Litotes and lyrics on which we disagree on

May 16, 2015

Following my recent defence of double negatives, I wrote further about a particular form of multiple negation that has been popular for many centuries. In Litotes is no small matter, at Macmillan Dictionary Blog, I describe this figure of speech as:

less rare than you might think – indeed, it is anything but uncommon. Litotes is used in all sorts of language varieties and contexts, from high-flown rhetoric to everyday small talk. We might reply to the greeting ‘How are you?’ with ‘Not bad’ or ‘Can’t complain.’ . . .

Litotes shows up in some familiar phrases and idioms. If we think someone should be able to do or understand something, we can say it’s not rocket science. If someone has overstepped the mark, we can let them know in no uncertain terms – a phrase that conveys the force of our disapproval. So as well as understatement, litotes can also be used for emphasis.

The post looks at other forms of litotes, such as the common not un-X construction, cites some familiar examples from pop culture, and considers its functions and range of meaning.

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With pop culture on the brain, I then tackled a famous (and somewhat infamous) song lyric at which I’ve often wondered at. The line I’m interested in occurs at 0:18 and 2:06 in the video below:

The question is whether McCartney sings: this ever-changing world in which we live in, or …in which we’re livin’. In my Macmillan post This ever-changing language in which we live in, I note that the latter interpretation

would make sense, and it’s more charitable to McCartney. But it doesn’t seem to be what he sings. The we/we’re bit is ambiguous on account of his accent, but the later phrase really doesn’t sound like livin’ to me – the stress pattern is more suggestive of live in. The Guns N’ Roses cover is more unequivocally live in, and apparently it’s what appears in the original liner notes.

But even language experts disagree on what McCartney sings: Grammarphobia holds to the livin’ reading, citing (somewhat unconvincingly) a book on pop music, while David Crystal makes a strong case for live in, and writes: ‘Certainly it’s ungrammatical; but it’s not unnatural.’

Read the rest for more analysis and conjecture, including McCartney’s own ambivalence when queried about it. For older posts, see my archive at Macmillan Dictionary Blog.


Grammar references in ‘Gone Girl’

September 28, 2014

With David Fincher’s new film Gone Girl hitting the cinemas, it seems like a good time to mention the grammar references in the source novel by Gillian Flynn. (Also, I read it just a few weeks ago.) I counted three such references, quoted below.

Gillian Flynn - Gone Girl book coverIf you haven’t read Gone Girl and intend to read it or see the film, you might want to skip this post in case of spoilers. The book is an effective page-turner, and the less you know about how the plot unfolds, the better. If you have read it or don’t care about spoilers, read on.

The book has two unreliable narrators. First, here’s Amy, revealing herself to be self-conscious and pedantic about grammatical correctness and careful to avoid hypercorrection:

The woman remained in the car the whole time, a pacifiered toddler in her arms, watching her husband and me trade cash for keys. (That is the correct grammar, you know: her husband and me.)

Later, a secondary character says “the hoi polloi” and the other narrator, Nick, rejects the redundancy:

Just hoi polloi, I thought, not the hoi polloi. It was something Amy had taught me.

For the record: the hoi polloi is so common, and has such a strong literary pedigree (Byron, Dryden, et al.), that even prescriptivist authorities often permit it. But it remains a popular shibboleth in usage commentary and casual nitpickery.

The third and last example of grammar discussed in Gone Girl echoes the first. It contains a significant plot spoiler, so caveat lector. Amy again:

They say it’s important for Nick and me (the correct grammar) to have some time alone and heal.

I don’t know if any of these (or similar) items appear in the screenplay, which Flynn also wrote, but I’ll be interested to see if they do. If you plan on catching the film soon, enjoy.


Redundancy in the prime of ‘like’

February 18, 2012

From Muriel Spark’s novel The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961):

Meanwhile Miss Brodie said:
  ‘And Mrs Lloyd — is she a woman, would you say, in her prime?’
  ‘Perhaps not yet,’ said Sandy.
  ‘Well, Mrs Lloyd may be past it,’ Jenny said. ‘It’s difficult to say with her hair being long on her shoulders. It makes her look young although she may not be.’
  ‘She looks really like as if she won’t have any prime,’ Sandy said.
  ‘The word “like” is redundant in that sentence. What is Mrs Lloyd’s Christian name?’
  ‘Deirdre,’ said Jenny, and Miss Brodie considered the name as if it were new to her . . .

Like is indeed redundant in that sentence, and you could equally say as if is. There’s nothing inherently wrong with like as if, but it has too colloquial a feel for the formal register Miss Brodie encourages in her students — more “proper” speech being advantageous in conservative society. COHA shows like as if used mostly in casual language.

