Ask Language Log: "Nor did it cease to fall"

« previous post | next post »

Reader KR writes:

It is reported to me that in the book The Road by Cormac McCarthy, the following sentence appears:

"The snow fell nor did it cease to fall."

At the Straight Dope Message Boards some people are discussing whether the sentence is grammatical. To some it seems ungrammatical. To others it seems awkward. And to still others it seems fine, though perhaps archaic sounding.

But I've been googling and I can't find any parallel usages of the word "nor" anywhere else. What I am wondering is whether this really is a unique usage of "nor" or whether there is precedent for it somewhere.

In the OED's entry for nor, we find exactly the desired precedent in subentry 5.a.:

5. And — not; neither. In later use normally with inversion of subject and verb.

a. Following an affirmative clause, or in continuing narration. Obs. (chiefly poet. in later use).

Some of the OED's more recent citations:

1788 Trifler No. 22. 291 The little creature cried and laid down, nor could all our beating raise it. 1821 BYRON Heaven & Earth iii. 673 Away! nor weep! 1871 R. ELLIS tr. Catullus Poems lxi. 205 Come nor tarry to greet her.

McCarthy's nor exhibits both features mentioned by the OED: it follows an affirmative clause, and it triggers subject-auxiliary inversion. The subject-aux inversion is normal, whether the preceding clause is negative or affirmative — here's an example where the previous clause is negative, in one of W.H. Auden's Academic Graffiti:

Joseph Haydn
Never read Dryden
Nor did John Dryden
Ever hear Haydn.

Here's one with an affirmative previous clause, from Shakespeare's Pericles, Prince of Tyre:

A terrible childbed hast thou had, my dear;
No light, no fire: the unfriendly elements
Forgot thee utterly; nor have I time
To give thee hallow'd to thy grave, but straight
Must cast thee, scarely coffin'd, in the ooze;
Where, for a monument upon thy bones,
And aye-remaining lamps, the belching whale
And humming water must o'erwhelm thy corpse,
Lying with simple shells.

And another, from Matthew Arnold's Sohrab and Rustum:

… Rustum listen'd, plunged in thought.
Nor did he yet believe it was his son
Who spoke, although he call'd back names he knew;

And here's a prose passage very much like the McCarthy quotation that started this off, from James Fenimore Cooper's Satanstoe; or, The Littlepage Manuscripts. A Tale of the Colony:

The conversation lasted an hour; nor did it cease, until all present got a general idea of the course intended to be pursued by the different parties present, during the succeeding summer.

Another example from Robert Bridges:

'Now rest you well,' the host he said,
But of his wish the word fell wide;
Nor did he now forget his son
Who fell in fight by Cromwell's side.

One from W.B. Yeats' Mohini Chatterji

I asked if I should pray,
But the Brahmin said,
'Pray for nothing, say
Every night in bed,
"I have been a king,
I have been a slave,
Nor is there anything,
Fool, rascal, knave,
That I have not been,
And yet upon my breast
A myriad heads have lain."'

From Yeats' The Gift of Harun Al-Rashid

Even to-day, after some seven years
When maybe thrice in every moon her mouth
Murmured the wisdom of the desert Djinns,
She keeps that ignorance, nor has she now
That first unnatural interest in my books.

And from his They dance all day that dance in Tir-nan-oge

For there the hound that Oisin saw pursues
The hornless deer that runs in such a fright;
And there the woman clasps an apple tight
For all the clamour of a famished man.
They run in foam, and there in foam they ran,
Nor can they stop to take a breath that still
Hear in the foam the beating of a bell.

Following that late Yeats, I can't resist quoting another one of W.H. Auden's Academic Graffiti, this one in limerick form, even though there are no nors in it:

To get the Last Poems of Yeats,
You need not mug up on dates;
All a reader requires
Is some knowledge of gyres
And the sort of people he hates.

Oh, and another one, again off topic but also fun:

Oxbridge philosophers, to be cursory,
Are products of a middle-class nursery:
Their arguments are anent
What Nanny really meant.

OK, just one more — they're addictive:

When the young Kant
Was told to kiss his aunt,
He obeyed the Categorical Must,
But only just.

One last morsel couldn't hurt:

Henry James
Abhorred the word Dames ,
And always wrote " Mommas "
With inverted commas.

Share:



54 Comments »

  1. axl said,

    November 29, 2009 @ 7:53 am

    ALT: "Water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink" – which I only ever hear quoted as "and not a drop to drink".

