Archive for Syntax

New Yorker copy editors (probably) moving adverbs around

In an article called "The increasingly lonely hope of Barack Obama," the The New Yorker showed that it belongs to the increasingly lonely class of educated people who still imagine that if they ever allowed an adjunct to separate infinitival to from the plain-form verb of the infinitival complement that it introduces, demons would break through the walls and floor and drag them down to hell. The article, by Vinson Cunningham, contained this passage:

The President thanked his Vice-President, Joe Biden, and the rest of the people who had made possible his time in office. And here, too, was a contrast with Trump, who has yet to demonstrate an ability ardently and earnestly to praise a person other than himself.

To demonstrate an ability ardently and earnestly? Vinson, are you quite sure you didn't mean that what Trump hasn't yet demonstrated is that he can ardently and earnestly praise a person other than himself?

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Resumptive pronoun of the week

Jonathan O'Connell, "Feds, Trump attorneys wrangle over president’s D.C. hotel lease", Washington Post 2/10/2017 [emphasis added:

Chaffetz told reporters this week that he was interested to learn how officials intended to grapple with the potentially awkward situation in which the Trump-led government intended to negotiate with a business controlled by the president’s family.

“His being both the landlord and the tenant is something that we’re curious what the GSA’s opinion of that is,” Chaffetz said.

The earliest version of this quote seems to have come from Kyle Cheney, "Chaffetz has no idea why Trump wants to see him", Politico 2/7/2017, and it's been reproduced in several other stories. But I haven't been able to find a recording, and there's no evidence that reporters' shoddy quotation practices have improved, so despite the quotation marks, we have no way to know whether these are Chaffetz's words or a reporter's  paraphrase.

Whoever created the sentence, however, it offers a nice example of what linguists call a "resumptive pronoun".

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The craven feminine pronoun

The Times Literary Supplement diarist who hides behind the initials "J.C." makes this catty remark (issue of January 6, 2017, page 36) about Sidney E. Berger's The Dictionary of the Book: A Glossary of Book Collectors:

"Predictions were that the Internet would do away with dealers' catalogs and it is true that many a dealer has gone from issuing catalogs to listing her whole stock online." Bookselling and book collecting are among the world's stubbornly male pastimes — deplorable, no doubt, but less so than the use of the craven pronoun throughout The Dictionary of the Book (Rowman & Littlefield, $125).

J.C. (who, Jonathan Ginzburg informs me, is widely known to be an author, book dealer, and bibliophile named James Campbell) is objecting to the use of she as a gender-neutral pronoun. And you can just guess that a snooty writer in TLS who quibbles about other people's grammar choices would hate singular they. J.C. would probably regard it as "abominable", the way Simon Heffer does. Which can only mean that he advocates use of the traditional practice of he as the gender-neutral 3rd-person singular pronoun, the one that The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (CGEL) calls "purportedly sex-neutral he (see pp. 491–493).

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Donald Trump, Frederick Douglass, and the present perfect

The media (for example here, here) have noticed that there is something strange about Donald Trump’s use of the present perfect in a comment about Frederick Douglass at the start of Black History Month:

Frederick Douglass is an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is being recognized more and more, I notice.

Somehow this utterance suggests that Trump believes that Douglass is still alive, raising the question of what aspect of its grammar leads to that inference.

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Gorsuch v. Prepositional Phrases

In the Wall Street Journal article "Supreme Court Nominee Takes Legal Writing to Next Level," Joe Palazzolo writes that Judge Neil Gorsuch, Donald Trump's nominee for the Supreme Court, has elevated legal opinions to "a form of wry nonfiction." Not only that, "his affinity for language reveals itself in other ways. Poorly drafted laws tend to summon his inner grammarian."

"We're all guilty of venial syntactical sins. And our federal government can claim no exception," Judge Gorsuch wrote in a 2012 dissent, which went on to critique a provision of federal sentencing guidelines "only a grammar teacher could love," with its "jumble of prepositional phrases."

In a 2015 opinion, Judge Gorsuch hacked through another "bramble of prepositional phrases" to figure out how to apply a criminal law that heightens penalties for using a gun in the commission of a crime. In what might have been a first, he diagramed the sentence containing the provision in question and illustrated his opinion with it.

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Editing wars at London Bridge Street

As of the time of writing, you only get one hit if you ask Google to show you all the pages on the web containing the word sequence in order legally to minimise. That lone hit leads you to an anonymous leader in The Times (there is a paywall) in which this sentence occurs:

Companies are gaming the system in order legally to minimise their tax liability.

The highly unnatural syntax has the hallmark of having been created or edited by someone who would rather poison a puppy than allow an adverb to intrude between infinitival to and its following plain-form verb. But in this case there is more to the story.

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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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