Note also the recurrent use of said to report dialogue. Some writers are suspicious of its ordinariness, readily replacing it with such words as replied, spoke, enquired and exclaimed, but these draw more attention to themselves and hence away from the story.

Related links:
Omit needless criticisms of redundancy
Jessica Love on quotative like


Omit needless criticisms of redundancy

January 4, 2011

In writing, as in conversation, an economical use of words is not always what we want – Bergen Evans

Redundancy has a poor reputation in writing and editing. Its modern linguistic sense – which I think derives from information theory – has to do with predictability, but it is more generally associated with needless repetition or wordiness, and is therefore often automatically considered a failing in prose. This, however, is only part of the story.

Certainly there are pointless pleonasms like future plans, necessary requirement, in close proximity to, collaborate together, and 9 a.m. in the morning, which can bug readers and signal carelessness in writers, while phrases like sudden explosion and crept quietly gain nothing from their modifying adjectives and adverbs. Acronymic doublings like ATM machine and HIV virus attract endless criticism, and you won’t find me defending due to the fact that over because. Speaking of ATMs, is there a subtlety I’m missing in the instruction “Please Prepay in Advance”?

Yet despite what you might infer from some writing guides, redundancy is not inherently problematic. It’s a natural part of our speech and grammar, and can help in the transmission of a message by compensating for interference or incomplete attention. MWDEU offers an illuminating example from Todd & Hancock (1986): “those two dogs”, in which plurality is marked three times in three words. This shows how redundancy is built into the very structure of language. According to Terrence Deacon,

the best way to compensate for noise or error-proneness in communication is redundancy. We tend to repeat things, spell out important words, say the same thing in different ways, or add gestures and exaggerated tonality and volume in order to overcome the vicissitudes imposed by noisy rooms, distractions, inept listeners, or otherwise difficult-to-convey messages. Redundancy is implicitly built into language structure as well. Highly predictable phonetic elements, grammatical markers that all must agree within a sentence, and predictable word-order constraints can help one anticipate what is coming. (The Symbolic Species, 1997)

English has many redundant lexical pairs, such as first and foremost, and so on and so forth, and each and every. Joseph M. Williams dates this phenomenon to the time the language began to borrow liberally from Latin and French. “Because the borrowed word usually sounded a bit more learned than the familiar native one,” he observes, “early writers would use both.”

Perhaps the persistence of these set phrases testifies to our love of rhythmic and alliterative couplets. Such characteristics may, in turn, help memory and learning. We need not take Strunk and White’s authoritarian “Omit needless words” too much to heart, nor Orwell’s equally severe “A sentence should contain no unnecessary words”. In The Columbia Guide to Standard American English, Kenneth G. Wilson writes, more generously:

as every preacher and teacher knows, it is often pedagogically sound to “tell ’em first what you’re gonna tell ’em, then tell ’em, and finally tell ’em what you’ve told ’em.” Sometimes repetition – redundancy – is a good way to ensure effectiveness.

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Albert Anker: Grandfather Tells a Story, 1884

Repetition is a key part of oral storytelling traditions, and lives on especially in children’s books. Maybe its rhetorical status suffered as a result of our industrial ideals of efficiency and economy. It can still be used deliberately to emphasise an idea, convey a certain nuance, or achieve some prosodic effect. For example, reducing the tautological “there’s dollars there, dollars and bucks and nuggets in the ground”* to a concise “there’s wealth there” would drain it of colour and life.

In Irish English, redundancy is an abundant feature. Many people here are incurably fond of roundabout locutions, be it in casual conversation or as a literary device. “Are you going out?” goes the question, to which the reply might be not a curt “No” but a singsong “Well indeed now and I am not.” P. W. Joyce dedicated an entire chapter of English As We Speak It In Ireland to exaggeration and redundancy.

To recap: We can think of redundancy in language in two ways: a technical kind that is essential to language, and a more general kind that can require editing, but doesn’t necessarily. Rather than assume that wordy redundancy should always be eliminated, language users can judge its effect on communication in a given context. Sometimes even in formal writing, there’s no harm in a delay or detour if it makes the message more meaningful or memorable.

Update: Gabe Doyle at Motivated Grammar has written a useful post on redundancy, paying particular reference to the reason why vs. the reason that. He writes: “Adding redundant information is the rational thing to do if you expect the noise levels to be high enough that some information will be lost, and in almost every linguistic situation, that’s the case.”

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* From MacCruiskeen’s description of the U.S.A. in Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman.

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