    Or as Homer has it: "Water, water, everywhere, so let's all have a drink"

  2. Faldone said,

    November 29, 2009 @ 8:32 am

    I slid right over the nor and zeroed in on the cease to fall. Finding nothing wrong with that I dove into the post. I guess this means that I don't have any problems with this construction.

    [(myl) The discussion over at the Straight Dope Message Boards centers on the use of nor following an affirmative clause -- thus:

    It seems like a usage error to me. I've never seen "nor" follow a positive statement, only negative ones. It's always (something didn't happen) nor (did something else happen).

    or again:

    I think the usage does not communicate clearly what the author is trying to convey. When I first read the OP I read that line three or four times trying to figure out what the author was saying. I don't think that was the intent of the author, so by definition it is poor usage.

    and

    Yeah, I have no idea what it's trying to say even now. There's poetic license but in this case it results in the sentence having no real meaning.

    Like you, I was surprised to find that so many of the commenters there found the construction so puzzling. I guess this means that there are a lot of people out there who've never read much pre-WWI literature.]

  3. Victoria Martin said,

    November 29, 2009 @ 9:04 am

    And without inversion:

    The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
    Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
    Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
    Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.

  4. Sili said,

    November 29, 2009 @ 9:47 am

    I guess this means that there are a lot of people out there who've never read much pre-WWI literature.

    :raises hand:

    That said, the construction is easily comprehensible, and if I had seen it in a book, I would have simply assumed – as right is – that the author knows English better than I do.

  5. Nick Lamb said,

    November 29, 2009 @ 9:59 am

    This does feel awkward to me, even though I'm aware of its history. I think my problem (and it might not be a problem in context, which I don't have, because I have not read this book) is one of pragmatics (I hope that's the right word). The only meaning I can take from this sentence on its own is that snow fell _forever_. I would feel cheated if the context was merely a winter's day, but maybe less so if the setting was a frozen wasteland where it had been snowing constantly for all recorded history.

    In "Water, water everywhere" it's an irony – men at sea are surrounded by water but they can't drink it. I think the construction works there because it draws attention to the irony. But what is McCarthy drawing attention to in his sentence? Suppose that I write:

    There was a horse standing in the field, and next to that horse was another horse.

    That's grammatical, but it's almost certainly the wrong choice unless there's some reason not to just write that there were two horses. Readers would wonder what they've missed – why is the other horse important?

  6. Gary said,

    November 29, 2009 @ 10:13 am

    Ditto to all the above, especially Nick Lamb.

    The author seems to be making a Statement, with capital S. Not having read the book/story, I have no idea whether a Statement is intended. If not, it seems poor style to use fancy language for a trivial event.

  7. Faith said,

    November 29, 2009 @ 11:12 am

    Well, yeah, the point that the snow is falling falling falling and not stopping is pretty important in a book about nuclear winter. It is not normal snow, which falls for a while and stops: it is snow with deadly intentions (or at least so it seems to the little boy at the heart of the narrative). Similarly, Nick Lamb, I am quite intrigued by the second horse now, whereas two undifferentiated horses are not nearly as interesting. So I would say it's an effective stylistic flourish.

  8. TB said,

    November 29, 2009 @ 11:27 am

    I guess I am in the minority: I thought "what a nice way to put it." I do read a lot of old books and had no problem with the sentence.

    This is all very interesting, but the linked discussion, and now these comments, make me very glad not to be an author. I just know it would drive me crazy to have my sentences critiqued in absolute isolation, stripped of all context.

  9. Jesse Sheidlower said,

    November 29, 2009 @ 11:49 am

    Needless to say, the OED entry will be updated, with the "Obs." removed. Thanks for this interesting discussion.

  10. John Lawler said,

    November 29, 2009 @ 12:46 pm

    Even if it's not really obs, it still needs something, though perhaps it's more likely to be found in a grammar than a dictionary. It's clearly not enough to say "after affirmative clause"; there's more involved.
    For instance, while I recognized that the nor in the quotation was (by my standards) aberrant, I also recognized the construction as more prominent in older and more formal writing. In reading along with the post, I tried out several variants, like any linguist would.

