Only just to realise the ambiguity

September 1, 2015

I got an email recently from file-hosting service Dropbox, telling me about the apps they have for different devices. This is the first of two sentences in the main body of the email; see how it sounds to you before reading on:

Have you ever wanted to show off some photos, or pull up a doc from work, just to realize you left them on your computer at home?

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Almost vs. nearly — the order of approximations

August 5, 2015

Among the pleasures of Robert Graves and Alan Hodge’s writing manual The Reader Over Your Shoulder: A Handbook for Writers of English Prose (1943) is their attempt to put some order on phrases of approximate quantity. It appears among the book’s Principles of Clear Statement, the principle in question being: ‘There should never be any doubt left as to how much, or how long.’

After grumbling briefly about the ‘proper’ (read: borderline etymologically fallacious) use of terms like infinitesimal and microscopic, the authors state that there is ‘a popular scale of emotional approximation’ – not found in any dictionary or reference table – for ‘estimating the comparative degrees of success in, say, catching a train’. It goes like this:

Not nearly, nearly, almost, not quite, all but, just not, within an ace, within a hair’s breadth – oh! by the skin of my teeth, just, only just, with a bit of a rush, comfortably, easily, with plenty to spare.

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Banned words and flat adverbs

December 16, 2014

‘Banning’ words is not an impulse I can relate to. My recent post at Macmillan Dictionary Blog, The vogue for banning words, takes issue with this popular practice:

Lists of words to ban make effective clickbait, because people are very conscious of language usage and can be wary of having their own usage policed. So they want to find out what words and phrases they should be avoiding and collectively hating. Many will join in, sounding off about words they’d like to see banned. The logic seems to be that because they simply don’t like a word or phrase, no one should ever, ever use it.

It was once customary for language critics such as Fowler, Partridge, and Gowers to warn writers about ‘vogue words’ which had become too fashionable for their own good. Nowadays the convention – even at Time magazine – is for ‘banning’ them, whatever that might mean. I find it reactionary and unhelpful.


My next post at Macmillan, Flat adverbs are exceeding fine, considers the status of adverbs like slow, far, wrong and bright, which lack the –ly we might expect from adverbs and which are unfairly condemned for that reason. The censure directed at them owes to the usual suspects:

[P]rescriptive grammarians in the 18th century, being overly attached to Latin grammar, thought flat adverbs were really adjectives being used incorrectly, and warned against their use. Before this, flat adverbs were more common and varied than they are now. Exceeding is a good example. If we browse Daniel Defoe’s writing we find such phrases as: weak and exceeding thirsty; it rained exceeding hard. Today this usage has an archaic feel.

Those early grammarians’ misguided judgements were passed down for generations. Their influence is felt today not only in the absence of many flat adverbs that were formerly routine, but also in the uncertainty and intolerance towards surviving ones…

What I mean by intolerance is, for example, people ‘fixing’ street signs that read Drive Slow, under the mistaken impression that it’s ungrammatical. In the post I also look briefly at whether and how some pairs of adverbs (one flat, one not) have diverged in usage, such as hard/hardly and safe/safely.

To browse my older Macmillan posts, you can visit the full archive here.

drive slow slowly grammar - weird al yankovic fixes road sign(Image from video: ‘Weird Al Yankovic fixes a road sign’)

Plus, you can use it like this now

October 7, 2013

The mathematical word plus has added various functions to its set since entering English from Latin in the 16th century. It can be a noun (statistical ability is a plus), a preposition (one week plus a day or two), an adjective (it’s plus 30° outside), and a conjunction (cycling’s a great way to stay fit, plus it’s good for you).

The last of these, used at the start of a sentence or independent clause and often followed by a comma, may also be described as an adverb (Plus, I wasn’t sure if you’d be there); authorities differ on the categorisation. The usage is controversial, receiving “considerable adverse comment” (MWDEU) and causing “widespread ripples of dismay among purists” (Robert Burchfield).

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Grammar and style in recent reading

October 4, 2012

This post is a hotchpotch of items of grammatical interest from books I read recently. Sections link to older posts and other articles, to distract from the fact that I’m currently too busy to blog as regularly as I’d like.

