Double passives, real grammar, and finding fault

July 22, 2015

At Macmillan Dictionary Blog I’ve been writing about double passives, beliefs about grammar, and usage criticism. Excerpts and links follow.

In The double passive is suggested to be avoided (sometimes), I look at a construction often criticised in writing manuals, reporting on why double passives are (sometimes) problematic, and what writers can do to avoid them:

The double passive, as its name suggests, is when a phrase contains two passive constructions yoked together. There’s one in the title of this post. How acceptable it is depends principally on how legible or awkward is the result. Phrases like ‘It must be seen to be believed’ and ‘He was sentenced to be shot’ are fairly straightforward and unobjectionable. ‘The order was attempted to be carried out’ (a line cited in Burchfield’s revision of Fowler) begins to pose a problem, because it’s unnecessarily complicated.

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Reflections on Real Grammar follows up on Macmillan’s recent series on that topic, which included a quiz in which over 13,000 people took part. In a Twitter chat I was asked if the results surprised me. Some did, such as the 24.7% who said they would say Whom did you see at the coffee shop? rather than Who…? in a conversation with their sister:

This seems a very high proportion. Remember, it’s a hypothetical chat with one’s sister, not a formal job application. Some answers were probably an attempt at the ‘right’ answer – the more formally ‘correct’ or ‘proper’ one – rather than a realistic and honest answer. Instead of saying what they would say, some people may have said what they thought they should say. This often happens in surveys. But it might not explain all the thousands of people saying they would use whom in a casual conversation with a family member.

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Finally, in Finding fault in the right places I examine the practice of using examples of people’s language to make a point about correctness, and stress the importance of doing this appropriately:

Criticising language use is a political act. If we say, ‘This is bad English’ or ‘X here should be Y’, then it matters who we use to illustrate our point. There is the option of making up examples, but existing ones can be more meaningful, showing readers how and where someone’s grammar or style went awry in real life.

For centuries grammarians have used examples from books and other printed material to analyse or deplore certain writing practices, often stating that their intent is not to shame but to educate. . . . Edited copy is fair game: criticism goes with the professional territory. But the same high standards should not apply to casual contexts like everyday conversation.

You can also browse my full archive of articles for Macmillan Dictionary.


When without = unless

July 17, 2015

In A. L. Barker’s darkly comic novel John Brown’s Body (1965) there is a use of the word without that’s fairly unusual nowadays:

She moaned, curling deeper into the dark. Nothing was finished or forgettable. Jack said that everyone went off balance sometime – at spiders or red rags or, in his case, temperance hotels. But this thing of hers was so almighty that she would have prayed to it if it would have done any good, asked to be let off a little, excused just enough to make it endurable. Painlessness she did not expect, not without she died and was born another person, but a little less cruelty, a grain of consciousness – the final humiliation was in not knowing herself – this she would have begged and prayed for if she thought anyone or anything was listening. [my underlines]

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Fixer-upper(er) and funnerer reduplication

June 22, 2015

My recent post on ludic language has prompted me to dig up and rework some old notes on playful reduplication in English. I’ll begin with a short comic verse by author and editor William Rossa Cole:

I thought I’d win the spelling bee

And get right to the top,

But I started to spell ‘banana,’

And I didn’t know when to stop.

The poem’s title, ‘Banananananananana’, as well as underlining the joke draws our attention to how unusual a spelling banana is. Once you start the string of alternating a’s and n’s that constitute the bulk of the word, it’s easy to imagine absent-mindedly overshooting the mark, stuck in a groove like Langton’s Ant on its endless highway.

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Annals of animals which get ‘who’

May 27, 2015

In a local newspaper some time ago I read about ‘dormice . . . who nest in shrubs and hedgerows’. The grammar of this phrase struck me enough to write a brief post on the different kinds of antecedent for which we use the relative pronouns who, that, and which.

When referring to animals we usually use that or which, reserving who for people, or entities that comprise people. But who may also be used for animate entities with personality or the implication thereof, and this includes non-human animals – even dormice, I was pleased to see.

As the table below shows, who is especially likely to be used with pets, companion animals, or domesticated or very familiar animals. If the creature has been personalized with a name or by establishing its sex, there’s a good chance it will warrant who.