    And found that, while
    %The snow fell, nor did it cease to fall
    does sounds a bit off to me, part of that is simply the non-parallelism of the monosyllabic fell and the polysyllabic cease to fall. If both clauses have heavier verb phrases, it sounds much better, especially if the second clause has another negative to emphasize the nor:
    The snow kept on falling, and falling; nor would it cease to fall, not for a long time.

    This may be a result of Zwicky's Law, but I think it's just making a better context for the use of nor as an emphatic negative conjunction.

  11. Sarang said,

    November 29, 2009 @ 1:19 pm

    My favorite Auden clerihew:

    Lord Byron
    Once succumbed to a Siren:
    His flesh was weak,
    Hers Greek.

  12. Jerry Friedman said,

    November 29, 2009 @ 1:26 pm

    Do we get to quote more Yeats? This is from the poem that McCarthy got another title from:

    An aged man is but a paltry thing,
    A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
    Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
    For every tatter in its mortal dress;
    Nor is there singing school but studying
    Monuments of its own magnificence,
    And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
    To the holy city of Byzantium.

    You can read the whole thing here.

    Looking for another source on line, I found, "I will not rehearse the difficulty of generations of schoolchildren with the syntax of 'Nor is there singing school but studying' (probably that was what they asked the old man about when he walked through the long schoolroom questioning)."

    Literary Theories in Praxis, by Shirley F. Staton. Some may enjoy agreeing or disagreeing with her comments on language and teaching literature.

  13. ben wolfson said,

    November 29, 2009 @ 1:31 pm

    I use "nor" this way all the time—I'm surprised it's so uncommon.

  14. Craig Russell said,

    November 29, 2009 @ 1:33 pm

    As a Classicist, my immediate impression of this construction is: "imitation of the Latin."

    In Latin, the negative 'non' (not) has a tendency to be absorbed into certain words. For example, if you want to say "he said that he was happy", you'd say "dixit se esse laetum," with 'dixit' meaning 'he said'. But if you want to say "he said that he was NOT happy," instead of putting 'non' before 'esse' like you might expect, the normal practice is to change 'dixit' (he said) to 'negavit' (he denied). So in Latin, the regular way to say "he said that he was not happy" is to say "he denied that he was happy." The negative has gotten absorbed into the main verb.

    Now the reason I bring this up is that 'et' (and) is one of the words that regularly absorbs negatives. Any clause that would begin with 'et' and contain a 'non' changes that 'et…non' to 'nec'.

    The normal translation dictionaries give of 'nec' is "nor", and that is what it means when it's used in a "neither…nor" situation (but there it means both 'neither' and 'nor': "nec pluit nec ninxit" = "it neither snowed nor rained"). But in reality, when 'nec' is a substitute for 'et…non', "and…not" is probably the best modern English rendering.

    Anyway, here's an illustration of all that:

    Nix cecidit et desiit cadere = The snow fell and it ceased to fall.
    Nix nec cecidit nec desiit cadere = The snow neither fell nor ceased to fall. (A nonsense sentence, but there to illustrate double nec)
    Nix cecidit nec desiit cadere = The snow fell, nor did it cease to fall = The snow fell, and it did not cease to fall.

    I submit that this use of "nor" that some people find odd may have originated as an imitation of Latin constructions like these, which are not only normal in Latin, but practically required. As a result, Latin "translationese" (the language created by students and introductory textbooks that tries to recreate the sentence structure of Latin in English, resulting in tortured English) abounds in these nors. (Note too that McCarthy's sentence matches the Latin syntax: Latin must use an infinitive 'cadere' (to fall) with a verb meaning 'cease'; if I ran across my third Latin sentence there, I might translate it "the snow fell and did not stop falling.")

    And to take the parallelism with Latin further: Latin style (especially in poetry) loves double negatives ('litotes' in rhetorical lingo) as a way of strongly emphasizing a point. "Nor did (the snow) cease to fall" is perfect Latin for "the snow fell REALLY hard". Sometimes these double negatives verge on the untranslatable–especially in expressions like "nec non"–literally "and not not".

    An example (there are plenty): Aeneid 1.748-9 (this is when Aeneas, travelling around the Mediterranean in search of a new home, has landed at Carthage and is received and entertained by Dido, who now finds herself falling in love with him).

    Nec non et vario noctem sermone trahebat
    infelix Dido

    And unlucky Dido did not not draw out the night with various conversation.

    A translator who wanted to retain this construction in English that sounds at least somewhat natural might use exactly the construction McCarthy does here:

    Nor did unlucky Dido cease drawing out the night with various conversation.

