The sense of things improper

Alison Dye’s novel The Sense of Things (1994) has a conversation between the narrator, Joanie, and her friend-to-be, Jesus, in which Jesus nervously corrects himself twice in an effort to speak more properly.

Joanie has gone to Jesus to order new flooring for the shop she works in, and Jesus is explaining the sheet approach to her:

‘Installation is slightly easier with the sheeting and therefore cuts down on your labour costs. We would unroll it and cut as we go, from the wall out. However, with a sheet you are stuck with the one colour or print except for the borders which you can be a little creative with, if you like. I mean, with which.’ He coughed.

After a brief exchange about the relative advantages of tiles, Jesus continues:

‘I like to advise customers that the replacement tiles will always be slightly different in shade than – I mean from, sorry – the original because of wear and tear.’

So we have preposition stranding (which you can be creative with vs. with which you can be creative) and idiomatic variation (different than vs. different from) deployed as usage shibboleths which the speaker rewords to present himself more professionally. He code-switches awkwardly and self-consciously.

The author’s use of preposition stranding for this purpose is unremarkable, since it’s one of the best known historical usage disputes, a source of contention ever since John Dryden invented the rule in the 17th century.

Different than as a style peeve is far less notorious, and is therefore more interesting here. If you were asked to name a dozen ways someone might correct their own speech in order to sound more proper, I suspect few would include different than – though it was among the 36 questionable examples in my Usage Peeve Bingo card.

The phrase elicits strong reactions, though, as can be seen in the comments to my post on different from/than/to, where debate over these phrases’ relative acceptability periodically reignites.

Incidentally, I used The Sense of Things in a bookmash last year, and am glad I finally got around to reading it.

2 Responses to The sense of things improper

  1. This reminds me that I recently noticed a particular sentence on the Internet whose clumsy grammar looked like an attempt to avoid ending it with a preposition. I thought of raising it with you on Twitter at the time, but opted not to (this is normal: for each observation I share with you there are several like it that I don’t, particularly if I feel I’ve already received my quota of Stan time for that day).

    The example is in the second paragraph here, on a page I’d not be the least bit surprised if you have read. It’s of the form “N is to whom Ns V“, which strikes me as an attempt to avoid the form “N is who(m) Ns V to“, even though “it’s to N that Ns Y” would work perfectly well.

    You’ll find my comment on the page as a whole attached to the following paragraph (the third). I didn’t raise the grammar point.

  2. Stan says:

    The line in question is: “So naturally, this fancy bro is to whom writers strive to appeal.” The usual construction would be: “…is who writers strive to appeal to.” The tone of the prose is quite informal and chatty, so it does seem a strange decision to front the preposition.

    The writer or a copy-editor apparently felt there was something wrong with the more natural syntax: that it was incorrect or questionable, and might therefore invite criticism. And maybe the preposition repetition (“to appeal to”) felt off somehow; I see this sometimes in text I edit, where writers change a preposition apparently just to avoid repeating a nearby one, and this change can make the line awkward or plain wrong.

    Thanks, Adrian. It’s an interesting example, and I hadn’t read the piece. Dryden has a lot to answer for!

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