First up: Heroes and Villains: An Anthology of Animosity and Admiration (1994) is a mixum-gatherum of articles assembled and introduced by John Walsh from a regular feature in The Independent magazine. It has some good lines: “I would like to write the way Fred Astaire danced” (Gilbert Adair); “a breath of rank air” (Beryl Bainbridge on Rasputin).

Of more interest grammatically is the following instance of faulty parallelism, similar to the “as much, or more, than” construction I analysed before. It’s from Russell Hoban’s tribute to Walter de la Mare:

There are moments and people in literature that become as real (and sometimes realer than) the moments and people in one’s own life . . .

There’s little if any effect on comprehension, and surely no possible confusion, but some editors would insert as before the parenthesis to make the syntax more rigorously logical. Other usage authorities, though, consider the shorter construction to be idiomatic and wholly unobjectionable (see my earlier post for details). What say you?


Item 2: The Fragile Species, Lewis Thomas’s 1992 collection of essays on medicine, biology and the human condition, contains the notable phrase “space space”:

Within another century it is likely that we will have swarmed everywhere, pole to pole, covering almost every livable acre of land space and water space. Some people are even talking seriously of space space, theorizing about the possibility of launching synthetic cities and countrysides enclosed in huge vehicles to sail the galaxy and perhaps colonize other celestial bodies.

This is a nice example of contrastive focus reduplication, whereby outer space is contrasted with terrestrial space through immediate repetition of the polysemous word. Similarly, a review of The Raid: Redemption says it’s “the sort of film for which the phrase ‘movie-movie’ was coined”. I guess a movie-movie is one made primarily to excite and entertain us rather than challenging us or making us think.

(My Tumblr blog has another passage from Thomas’s book, on the subject of extinction events and the future of life on earth.)


Finally, a book I’m reading at the moment, Rebecca Skloot’s admirable The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (2010), contains this sentence:

She had dozens of “spiritual sons,” who she treated no different than her six biological sons.

Note the informal who where sticklers would insist on whom. I’m a little surprised an editor or proofreader didn’t change it – unless they did and it was stetted – but I certainly have no problem with it. See my earlier post on who and whom, and Lane Greene’s recent report for Johnson of a four-year-old girl’s reaction to whom (“mama, sometimes you say a weird word”).

There’s also the interesting phrase “treated no different than”. Some readers might expect the adverb differently, and some will balk at the preposition than being coupled with different. I’m OK with different than, but the line is a little different in that its different functions not as an adjective but as a flat adverb: an adverb with the same form as its corresponding adjective. The OED labels adverbial different “chiefly jocular or dialectal”.

Here’s Emily Brewster with an excellent summary of flat adverbs:

Too, it’s a strange usage

December 1, 2011

Reading John O’Brien’s Leaving Las Vegas, I was struck by the use of too in this passage:

Common wisdom would indicate that she should be a little apprehensive but her instincts tell her differently; this person wishes her no harm. Too, she hasn’t felt inclined toward apprehension lately. She has quickly faded into an observational fatalism — or is it bland apathy? She doesn’t really care.

Too is used this way — as a sentence adverb at the start of a clause — on at least one other occasion in the book. The usage has some currency: the Shorter OED has a line from Robert Ludlum (‘Too, the windows were not that close to one another’), but I wondered how acceptable the language authorities consider it.

The American Heritage Dictionary (4th edition) says it ‘cannot be called incorrect, but some critics consider it awkward’. The Columbia Guide to Standard American English says it’s ‘rather stiff when compared with besides, moreover, also, and the like’.

Garner’s Modern American Usage finds there is ‘a tendency in facile journalism to use the word this way’, and recommends that we use also, and, or words such as moreover, further, and furthermore.

Lest the recency illusion take hold, I should point out that this is by no means a new idiom. Robert Burchfield, who edited the four-volume OED Supplement, says it had

a long and untroubled history from OE until the 17C. […] at which point it became rare or obsolete, only to be revived in the 20C., chiefly in AmE.

Burchfield quotes several examples, including one from the New Yorker: ‘But, too, he was a charmer.’ But is this usage a charmer? It’s certainly not wrong, but it sounds slightly strange to my ears, probably because I encounter it so rarely.

