Archive for Usage advice

At last, a split infinitive in The Economist

The Economist has demonstrated several times that it would rather publish ambiguous, awkward, or even ungrammatical sentences than permit a verb-modifying adjunct to intervene between the marker to and the head verb of the infinitival clause it introduces (see here and here for two of my discussions of the topic). Last week I obtained a robustly direct reaction from an influential staff member at the magazine's offices (I've given the details on Lingua Franca today). It stated that they would not be changing their highly conservative policy — it came close to telling me to butt out. But almost immediately thereafter, I came across a sentence that (you might think) looked like counterevidence. It was in an article about computer modeling of tsunami behavior (15 June 2013, p. 82); I underline the crucial part:

To simplify the problem, the researchers looked at what happens when a computerized wave encounters a cone-shaped island on a smoothly sloping seabed in front of a straight cyber-coastline with a beach that continues to rise smoothly as it progresses inland. These approximations allow a computer to cope with the problem, yet are sufficiently similar to many real places for the conclusions drawn from them to, as it were, hold water.

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Economist still chicken: botches sentence rather than split infinitive

I have commented elsewhere on the fact that writers in The Economist are required to write unnatural or even ungrammatical sentences rather than risk the wrath of the semi-educated public by "splitting an infinitive" (putting a preverbal modifier immediately before the verb in a to-infinitival complement clause). The magazine published a sentence containing the phrase publicly to label itself a foreign agent where clarity demanded to publicly label itself a foreign agent.

It wasn't a one-off occurrence. Look at this sentence (issue of June 1, 2013, p. 57):

The main umbrella organisation, the Syrian National Coalition, was supposed to do three things: expand its membership, elect a new leader and decide whether unconditionally to attend the Geneva talks.

What an appalling decision about modifier placement!

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Ask Language Log: "differ to"?

Trevor Butterworth, "Top Science Journal Rebukes Harvard's Top Nutritionist", Forbes 5/27/2013:

In an extraordinary editorial and feature article, Nature, one of the world’s pre-eminent scientific journals, has effectively admonished the chair of the Harvard School of Public Health’s nutrition department, Walter Willett, for promoting over-simplification of scientific results in the name of public health and engaging in unseemly behavior towards those who venture conclusions that differ to his.

Barry R. asks:

"… that differ to his?"  Is this a common usage? Or is it as wrong as it sounds to me?

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Ask Language Log: indicating or stating (that) S

S.A. writes:

I'm working with someone who writes sentences like these:

"Past studies indicate teachers with high self-efficacy for providing nutrition instruction devote more classroom time to the subject."

"D____ and colleagues have stated teachers are better able to promote healthy eating among preschool children when they are more knowledgeable about nutrition content…"

Doesn't there need to be a "that" between indicates and teachers and between stated and teachers?

The absence of a "that" is a constant throughout her writing so I need to know if I'm correct, and if so, how I can explain it to her.

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Hopefully no need to comment

A number of people have written to ask me why I have made no public comment on the preposterous old fraud Nevile Gwynne and his highly publicized recent book Gwynne's Grammar.

Well, one reason is that a certain amount of collapse in the will to live had come over me when contemplating the sheer dopiness of Mr Gwynne's pontifications about grammar and his lack of any grasp of the subject (declaring that too much too young is incomprehensible does not make a retired accountant into a grammar expert). Another is that Mark Liberman covered the topic very nicely, with an unerring eye for syntactic reasoning, in a comment on the first Bad Grammar Award, ostentatiously given to the authors of a short letter criticizing the UK education minister, which was really just a strategy for getting the press to show some interest in Gwynne's Grammar. (The citations and evidence relating to the Bad Grammar Award have apparently never been published on the web; I have been unable to find even the original press release, let alone anything more detailed.) But I now have discovered a third reason for not offering detailed comments: there are at least two beautifully aimed non-credulous posts about Gwynne already available in the blogosphere (and the superior quality of the blogs over the newspapers here is really striking).

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Grammar vs. style: ignorance in The Times

Articles about English grammar in UK newspapers tend to exhibit an almost incredible degree of stupidity. In no other subject could such self-contradictory idiocy be accepted, or subjected to so little fact-checking. Today's exhibit is an article headed "English like it never should of been" by Oliver Moody in Saturday's The Times (London, 18 May 2013; don't buy a subscription just to read an article as asinine as this, but click this link if you already have a subscription; if you wasted $2.50 on hard copy as I did, look at page 3). I will deal with just one example of its boneheaded ignorance, one out of many.

