Compulsive pedantry

March 28, 2018

When someone corrects a family member’s use of English, it usually (I imagine) follows the lines of age and authority: a parent correcting a child, say. But the dynamic is sometimes reversed and can be depicted thus in fiction: Michael Connelly, for example, has Harry Bosch’s daughter criticise the detective’s speech.

A more elaborate case plays out in Ali Smith’s novel How to Be Both (whose conversation without a common language I recently shared). The protagonist in one half of the novel, a teenage girl named George who is grieving for her late mother, compulsively corrects people’s usage – sometimes vocally, sometimes silently.

We notice the habit in the story’s first scene, a flashback. George is travelling in the car with her mother, and her little brother is asleep in the back. She is looking up the lyrics to ‘Let’s Twist Again’, and they annoy her in multiple ways. (Smith doesn’t use quotation marks or other punctuation to mark speech.)

The words are pretty bad. Let’s twist again like we did last summer. Let’s twist again like we did last year. Then there’s a really bad rhyme, a rhyme that isn’t, properly speaking, even a rhyme.

Do you remember when

Things were really hummin’.

Hummin’ doesn’t rhyme with summer, the line doesn’t end in a question mark, and is it meant to mean, literally, do you remember that time when things smelt really bad?

Then Let’s twist again, twisting time is here. Or, as all the sites say, twistin’ time.

At least they’ve used an apostrophe, the George from before her mother died says.

I do not give a fuck about whether some site on the internet attends to grammatical correctness, the George from after says.

As the story develops, seemingly trivial moments like this take on ever more significance. Since her mother died, George has been unable to enjoy music, so she’s seeking a way back in: through music her mother loved. She keeps replaying conversations they had, and the George ‘from before’ and ‘from after’ show shifts in her feelings about all sorts of things, including English usage.

Read the rest of this entry »

Advertisements

Adverbial ‘deep’ and Shakespearean ‘do’

June 1, 2016

For my regular column at Macmillan Dictionary Blog, I’ve been writing about flat adverbs and how our use of the word do has changed since Early Modern English.

I’ll start with the latter. Much ado about ‘do’ summarises the main uses of this complicated verb, then considers how modern usage compares with Shakespeare’s. Here’s a short excerpt:

Sometimes auxiliary do is inessential but included anyway. In ‘Conscience does make cowards of us all’, from Hamlet’s famous soliloquy, it is semantically superfluous, since the meaning of Conscience makes cowards of us all is basically the same. But do in this position was common in Shakespeare’s time, as Lane Greene notes. Nowadays it often serves to emphasise the verb following it – see sense 3 in Macmillan’s entry.

*

Next up: Is adverbial ‘deep’ used wrong? is a defence of flat adverbs – adverbs that look just like their associated adjectives, such as deep and wrong. The resemblance leads to some muddled thinking and misguided claims:

Read the rest of this entry »


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’)

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: