Archive for Syntax

How wirelessly to hack

You don't think the ridiculous split-infinitive avoidance contortions at my favorite magazine could have started being exaggerated just as a sort of private joke on me, do you? I have reported many times on the absurd syntax that The Economist is prepared to countenance rather than ignore its cowardly advice of its style guide ("The ban [on split infinitives] is pointless. Unfortunately, to see it broken is so annoying to so many people that you should observe it"). A leader on internet security ("Breaching-point") in the Christmas double issue (December 24, 2016) tells us, in what I think is not just unstylish but actually a violation of normal English syntax:

At a computer-security conference in 2015, researchers demonstrated how wirelessly to hack a car made by Jeep, spinning its steering wheel or slamming on its brakes.

How wirelessly to hack ?? Unbelievable. (You can find the article online with a Google search on "how wirelessly to hack". As I write, it is the only hit: no one has ever written that misbegotten four-word sequence in the prior history of the world.*

Nobody who hadn't been driven into a state of nervous cluelessness by bad style advice could think that was the right order of words. Part of the reason is that how often functions as an initial modifier constituent of an adjective or adverb phrase.

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It was taking photos

This sentence is from a report in The Guardian, a UK paper, but I suspect it was written in the USA, where the (fictive) rule that a pronoun must agree in number with its antecedent noun is often taken very seriously:

One person was killed and five others were injured when a large eucalyptus tree fell on a wedding party while it took photographs at a southern California park on Saturday, authorities said.

I have seldom seen a case where a noun denoting a collection of people acting jointly felt so much in need of being allowed to be the antecedent of the plural pronoun they. But under the strict syntactic rule that some people wrongly imagine they should apply, they needs a plural antecedent, and party is singular (and non-human).

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This is the likes of which I didn't expect

Sarah Halzack, "The shipping industry is poised for massive upheaval. Can FedEx weather the storm?", Washington Post 12/15/2016:

“Amazon is the likes of which we’ve never seen,” said Dick Metzler, a former FedEx executive who now oversees marketing at uShip, an online freight marketplace.

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To more than justify the split infinitive

As long ago as 1914, an article by the grammarian George O. Curme made the point that more than can modify the verb of an infinitival complement, and since it must be adjacent to the verb, that actually forces a split infinitive: shifting the more than modifier to anywhere else creates clear ambiguity. I found a small measure of comfort in seeing that even The Economist, so often driven to deleteriously unnatural phrasing in its efforts to avoid split infinitives, acknowledges this grammatical imperative. In the November 26 issue for 2016 (online here) we read:

A string of purchases of A380s, starting in 2008, helped traffic to more than double to 51m in 2015.

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Trent Reznor Award nomination

It's been a while since we posted a nomination for the Trent Reznor Prize for Tricky Embedding — I believe that the most recent nomination was in April of 2012.  But here's a worthy suggestion from Laura Bailey:

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Ask Language Log: "But long or short, but here or there"

From Chris Cooper:

I was intrigued by this construction, which I'd never come across before. From the explanation of the German word "Bummel" in Jerome K Jerome's comic novel Three Men On The Bummel:

A 'Bummel', I explained, I should describe as a journey, long or short, without an end; the only thing regulating it being the necessity of getting back within a given time to the point from which one started. Sometimes it is through busy streets, and sometimes through the fields and lanes; sometimes we can be spared for a few hours, and sometimes for a few days. But long or short, but here or there, our thoughts are ever on the running of the sand. […]

It was the repetition of "but" in the last quoted sentence that struck me – I've never seen this elsewhere. It reminds me of the constructions

whether long or short, whether here or there …

and the obsolete

nor long nor short,

(I can't think of any real-life examples of the latter, but I'm sure it was once common, at least in poetry.)

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People she doesn't know

Yoram Meroz described this to me as a "lovely ambiguous headline": "Clinton aide Huma Abedin has told people she doesn’t know how her emails wound up on her husband’s computer", Washington Post 10/29/2016.

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Don't let 'bigly' catch on

Scott Adams, the Dilbert cartoon creator and diehard Trump promoter, has taken to the semi-jocular practice of adopting the mishearing of Trump's much-loved adjunct big-league, and using bigly as if it were a real adverb ("I just watched the debate on replay. Trump won bigly. This one wasn't close"). Adams is kidding, I think, but the mishearing is very common: by May 5, bigly was getting over 70,000 hits in the Google News index. I'm worried it may catch on, and we'll wake up some morning not only with the orange-quiffed sexist boor in the White House but with bigly added to the stock of adverbs in standard English.

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Attachment ambiguity of the week

Oliver Darcy, "REBELLION: RNC staffers 'defying orders' to keep working for Trump, source says", Business Insider 10/8/2016.

So how are those staffers defying orders? Are they ceasing to work for Trump despite orders to continue? In that case, it's "orders to keep working for Trump" that they're defying. Or are they defying instructions (to stop), (in order) to keep working for Trump?

Aaron Dinkin points out that the headline is perfectly ambiguous in this respect. And interestingly, both meanings are consistent with what we know about disagreement and confusion within the Republican party.

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Rudy off the island (constraint)?

Nick Rossoll, "Giuliani Says Trump Better For US ‘Than a Woman'", ABC News 10/2/2016:

Speaking of reports that Donald Trump claimed a $916 million loss on his 1995 income taxes, Giuliani said: “Don’t you think a man who has this kind of economic genius is a lot better for the United States than a woman, and the only thing she’s ever produced is a lot of work for the FBI checking out her emails?”

Rudy Giuliani has gotten a fair amount of flack for this comment, partly for describing losing $916 million as "economic genius", and partly for (apparently) saying that "a man … is a lot better for the United States than a woman". But John Cowan thinks that the second criticism is unfair, and Rudy is only guilty of stumbling into a syntactic "island violation" and getting out of it in an awkward way.

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Topic comment

Yesterday, Buzzfeed published an article titled "This Woman Ate A Pork Bun In A Typhoon And Now Everyone Loves Her" (9/28/16).  It featured this drawing:

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Secret appearances

The Economist, in a leader last April about the Panama Papers revelation, which I really should have brought to your attention sooner (it fell through the cracks of my life), told us that "The daughters of Azerbaijan's president appear secretly to control gold mines."

They appear secretly? Where are these secret appearances? Are they scheduled in advance, or do they occur randomly? And how would a secret appearance help to control a gold mine?

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Choosing their pronouns for oneself

The following sentence can be found (as of 15 September 2016) in this Wikipedia article about the effects of rape on the victim:

Sometimes in an effort to shield oneself from believing such a thing could happen to their loved one, a supporter will make excuses for why the event occurred.

The clash in pronoun choice (the switch from one to their) makes this clearly anomalous. What exactly could have led to its being written? I think at least two unease-promoting factors are involved.

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