That misleading ‘that’

August 2, 2010

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.

There’s a lot of leeway in which thats should be retained and which can be omitted. This leeway has its limits, though, as the Observer’s line and two previous posts demonstrate.

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Note: This article also appears on the Visual Thesaurus.
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Not only . . . but (also) . . .

April 22, 2009

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.

Usage

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)

[Read the rest of this post]


Both . . . and . . .

November 25, 2008

The correlative conjunctions both . . . and . . . are best served by parallelism, which is easily achieved but just as easily overlooked. The conjunctions should be carefully positioned and their conjoined elements should be well balanced. That is, what follows both and what follows and should have the same grammatical form:

He was determined both to beat the record and to win over the crowd.

Here, the conjunctions frame two infinitives, which brings symmetry to the sentence – unlike the following constructions, which lurch rather awkwardly:

He was both determined to beat the record and to win over the crowd.
He was determined both to beat the record and win over the crowd.

Again, balance in the following sentences enhances their efficiency and euphony:

The game is suitable for both children and adults.
The game is suitable both for children and for adults.

Without balance:

The game is suitable both for children and adults.
The game is both suitable for children and adults.

In the last two examples, both and and do not carry equal weight, and the sentences become unbalanced. Although the sense is not destroyed, the rhythm is upset and logic is undermined. Following both with a preposition will lead readers to expect another preposition after and, while following both with an adjective will lead readers to expect another adjective after and, e.g.

The game is both suitable for children and enjoyable for adults.

But this is not what is being said, and the expectation – even if only momentary – may disorient the reader.

Recently I came across an example in Gerald Durrell’s Encounters With Animals:

“Once [the male trapdoor spider] has lifted the trapdoor and entered the silken shaft, it is for him both a tunnel of love and death.”

Most readers will automatically accept Durrell’s intention that the spider’s silken shaft (no sniggering please) is (1) a tunnel of love, and (2) a tunnel of death, but the sentence as it is written suggests that the shaft is (1) a tunnel of love, and (2) death. Better to have written:

It is for him a tunnel of both love and death.

Or, less plainly but more dramatically:

It is for him both a tunnel of love and a tunnel of death.


Comma splice

November 3, 2008

Before I discuss comma splices I will briefly explain run-on sentences, since there is some overlap in definition. A run-on sentence – also known as a fused sentence – is a sentence in which two or more independent clauses run together, i.e. the clauses are not joined by a conjunction or by punctuation:

The tests were inconclusive I didn’t know what to do next.

Everyone was ready however there were unforeseen delays.

Such sentences don’t stop, or pause properly, when they should. Neither do sentences with a comma splice, which occurs when two or more independent clauses are joined only by a comma:

The tests were inconclusive, I didn’t know what to do next.

Everyone was ready, however there were unforeseen delays.

Some grammarians consider comma splices as a type of run-on sentence; others distinguish them but discuss them together.

The comma splice is also called a comma error, comma blunder, and comma fault, but I find these terms too judgemental. Comma splices can be fine in fiction, poetry, letters and informal writing in general, where they often reflect spoken English and join clauses that are short, connected by subject or content, and unlikely to be misconstrued:

It wasn’t broken, it needed new batteries.
The shops were all closed, I couldn’t buy milk.

Commas are weak marks: they can separate elements within a clause, but they are not always considered strong enough to separate independent clauses. Comma splices (and run-on sentences) can draw readers into a second independent clause before they know that the first one is finished.

It is therefore preferable in many kinds of formal writing to separate such clauses with a conjunction or a stronger punctuation mark: a colon, semicolon, full stop or dash will supply the necessary pause. Simple rearrangements are another option.

It wasn’t broken, but it needed new batteries.
It wasn’t broken – it needed new batteries.

The shops were all closed, so I couldn’t buy milk.
As the shops were all closed, I couldn’t buy milk.
The shops were all closed; I couldn’t buy milk.
I couldn’t buy milk because the shops were all closed.

The tests were inconclusive, and I didn’t know what to do next.
Since the tests were inconclusive, I didn’t know what to do next.
The tests were inconclusive; I didn’t know what to do next.
The tests were inconclusive. I didn’t know what to do next.

All of these revisions are fine, and you can probably imagine many others. Which approach you choose depends on what suits the context, what tone and rhythm you want to convey, and so on.

Comma splices were more common in 18th and 19th century English, when they were not considered ungrammatical. Although modern English is more rigorous, comma splices have been used by authors like William Faulkner, Samuel Beckett, E. M. Forster, John Banville, Iris Murdoch, E. L. Doctorow, Hermann Hesse, and E. B. White (he of Strunk & White). Here’s White, in a letter from 1963:

Tell Johnny to read Santayana for a little while, it will improve his sentence structure.

No one could reasonably find fault with this comma splice. Its informality is obvious, and the sentence style is easy and plain.

Comma splices are especially popular with children, who tend to use lots of them in long rambling sentences. If you use comma splices in fiction or informal writing and you know what you’re doing, they should be fine. If you use them in student papers, official reports and the like, they may not. You can avoid them by using the techniques shown above.

Update:

For lots more discussion, and many examples of comma splices from literature, see my follow-up post “Oh, the Splices You’ll See!


How to use ‘however’

October 14, 2008

However is a useful and forceful word that is weakened by misuse and overuse. Although there is much discussion in usage guides about where to position it in a sentence, there are no absolute rules about this, and the word can be debased even when properly positioned. Some discussion may help clarify how to use it well. This is a long post, so I’ve divided it into general sections.