    Anyway, the whole thing sounds very Latin to me. But lots of things do.

  15. Jerry Friedman said,

    November 29, 2009 @ 1:58 pm

    And how about Greek (which I don't know)?

    "So did the two men, putting their trust in their hands and their power,
    stay to endure the assault of great Ásios, nor did they take flight."

    The Iliad translated by Rodney Merrill (2007), Book 12, lines 135–136

  16. Franz Bebop said,

    November 29, 2009 @ 2:27 pm

    The OED entry is correct to label this construct obsolete. That's exactly my instinct. The word nor in the sense of "and … not …" is fine after a negatory clause, but not after an affirmative clause. I consider the original sentence awkward.

    1. I've never eaten lamb, nor do I ever want to.
    2. Roger had an appointment, and I don't see him at his desk, so he's probably gone for the day.
    3. Roger had an appointment, nor do I see him at his desk, so he's probably gone for the day.

    1 and 2 are fine, 3 is awkward.

    In modern, non-affected usage I think that nor also indicates some degree of parallelism between the two clauses. In item 1 above, the parallelism is the implied repetition of the verb eat and the use of not ever … never.

    4. Today is not a workday, and I don't have any plans.
    5. Today is not a workday, nor do I have any plans.

    IMHO item 5 is awkward in modern, non-affected usage.

    The original sentence has the parallelism if the repetition of fall, but it misses the negative in the first clause. Item 5 has the opposite problem: it has the negative, but there's no apparent parallelism in the two clauses. So it sounds funny.

    John Lawler's rewritten "falling" sentence sounds fine to me (even pretty) but I would not use nor like that in a business context.

    I completely agree with Craig re: Latin translationese.

  17. Craig Russell said,

    November 29, 2009 @ 2:29 pm

    The same is true in Greek, although the combination of the "and" and the "not" is more obvious than Latin et + non = nec. In Greek 'not' is οὐ, one way of saying 'and' is δέ, and the way of saying 'and not' or 'nor' is οὐδέ.

    Here the Greek for the second line is:

    μίμνον ἐπερχόμενον μέγαν Ἄσιον οὐδὲ φέβοντο.
    mimnon eperkhomenon megan Asion oude phebonto. (In case you don't know the Greek alphabet).

    The first four words mean: "they waited for great Asios as he came against them"

    Then we have the οὐδὲ word, which means "neither…nor" when used twice, but also regularly replaces separate "and…not".

    And the final word: they fled.

    So, yeah, this is exactly the same construction (litotes) I mentioned above: a double negative makes a strong, reinforcing positive. "And they did not flee" (or "nor did they flee") serves to underline how bravely and unflinchingly they waited for the oncoming enemy (just as McCarthy's "nor did it cease" reinforces how constant and unrelenting the snow fell).

    Of course, because Homer's versification works through a complicated system of oral memorized formulas that fill different metrical holes in the line, you could argue that this "nor did the flee" is actually just redundant padding used because Homer needed two feet at the end of the line. But that's an issue too complicated and controversial to get into in this context.

  18. JimG said,

    November 29, 2009 @ 2:52 pm

    I've always found that an author who writes with unusual forms and structures produces the tastiest reading, as long as the unusual avoids creating confusion or undesired ambiguity. I don't particularly care for McCarthy's writings, but he DOES fight clear of the strait-jacket as he writes, nor does he fall into the conventional ruts. (Okay, it does sound a bit awkward.)

  19. J. W. Brewer said,

    November 29, 2009 @ 3:20 pm

    Seeking for the Divine Will for Anglophones on the usage in question, we should of course consult the King James Version (as is traditional on LL), where we find an interesting example where the immediately-preceding statement is ultimately affirmative, but phrased in a fashion that includes a negative, so the somewhat difficult-to-parse form is "not x, but y, nor [yet/even/etc.] z."

    [Hebrews 9:24-26:] "For Christ is not entered into the holy places made with hands, which are the figures of the true; but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God for us: Nor yet that he should offer himself often, as the high priest entereth into the holy place every year with blood of others; For then must he often have suffered since the foundation of the world: but now once in the end of the world hath he appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself."

    Interestingly enough at least one quite recent translation (the ESV) generally tracks this, but cleans up the first verse in a way that makes the "nor" more unambiguously follow an affirmative: "For Christ has entered, not into holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true things, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf. Nor was it to offer himself repeatedly, as the high priest enters the holy places every year with blood not his own," etc etc.