I read another example recently in the very first entry in Paul Anthony Jones’s book Word Drops:

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Grammatical disagreement through false attraction

May 22, 2015

As children we learn (and may also be taught) that singular nouns take singular verbs and plural nouns take plural verbs. This subject–verb agreement is also called concord; it sounds perfectly straightforward, but it often isn’t. Complications arise and mistakes slip in even when the numbers involved seem obvious.

In unedited writing it’s common to find nouns or noun phrases disagreeing with the verb, especially when a string of text comes between them and ends in an element with a different number. Though less common in edited prose, because it’s something editors look out for, examples do occur. Here’s one I read in Chase Novak’s horror novel Breed:

The thick gloomy shadows of the apartment itself, depressing on the face of it, is actually a kind of blessing to Amelie and Bernard, muting the visual impact of Bernard’s countless deformities and hiding, as well, the chaos of their quarters.

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Litotes and lyrics on which we disagree on

May 16, 2015

Following my recent defence of double negatives, I wrote further about a particular form of multiple negation that has been popular for many centuries. In Litotes is no small matter, at Macmillan Dictionary Blog, I describe this figure of speech as:

less rare than you might think – indeed, it is anything but uncommon. Litotes is used in all sorts of language varieties and contexts, from high-flown rhetoric to everyday small talk. We might reply to the greeting ‘How are you?’ with ‘Not bad’ or ‘Can’t complain.’ . . .

Litotes shows up in some familiar phrases and idioms. If we think someone should be able to do or understand something, we can say it’s not rocket science. If someone has overstepped the mark, we can let them know in no uncertain terms – a phrase that conveys the force of our disapproval. So as well as understatement, litotes can also be used for emphasis.

The post looks at other forms of litotes, such as the common not un-X construction, cites some familiar examples from pop culture, and considers its functions and range of meaning.

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With pop culture on the brain, I then tackled a famous (and somewhat infamous) song lyric at which I’ve often wondered at. The line I’m interested in occurs at 0:18 and 2:06 in the video below:

The question is whether McCartney sings: this ever-changing world in which we live in, or …in which we’re livin’. In my Macmillan post This ever-changing language in which we live in, I note that the latter interpretation

would make sense, and it’s more charitable to McCartney. But it doesn’t seem to be what he sings. The we/we’re bit is ambiguous on account of his accent, but the later phrase really doesn’t sound like livin’ to me – the stress pattern is more suggestive of live in. The Guns N’ Roses cover is more unequivocally live in, and apparently it’s what appears in the original liner notes.

But even language experts disagree on what McCartney sings: Grammarphobia holds to the livin’ reading, citing (somewhat unconvincingly) a book on pop music, while David Crystal makes a strong case for live in, and writes: ‘Certainly it’s ungrammatical; but it’s not unnatural.’

Read the rest for more analysis and conjecture, including McCartney’s own ambivalence when queried about it. For older posts, see my archive at Macmillan Dictionary Blog.


Colour words and archaisms in rural Donegal

May 12, 2015

Red hair is strongly associated with Irish people on account of how common it is here. Less well known, at least outside the island, is that the Irish language has one word, rua, for the red of red hair and another word, dearg, for more prototypically red hues.*

Robert Bernen - Tales from the Blue Stacks - Poolbeg Press book coverEvery language carves up the colour spectrum differently, and it can take children a while to figure it all out in the culture they happen to be raised in. Even as an adult I still discover nuances, one of which appears in Robert Bernen’s story ‘The Yellow Dog’ in his collection Tales from the Blue Stacks (1978).

The narrator is visiting a local farmer with a view to getting a sheep dog:

‘Is this the dog?, I asked.

His fur was that light rust or orange colour we talk of as red hair, and so often associate with Ireland. At home, in America, I would have called him a brown dog. Here in the Donegal hills, I found out later, he was a yellow dog. As I watched him squirming towards me, his belly so low to the ground it seemed as if he was almost afraid to stand at his real height, with that look in his eyes of hope filled with fear, I thought to myself, ‘At least he’ll be friendly.’

‘Will he make a good sheep dog?’ I asked.

‘The best,’ Mickey Paddy answered.

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