Grammar and style in recent reading

This post is a hotchpotch of items of grammatical interest from books I read recently. Sections link to older posts and other articles, to distract from the fact that I’m currently too busy to blog as regularly as I’d like.

First up: Heroes and Villains: An Anthology of Animosity and Admiration (1994) is a mixum-gatherum of articles assembled and introduced by John Walsh from a regular feature in The Independent magazine. It has some good lines: “I would like to write the way Fred Astaire danced” (Gilbert Adair); “a breath of rank air” (Beryl Bainbridge on Rasputin).

Of more interest grammatically is the following instance of faulty parallelism, similar to the “as much, or more, than” construction I analysed before. It’s from Russell Hoban’s tribute to Walter de la Mare:

There are moments and people in literature that become as real (and sometimes realer than) the moments and people in one’s own life . . .

There’s little if any effect on comprehension, and surely no possible confusion, but some editors would insert as before the parenthesis to make the syntax more rigorously logical. Other usage authorities, though, consider the shorter construction to be idiomatic and wholly unobjectionable (see my earlier post for details). What say you?


Item 2: The Fragile Species, Lewis Thomas’s 1992 collection of essays on medicine, biology and the human condition, contains the notable phrase “space space”:

Within another century it is likely that we will have swarmed everywhere, pole to pole, covering almost every livable acre of land space and water space. Some people are even talking seriously of space space, theorizing about the possibility of launching synthetic cities and countrysides enclosed in huge vehicles to sail the galaxy and perhaps colonize other celestial bodies.

This is a nice example of contrastive focus reduplication, whereby outer space is contrasted with terrestrial space through immediate repetition of the polysemous word. Similarly, a review of The Raid: Redemption says it’s “the sort of film for which the phrase ‘movie-movie’ was coined”. I guess a movie-movie is one made primarily to excite and entertain us rather than challenging us or making us think.

(My Tumblr blog has another passage from Thomas’s book, on the subject of extinction events and the future of life on earth.)


Finally, a book I’m reading at the moment, Rebecca Skloot’s admirable The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (2010), contains this sentence:

She had dozens of “spiritual sons,” who she treated no different than her six biological sons.

Note the informal who where sticklers would insist on whom. I’m a little surprised an editor or proofreader didn’t change it – unless they did and it was stetted – but I certainly have no problem with it. See my earlier post on who and whom, and Lane Greene’s recent report for Johnson of a four-year-old girl’s reaction to whom (“mama, sometimes you say a weird word”).

There’s also the interesting phrase “treated no different than”. Some readers might expect the adverb differently, and some will balk at the preposition than being coupled with different. I’m OK with different than, but the line is a little different in that its different functions not as an adjective but as a flat adverb: an adverb with the same form as its corresponding adjective. The OED labels adverbial different “chiefly jocular or dialectal”.

Here’s Emily Brewster with an excellent summary of flat adverbs:


14 Responses to Grammar and style in recent reading

  1. limr says:

    I would add the ‘as’ in the first phrase, but not out of any objection towards idiomatic expressions, but just because it feels incomplete. It feels like the missing ‘as’ is a phantom limb and its itchy.

    There’s something about the reduplication that is so amusing. I remember a comedian years ago making fun of the teenaged girls and boys who spoke that way. Something about going on a date date and spending money money but not getting a kiss kiss. I think of the construction as something one outgrows, so when I hear or read it from adults now, it always feels fun.

  2. I haven’t read any new books lately, but the information sheet that came with the orchid I bought for my mother’s birthday contained two textbook examples of an intregal relative punctuated as a relative one.

    Example #1: “Plants should be potted into the smallest pot, which comfortably accommodates the base of the plant.” Example #2: “Brown tree fern slabs contain substances, which are toxic to orchid roots and are not suitable.”

    The literal readings are rather comical, I feel.

    The orchid is, at the moment, still waiting on my kitchen windowsill for opportunity to be handed over. Mum’s birthday is October 7th, but I won’t see her until some time afterwards. I’ve managed to keep it alive so far.

    (P.S. I was insufficiently distracted from the fact that you wrote “distract from the fact” where I believe the more usual expression is “detract from the fact”. You may have been testing to see if anyone would notice.)

  3. … obviously, I meant “as a supplementary one”. Blame the lateness of the hour …

  4. aparnauteur says:

    In case of the ‘who-whom’ conundrum, I definitely side with the ‘whom’. When I read the sentence out aloud, it just didn’t roll without the ‘whom’. Of course, it could be a bias!

  5. Stan says:

    Leonore: I would add the as too, given the opportunity, and I love your description of it as an itchy phantom limb! Contrastive reduplication never felt to me like something one grows out of, though it is often playful, as are other kinds of reduplication sometimes.

    Adrian: Example 2 is especially funny, read literally. It’s a wonder orchids survive at all, given the ubiquity of toxic substances. Here’s to your flower surviving another while, and to a good birthday for your mum. (Detract from the fact may be several times more common than distract from the fact, but the latter is what I intended, and not as a test or distraction.)

    Aparnauteur: If it’s a bias, it’s a natural one, and I share it – at least in the context of formal edited prose. The use of who as the object pronoun has a casual feel; I’d probably use it if I were speaking the line in conversation. But if I were writing or editing it, I’d stick with whom.