  20. J. W. Brewer said,

    November 29, 2009 @ 3:29 pm

    To link the KJV example to Craig Russell's classical learning and speculation about the influence of translationese on English prose style: the "nor" in the text I quoted above does render "oude" (actually "oud,'" since the last vowel has vanished on account of the following word being vowel-initial), and in terms of the structural balance of the Greek that verse-initial oud' is in some sort of parallel with the "ou gar" that begins the preceding verse.

  21. Tim K said,

    November 29, 2009 @ 3:33 pm

    I have no trouble with the usage of 'nor,' but I find the 'cease to fall' incredibly awkward.

    I would have said: "The snow fell, nor did it cease falling." (But I don't really like that, either.).

    But then again, I'm not a nationally known author, so I suppose my opinion carries less weight than McCarthy's.

    To illustrate my thinking: If I remove nor, I would say: "The snow fell, and it did not cease falling." Now, I could say: "The snow fell, and it did not cease to fall," but I can't really imagine saying: "The snow fell, and it did not stop to fall." Ditto if I change 'stop' to 'halt' or 'quit.' Maybe 'cease' gets a special exception?

    How common is *that* construction? I really feel like I want a gerund there, not an infinitive.

  22. Nick Lamb said,

    November 29, 2009 @ 4:51 pm

    Thanks for that much needed context Faith.

  23. Sid Smith said,

    November 29, 2009 @ 5:12 pm

    McCarthy has vomitted lots more like that: eg,

    "They caught up and set out each day in the dark before the day yet was and they ate cold meat and biscuit and made no fire"; "and they would always be so and never be otherwise"; "the captain wrote on nor did he look up"; "there rode no soul save he"

    I got these quotes from "A Reader's Manifesto", a piece in The Atlantic from a few years back, which does a pretty good job of skewering the hideous pretention of authors such as McCarthy and DeLillo.

    Here's the piece:
    http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200107/myers

    McCarthy is the worst writer currently at work. Not just for his prose style (Hemingway being sodomised by the King James Bible) but because he seems destined to spread his influence over so many young male writers — an influence even more baleful than the one exerted by Papa on their fathers and grandfathers.

    [Thank you, Sid, for the Atlantic reference. I have not read such a intelligent piece of stylistic criticism in ages. Go, Language Log readers, and look at http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200107/myers if you are ever tempted to wonder whether linguistically sophisticated literary criticism yet lives. —GKP]

  24. Boris said,

    November 29, 2009 @ 6:39 pm

    Odd, I find any use of nor not preceded by neither to be at least uncomfortable. Franz's example " I've never eaten lamb, nor do I ever want to" sounds wrong to me as well.

  25. Andrew said,

    November 29, 2009 @ 7:37 pm

    "Why this is hell, nor am I out of it." – Marlowe

  26. mollymooly said,

    November 29, 2009 @ 8:59 pm

    I would have written "The snow fell neither did it cease to fall." Much better.

    'Nor is there singing school but studying' could be a misprint for 'Nor is their singing school but studying'; Yeats was a notoriously poor speller.

  27. Simon Cauchi said,

    November 29, 2009 @ 9:52 pm

    A terrible childbed hast thou had, my dear;
    No light, no fire: the unfriendly elements
    Forgot thee utterly; nor . . .

    I find it hard to think of this "nor" as one following "an affirmative previous clause". The syntax is affirmative, yes, but the semantics are all heavily negative. Perhaps you can use "nor" after a notionally negative sentence, just as you can make a verb agree with the notional number of the subject.

    (I hope I've used those grammatical terms "syntax" and "semantics" correctly. I mean, I fear I may have used them incorrectly. I mean . . . you guys know what I mean. "Forgot", needless to say, means the same thing as "did not remember".)

  28. Simon Cauchi said,

    November 29, 2009 @ 9:54 pm

    A misprint in "Nor is there singing school but studying"? Nonsense!
    And thanks to Andrew for that quotation from Dr Faustus.

  29. Kenny V said,

    November 29, 2009 @ 11:47 pm

    I suspect that the early use of "nor" following a positive clause is influenced by the Latin word "nec", which means "and. . .not", and when placed at the beginning of two consecutive clauses means "neither". . ."nor." "Nec" is regularly used in Latin exactly in the same way as the use of "nor" being discussed here.

