I tweeted about this a couple of months ago and have been meaning to follow up ever since. The item that interests me is a usage in the subhead of an article from Brussels-based news service Politico. Here’s the relevant portion:
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]
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).
Till (= until) has an extra sense in Irish English that means something like ‘in order that’ or ‘so that [someone] can…’. A doting relative, upon meeting you after a long absence, might say ‘Come here till I see you’, which means ‘Come closer so that I can look at you properly’.
Raymond Hickey, in his essay Southern Irish English, gives the example ‘Come here till I tell you.’ This common expression can invite a listener who is within earshot to move physically closer, or it can serve simply to announce an item of discourse, to prepare an audience’s ears for something of interest or significance, e.g.:
Come here till I tell you what happened this morning.
Used this way, Come here till I tell you is like a longer version of Old English Hwæt! (Hark!, Lo!, Listen!, etc.; literally What!), signalling the beginning of a story, albeit usually shorter than Beowulf. Some speakers run ‘Come here till’ together so it sounds like ‘C’meertle’.
T. P. Dolan has a nice entry in his Dictionary of Hiberno-English, in which he says till reflects the wider meaning of go /gʌ/ — the corresponding conjunction in Irish — and the idiom behaves ‘as if it were an adverbial clause of purpose’.
You can see how it works in the literary examples he provides:
Where is he till I murder him? (James Joyce, Ulysses)
Come here till I embrace you. (Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot)
Tell me who’s to blame will yeh til I tear his friggin’ head off. (Billy Roche, A Handful of Stars)
Come here till I comb your hair. (Frank McCourt, Angela’s Ashes)
And a few more from Google Books:
‘You killed my brother,’ said the giant; ‘come here, till I make a garter of your body.’ (J. M. Synge, The Aran Island)
‘Och, captain, avick! och! och! come here till I eat you!’ And she flung her arm round Robinson’s neck, and bestowed a little furious kiss on him. (Charles Reade, It Is Never Too Late to Mend)
Give me yer blissin’ till I go away to push me fortune. (Seumas MacManus, ‘Twas in Dhroll Donegal)
The MacManus line is one of several illustrative examples included in Michael Montgomery’s From Ulster to America: The Scotch-Irish Heritage of American English.
P. W. Joyce reported in 1910 that this till (‘in order that’) was used in many parts of Ireland. Certainly it was familiar to me growing up in the west, and I still hear and use it from time to time.
Elizabeth McGuane adds the related Come here to me and Come here to me now till I tell you. Ronan Delaney believes it’s ‘all down to that full Irish construction Gabh i leigth anseo go… or roughly Goile’nseo go…’
John Byrne says C’mere till I tell you a question is an ‘old Limerickism’, while Sally Tipper says the post got her thinking about the ‘northern English use of while to mean till‘, as in ‘I’ll not be back while late’; she can’t vouch for all contexts, so maybe a native can shed light.
That’s the comma that sometimes appears just before the coordinating conjunction (normally and or or) near the end of a list of three or more items. There’s one in the title of this post. It became known as the Oxford comma because “for a century it has been part of Oxford University Press style to retain or impose this last comma consistently”.
Its omission often makes little difference (“We offer tea, coffee and orange juice”), but ambiguity arises easily (“At Jim’s house I met Jo, a student and an artist”). An almighty fuss broke out among writers and editors on Twitter this week when it emerged that a style guide for University of Oxford staff advises against using the Oxford comma, except where it “would assist in the meaning of the sentence or helps to resolve ambiguity”.
Mark Allen pointed out that the page in question was last updated in 2009, but it seemed to have slipped under the collective editorial radar until lately. Some people thought that Oxford University Press, or even the Oxford Manual of Style, were abolishing their eponymous mark. Not so.
Yet there was much gnashing of teeth, wailing and flailing, and references to “cold, dead hands”. I saw an astonishing number of people mourning the “death” of the Oxford comma.