  6. Marc Leavitt says:

    I read the second item “as…than.” Look at it without the parentheses. Regarding the contrastive focus reduplication; there are kisses that are, well, just kisses; than there are kisses that are “kiss kisses.” In the next example, I would absolutely use “whom”; it’s a clear example of a sentence where it should be used, unless we decide by fiat to stop using the word at all. I find the use of the flat adverb here okay in speech, but not in writing; it’s not wrong, just a matter of taste.

  7. bharatwrites says:

    Item 1: I think the ‘as’ should be inserted there. The sentence must be complete and grammatical without the parenthetical element IMO.
    Item 2: ‘Space space’ is fine. It conveys its meaning perfectly. We can’t be opposed to words repeating on principle.
    Item 3: Whom does sound correct. The who/whom debate being what it is, whenever we use ‘who’ where ‘whom’ would be standard, we draw attention to the word. If that’s the writer’s intention, so be it. But if the focus of the sentence is something else, I’d stick with ‘whom.’ In this particular sentence, I don’t want the readers to do a double-take on ‘who’—there are more important things—so I would go with ‘whom.’
    Emily Brewster ended that video with, “In the meanwhile…” Is that okay? I thought you must say either “In the meantime…” or “Meanwhile…” Just wondering.
    On the issue of flat adverbs, again, instead of worrying about setting trends, why not use the extra attention it gets? Say in fiction, have the cool and zany characters use the flat adverbs.

  8. alexmccrae1546 says:

    Silly alert!

    A little North African hoopoe* whispered in my ear, just the other day, that the familiar Berber seminola grain-based side dish, couscous, a veritable food staple in the greater north Saharan region of Africa, going back thru the mists of time, was once bifurcated as cous cous, and that long before that, it was simply called “cous”.

    The little birdie told me that “cous” was the name given to the very first basic version from those earliest of nomadic Berber tribes, but then over the centuries an occasional outstanding, palate-bursting variation of “cous” would come down the pike (well the caravan route). And to extol this superlative “cous”, the appellation “cous cous” was born.

    Over the centuries it gradually morphed into one word, which has come down to us as just plain “couscous”, today—a versatile, scrumptious, some might describe, as exotic, side dish, that can add a mildly flavorful, softly-textured, tasty compliment to almost any cooked meat, fish, or vegetable dish. Yum! **

    Bon appetite, mes amis!

    *As an avid birder, the “hoopoe” is one of my world favorites, even though I’ve never seen one of these great crested, buff-brown, black and white striped,very animated birds, in the wild. (Never been anywhere in the Middle-East region, as yet.)

    Interestingly (at least to me), the great 12th century Persian mystic poet, Farid Ud-din Attar, in his seminal work, “The Conference of the Birds”, chose the hoopoe as the guiding master of ceremonies, so to speak, in his engaging fabled confluence of anthropormorphized, talking birds, introducing him immediately in the opening stanza of his grand poetic opus.

    It reads—- “Dear hoopoe, welcome! You will be our guide;
    It was on you King Solomon relied…”

    I highly recommend this tome from the Penguin Classics.

    **And if you believed THAT tall tale, I have a giant pyramid in the Bad Lands I have for sale….. real cheap cheap.

  9. Stan says:

    Marc: I read it as “as…than” too. But I suspect most readers would pass over it without noticing, so it needn’t be considered a significant problem. The use of who in the book I quoted did surprise me. Deliberate or not, it may be a sign of whom‘s continuing decline.

    Bharat: Given the choice, I would insert as too. But the as-less construction has been common enough for long enough to be considered idiomatic.
    Certainly “space space” is fine. No one is opposing it; indeed, my earlier post celebrates the contrastive reduplicative construction.
    Whom would also be my preference in the example, and I don’t imagine the writer (or editor) sought to draw attention to the word choice here. But there are places where either word is acceptable and standard, depending on the intended register.
    That’s a good question about “in the meanwhile”. It’s less common than “in the meantime”, but it has had currency for centuries, as has “meantime” as an adverb. (“But in the meanwhile a lot of people learned to read” —Bergen Evans, The Language We Speak, 1968.)

    Alex: Thanks for the interesting book recommendation. I’ll keep an (eagle) eye out for it. Couscous is a good example of reduplication, and, as you note, it has an interesting history. Etymonline says it comes via French from Arabic kuskus, from kaskasa “to pound, he pounded”. The spelling kuskus is preserved in several other languages.

  10. Strange blog. Which I think I mean as a sort of compliment. I know there are grammar issues with what I said there by the way, but I am a wild thing :)

  11. David L says:

    I concur with Ms Brewster’s recommendation that we should keep some of our adverbs flat (keeping them flatly would not do at all).

    I was struck by your spelling ‘hotch-potch.’ It’s always been hodge-podge for me. Is yours an Irishism, or is this just random variation? (I hasten to add that either spelling seems perfectly fine to me).

  12. Stan says:

    Don: Strangeness is highly subjective, but I’ll take it. Strangely, I see no grammatical problems with what you wrote.

    David: Yes, I think Emily Brewster is quite right in what she says about flat adverbs. Some people object to them on principle, even getting out of their cars to add “ly” to “Drive slow” signs.
    Hotch-potch isn’t an Irishism; in fact it’s the older form, and hodge-podge is a standard variant. There’s a brief etymology here.

  13. frank burns says:

    Here the parentheses make a big difference. Without them, OK, but with them, why not?

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