convention, as I said of advise in business communication.

Don Watson elaborates on this in his admirable polemic Gobbledygook: How Clichés, Sludge and Management-Speak Are Strangling Our Public Language (US title: Death Sentence: The Decay of Public Language):

Corporate leaders sometimes have good reason to obscure their meaning by twisting their language into knots, but more often they simply twist it out of habit. They have forgotten the other way of speaking: the one in which you try to say what you mean. Instead they welcome their audience and proceed immediately to put them in a coma by announcing their intention to spend the next half hour outlining the company’s key strategies and initiatives going forward, and their commitment to fill capability gaps and enhance sustainable growth for the benefit of all shareholders

Even when we use it as a shield against our own uncertainty, pompous language is a weapon, an expression of power. Part of it is a mistaken effort to elevate the tone. Beneath pomposity rests the assumption that she who elevates the tone will herself be elevated; with luck, beyond scrutiny. The risk, which the truly pompous never see, is that an opposite effect is achieved or the tone moves sideways into unselfconscious parody.

Don Watson - Gobbledygook aka Death Sentence - book coverOn the matter of saying what you mean, Tom Freeman describes a writer going into Writing Mode instead of just putting their ideas in a direct and ordinary way. This is a common problem among aspiring or unskilled writers: they strive for impact in all the wrong ways, such as packing their prose with overelaborations and formal synonyms. Whether through habit, naiveté, diffidence, or lack of faith in simplicity, the result for readers is the same.

Two other things worth mentioning in brief: You probably noticed Watson’s use of she as a generic pronoun – throughout Gobbledygook he alternates between she and he for this purpose. A few writers do, and while I would favour singular they, the alternating style is at least more equitable and inclusive than defaulting to he, as too many writers continue to do. And did you see that unhyphenated unselfconscious? I approve. Oh yes.


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?


Readers say find headline syntax weird

August 19, 2014

A news story at Reuters last week had a striking bit of syntax in its headline:

reuters headline - says expects to announce

This unorthodox grammatical construction is not unusual in headlines, but I didn’t make a note of it before. A quick search online with various headline-friendly verbs shows it to be a regular enough occurrence:

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‘Dumb-strike’ in The Goshawk

May 23, 2014

From The Goshawk, T. H. White’s memorable account of his early experiences with falconry:

There was no progress at all that day, and not to go continuously forward was to go back. How often, and for how long periods, did human life suddenly dumb-strike and confuse itself: becoming as it were curdled or criss-crossed, the surface not coherent and the grain influent. This solitary life was one of almost boundless misdirected energy, but even misdirection was a form of direction. For months at a time I was content with that.

T. H. White - The Goshawk - Penguin Modern Classics book coverThe verb dumb-strike struck me, if not dumb, then certainly as unusual. The OED has no record of it, nor do Mark Davies’ huge language corpora, though Google led me to a handful of unhyphenated examples in informal contexts (Twitter, mailing lists) amidst abundant false positives.

Normally of course we see the separable verb phrase strike dumb – and there’s the familiar adjective dumbstruck. White’s innovation is more economical than “strike itself dumb and confuse itself” would have been, but whether it’s clearer than “strike dumb and confuse itself” is open to debate. It’s more interesting at any rate.

Another line of note in White’s book is the following:

We stood in a field, an object of interest to ten young bullocks who surrounded us.

What interests me here is the use of relative pronoun who with non-human subjects, specifically animals. To earn grammatical who status, rather than that or which, generally requires an “implication of personality” as the OED nicely puts it, but in general usage animals often don’t qualify for it.

Cattle definitely meet that requirement, and in The Goshawk are duly treated that way, but it’s good to see the usage anyway.


The unsung value of singular ‘themself’

January 23, 2014

I’ve written before about the reflexive pronoun themself, showing its history in English and potential to fill a semantic gap in the language. Once a normal, unremarkable word, themself became less preferred over time, and its use today is low: Oxford Dictionaries says it’s “not widely accepted in standard English”, while Macmillan Dictionary says “most people consider this use incorrect”. Many dictionaries omit it.

This is a pity, but these are not permanent prescriptions – they’re observations about the usage’s current state of acceptability. And they are subject to change, because language is, because we are.

stan carey conspiracy keanu reeves meme - singular themself as a descriptivist plotThemself is no mere quirky substitute for the more familiar pronoun themselves: it enables us to make subtle anaphoric distinctions. As my earlier post shows, there are situations where the use of themselves in place of themself would be misleading. By avoiding and stigmatising themself we miss a useful linguistic trick.

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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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The referee itself

August 3, 2013

In Barry Blaustein’s wrestling documentary Beyond the Mat, then-WWF supremo Vince McMahon has just given Darren Drozdov his new character name, Puke, and is explaining how he’ll be introduced to the audience. You might want to skip the quotation if you’re eating:

So, after you’ve regurgitated on one of your opponents, or on the referee itself, then of course the ring announcer would, y’know, then say your name.

You can watch it here – go to 06.23:

The phrase the referee itself is grammatically interesting. Wrestling referees are adult people, and when it or itself is used to refer to a person, it’s usually a very young person or a part of a person – not an adult of unknown or unspecified gender.

But none of the alternative pronouns is perfect in that position. The referee himself is the most obvious (the job is male-dominated), but it is sexist; himself or herself (or similar) would be pedantic; themselves strikes me as awkward here, though I like singular they; and themself is rare, and does not occur to most speakers.

So the choice of itself, made on the spur of the moment, lets McMahon avoid constructions that are problematic for various reasons – but in doing so objectifies the referee in an unusual way. (Compare with the use of whom to refer to houses, which I heard in a documentary on The Truman Show.)

Omitting the intensive pronoun entirely would be the simplest solution, since it’s not essential here. But in casual speech we don’t normally get a chance to weigh up options like this. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts.


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