This was the sub-head: "Language is becoming more democratic as even MPs fail to speak properly, a study from Cambridge reveals."

So, it is "democratic" to speak improperly? And Members of Parliament are actually doing that? Intelligent readers will seek evidence.

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On the other hand, alone

My faith in the possibility of integrity and self-criticism in humankind got a real boost the other day when I read a post on Lingua Franca in which an editor (who is also a professor in an English department) stopped to think about whether she was in the right about a construction she had been proscribing for years in the journal papers she edited, and decided that she wasn't.

Is it legitimate to say "On the other hand, …" in a text where you have not first used "On the one hand, …"? Professor Anne Curzan thought the answer was no. And for years she told authors to change on the other hand to something like in contrast if they hadn't got a preceding instance of on the one hand somewhere nearby. But then one day she got to thinking: Am I right? Is it really an error to use on the other hand alone? So she did what people interested in grammar only rarely do: she started looking at the evidence, and decided that it refuted her rule.

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Depopularization in the limit

George Orwell, in his hugely overrated essay "Politics and the English language", famously insists you should "Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print." He thinks modern writing "consists in gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else" (only he doesn't mean "long") — joining togther "ready-made phrases" instead of thinking out what to say. His hope is that one can occasionally, "if one jeers loudly enough, send some worn-out and useless phrase … into the dustbin, where it belongs." That is, one can eliminate some popular phrase from the language by mocking it out of existence. In effect, he wants us to collaborate in getting rid of the most widely-used phrases in the language. In a Lingua Franca post published today I called his program elimination of the fittest (tongue in cheek, of course: the proposal is actually just to depopularize the most popular).

For a while, after I began thinking about this, I wondered what would be the ultimate fate of a language in which this policy was consistently and iteratively implemented. I even spoke to a distinguished theoretical computer scientist about how one might represent the problem mathematically. But eventually I realized it was really quite simple; at least in a simplified ideal case, I knew what would happen, and I could do the proof myself.

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Ask Language Log: SAT "Identifying Sentence Errors" questions

From reader Q.C.:

I'm writing to you as your article "The SAT Fails a Grammar Test" came to my mind the other day when I happened to stumble on the following Identifying Sentence Error question from a PSAT:

Opposite to the opinion of several respected literary critics, Jane Austen does not make good taste or manners in themselves sure signs of virtue in her characters.

I came up with three possible answers. The College Board people may feel that the phrase "opposite to" should be replaced by a more idiomatic expression, such as "opposed to" or "contrary to;" or that Jane Austen, being deceased, should be described with the past tense, thus faulting "does not;" or they may believe that there's no error, since dictionaries agree that "opposite" can mean "contrary", and the so-called "historical present tense" is quite common in literary review and literary criticism.

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Getting rid of adverbs and other adjuncts

My post at Lingua Franca this week critiqued the following extraordinarily dumb piece of writing advice from Macmillan Dictionary Blog:

Try this exercise: Go through a piece of writing, ideally an essay of your own. Delete all adverbs and adverbial phrases, all those "surprisingly", "interestingly", "very", "extremely", "fortunately", "on the other hand", "almost invariably". (While you are at it, also score out those clauses that frame the content, like "we may consider that", "it is likely that", "there is a possibility that".)

Question 1: have you lost any content?
Question 2: is it easier to read?

Usually the meaning is still exactly the same but the piece is far easier to read.

As you might expect, I concentrated on adverbs. I didn't comment on the fact that one of the "adverbs and adverbial phrases" cited is nothing of the sort.

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Popes and prophets

Professor Heinz Giegerich has pointed out to me that in the wake of Pope Benedict's resignation of his position at least two BBC reporters have been referring to the next pope, whoever that might be, using singular they. I don't have specific word-for-word quotations, but (apparently) reporters have been using phrases like The next pope will find that they, or Anyone who expects the cardinals to elect them, and so on. Further evidence (to be added to evidence like the case of "They are a prophet") that singular they is not motivated solely or necessarily by ignorance or indecision about which gender is appropriate. The next pope, whoever they may be, will surely be a man, so the pronoun he would be appropriate and unobjectionable. But we have no idea which man, so singular they also feels entirely appropriate, contrary to what all the dumb usage pontificators say.

