Quotative inversion again

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Over on his You Don't Say blog, John McIntyre notes a spectacularly awkward sentence from the New Yorker and asks, "Is this a new tic of New Yorker style, or have I just begun noticing it?" The offending sentence:

“Horton, you’re one of the few people New York seems to agree with,” Tennessee Williams, another regional Young Turk who dreamed of changing the shape of commercial theatre, said.

John explains that he knows "there is a longstanding journalistic resistance to inverting subject and verb in attribution" and understands why some writers might be averse to the construction, but objects to a blanket prohibition against this inversion (known in the syntax trade as "quotative inversion"), especially when it leads to tin-eared sentences like one reporting the Tennessee Williams quotation.

It turns out that here at Language Log Plaza we've been alert to the New Yorker's anti-quotative inversion quirk from the earliest days of the blog.

Here's the history, with some digression to other blogging on the syntax of quotations.

Chris Potts was in first, with a 9/22/03 posting "A ban on quotative inversion?" (here) and a follow-up the next day, "More on the quotative inversion conjecture" (here). Then on 10/6/03 Mark Liberman chimed in (here) with a comparison of the New Yorker's awkward verb-last sentences to the verb-last sentences of German that Mark Twain complained about in his comic essay "The Awful German Language". And the next year (12/19/04, in "Diagram this", here) Geoff Pullum added a more complex example from the New Yorker. So ended the Early Years of quotative inversion in these parts.

Skip ahead to this year, and a 1/5/09 posting on my blog (here) about a report from Neal Whitman (on ADS-L) about Bill Walsh's proscribing quotative fronting (without inversion) in combination with subject omission in a following conjunct, in things like

(1) “I’m leaving,” Jones said, and walked out of the room.

Neal Whitman joined in (on his blog, here) with the reason for his query to ADS-L. He had noted that in her children's books, Beverly Cleary was a very heavy (indeed near-categorical) user of the non-repeated subject, as in (1). Neal found the usage unremarkable — until he came across Walsh's proscription, which he found puzzling.

(A digression: in her 1990 Muggie Maggie Cleary repeated the subject in these coordinations, but then seems to have reverted to her non-repetition ways in later books. The Muggie Maggie episode was probably the work of an editor who had been exposed to the "rule" Walsh cites.)

Following up on this, I posted on my own blog (here and here) on quotation fronting and quotative inversion, with links to the 2003-04 postings on Language Log about "awkward sentences that would have been much improved by quotative inversion", despite the New Yorker's aversion to it.

And that brings us up to John McIntyre.

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17 Comments »

  1. Ginger Yellow said,

    October 29, 2009 @ 1:57 pm

    Is this another US/UK thing (or even New Yorker specific). I've never noticed a "journalistic resistance to inverting subject and verb in attribution" in the British press. Certainly our own style guide (which follows British English conventions in most cases) doesn't express such a resistance and a quick check of various UK papers shows "said x" is standard, though not obligatory. The Times in particular seems to favour "x said", even when this introduces some awkwardness.

  2. Spell Me Jeff said,

    October 29, 2009 @ 2:13 pm

    Because English is (for the most part) uninflected, the most modern variations have an extreme prejudice against the sort of object-verb-subject order that we find in, say, Chaucer or Shakespeare (to say nothing of Latin).

    The fronted-quote-and-inverted-tag pattern has long been an exception to this prejudice, and it poses no problem for readers acquainted with it, as the examples drawn from Beverly Cleary demonstrate.

    Still, is it possible that this aversion is merely a (needless) subset of the object-verb-subject "prohibition"?

    Or is it just another quirk of a magazine obsessed with its own importance? (Has LL ever discussed NYM's penchant for the famous diaeresis in words such as coöperation? I know it's not an umlaut, fake or otherwise, but it is amusing how it fosters an unlikely relationship between haute couture and heavy metal band names.)

