Both . . . and . . .

November 25, 2008

The correlative conjunctions both . . . and . . . are best served by parallelism, which is easily achieved but just as easily overlooked. The conjunctions should be carefully positioned and their conjoined elements should be well balanced. That is, what follows both and what follows and should have the same grammatical form:

He was determined both to beat the record and to win over the crowd.

Here, the conjunctions frame two infinitives, which brings symmetry to the sentence – unlike the following constructions, which lurch rather awkwardly:

He was both determined to beat the record and to win over the crowd.
He was determined both to beat the record and win over the crowd.

Again, balance in the following sentences enhances their efficiency and euphony:

The game is suitable for both children and adults.
The game is suitable both for children and for adults.

Without balance:

The game is suitable both for children and adults.
The game is both suitable for children and adults.

In the last two examples, both and and do not carry equal weight, and the sentences become unbalanced. Although the sense is not destroyed, the rhythm is upset and logic is undermined. Following both with a preposition will lead readers to expect another preposition after and, while following both with an adjective will lead readers to expect another adjective after and, e.g.

The game is both suitable for children and enjoyable for adults.

But this is not what is being said, and the expectation – even if only momentary – may disorient the reader.

Recently I came across an example in Gerald Durrell’s Encounters With Animals:

“Once [the male trapdoor spider] has lifted the trapdoor and entered the silken shaft, it is for him both a tunnel of love and death.”

Most readers will automatically accept Durrell’s intention that the spider’s silken shaft (no sniggering please) is (1) a tunnel of love, and (2) a tunnel of death, but the sentence as it is written suggests that the shaft is (1) a tunnel of love, and (2) death. Better to have written:

It is for him a tunnel of both love and death.

Or, less plainly but more dramatically:

It is for him both a tunnel of love and a tunnel of death.

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Meh

November 23, 2008

Next year will see the publication of Collins English Dictionary’s 30th anniversary edition. To mark the occasion, HarperCollins invited the public to submit neologisms (new words or phrases) for inclusion in the new edition. If all this leaves you feeling meh, or thinking it, nothing would be so apt: last week meh was announced as the official selection.

As an expression of disinterest or indifference, meh has spread very quickly. Its popularity seems largely confined to people under 35 years of age, especially teenagers and people who use the internet a lot. If you’re unfamiliar with the term, think of it as a shrug in the form of an interjection or an adjective:

Stan Carey - meh graffitiInterjection:

Woah – did you see those wheels?
Meh, I’m not into cars.

So, was it a good film?
Meh.

Adjective:

The new album is a bit meh.
I felt meh about the whole idea.

Online, meh is common in instant messaging, chat rooms and discussion forums, and any sites that invite comments from the public. It’s generally deployed as a kind of shorthand for boredom, apathy or pithy dismissal, where to elaborate would be more trouble than it’s worth. It is especially favoured by the easily unimpressed.

Though the precise origins of meh are uncertain, and likely to remain so, The Simpsons TV show has been widely credited with bringing the expression into mainstream use. How mainstream remains to be seen – the Oxford English Dictionary has yet to include it but admits to having a meh file, so it may just be a matter of time.

Benjamin Zimmer writes more about its history and usage here.

Update: If I told you I saw meh in a book that was first published in 1922, some of you might guess the title. Although used in a very different sense to what I’ve outlined above, it is nevertheless meh, and it is tucked away in the middle of this passage on p.170 of the Penguin Modern Classics edition (and p.163 of the OUP-reissued 1922 text):

After all there’s a lot in that vegetarian fine flavour of things from the earth garlic of course it stinks after Italian organgrinders crisp of onions mushrooms truffles. Pain to the animal too. Pluck and draw fowl. Wretched brutes there at the cattlemarket waiting for the poleaxe to split their skulls open. Moo. Poor trembling calves. Meh. Staggering bob. Bubble and squeak. Butchers’ buckets wobbly lights. Give us that brisket off the hook. Plup. Rawhead and bloody bones. Flayed glasseyed sheep hung from their haunches, sheepsnouts bloodypapered snivelling nosejam on sawdust. Top and lashers going out. Don’t maul them pieces, young one.

From Ulysses by James Joyce.

[Image is from Cork, Ireland.]


Comma splice

November 3, 2008

Before I discuss comma splices I will briefly explain run-on sentences, since there is some overlap in definition. A run-on sentence – also known as a fused sentence – is a sentence in which two or more independent clauses run together, i.e. the clauses are not joined by a conjunction or by punctuation:

The tests were inconclusive I didn’t know what to do next.

Everyone was ready however there were unforeseen delays.

Such sentences don’t stop, or pause properly, when they should. Neither do sentences with a comma splice, which occurs when two or more independent clauses are joined only by a comma:

The tests were inconclusive, I didn’t know what to do next.

Everyone was ready, however there were unforeseen delays.

Some grammarians consider comma splices as a type of run-on sentence; others distinguish them but discuss them together.

The comma splice is also called a comma error, comma blunder, and comma fault, but I find these terms too judgemental. Comma splices can be fine in fiction, poetry, letters and informal writing in general, where they often reflect spoken English and join clauses that are short, connected by subject or content, and unlikely to be misconstrued:

It wasn’t broken, it needed new batteries.
The shops were all closed, I couldn’t buy milk.

Commas are weak marks: they can separate elements within a clause, but they are not always considered strong enough to separate independent clauses. Comma splices (and run-on sentences) can draw readers into a second independent clause before they know that the first one is finished.

It is therefore preferable in many kinds of formal writing to separate such clauses with a conjunction or a stronger punctuation mark: a colon, semicolon, full stop or dash will supply the necessary pause. Simple rearrangements are another option.

It wasn’t broken, but it needed new batteries.
It wasn’t broken – it needed new batteries.

The shops were all closed, so I couldn’t buy milk.
As the shops were all closed, I couldn’t buy milk.
The shops were all closed; I couldn’t buy milk.
I couldn’t buy milk because the shops were all closed.

The tests were inconclusive, and I didn’t know what to do next.
Since the tests were inconclusive, I didn’t know what to do next.
The tests were inconclusive; I didn’t know what to do next.
The tests were inconclusive. I didn’t know what to do next.

All of these revisions are fine, and you can probably imagine many others. Which approach you choose depends on what suits the context, what tone and rhythm you want to convey, and so on.

Comma splices were more common in 18th and 19th century English, when they were not considered ungrammatical. Although modern English is more rigorous, comma splices have been used by authors like William Faulkner, Samuel Beckett, E. M. Forster, John Banville, Iris Murdoch, E. L. Doctorow, Hermann Hesse, and E. B. White (he of Strunk & White). Here’s White, in a letter from 1963:

Tell Johnny to read Santayana for a little while, it will improve his sentence structure.

No one could reasonably find fault with this comma splice. Its informality is obvious, and the sentence style is easy and plain.

Comma splices are especially popular with children, who tend to use lots of them in long rambling sentences. If you use comma splices in fiction or informal writing and you know what you’re doing, they should be fine. If you use them in student papers, official reports and the like, they may not. You can avoid them by using the techniques shown above.

Update:

For lots more discussion, and many examples of comma splices from literature, see my follow-up post “Oh, the Splices You’ll See!