  30. Jesse Hochstadt said,

    November 30, 2009 @ 1:24 am

    It seems to me that McCarthy's sentence is difficult because – or at least largely because – of good old garden-pathing. And garden-pathing of a kind that many psycholinguists love but which I loath: that induced by omitting a comma where speech would tend to have a prosodic break.* "The snow fell nor did it cease to fall" – McCarthy's comma-less sentence – is harder to understand than "The snow fell, nor did it cease to fall." Note that many of Mark's examples involve line breaks or punctuation before "nor." Even more strikingly, note how many commenters above, in constructing examples to compare with McCarthy's sentence, inserted commas, apparently without noticing that they did so.

    After "fell," one expects only a few kinds of comma-less continuations: adverbs or adverbial phrases ("The snow fell hard" or "… fell for hours"); "and" with a verb with the same subject ("The snow fell and covered the sidewalk"); and, with I'd guess somewhat lower frequency, "and," "but," and other conjunctions followed by a full clause without subject-auxiliary inversion ("The snow fell and the winds howled"). Comma-less "nor" is statistically out of the blue.

    In addition, use of "nor" following an affirmative clause appears to be (largely?) contrastive, at least in modern usage. (Of Mark's examples, the ones that most clearly violate this usage – and are most confusing to me – seem to be old or archaic: For example, "Come nor tarry to greet her," where "tarry" amplifies rather than contrasting with "come," is from an 1871 translation of Catullus and may even be influenced by Latin style.) McCarthy's sentence is certainly contrastive: one expects snow to stop falling at some point. But repeating "fall" following its earlier affirmative use (as "fell") may make processing the contrast harder. (Compare *"I enjoy potatoes nor do I enjoy peas.") Stripped of that repetition, "The snow fell nor did it cease" strikes me as somewhat better than McCarthy's sentence, even in the absence of a comma. (Ironically, "fall" is the verb in the prototypical garden-path sentence: "The horse raced past the barn fell.")

    I don't have the energy to check out how well my arguments, if they're at all valid, generalize. But I'm sure some of you are up to the task!

    * For those who don't know what I'm talking about, there have been innumerable psycholinguistic experiments in which one measures the difficulty subjects have when processing sentences like "I kissed my mother and my father entered the room."

  31. notrequired said,

    November 30, 2009 @ 5:15 am

    Ah, interesting. I did not know this construction was so commonplace. I would have thought McCarthy is in a way imitating Faulkner's quirky style.

  32. Aaron Davies said,

    November 30, 2009 @ 6:21 am

    istr seeing “nor … nor” mentioned in a dictionary as an arch./obs. alternative to “neither … nor”; may i now presume that this is another latinism?

  33. Terry Collmann said,

    November 30, 2009 @ 7:19 am

    As, I think, some have been saying above, "The snow fell and did not stop falling" is a vastly weaker sentence, prosodically, than "The snow fell nor did it cease to fall", where all the emphasis falls on the important words. So a win, not a fail, for Mr McCarthy, I feel.

  34. Cecily said,

    November 30, 2009 @ 7:26 am

    I think you need to read the sentence in the context of the whole book.

    Whether you love it or loathe it, it is written in a strange, sparse style, often simultaneously awkward and beautiful. There are many sentence fragments and unusual phrases, just as there are in poetry.

    In fact, if the book was typeset to look like a poem, I expect the sentence would raise fewer eyebrows.

  35. Adrian said,

    November 30, 2009 @ 9:07 am

    Mollymooly, you can't be serious.

    Sili said it really well: "the construction is easily comprehensible, and if I had seen it in a book, I would have simply assumed – as right is – that the author knows English better than I do."

    As peevism runs amok, too many people seem to think they are right to denigrate the style of good writers.

  36. Franz Bebop said,

    November 30, 2009 @ 10:03 am

    As, I think, some have been saying above, "The snow fell and did not stop falling" is a vastly weaker sentence, prosodically, than "The snow fell nor did it cease to fall", where all the emphasis falls on the important words. So a win, not a fail, for Mr McCarthy, I feel.

    Both of these sentences are equally weak, IMHO. The word nor doesn't fix anything. I don't have any particular objections to nor here, other than to observe that this usage is affected, and to disagree that it adds any profundity. It just sounds funny. It doesn't make the snow any colder or more relentless. Affected usage is not "poetic," it's just clumsy.