  3. J. W. Brewer said,

    October 29, 2009 @ 2:44 pm

    SMJ's analysis of this as an exception to an instinctive aversion to OVS in modern English necessarily assumes the language inside the quotes is an O. If you classify it as something else (maybe "complement" rather than "object" — goodness knows this isn't an area where everyone uses the same technical terms in exactly the same way), perhaps the issue goes away? Note, for example that constructions like "along came a spider" (or "along came Jones"), while perhaps marked as "poetic," don't seem as awkward as an unequivocal OVS generally. Note also that if you use "say" with an unequivocal O, e.g. "Jones said something stupid," it's much harder to flip it to "something stupid said Jones" without interpreting it as a direct quote ("'Something stupid,' said Jones.").

  4. John Lawler said,

    October 29, 2009 @ 2:50 pm

    Object-verb-subject (OVS) order at least separates the object from the subject. The quoted New Yorker sentence is OSV, with the object and the subject, both extremely heavy NPs, sitting side-by-side daring the intrepid reader to disentangle them, while the lone verb, a one-syllable said tries valiantly (and fails miserably) to shore up the end of the sentence.
    This is beyond a quirk, I'd say; this is just plain bad. Not ungrammatical, mind you — but bad anyway.

  5. Benjamin Zimmer said,

    October 29, 2009 @ 4:49 pm

    In the comments on You Don't Say, John Cowan cites Wolcott Gibbs' "Theory and Practice of Editing New Yorker Articles" (1937). So does the New Yorker's avoidance of quotative inversion stem from Gibbs' more general distaste for Time-style inverted syntax? In 1936, Gibbs famously ridiculed Time with "Backward ran sentences until reeled the mind … Where it all will end, knows God."

    (As I note at the end of this post, Time finally abolished inverted syntax in March 2007.)

  6. Graeme said,

    October 29, 2009 @ 7:11 pm

    I confess to reading the NYer fairly regularly and not noticing this. At first glance I would have suggested the quote originally completed the sentence, before someone cut'n'pasted it to the fore, to highlight it, leaving the slightly awkward construction. (But the NYer, even today, is far too careful for that, no?)

    Off topic, but Oct 19 NYer just landed in Oz. A short piece on prison guards and dogs that can sniff out mobile phones, included the verb 'publicate'. From the mouth of a screw. At first I thought it might be a weird blend of publish and explicate. But my SOED lists it just as an archaic variant of publish.

    Is it dialect in parts of the US? (Or jargon for screws?!) A quick Google revealed no usages online.

  7. Zwicky Arnold said,

    October 29, 2009 @ 8:01 pm

    To Graeme, re "publicate": some discussion here.

  8. Mr Fnortner said,

    October 29, 2009 @ 8:08 pm

    There is a style that conforms to "Tennessee Williams, another regional Young Turk who dreamed of changing the shape of commercial theatre,: (a) died, (b) roller bladed in Central Park, (c) was arrested on murder charges, (d) donated $5,000,000, today." [Pick one.] This allows a parenthetical biographical note of indefinite length between the subject and the predicate, and requires the surprise-predicate-at-end form. This may be a ritual construct that is ingrained and too hard to break out from. In other words, they can't help it.

  9. Faldone said,

    October 29, 2009 @ 8:51 pm

    @ John Lawler

    Your complaint might be valid in a spoken version of the sentence but this is written. The quotation marks sufficiently delimit the object making the difference between it and the subject obvious enough to avoid the problem of disentangling them. Even in a spoken version I can easily hear the quote being spoken in a significantly different tone of voice from the subject to make the difference fairly clear.

    I'm not saying it's well written, mind, just that it's not as confusing as you make it out to be.

  10. Acilius said,

    October 29, 2009 @ 9:41 pm

    @Faldone: I think it's pretty confusing. Not impossible to decrypt, but it slowed me down for a second.

  11. John McIntyre said,

    October 29, 2009 @ 11:15 pm

    It's not that it is difficult to understand; it's that the suspension created by the parenthetical information yields an anticlimax when the sentence merely concludes with "said." It is less unclear than awkward.

  12. Michael Farris said,

    October 30, 2009 @ 5:08 am

    I never realized there was any kind of resistance to quotation inversion. Back when I took journalism classes (and when I wrote for (mostly student) newspapers I frequently used it. I usually read whatever I was writing out loud and decided which I thought sounded better prosodically. IIRC I usually inverted in interrupted quotes:

    "beginning of quote" said X "end of quote".

