Book spine poem #39: Language, Language!

December 18, 2016

My latest piece of doggerel in book-spine form has an obvious theme.


Language, Language!

Language, language!
The story of language.
Language, slanguage
Spoken here: a history of
Language, a history of
Writing: style, style,
Style in fiction,
Linguistics and style,
Language and linguistics.
What is linguistics?
Understanding language.


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Book spine poem: Useless Crazy Heart

June 28, 2014

A new book spine poem. My shelves have been nudging me.


Useless Crazy Heart

All about love, the devil I know,
Style, solace, the entwining truth,
Conquest of the useless crazy heart,
The pleasure of finding things out.


stan carey - book spine poem bookmash - useless crazy heart


Thanks to the authors: bell hooks, Claire Kilroy, Joseph M. Williams, Belinda McKeon, Richard Condon, Peter Temple, Werner Herzog, Thomas Cobb, and Richard Feynman; and to Nina Katchadourian for the idea.

Want to join in? Do – it’s all sorts of fun. Upload a photo and post a link in the comments, or put it on your own site, etc. If you’d like to see more of these, there are lots in the Sentence first bookmash archive.

Bookmash: The Shining Levels

September 12, 2013


[click to enlarge]

stan carey - book spine poetry - bookmash - the shining levels


The Shining Levels

The shining levels carry me down
On beauty, style, borrowed finery –
The decay of the angel, the golden ass,
The distant past another roadside attraction.


Thanks to the authors: John Wyatt, M.J. Hyland, Zadie Smith, Joseph M. Williams, Paula Fox, Yukio Mishima, Apuleius, William Trevor, and Tom Robbins; and to Nina Katchadourian for the idea.

More book spine poems in the archive, along with links to other people’s. Feel free to join in.

How awkwardly to avoid split infinitives

July 11, 2012

No other grammatical issue has so divided the nation (Robert Burchfield)

When I split an infinitive, God damn it, I split it so it will stay split (Raymond Chandler)

So there’s a rule in English, except it’s not a rule, but some people think it is, and others who know it’s not a rule obey it in case it bothers the people who think it is, even though it can cloud or change the meaning of their prose. Ah, split infinitives: what an unholy mess.

A split infinitive is where an element, normally an adverb or adverbial phrase, is placed between to and the plain form of a verb – to boldly go is a well-known example. The construction is six or seven hundred years old; there’s nothing grammatically wrong with it, and there never has been. Usually it’s not even a stylistic lapse.

Before we continue, I should point out that split infinitive is a misnomer, since English doesn’t really have them. But it’s a convenient and familiar term, so I’ll use it.

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“Who to follow” is grammatically fine

April 5, 2012

As far as I’m concerned, whom is a word that was invented to make everyone sound like a butler. (Calvin Trillin)

Who am I writing for? (William Zinsser, On Writing Well)

Twitter has a feature called Who to follow that suggests other users you might be interested in. I haven’t paid it much attention yet, but I’m interested in the fact that the phrase is censured by people who think it should be Whom to follow. There’s even a Chrome extension that “corrects” it.

Did I say even? I should have saved that for the Grand Order of the Whomic Empire, which solicits “moral support for those people who work tirelessly to bring whom back into everyday circulation”. I fear their quest is not entirely tongue-in-cheek.

Anyway: Who to follow. Let’s see what its critics say.

Business Insider thinks it’s “bad English”. GalleyCat calls it “one of the most viewed and easily overlooked grammar mistakes on the Internet”, adding that it’s “reassuring to watch a major social network struggle” with grammatical rules. Jay Rosen, who teaches journalism at NYU, believes it’s a “grammatical error”:

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Notes on standard English and ‘bad grammar’

April 4, 2012

The particular English dialect that began to be adopted as standard more than half a millennium ago came from the UK, mostly the region encompassing London, Oxford, and Cambridge.

This part of the country was the hub of society, politics and education at the time, serving also as a bridge between northern and southern modes of expression. In Our Language, Simeon Potter writes that the East Midland dialect ‘had assumed an acknowledged ascendancy’.

According to David Crystal‘s The English Language, the clinching factor was William Caxton, who established his printing press in Westminster in 1476 and used the speech of the London area ‘as the basis for his translations and spelling’. By the end of the 15th century,

the distinction between ‘central’ and ‘provincial’ life was firmly established. It was reflected in the distinction between ‘standard’ and ‘regional’ speech — the former thought of as correct, proper, and educated, the latter as incorrect, careless, and inferior — which is still with us today.

From then on, standard English gradually secured its status as a prestige dialect in the English-speaking world. It was taught by educators guided by grammar books and dictionaries, to spread and sustain a (more or less) common set of norms in spelling, grammar and usage; the process continues today, overseen by editors and other authorities.

