How rare soever it may be

July 27, 2015

Muriel Spark - The Abbess of Crewe - Penguin book coverChapter 3 of Muriel Spark’s witty novel The Abbess of Crewe (1974) begins with a lingering description of an object that proves centrally significant to the story unfolding in loose parallel to Watergate, the events of which Spark satirises.

One word in one line in particular interests me, and is underlined, but the whole paragraph is a pleasure to read:

Felicity’s work-box is known as Felicity’s only because she brought it to the convent as part of her dowry. It is no mean box, being set on fine tapered legs with castors, standing two and a half feet high. The box is inlaid with mother-of-pearl and inside it has three tiers neatly set out with needles, scissors, cottons and silks in perfect compartments. Beneath all these is a false bottom lined with red watered silk, for love-letters. Many a time has Alexandra stood gazing at this box with that certain wonder of the aristocrat at the treasured toys of the bourgeoisie. ‘I fail to see what mitigation soever can be offered for that box,’ she remarked one day, in Felicity’s hearing, to the late Abbess Hildegarde who happened to be inspecting the sewing room. Hildegarde made no immediate reply, but once outside the room she said, ‘It is in poison-bad taste, but we are obliged by our vows to accept mortifications. And, after all, everything is hidden here. Nobody but ourselves can see what is beautiful and what is not.

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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.


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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Unexplained jargon in fiction

April 22, 2015

richard stark - the rare coin score - Parker - book coverI picked up this Richard Stark novel in a local second-hand bookstore and was attracted by the reviewers’ descriptions of its main character (click the photo to enlarge). Funny how repulsive can have a contra-semantic effect. The ‘unforgettable Parker’, it turned out, is the same one played by Lee Marvin in John Boorman’s 1967 film Point Blank. Sold!

The Rare Coin Score has one stylistic detail I want to analyse here. Parker, Billy, Claire and Lempke are in a backyard planning a heist of rare coins. Parker, the ‘supreme bastard’ protagonist, has suggested a shortcut in packing the loot. Billy, a rare-coin specialist, explains why it wouldn’t work (note: he’s holding a spatula because he’s barbecuing burgers):

‘You take valuable coins,’ Billy said, gesturing with the spatula, ‘you just drop a lot of them in a canvas sack, carry them off someplace, dump them out on a table, you know what you’ve done?’

Parker said, ‘Tell me.’

‘You’ve lowered their value,’ Billy told him, ‘by maybe twenty-five per cent. Coins are more delicate than you might think. They rub together, knock together, the value goes right down. You go from unc to VF just like that.

‘Billy,’ Claire said wearily, ‘they don’t know those terms.’

‘I’ve got the idea,’ Parker said. ‘The point is, we’ve got to pack them up, right?’

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Punctuating Yeats and reading writers’ minds

March 23, 2015

‘Yeats’s handwriting resembles a mouse’s electrocardiogram,’ writes the late Daniel Albright in his preamble to the marvellous Everyman Library edition of W. B. Yeats’ Poems, which he edited.

Albright gives a similarly forthright account of the poet’s spelling and punctuation, excerpted below. While acknowledging his debt to Richard Finneran, who oversaw a different collection of Yeats’s poems, Albright parts company from him in two ways:

First, he is more respectful of Yeats’s punctuation than I. He supposes […] that Yeats’s punctuation was rhetorical rather than grammatical, an imaginative attempt to notate breath-pauses, stresses, and so forth; and that the bizarre punctuation in some of Yeats’s later poems is due to the influence of experimental modernists such as T.S. Eliot and Laura Riding. I suppose that Yeats was too ignorant of punctuation to make his deviations from standard practice significant. Although Yeats surely wished to make his canon a text worthy of reverence, he conceived poetry as an experience of the ear, not of the eye. He could not spell even simple English words; he went to his grave using such forms as intreage [‘intrigue’] and proffesrship. His eyesight was so poor that he gave up fiction-writing because the proof-reading was too strenuous. Finally, Yeats himself admitted, ‘I do not understand stops. I write my work so completely for the ear that I feel helpless when I have to measure pauses by stops and commas’.

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Use ‘said’ and ‘wrote’, the editor highlighted

February 18, 2015

Fiction writers are rightly advised to use said in dialogue and avoid redundancies or conspicuous synonyms: ‘You must,’ he insisted. ‘The hell I will!’ she shouted loudly. This sort of thing is likely to annoy readers and distract them from the story. It’s one of Elmore Leonard’s 10 rules of writing:

Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue. The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But “said” is far less intrusive than “grumbled”, “gasped”, “cautioned”, “lied”. I once noticed Mary McCarthy ending a line of dialogue with “she asseverated” and had to stop reading and go to the dictionary.

Yet writers continue to riddle their stories with showy or gratuitous synonyms. It can give the impression that they’re trying too hard to enliven their text, without knowing the right and wrong ways to translate their passion for the material into something readers will appreciate, not wince at. If you’re going to thesaurify said, you’ll need a damn good reason.

Horror writer Ramsey Campbell had one for his short story ‘Next Time You’ll Know Me’ (1988), which plays around with the ownership of ideas and the challenge of being original. Its narrator deliberately overwrites his account, studiously avoiding said in almost every report of speech in favour of overblown alternatives:

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Literary expletive avoidance

January 23, 2015

Show, don’t tell goes the writer’s refrain. It can apply to cursing, too, but doesn’t tend to in contemporary prose. Swearwords pepper modern novels, not least in genres like detective fiction where they lend colour and authenticity to hard-boiled dialogue. But there are times when a writer can say more by not saying them.

deirdre madden - molly fox's birthday - faber & faber book coverTake Deirdre Madden’s novel Molly Fox’s Birthday. (Or better yet, read it.) Madden has a gift for imaginative description but knows when to apply the subtler force of discretion. Here the narrator, a playwright, is chatting by phone to her friend Molly Fox, a stage actor with what we have learned is a remarkable voice, ‘clear and sweet’ and at times ‘infused with a slight ache, a breaking quality that makes it uniquely beautiful’.

Molly has just received birthday wishes from a mutual friend:

‘How did he know that today was my birthday? Did you tell him?’

‘It was in the paper.’

‘What! How old did they say I was?’

‘Forty.’

She swore when I said this, a sudden, crude outburst. It was all the more shocking because Molly almost never swears. There was the incongruity of hearing such a thing uttered in that particular voice, and I realised that she was as capable of drawing forth all the ugly power an oath might contain as she could the beauty and tenderness of other words. ‘I never heard such nonsense in my life. I’m only thirty-eight.’

I would not have remembered this scene so clearly had Madden simply written whatever swearword Molly used. By denying us that ordinary certainty she invites us to fill the blank – or blankety-blank – ourselves, and we become more engaged with the text. The omission is a seed crystal. This is Fiction 101, I know, but still: how often in a book do you see a swearword lingered on yet withheld?

It’s also an appropriate strategy because of the characters involved. Through their friendship Molly has earned the storyteller’s tact; making her ‘crude outburst’ explicit would allow a moment of weakness to materialise, for the world at large, into something unbecoming and uncharacteristic. By conscientiously keeping it vague, reminding us instead of Molly’s extraordinary voice, the narrator does her friend a kindness and the scene is the better for it.

[Cross-posted on Strong Language and Lexicon Valley]

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