    I think:

    “Horton, you’re one of the few people New York seems to agree with,” said Tennessee Williams, another regional Young Turk who dreamed of changing the shape of commercial theatre."

    Reads about 10 times better than without the inversion.

  13. John McIntyre said,

    October 30, 2009 @ 12:14 pm

    Exactly, Mr. Farris.

  14. Terry Collmann said,

    October 30, 2009 @ 3:07 pm

    I was taught that beginning a quote without identifying the speaker was a disservice to the reader, since they could not immediately rate or weigh what was being said until they found out at the end of the quote who the speaker was and could judge the quote in the light of the speaker's known experiences and viewpoint. So to me the biggest problem with the New Yorker quote is that we don't learn it's Tennessee Williams until after the words have been spoken, and I'd vastly prefer:

    Tennessee Williams, another regional Young Turk who dreamed of changing the shape of commercial theatre, said: “Horton, you’re one of the few people New York seems to agree with.”

    That also seems to me to be the natural way of ordering the sentence: subject, subsidiary clause, verb, object. Pluck a story at random from the (London) Times and that seems to be the regular way sentences containing quotes are ordered in a newspaper that is probably the most rigid in Britain in terms of style and grammar.

    I have noticed, however, that it seems almost universal among American journalists I now work with to believe that the quote is the most important part of the sentence, and to place the quote first every time, even when an entirely new speaker is being introduced.

  15. Sid Smith said,

    November 1, 2009 @ 3:31 pm

    "The Times in particular seems to favour "x said", even when this introduces some awkwardness."

    I'm a sub at the (London) Times. Yes, it's house style to use "x said". (Tho it's not the type of thing that brings the revise sub roaring up from the first floor to spray the subs' desk with his special sub machine gun.) But I'd hope that we'd reorder the quoted NYer sentence before we'd even got to that consideration: it's grotesque.

    [(myl) You ain't seen nothing yet. Chris Potts, who was the first to comment on this stylistic quirk and its consequences (here and here), noted these examples:

    "He used to have this great, dignified passion to him," Christopher Hitchens, who, until his own political change of heart, defended Chomsky, says.
    (Larissa MacFarquhar. The devil's accountant. The New Yorker, March 31, 2003 (p. 67, column 2).)

    "I would hope that, based on the President's judicial nominations so far, you will see him appoint Justices more in line with a conservative judicial philosophy," Jay Sekulow, the chief counsel to the American Center for Law and Justice, an advocacy group funded by the Reverend Pat Robertson, says.
    (Jeffrey Toobin. Advice and dissent. The New Yorker, May 26, 2003 (p. 48, column 1))

    "It will be easier to defeat a right-wing, lower-court nomination,'' Ralph Neas, the president of the People for the American Way, the liberal advocacy group, said.
    (Jeffrey Toobin. Advice and dissent. The New Yorker, May 26, 2003 (p. 48, column 1))

    ]

  16. Ginger Yellow said,

    November 2, 2009 @ 6:17 am

    That also seems to me to be the natural way of ordering the sentence: subject, subsidiary clause, verb, object. Pluck a story at random from the (London) Times and that seems to be the regular way sentences containing quotes are ordered in a newspaper that is probably the most rigid in Britain in terms of style and grammar.

    Again, I'd argue the Times is something of an outlier in the British press. Our style guide insists strictly upon starting with the first sentence of the quote, then introducing the speaker. That said, our style guide is definitely more rigid in that respect than most papers. You see plenty of "x said:" quotes in British papers sitting alongside delayed subjects.

  17. William Flesch said,

    November 6, 2009 @ 3:09 pm

    I wrote a lit crit article about this in early modern English poetry — "Poetics of the speech tag" — a few years ago. You can find it in this book but I'm happy to send a copy to anyone who wants it.

    Anyhow my history-of-the-language claim is that before inverted commas, and especially in an oral culture, some variant of the word "said" will always be contiguous to the speech reported. He said, "Go jump in a lake" or "Go," he said, "jump in a lake" or "Go," said he, "jump in a lake," or Go jump in a lake" said he. NEVER, before the highly literary and readerly Milton's "Lycidas," *Go jump in a lake," he said.

    If this claim is confirmed or at least if it describes a tendency even if not an absolute rule, it seems to me pretty interesting.

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