Linguistic hygiene in Sling Blade

March 9, 2016

Last night I watched the film Sling Blade (1996) for the first time in years decades and liked it all over again. It has linguistic appeal too: the characters speak in strong dialects with idiomatic expressions.

More than once the main characters say how much they like how the other one talks, as a way of conveying their mutual fondness and friendship:

sling blade - i like the way you talk

sling blade - he likes the way i talk - billy bob thornton + james hampton

There are two items in particular I want to note here. The first is a moment of mild prescriptivism at a family table.

Read the rest of this entry »

Parallelism, pedantry, and prescriptivist purism

May 22, 2014

It’s been a couple of weeks since my last post – mainly because I’ve been very busy editing and proofreading, and because I just needed a break. But I have two new posts up at Macmillan Dictionary Blog, which I’d like to excerpt here and point you towards.

Parallelism, precision, and pedantry looks at the importance of parallelism: how its observance can bring polish (and correctness) to your style, but also how it’s not as vital as some pedants – and the phrase faulty parallelism – might have you believe. Faulty parallelism:

can appear when we use coordinating conjunctions such as and, or, and but, or pairs of correlative conjunctions such as either… or, neither… nor, both… and, and not only… but also.

How strictly parallelism should be observed depends on whose advice you take. Pedants can be absolute in their expectations. Referring to either… or, Eric Partridge in Usage and Abusage insisted that “the division must be made with logical precision”. Either this is true or not. I mean: This is either true or not; or: Either this is true or it is not.

I say not. Some usage dictionaries cite prescriptivist authorities who are strict on parallelism yet whose own prose doesn’t adhere to the rule.

Read the rest for more analysis of parallelism, and some good discussion in the comments.


My next piece, Who’s the boss of English?, takes issue with a recent article (or: list of peeves slash PR stunt) from journalist Simon Heffer, and shows why anyone claiming authority in language usage needs to look at the evidence in order to keep pace with language change:

Heffer’s list of peeves, like most such lists, abounds in misinformation and etymological fallacy: a futile insistence that we use a word this way, not that way; that it can mean only this, never that. Here and there it makes useful points, but by mixing good sense with so much demonstrable wrongness, the whole package becomes untrustworthy, as the wise John E. McIntyre points out. Especially, I think, if the aim of these non-rules is to maintain anachronistic shibboleths that allow an in-group to congratulate itself on knowing them. . . .

Language has no ultimate authority except its users, from whose collective efforts it derives its conventions and power.

I’ll be returning to this topic next week, with particular focus on one peeve. In the meantime, my latest post has brief criticism, relevant links, good comments, and what I’ve called ‘the Lebowski defence’ against a certain usage proscription.

Older articles are available in my Macmillan Dictionary Blog archive. Comments are welcome in either location.

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:

As good (as) or better than faulty parallelism

May 1, 2012

I read the following in a Discovery News article, and it gave me pause:

Fussy readers will frown at the faulty parallelism of “as much, or more, than…”. After all, we don’t say as much than. Strictly speaking, it would seem a second as is missing: as much as, or more than, the face.

This construction is sometimes called “dual comparison”, and it takes various forms: as good (as) or better than; as well (as) or better than; as bad (as) or worse than – you can add your own adjectives or adverbs to the formula. All are susceptible to the kind of casual ellipsis pictured above.

You may be wondering how acceptable the unparallel forms are: whether they’re OK in semi-formal contexts such as science news websites, for example. Let’s see what usage commentators have to say.


Bryan Garner says parallelism “helps satisfy every reader’s innate craving for order and rhythm”. He believes the second as “must appear”, and that dropping it is a “common error”. His appeal is to logic. This is also essentially the argument made by Robert Burchfield, who in his revised edition of Fowler says difficulties arise

because both bad and good (as well as other adjectives) obviously require as, not than, in comparisons. The juxtaposition of as and than without intervening punctuation is not logically defensible. Thus the sentence we’re sure they can judge a novel just as well if not better than us (London Review of Books, 1987) needs correcting to just as well as, if not better than, us.

Burchfield says a wiser course is to sidestep the problem by placing the comparative later in the sentence. So the LRB line could be recast thus: just as well as us, if not better.

But this is not the whole story; other authorities are less stringent. Kenneth G. Wilson’s Columbia Guide to Standard American English says the structure

is idiomatic, at least in Conversational levels and in their written representations, but Edited English avoids it because it is often criticized for its faulty parallelism. . . . Particularly in longer sentences, punctuation gets more complicated when you restore the as: He is as handsome and well-mannered as, or even handsomer and better-mannered than, his older brother.

I don’t see how the punctuation gets more complicated there, though: it’s just the usual two commas in a slightly more complex sentence. Here’s an unimpeachable example in Mary Trump’s book Too Much and Never Enough:

Abuse can be quiet and insidious just as often as, or even more often than, it is loud and violent.

The Columbia Guide, in a separate entry, says that only crude faulty parallelisms usually bother us: “we speak and write a good many more that go unnoticed.” Unless we have that “craving” Garner mentions, I suppose, along with a meticulous reading and listening style.

The most thorough treatment I came across is in the exceptional Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage. It says the objections began (as they so often do) in the 18th century, beginning with George Campbell in 1776, and they have continued ever since:

This issue arises from the 18-century grammarians’ concern with developing a perfectly logical language – logical from the point of view of Latin grammar – and eliminating as many untidy English idioms as possible.

It says the locution might nowadays be considered “simply another idiomatic usage” had Campbell not noticed it, and that it is “a venial fault” since readers are not confused by it. After examining the various ways punctuation can affect the construction, MWDEU concludes that it “need not be routinely revised out of general writing that does not strive for elevation”.

A search on COCA suggests that as good or better than – seemingly the most common of these expressions – appears especially in magazines and newspapers, often as quoted speech. But academic occurrences are not unheard of, and for as well or better than are of comparable frequency. A few examples:

He knew the lawn as well or better than she did (Margaret Edwards, Virginia Quarterly Review, 1993)

they scored as well or better than the Swedes on tests of reproductive and contraceptive knowledge (Public Interest, 1993)

third-party settlement can be as bad or worse than negotiation in encouraging extreme claims and positions (Canada–United States Law Journal, 2000)

CPDT training is as good or better than the pre-service training (Education, 2003)

You can click on the following charts for more information on specific instances.

As good or better than:

As well or better than:

If on the other hand you are striving for elevation, and you want to attend to proper parallelism, you can:

1. Add as and use two commas.

2. Place the comparative later. This was Strunk’s preferred solution: My opinion is as good as his, or better / if not better.

3. Rephrase, e.g., at least as X as Y.

Different styles, tastes, contexts and hunches will call for different solutions, and it’s always good to have options.

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.


Note: This article also appears on the Visual Thesaurus.

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.


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.