In ‘The Rise of Prescriptivism in English’ (PDF), Shadyah A. N. Cole says that before 1650, ‘tolerance with variation in language abounded’. Subsequently it was felt that the use of the language should be ‘regularized, standardized, codified, and unified’. Eventually:

As a result of the slowing of changes in pronunciation and other linguistic changes, the influence of the printing press, and spelling reformers, written English now had a form that varies only a little from what is current today.

Today, many people use standard English when circumstances demand, and default to other registers the rest of the time. Or rather: they use a form of standard English — it’s not as uniform and definitive as the name might suggest, and there is no little variation in the standards that obtain in different countries and contexts.

Still, there’s no mistaking the non-standard quality of lines like the following, though they are fully suited to the context in which they are naturally expressed:

Your Aunt Edith seen it happen and run out and drug him in.

‘Fine view,’ I said, ‘iffi’n only that barn warn’t there…’

There’s people got so much faith they can believe what ain’t…

Somebody said as how the town ought to clean Ogilby’s statue — become plumb pigeonfied last few years.

These are from Robert Arthur’s short story ‘Obstinate Uncle Otis’, which I read last week in Alfred Hitchcock’s Ghostly Gallery anthology. As you might guess, the story’s regional language, far from diminishing my reading experience, hugely enhanced it.

Yet a practice exists of censuring non-standard words, pronunciations, and grammatical forms. The internet abounds in sneers at variant usage. Even reputable news outlets publish articles that pour scorn on particular speech patterns; readers are tacitly or explicitly invited to join in, which they enthusiastically do.

So you’d be forgiven for supposing that standard English is inherently better: more logical, consistent, robust and so on. Not so: it’s riddled with illogic and inconsistency. Kory Stamper recently said that the language is ‘a lovely, powerful mess’, and this is as true of standard English as any other variety.

Here is a pertinent passage from one of my favourite books on writing and language, Joseph M. Williams’s Style: Toward Clarity and Grace:

. . . we ought to rethink the widely shared notion that every feature of standard English has some kind of self-evident, naturally determined “logic” that makes it intrinsically superior to its corresponding form in nonstandard English. In educated written English intended for general circulation, ain’t is socially “wrong.” But we ought not try to convince ourselves or anyone else that ain’t — along with most other errors of its kind — is wrong because it is inherently defective and is therefore evidence of an inherently defective mind. Such errors are “wrong” because of historically accidental reasons. Until we recognize the arbitrary nature of our judgments, too many of us will take “bad” grammar as evidence of laziness, carelessness, or a low IQ. That belief is not just wrong. It is socially destructive.

In ‘Ideology, Power, and Linguistic Theory’ (PDF), Geoffrey Pullum writes:

Unjustified and perhaps unjustifiable, the rules of the prescriptive ideologues, dimly grasped and often misunderstood, nonetheless form the backbone of what the general public understands and believes about English grammar. . . .
It is a familiar pattern for people to reify an unjustifiable set of regulative rules that are supported mainly by the taste of the person making the proposal, to treat them as if they were the constitutive correctness conditions for some language that people do not speak but should, and to call that language English.

Standard English, though a minority dialect, enjoys an exalted position in the family of English dialects. But this is a matter of historical happenstance. Socially privileged it may be, linguistically superior it is not. Variation makes communication more interesting, and it can be savoured rather than disdained.


Language Hat has a good discussion of some of the issues raised in this post.

That which is restrictive

October 18, 2011

This is quite a long post about a distinction some people make between that and which as relative pronouns — an oft-disputed point of English usage. Feel free to skip ahead if you’re familiar with the territory.

Restrictive clauses (aka defining or integrated relative clauses) provide information that’s essential to a sentence. Take this one:

The bike that I keep in the garage is ideal for short trips.

The underlined clause is integral to the sentence, for reasons context would normally make clear. For example, there may be an implication that I have access to other bikes, so the restrictive clause defines or restricts what bike I’m talking about.

Non-restrictive clauses (also non-defining or supplementary relative clauses) are bound less tightly to the sentence: they can be removed without changing its essential point. Thus:

The bike, which I keep in the garage, is ideal for short trips.

Here, there’s only one bike I could be referring to, and the information about where I keep it is supplementary, non-defining, dispensable.

In speech, non-restrictive clauses are intoned separately; in writing, this separation is marked by punctuation: normally commas, as above, sometimes dashes or parentheses.

There’s a good case for calling non-restrictive clauses supplementary relative clauses, and restrictive ones integrated relative clauses. But these terms are quite new, and in this post I use the more familiar names.

So far so uncontroversial. Then there are sentences like this:

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