With a film adaptation out, and Airborne Toxic Events occurring in reality, it seemed a good time to revisit White Noise, Don DeLillo’s great seriocomic novel of the mid-1980s. Its protagonist, Jack Gladney, is a professor of Hitler Studies preoccupied by an upcoming conference, because he doesn’t speak German.
Gladney begins taking private German lessons, recounting the experience in his wry, anxious voice. Spoiler note: little of what follows has any real bearing on the plot, and it’s not a particularly plot-driven book, but you may prefer to back out if you haven’t read White Noise and might soon.
Sometimes what I read tells me what to write about. Other times the hints come from what I watch. This time it’s both. First I read a line in Richard Pryor’s autobiography Pryor Convictions with this mighty stack of intensifying negatives:
I’ve always been wary of making new year’s resolutions, never taking them very seriously. So if you feel similarly, don’t be put off on that account. But I think they can be helpful if framed in a certain way, which I do in the opening paragraph.
Some suggestions are practical, addressing work habits and environment; others focus on our relationship to words and language, since this too is an important part of the work of editing and proofreading. Certain advice also applies to other trades.
Ask me to name my favourite writer in a given genre – science fiction, thriller, horror – and I would usually struggle to whittle it down beyond a shifting shortlist. But ask me my favourite crime writer, and I settle readily on the name Peter Temple (1946–2018).
Why Temple? There’s his style and language, stripped down and surprising; his pitch-perfect dialogue that puts you right into his world; his dark wit and playful metaphors, so satisfying to my Irish tastes; his gloomy, uncompromising stories, with their shards of love and beauty.
All through "In the Evil Day" the mood flits between romanticism and fatalism. Weariness and dread are leavened by dark humour and tiny, stubborn hopes.
What’s the difference between continual and continuous? There’s a short answer, but it’s misleading, so – surprise! – I’m going with the long and complicated one.
Some people make a firm distinction between the two adjectives, but others don’t or only sometimes do. The distinction has merit, but it’s not categorical, more the codification of a general but lopsided pattern.
Because the words are so close in sense and use, they’re often used interchangeably (the adverbs continually and continuously even more so). This seldom leads to confusion or difficulty, but it’s also true that each word has domains it specializes in and others it’s less suited to.
Both words come from Latin continuus ‘hanging together, uninterrupted’, continual arriving via Old French continuel. Their endings, –al and –ous, are common adjective-forming suffixes. The words’ more recent history sheds light on their use, but first let’s look at how they’re defined, since this reflects how they’re used and gets to the centre of the problem.
Language change is something I watch closely, both as a copy-editor and as someone broadly interested in how we communicate. I read usage dictionaries for fun; I also read a lot of fiction, and sometimes, as a treat, it throws up explicit commentary on shifts or variation in usage.*
This happened most recently in Consumed (Scribner, 2014) by David Cronenberg (whose thoughts on language invention I covered earlier this year). Nathan, a young photojournalist, is visiting Roiphe, an elderly doctor, who calls Nathan ‘son’ just before the passage below, emphasizing the generational gap. They’re sitting in Roiphe’s kitchen:
“Want some ice water? Maybe coffee? Anything?”
“No, thanks. I’m good.”
“ ‘I’m good’ is funny. Sounds funny to me. We never used to say that. We’d say ‘I’m fine. I’m all right.’ But they do say ‘I’m good’ these days. So what are we looking at here?”