The last source I checked is the last I’ll quote from: the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage. Its inclusion of examples from the NY Times Magazine, Christian Science Monitor, Wall Street Journal and Sports Illustrated suggests that the idiom is seen principally in journalism, but I haven’t explored this in any depth.

the OED Supplement shows that such usage has been revived in the 20th century, originally in American English but now in British English as well. No grammatical objection can be made to it, and the practice is clearly standard. Whatever problems it causes have to do with idiom — which it to say that, because of its relative rarity, it sounds peculiar to some people.

This chimes with my own feelings about it. Whether or not to use it is a matter of style and personal preference. I don’t plan to adopt it in my own speech or writing, but I have no problems at all with its occasional appearance in my reading material.

How about you — do you ever use it, and how do you find it?


From Jonathan Lethem’s You Don’t Love Me Yet: ‘Too, driving into the canyon of vacated plazas of downtown Los Angeles felt suitably solemn and irrevocable.’

Paul Collier’s The Bottom Billion: ‘Too, according to psychologists, on average about 3 percent of any population have psychopathic tendencies, so you can be sure that some of those in the recruitment line will be psychopaths.’

Dashiell Hammett, ‘The House in Turk Street, from The Continental Op: ‘Too, if I take her with me, she will want a share in the loot.’

Toni Cade Bambara, in her essay ‘What It Is I Think I’m Doing Anyhow’ in the Virago anthology The Writer on Her Work, edited by Janet Sternburg: ‘And too, Naomi is kinda fun to hang out with.’

Martin Amis’s Night Train has a couple of examples: ‘Too, I buzzed Linda, asking her to greet the elevator and bring the Colonel right on in.’ ‘Too, I’d washed my hair the night before, and had an early one.’

Despite his father Kingsley Amis’s warning, in The King’s English: ‘Never begin a fresh sentence with too followed by a comma, to mean something like further or also. Not even Americans should be allowed to get away with that.’

Barry Lopez, Arctic Dreams: ‘Too, because of poor translations, you might end up refuting something that was never meant.’ And: ‘Too, it held out promise of renown and prestige to anyone who could help “extend the charts”…’

John Kennedy Toole, A Confederacy of Dunces: ‘Too, Jones seemed to be broken in at last.’ And: ‘Too, no one apparently wanted to buy the place.’

Randy Allen Harris, The Linguistic Wars: ‘Too, they had coupled their work inseparably with a rejection of all things Bloomfieldian.

The power of understatement compels you!

September 10, 2009

Old newspapers and magazines provide great material for collages, but before I begin snipping I read any articles that appeal to me. Lately I was leafing through an Observer magazine from March when I saw an interview with the actor Michelle Williams, whom I like. (She adorned the cover too, so the article was not a complete surprise.)

So I began reading, and before long I encountered some strange adverbial usage. The first example appears in the second line:

She is unassumingly small, pretty rather than stunning…

If we ignore the shallowness of these observations and agree that unassuming means not assuming, modest, without pretensions, what does “unassumingly small” mean? That is to say, how does unassuming qualify small? It seems an ungainly and illogical combination. “Unassuming and small” would have made sense. Why adverbialise unassuming? If it is because small can seem blunt without a flattering modifier, I suggest “unassuming and petite”. Or am I missing something?

A few lines later, at the end of the first paragraph, there is a comparable example:

Yet she has received a great deal of attention […] and very little of it for her compellingly understated screen work.

Now, I could almost be persuaded to allow “unassumingly small” – though as an editor I would question it and suggest alternatives – but I would require thorough brainwashing to be persuaded by “compellingly understated”.

Williams’s screen work may be compelling, and it may also be understated, but to describe as compelling the degree to which it is understated is an involution too far for me. I would bet that not even film reviewers are compelled by the understatement of an actor’s performance. At least, not habitually.

It’s also possible that I am being excessively fussy about this. I would welcome the case for the defence. In the meantime, I have to wonder why these phrases were written. Was it out of stubborn aversion to certain uses of the word “and”? Adherence to some other obscure non-rule? I’m stumped.