Whom’s Law of Hypercorrection

December 6, 2014

I won’t subject readers to another long, rambling post on whom. But I want to note the tendency, strongest among those who are anxious to use whom “correctly”, to use it even when who would be generally considered the grammatically appropriate choice: as subject pronoun.

Ben Zimmer at Language Log recently criticised a book review at the New Yorker in which Nathan Heller wrote: “The glorious thing about the ‘who’ and ‘whom’ distinction is that it’s simple.” This is an easy assumption to make if your grasp of who/whom grammar owes to the oversimplified instructions of the many prescriptive guides that neglect to examine register* or the trickier possible cases.

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Andy Warhol and language

October 30, 2014

“Words troubled and failed Andy Warhol,” writes Wayne Koestenbaum on the first page of his biography of the artist (Penguin Books, 2001), even though Warhol wrote many books, “with ghostly assistance”, and had a distinctive speaking style.

Wayne Koestenbaum - Andy Warhol - Penguin Lives biography book coverKoestenbaum returns several times to Warhol’s relationship with language and with time, noting how Warhol’s love of repetition manifested in verbal expression, and remarking on how he “distrusted language” and didn’t understand “how grammar unfolded episodically in linear time, rather than in one violent atemporal explosion”.

I want to quote one passage in particular, from later in the book (which is more psychological portrait than straight biography). Warhol’s magazine Interview, first titled inter/VIEW and then Andy Warhol’s Interview, featured stars interviewing other stars with the results transcribed generously and precisely, without the editing that conventionally turns spontaneous speech into readable prose:

Interview magazine was Andy’s most sustained attempt, after a [a novel], to cross the border between tape-recorded speech and the written word: his experiments in bridging this divide involve a serious philosophical quest to figure out where and how verbal meaning breaks down, and to track the imprecise, shiftless way the words occupy the time it takes to utter and understand them. Andy’s intensest experiences were visual, not verbal, yet he remained fascinated by his own difficult, hampered process of verbalization. Interview, an ideal vehicle, allowed him to indulge his interest in dialogue, as well as his desire to bodysnatch reality and to seal it in falsely labeled canisters. Via the technological mediation of tape recorder, Andy hoodwinked time and talk, and canned it as a product bearing his own name.

I don’t know how serious a philosophical quest it was, but I can relate to the interest in unedited dialogue. Anyone who has transcribed recorded speech will have noticed how halting and erratic is its syntax, compared to the deliberate (if not always elegant) order of writing.

Speech, particularly in conversation, is characterised by false starts, broken phrasing, and disorganised ideas; full, coherent sentences are the exception. Little wonder our memory of syntax and vocabulary is so poor.

Warhol’s unashamedly commercial attitude can belie the fact that he was a deeply sensual artist, and for all his awkwardness with language I think he must have savoured this slippery, intimate side of it – especially when it manifested in so messy and profligate a fashion.


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?


Subject contact clauses in Irish English

August 22, 2014

Everyone came home from England was questioned. (Timothy O’Grady, I Could Read the Sky)

Contact clauses are dependent clauses attached directly to their antecedent, i.e., without any relative pronoun. For example: a book I read; the town we visited; a person you admire. In each case that, which or who might be added after the noun phrase, but doesn’t have to be.

Otto Jespersen introduced the term, calling them contact clauses “because what characterizes them is the close contact in sound and sense between the clause and what precedes it”.

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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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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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To offensively split infinitives

August 2, 2014

I like the Economist and admire its commitment to a clear, plain style of writing. This makes it harder to excuse its perplexing stance on split infinitives. Its style guide says the rule prohibiting them is pointless, but “to see it broken is so annoying to so many people that you should observe it”.

This is capitulation to an unfounded fetish. Why not just let the fussbudgets be annoyed? The style guide offers sound advice aplenty, but on split infinitives it sacrifices healthy brains to a zombie rule. The reason I bring it up again, having already shown why the rule is bogus and counterproductive, is a tweet from the Economist style guide:¹

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economist style guide on truth, giving offence, than that typo

There are two things I want to note here.

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