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Coming up: lecture in Seattle

One week from tomorrow (Tuesday) night I give my Jesse and John Danz Lecture at the University of Washington in Seattle. And although the summary published on the registration page is entirely accurate, I would still conjecture that as many as half the people planning to attend will think that the scandal is people who write bad. They will assume that I will be dinging ordinary folks for writing (and speaking) ungrammatically. Little will they know what lies in store: that my target is the grammarians. It is the rule-givers and knuckle-rappers and nitpickers that I will be castigating for their ignorance of the content of the principles of English syntax.

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Reddit blewit

Reddit, for those few who might not know, is a popular bulletin-board site for posting and discussing links and texts. A voting system determines the order and position of entries. The site is divided into "subreddits" devoted to paticular topics, of which there are now tens of thousands.

One of these countless subreddits is /r/grammar. Here "grammar", as usual, is mostly taken to mean "spelling, punctuation, and word usage" — but the items posted are generally questions rather than peeves, and the questions are sincere and sometimes interesting. Like other subreddits, /r/grammar has moderators, and they've chosen a few select links for the right-hand top of the page:

The five selected topics seem a bit random, but at least the first four of them (a vs. an, sentence-ending prepositions, I vs. meCompound possession) link to plausible discussions of the cited issues. The fifth one, however, points to a grammatical disaster: a page on "That Versus Which" from Marc A. Grinker's "The Legal Writing Teaching Assistant: The Law Student's Guide to Good Writing" (1994).

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The true history of the split verb rule

The "split verb rule" says that an adverb must not be placed between an auxiliary and the following verb. On this account, you should never write "you should never write", but rather "you never should write". In an earlier post, I followed (what I thought was) the lead of James Lindgren ("Fear of Writing", California Law Review 78(6):1677-1702, 1990) in attributing this bizarre idea to The Texas Law Review Manual on Style. But in a comment this evening, Jon Weinberg cited Allen Black, "Judge Wisdom, the Great Teacher and Careful Writer", 109 Yale L.J. 1267 (1999-2000):

He was death on split infinitives and split verbs. A sentence such as "The burdened vessel was slowly proceeding down river at the time of the collision" would never survive.

Since John Minor Wisdom would have learned his attitudes towards such things in the 1920s, and the Texas Law Review's Manual does not seem to have appeared until the 1950s, Jon suggested that we need to look elsewhere for the source of this peculiar prejudice. And indeed, a quick Google Books search turns up a more promising source — Henry Watson Fowler and Francis George Fowler, The King's English, 1908, section 46 on "'Split' Auxiliaries":

Some writers, holding that there is the same objection to split compound verbs as to split infinitives, prefer to place any adverb or qualifying phrase not between the auxiliary and the other component, but before both.

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Learning to speak Imaginary American

Tim Parks, "Learning to Speak American", NYR:

In 1993 I translated all 450 pages of Roberto Calasso’s The Marriage of Cadmus & Harmony without ever using the past participle of the verb “get.” The book was to be published simultaneously by Knopf in New York and Jonathan Cape in London; to save money both editions were to be printed from the same galleys; so it would be important, I was told, to avoid any usages that might strike American readers as distractingly English or English readers as distractingly American. To my English ear “gotten” yells America and alters the whole feel of a sentence. I presumed it would be the same the other way round for Americans. Fortunately, given the high register of Calasso’s prose, “get” was not difficult to avoid.

Now in 2012 I am obliged to sign up to “gotten.” Commissioned by an American publisher to write a book that explores the Italian national character through an account of thirty years’ commuting and traveling on the country’s rail network, I am looking at an edit that transforms my English prose into American. [...]

Or again, does a “newsagent” really need to become a “news dealer,” a “flyover” an “overpass,” a “parcel” a “package,” or in certain circumstances “between” “among” and “like” “such as”? Does the position of “also” really need to be moved in front of the verb “to be” in sentences like “Trains also were useful during the 1908 earthquake in Catania,” when to me it looked much better after it?

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