    There are no grammatical errors in the Holy Hand Grenade speech, but it's still funny: "Three shall be the number thou shalt count, and the number of the counting shall be three."

    "The snow fell and fell and fell, and then it fell some more." Thanks for clarifying, Dr. Seuss.

  37. Jesse Hochstadt said,

    November 30, 2009 @ 10:49 am

    I realized with some chagrin this morning that I shouldn't have mixed garden-pathing in with the rest of my discussion. There's no garden path in "The snow fell nor did it cease to fall," since there's no grammatical reading of "The snow fell nor" other than the correct one. I guess my loathing for garden paths due to omitted commas got the better of me.

  38. Ellen said,

    November 30, 2009 @ 11:26 am

    I would write "The snow fell without ceasing". Or, more likely perhaps, "The snow fell without stopping", though ceasing is a better word choice, I think.

  39. Sid Smith said,

    November 30, 2009 @ 11:58 am

    "I realized with some chagrin this morning that I shouldn't have mixed garden-pathing in with the rest of my discussion."

    As a benighted Brit I'd never heard of garden-pathing. But you've certainly no need to apologise, Jesse, for mentioning it in ref to McCarthy. Just wrap your gargle tackle around this one (also from the Atlantic piece):

    "While inside the vaulting of the ribs between his knees the darkly meated heart pumped of who's will and the blood pulsed and the bowels shifted in their massive blue convolutions of who's will and the stout thighbones and knee and cannon and the tendons like flaxen hawsers that drew and flexed and drew and flexed at their articulations of who's will all sheathed and muffled in the flesh and the hooves that stove wells in the morning groundmist and the head turning side to side and the great slavering keyboard of his teeth and the hot globes of his eyes where the world burned." (All the Pretty Horses, 1992)

  40. be_slayed said,

    November 30, 2009 @ 1:10 pm

    An early example–which I didn't see in the OED–where nother (the apparent source of modern nor) appears with the same function as nor in "The snow fell nor did it cease to fall" is Beowulf ll.2122-27:

    …þǣr wæs Æschere
    frōdan fyrnwitan feorh ūðgenge.
    Nōðer hӯ hine ne mōston syððan mergen cwōm
    dēaðwērigne Denia lēode
    bronde forbærnan nē on bǣl hladan
    lēofne mannan

    See Nother post on nor [@Stæfcræft & Vyākaraṇa] for further discussion.

  41. Randall said,

    November 30, 2009 @ 1:15 pm

    Adrian, surely you can't be serious.

    Someone being a skillful writer has nothing to do with the quality of one of their sentences. You could revere anyone, truly the world could, but it doesn't make them impeccable.

    I'd prefer to assume that I am a competent speaker of English, rather than assume some NYT bestseller is infallible.

  42. sweater said,

    November 30, 2009 @ 4:26 pm

    Ah! as the heart grows older
    It will come to such sights colder
    By and by, nor spare a sigh
    Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie.
    –G.M. Hopkins

  43. Skullturf Q. Beavispants said,

    November 30, 2009 @ 5:22 pm

    My initial gut reactions upon reading the sentence in question were both

    "What an interesting way to convey the incessancy of the snow!"

    as well as

    "I'm sure the word 'nor' is not used that way in my dialect."

    But then, as it sometimes does, further introspection made me unsure whether or not my gut reaction was "Ungrammatical!" I started thinking about constructions like

    "I've been really busy all morning, nor have I had time to eat breakfast"

    and thought "Maybe that is okay after all." But it's certainly, at the very least, quite odd for me. I can't decide if in my dialect, it's ungrammatical or merely affected. But I had no trouble intuiting what was meant.

  44. Jerry Friedman said,

    November 30, 2009 @ 6:21 pm

    @Sid Smith: I agree with about half of the B. R. Myers article, and I like much more than half of McCarthy's "Border" books, notably including that long "at who's will" sentence. I'll even forgive him "who's" (and "great slavering"). But I don't think McCarthy is infallible by any means.

    I haven't noticed any influence of McCarthy's on the younger writers I've read (mostly sf and mystery). Maybe if I read more literary fiction I'd see some.

    @notrequired: This "nor" really isn't common, in my experience, and most of the examples have been from poetry. And Faulkner and quirkiness are definitely involved.

    @Craig Russell: Thanks for the comments on Greek.