A story in yesterday’s Observer had a sentence that shows the importance of care in using the word that:
Assange insisted there was no evidence that anyone had been put at risk and that WikiLeaks had held sensitive information back and taken great care not to put people at risk.
Because that follows no evidence but not insisted, the later thats — before WikiLeaks and implied in “and [that WikiLeaks had] taken great care” — can create false interpretations. Taken at face value, the line could be telling us that Assange insisted the following:
(1) there was no evidence that anyone had been put at risk;
(2) there was no evidence that WikiLeaks had held sensitive information back; and
(3) there was no evidence that WikiLeaks had taken great care not to put people at risk.
Yet only the first of these was intended; the others are contrary to Assange’s claims. Most readers will intuit from context the obvious meaning, but some may be misled. I don’t know how easily — for native readers, perhaps only by deliberate misreading. The and after risk is, crucially, not or. For comparison, though, see how the line reads with an extra that in the opening clause:
Assange insisted [that] there was no evidence that anyone had been put at risk and that WikiLeaks had held sensitive information back and taken great care not to put people at risk.
without either that:
Assange insisted there was no evidence anyone had been put at risk and that WikiLeaks had held sensitive information back and taken great care not to put people at risk.
and with the other that instead (and a clarifying comma):
Assange insisted that there was no evidence anyone had been put at risk, and that WikiLeaks had held sensitive information back and had taken great care not to put people at risk.
Given the options, and the story’s sensitivity, the potential for ambiguity ought to have been noticed and eliminated. It wouldn’t have been difficult. The third alternative above, for example, would have been clearer. Better and simpler again, the sentence could have been divided in two:
Assange insisted there was no evidence that anyone had been put at risk. He said that WikiLeaks had held sensitive information back and had taken great care not to put people at risk.
Note: This article also appears on the Visual Thesaurus.
Despite the apparent simplicity of these correlative conjunctions, there is uncertainty and disagreement over the suitability of their use and the correctness of their placement. Much of this discord relates to the need for parallelism and sentence balance. I’ll look at that later in the post, but first I’ll give an overview of how the conjunctions are used.
Not only is this post quite long and detailed, it also lacks images, so I’ve folded it up and divided it into three general sections: Usage, Parallelism, Opinions.
Writers typically, but not always, use both parts of the set, i.e. (1) not only, and (2) but (also). The first part is occasionally written not just or not alone, while the second part is commonly seen in the forms but . . . too and but . . . as well. These variants offer different nuances but not very different meanings.
It was not just a big bear, but a grumpy one as well.
Not alone did she win the race, but she also beat the record.
He not only used a fictitious example, but he reproduced it too.
But (also) is the most common root form, so I’ll focus on it in this discussion. Where the alternatives are not mentioned, consider them implied. When but is included you can either add also (or its alternatives) or not; both forms are common and standard. Hence the parentheses in but (also), which could also be written as (but) also, since but sometimes doesn’t appear either.
He not only used a fictitious example, but he also reproduced it.
He not only used a fictitious example, he also reproduced it.
Rowers not only face backward, they race backward.
The last example, from the New Yorker, is effective because of its succinctness and punchy rhythm. Adding but would impair it, while adding also would do little or nothing to improve it. Doing without but or also tends to reduce formality, or to reduce stiffness in formal prose, and can benefit short and straightforward constructions. Here are a few more:
“The street door of the rooming-house was not only unlocked but wide open” (Dashiell Hammett, ‘The Big Knockover’)
“Borges not only wrote stories but transformed them” (The Mirror Man documentary)
“She not only consults, she insults.” (Muriel Spark, Aiding and Abetting)
“The shape of Cleopatra’s nose influences not only wars, but ideologies” (Arthur Koestler, The Sleepwalkers)
“The omission of the also is not only frequent but Standard” (Kenneth G. Wilson, Columbia Guide to Standard American English)
“Not only are there verbs with similar meanings and different past-tense forms, there are verbs with different meanings and the same past-tense forms. (Steven Pinker, Words and Rules)
“…his application was not only refused by Bonn, it was hardly noticed and remained totally unsupported.” (Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem)