A long complicated sentence should force itself upon you, make you know yourself knowing it. —Gertrude Stein
Writers are often advised to introduce the main verb of a sentence early. It’s generally good advice. Delaying the verb by prefacing it with subordinate clauses, adjuncts, participle phrases and assorted throat-clearing puts a cognitive load on readers. They must hold it all in their short-term memory until the verb arrives and they find out what frame the extra information fits into.
This is a particular problem in nonfiction prose, where communicating facts is a primary aim. I see it regularly in texts I edit: long lists and unpredictable subclauses pile up before I learn what the sentence is even about. With a little rearrangement the main verb can be brought forward, and the point is made much more direct and comprehensible.
Reporting on a grammar debate in a crime novel by Michael Connelly, I remarked that the politics of English usage can show up anywhere. Sure enough, I just came across a great example in Simpsons Comics Royale, a comic book from Matt Groening and colleagues published by HarperCollins in 2001.
The issue this time is sneaked vs. snuck. It features centrally in a story about Radioactive Man called ‘Planet of the Strange-O’s’, which begins with our eponymous superhero dashing into what he thinks is a portable toilet (‘This is the nicest porta-potty I’ve ever been in!’). But the structure is not a porta-potty but a portal-potty, and by flushing it Radioactive Man ends up (FLUSHOOOOOM!) in another dimension.
Here he is soon surrounded by an army of near-Doppelgangers on a mission. You can recognise them below by their pale, cracked lower faces; Radioactive Man’s, by contrast, is yellow and smooth. The Strange-O’s pressure him to join them, but he resists. That’s when, shibboleth style, a dispute over usage (and semantics) breaks out:
The politics of English usage can show up anywhere. I was reading Michael Connelly’s 2010 crime novel The Reversal – gradually working my way through his back catalogue – when I found it depicting the spread of prescriptivism.
LAPD detective Harry Bosch and his 14-year-old daughter, Madeline, are at breakfast:
He checked his watch. It was time to go.
‘If you’re done playing with your food you can put your bowl in the sink. We have to get going.’
‘Finished, Dad. You should use the correct word.’
‘Sorry about that. Are you finished playing with your cereal?’
‘Good. Let’s go.’
Harry leaves Madeline with Sue Bambrough, her vice principal, for babysitting. He takes the opportunity to consult with the teacher:
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:
Eschew ‘avoid, shun, refrain from’ is a formal word of Germanic origin that entered English via Old French in the 15thC. It’s not one I use often, still less speak aloud, but a brief exchange on Twitter got me wondering how people pronounce it.
Let’s do a quick poll before I say any more. It simplifies the range of vowel sounds in the unstressed first syllable, so ignore any small difference there for now. I want to focus on the consonant cluster and what we might call the shoe, chew and skew forms.
If you’ve never said eschew or are unsure how to, go with whichever one you think you would say.
At Macmillan Dictionary Blog I’ve been writing about etymology and Lewis Carroll.
Etymology bites back traces the connections between the words morsel, remorse, and mordant – all of which carry the sense of biting, to a more or less explicit degree:
[The] common word remorse, as you may now guess, literally means to bite back, from re- added to our Latin friend mordere. We might not be accustomed to thinking of remorse as a metaphor, but in a broad sense it is – like depend it tucks a physical idea into an abstract one. Remorse is the feeling of our conscience gnawing at us. There was also once a verb remord, meaning ‘feel remorse’, ‘afflict with remorse’, etc., but it is archaic and hasn’t been in popular use for centuries.
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Language, logic, and Lewis Carroll begins a series of monthly posts celebrating the 150th anniversary of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, first published in 1865. It looks at the relative importance of logic in different types of English, and at the uses to which authors may put this variation:
Grammatical agreement is observed much more strictly in standard and formal varieties of English than in casual speech or non-standard dialects. Authors may exploit this to convey certain facts about a character or sociolinguistic context. . . .
Lewis Carroll did this too. In his short story ‘Eligible Apartments’ he uses non-standard dialogue liberally: ‘Here you has them on the premises’ (instead of have), ‘So we grows them ourselves’ (instead of grow), and ‘It do scratch, but not without you pulls its whiskers’ (do instead of does; pulls instead of pull).
As children we learn (and may also be taught) that singular nouns take singular verbs and plural nouns take plural verbs. This subject–verb agreement is also called concord; it sounds perfectly straightforward, but it often isn’t. Complications arise and mistakes slip in even when the numbers involved seem obvious.
In unedited writing it’s common to find nouns or noun phrases disagreeing with the verb, especially when a string of text comes between them and ends in an element with a different number. Though less common in edited prose, because it’s something editors look out for, examples do occur. Here’s one I read in Chase Novak’s horror novel Breed:
The thick gloomy shadows of the apartment itself, depressing on the face of it, is actually a kind of blessing to Amelie and Bernard, muting the visual impact of Bernard’s countless deformities and hiding, as well, the chaos of their quarters.