    @Gary: You said, "If not, it seems poor style to use fancy language for a trivial event." Several others here seem to be on the same side. So was B. R. Myer in the Atlantic; he called it kitsch. On the other hand, Myer uses Nabokov as one of his or her sticks to beat modern prizewinners with, and Nabokov may have been the greatest exponent of the idea that even sentences about trivial matters should be striking. I don't quite know where I stand on this.

  45. Sid Smith said,

    December 1, 2009 @ 4:04 am

    "I'll even forgive him "who's" "

    Jerry, do you think that it's supposed to be "whose will"? (So do I.)

    Do you reckon that the answer McCarthy wants us to provide is "God's"?

  46. Jerry Friedman said,

    December 2, 2009 @ 12:47 am

    Yes, I think it's "whose". Why would an apostrophe hater like McCarthy add gratuitous apostrophes? Maybe to draw attention to the phrase, or maybe to emphasize that he's asking for the possessor of the will?

    As for the answer, "God" was the first one that came to my mind, but the cliché has it that novelists are supposed to ask questions, not provide answers. (Except when a judge tells the boy that he did right.) I admit that just asking the question that way has certain implicatures, if that's the right word.

  47. David said,

    December 2, 2009 @ 6:16 am

    @be slayed

    don't you think that your beowulf example is a little different? the 'Nōðer' is the first part of a phrase that continues with 'nē' – something similar to 'neither…nor' in modern English.

    ¨Neither could the Danish, when morning came,
    cremate the dead in the fire, nor lay on the fire the beloved man'

  48. be_slayed said,

    December 2, 2009 @ 11:06 am

    @David

    Nōðer in the Beowulf example does not seem to mean "neither" in the sense "neither…nor", despite the present of in the sentence, since on bǣl hladan "lay/load (his body) on the pyre" is really just a variation of bronde forbærnan "cremate in the fire" — these aren't two different funerary options that the Danes have.

    But here is perhaps a clearer example from The Fortunes of Men, where nother quite clearly cannot mean "neither" in the sense "neither…nor". (Though, as I said, I don't think the Beowulf example can either, really.)

  49. Troy S. said,

    December 2, 2009 @ 3:11 pm

    Logicians have a convenient operator that expresses the idea : "nand," as in, *The snow fell nand did it cease to fall. Hasn't caught on in mainstream English, but I'm sure most people with an engineering background will know what you mean.

  50. Karl Narveson said,

    December 2, 2009 @ 4:19 pm

    From Kipling's If:

    If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
    Or walk with kings – nor lose the common touch;

    Another verse example. I think 'and' followed by negation is clearly preferred in prose, but Kipling's line is verse, nor will it scan if you rewrite it with 'and not'.

  51. John Cowan said,

    December 3, 2009 @ 1:47 am

    B.R. Myers extended his Atlantic article to a book, also called A Reader's Manifesto, which I very much recommend. In addition to the spirited denunciations of the modern "literary" authors, he introduces contrasts with other authors equally "difficult" but less self-absorbed: James, obviously, but the detailed comparison between DeLillo and Balzac, definitely to the discredit of the former, is also wonderful. Best of all, I think, is the appendix, in which Myers dissects the response of the American Critical Establishment to his work: that response can be best summed up as "fear and loathing".

    As for "who's will", I think it's the name of the horse. It's not unheard of to name a horse after a sentence, in this case the perfectly sentence "Who's Will?". McCarthy decapitalizes it, of course, just to make his prose seem more muscular, but to my mind, Myers has the last word:

    The obscurity of who's will, which has an unfortunate Dr. Seussian ring to it, is meant to bully readers into thinking that the author's mind operates on a plane higher than their own—a plane where it isn't ridiculous to eulogize the shifts in a horse's bowels.

    The book adds:

    But it is ridiculous.

  52. John Cowan said,

    December 3, 2009 @ 11:12 am

    For "perfectly sentence" read "perfectly normal sentence", of course.

    "Ten Rules for Serious Writers" (in the book but not the article)

  53. dave said,

    December 4, 2009 @ 3:13 pm

    These little four-line poems are called c;erihews (Sarang used the word in the comments, but no-one else). They're named after Edmund Clerihew Bentley…

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clerihew

  54. Karl Narveson said,

    December 21, 2009 @ 11:12 am

    The world will little note, nor long remember, what we say here.

RSS feed for comments on this post · TrackBack URI

Leave a Comment