Use

However has two key functions:

(1) As a pure adverb that means to whatever extent or in whatever way:

However far you go, you’ll always remember home.

However this problem arose, we can’t deny its importance.

(2) As a conjunctive adverb that means nevertheless and shows contrast with what went before:

We were now utterly lost. However, we decided to persevere.

The study was deemed a success. The results, however, had yet to be published.

However’s function as a conjunctive adverb is what chiefly concerns me here, since it often replaces coordinating or subordinating conjunctions like but, yet, still, though or although, yet only occasionally improves on them. Each of these terms has its own adversative nuances, so you should let context guide your selection. For instance, the sample sentence above might be better written as:

We were now utterly lost, but we decided to persevere.
or
Although we were now utterly lost, we decided to persevere.

Overuse

Where possible, writers should take time to choose whichever terms in whatever order best communicate their essential ideas. Unfortunately they often don’t or can’t, and however’s popularity has soared.

To show what I mean, I’ve re-written the first paragraph with three extra howevers, more or less as the word is commonly used. Under the guise of mild parody lurks a dubious plan to make you hypersensitive to however through overexposure, and hence less inclined to use it too casually:

However is a useful and forceful word. However, it is weakened by misuse and overuse. There is much discussion in usage guides about where to position it in a sentence; however, there are no absolute rules about this, and the word can be debased even when properly positioned. However, some discussion may help clarify how to use it with more care and diligence…

Some writers rely on however in this fashion – to express almost any distinction or contrast – when in many cases it need not be used at all, and should at least be weighed against its alternatives. Writing one however after another turns text into a kind of rhetorical pinball, and readers can easily lose track of the text’s essential meaning.

However should not be avoided whenever possible, but unless you use it with good judgement and restraint, you run the risk of using it superfluously, inappropriately, or both.

But in particular seems to have lost out. It is short, plain, emphatic and versatile, yet many writers shun it, apparently either neglecting to consider it or sensing that they will be taken more seriously if they use however as much as possible. But however doesn’t automatically confer authority on one’s writing, and indeed can have the opposite effect unless used prudently.

Positioning

When you use however as a conjunctive adverb, be cautious about placing it at the end of a sentence or clause – especially a long one – where it delays the signal of contrast and can take the oomph out of whatever precedes it. Placed at the beginning it can also reduce emphasis, by making your reader wait for the subject, however momentarily.

Despite what Strunk wrote in The Elements of Style, this is not an absolute proscription: there are occasions when the start of a sentence is the best place for however. When this positioning becomes habitual, however, the word loses what effect and grace it might otherwise offer.

A general guideline: however works best when used sparingly, and when positioned just after whatever requires emphasis:

Most of the people at the parade were generally enthusiastic. Some, however, were disappointed by how quickly it finished.

The children tiptoed towards the swan. When it suddenly flapped its wings, however, the kids retreated.

Misuse and punctuation

Using however to open a clause, without any punctuation, turns however into a full conjunction like but, which it isn’t. Some untrained writers and news media habitually misuse the word thus:

However the most surprising thing is…

The teams were level at half time, however within ten minutes of the second half…

This practice also confuses the conjunctive adverb however with the pure adverb however, since the latter never takes a following comma. One authority describes this usage as an illiteracy; I wouldn’t go that far, but it certainly clouds a couple of useful distinctions. It may be partly caused by mimicry: when people read however in print media, overused as it is, they easily overlook the surrounding punctuation – if there is any. In spoken reports, meanwhile, the pauses signalled by punctuation are often negligible or missing altogether.

However is often implicated in comma splices, which are also mentioned in the final bullet point of my post on semicolons; that post has further information on punctuating around however when it joins two independent clauses (generally a preceding semicolon and a following comma). Enclosed by commas it underlines what precedes it, often with contrast. Without either it points to the contrast without emphasis; this lets you avoid unnecessary punctuation where no ambiguity is likely to arise.

A mistake to watch out for is writing however when you mean how ever. In this phrase, ever either intensifies how (in dialogue or colloquial usage), or has its full meaning of under any circumstances or at any time. In both cases it requires separation, sometimes with intervening words:

How ever did you manage to reach that summit? (Or How did you ever manage…, not However did you manage…)
Daily Google users wonder how they ever survived without it. (Not however they survived…)

There’s more, but that will do for now.


A perverse economic strategy

October 7, 2008

I shouldn’t make a habit of quoting newspaper headlines, but today’s Irish Times had an irresistible line:

“ESRI warns Irish recession to deepen next year”

All that’s missing is a menacing “or else”. Warn is traditionally a transitive verb (Pat warns Bob…) but developed intransitive use (Pat warns that/of/against…) about 100 years ago, according to Robert Burchfield in the third edition of Fowler’s Modern English Usage.

Warn is intransitive in the headline above, since the warning is delivered generally. Were it transitive, its direct object might be the public, the Government or everyone. It seems transitive because it’s followed immediately by “Irish recession”, which becomes its direct object in the absence of that. Reinstating that (here a subordinating conjunction) and other omitted elements:

[The] ESRI warns [that] [the] Irish recession [is] to deepen next year.

To maintain the headline form, it suffices to insert a comma or colon, and rearrange as necessary:

Irish recession to deepen next year, ESRI warns

ESRI warns: Irish recession to deepen next year

These re-worded examples are standard and quite unobjectionable. They convey the ESRI’s warning unambiguously, and are therefore immune to pedantic sarcasm.

Related post: ‘Ludicrous’ people can’t have drink.