The prescriptivism is coming from inside the house

Still playing catch-up on Michael Connelly’s books, I recently read his novel The Drop, which features his usual protagonist, LA-based police detective Harry Bosch. Bosch is at home watching a security tape (well, a DVD), on his teenage daughter’s laptop. She asks him what it’s about. Bosch says to her:

‘This guy checking in, he goes up to his room on the seventh floor last night and this morning he’s found on the sidewalk below. I have to figure out if he jumped or if he got dropped.’

She stopped the playback.

‘If he was dropped, Dad. Please. You sound like a palooka when you talk like that.’

‘Sorry. How do you know what a “palooka” is, anyway?’

‘Tennessee Williams. I read. A palooka is an old fighter who’s like a lout. You don’t want to be like that.’

It’s not the first time Madeline has corrected her father. In ‘Harry Bosch, trainee prescriptivist’ I reported how (in Connelly’s The Reversal) she upbraided him for using nonstandard grammar: a dialect usage of the form I’m done my work. Me, I’d rather be a palooka than a peever, but Madeline is young; she’ll come round yet.

Connelly’s books are usually well edited, but The Drop has a few questionable items worth a look – not to find fault, but out of editorial and readerly interest. First:

They were known in the unit as ‘the kids’. They were young, passionate and very skillful investigators, but between them they had fewer than eight years’ experience working homicides.

This raises the thorny issue of less and fewer, which I’ll address in detail another time. Suffice it to say that unless the investigators’ years of experience should be counted in indivisible chunks of one year – which is contextually possible but seems unlikely – then less is appropriate and fewer is hypercorrect.

A little later we see what appears to be a straightforward redundancy overlooked in proofreading:

But since Maddie had come to live with him, it was increasingly more difficult for him to look at victims.

The precise string it was increasingly more difficult has a surprising number of hits in Google Books, and the bigram increasingly more is rife – and increasingly more common, as COHA figures show:

But I’ll be resisting it. Then there’s this funky en dash:

My guess is that it was originally (and correctly) crescent moon–shaped bruises, with the closed-up en dash doing the work of compound hyphenation, and that someone unfamiliar with this function or who misread the line added spaces around the dash, obscuring the sense a bit.

Finally there is an interesting ambiguity of number:

Hardy put the glass down next to the ashtray. He reached a hand up to where the breast pocket of a shirt would have been but he had no pocket on the smock he was wearing. It was a subconscious move to a pack of cigarettes that weren’t there. Bosch remembered doing that himself when he was addicted.

I would change this to a pack of cigarettes that wasn’t there. To my ear, that sounds better. I’m not sure that notional agreement applies sufficiently to be a good option here.

A pack of cigarettes that weren’t there could be a proximity error, aka false attraction, or it could be a stylistic preference albeit one I don’t share. I’d be interested to know if you see it differently.

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20 Responses to The prescriptivism is coming from inside the house

  1. “Wasn’t”, definitely.

  2. Lee Dembart in Los Angeles says:

    In the last example — the pack of cigarettes — I’d accept either singular or plural, with a slightly different emphasis. If the author means to focus on the missing cigarettes, make it plural, as he did (“cigarettes that weren’t there”). But if the author wants to focus on the missing pack, make the verb singular (“the pack…that wasn’t there”). Either one sounds fine to me.

  3. Totally agree with you on the pack of cigarettes. The pack wasn’t there.

    Also agree on preferring to be a palooka (what a cute word!) rather than the sort of peever who “corrects” things that aren’t wrong.

    And ouch, that moon-shaped en dash situation… It was painful to see.

  4. Kish logan says:

    I generally use the ‘less/fewer’ distinction but I’m an old fusspot who learned Latin at school. I think the distinction is well on the way out. To me ‘increasingly more difficult’ is understandable in spoken English, but poor here. ‘…that weren’t there’ is just plain wrong. No-one would say it. I’m pretty sure it’s the product of the one grammatical thing I dislike: hypercorrection.

    • Stan Carey says:

      Thanks for your thoughts on these. I usually observe the less/fewer distinction too, but not religiously; the ‘rule’ against less with count nouns is a relatively modern (and unnecessary) invention, and is quite often over-applied hypercorrectly, as may have occurred here. Hypercorrection could also explain the weren’t, but there are other plausible causes.

  5. jrsdavies says:

    I know I’m a bit of a hyphen purist, but “crescent-moon-shaped” (two hyphens), surely …

    • Stan Carey says:

      That is an option, and it would be my preference. It’s what I meant by the closed-up en dash doing the work of compound hyphenation. Some editors and house styles use an en dash in a compound adjective when ‘one of its elements consists of an open compound or when both elements consist of hyphenated compounds’, as CMOS puts it. But I suspect that only fellow editors and a small minority of readers notice the subtlety.

  6. Wasn’t. Cigarettes that weren’t there, but a PACK of cigarettes that wasn’t there. Collective noun I guess. Anyway sounds better to me.

  7. “Increasingly more difficult” sounds fine to me, as long as it means that the event triggered an ongoing increase of difficulty with time, and not simply that the difficulty after the event is greater than the difficulty before. There are more pedantic ways of putting it, but I think it’s a valid choice.

    Agree on the cigarettes. It’s not like it refers to a present but empty pack.

  8. Roger says:

    Csezlaw Milosz said once that in post-war Poland, communist bosses used to focus on the composition of beards, on whether to stress the individual hairs that make up a beard on the one hand, or beard as a collective on the other. They insisted on the collectivity.
    I don’t recollect whether he dealt with the grammar. It was in The Captive Mind, translated. (Time to re-read.)

    • Stan Carey says:

      Languages commonly differ on hair’s plurality, e.g. you’ll often hear English-learners from French-speaking countries referring to ‘hairs’ when they mean hair, because of cheveux.

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