At last, the truth from The New Yorker

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Well, with this post yesterday I finally tempted a New Yorker staff member (whom I cannot name for obvious reasons) to let me in on the secret about the ban on subject-verb inversion in clauses with preposed direct quotation complements. You will recall that the august magazine refuses ever to publish a clause with a structure like “Good Lord!” cried the bishop, his mitre all a-quiver, and his vestments in disarray. The strictly enforced house rules require the alternative order: “Good Lord!” the bishop, his mitre all a-quiver, and his vestments in disarray, cried. The strange policy turns out to be due to one irascible and much-feared man, subeditor Mortimer Thelwell-Hart. His reaction to a lexical verb preceding its subject is to go apeshit. And neither the contributing writers nor the management know what they can do about it.

You’ll recall the example I cited back last June:

“Galleries and magazines send him things, and he doesn’t even open them,” Zhao Zhao, a younger artist who works as one of Ai’s assistants, said.

The writer of the article that ultimately contained that sentence originally wrote this much more natural version:

“Galleries and magazines send him things, and he doesn’t even open them,” said Zhao Zhao, a younger artist who works as one of Ai’s assistants.

And when Thelwell-Hart saw it, he just went ballistic. “What. The. Fuck. Is. This?”, he raged. “Do we speak English here? Well is English one of the languages that allow main verbs to be inverted with subjects? Is it? Huh? No! You want to use French and Spanish constituent orders? You want us to get frogs and dagos in here to write for us instead of English speakers? Huh?”

The fact is, of course, that English does allow subjects to come after lexical verbs in some constructions. Nobody seriously denies that sentences like these are grammatical (I underline the subject in each case and boldface the verb):

  1. Pop goes the weasel.
  2. Here comes the judge.
  3. Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.
  4. “Ouch!” yelled the victim.

Nobody, that is, but Mortimer Thelwell-Hart. His view is that main verbs invert with subjects in sissy languages like the ones in the Romance family, and he is damned if he will see it take root in The New Yorker. He has been known to hurl coffee mugs at staff writers and damage furniture during his stylistic tirades. He once threw Larissa MacFarquhar down a flight of stairs in front of witnesses during a dispute about constituent order with quotation complements. The management was too craven even to reprimand him. (There are darker rumors about him having once shot a man in Reno just for using lay not lie.)

83 years young, Thelwell-Hart is remarkably strong and agile, and nowhere near being interested in retiring. His frequent boasting about regular lunches with E. B. White makes him just about invulnerable: no one wants to take a stand against a tradition.

Although the identity of the staff writer who told me all this (in an email from a Yahoo! account) cannot be made public, it has been checked, and you can trust the above claims about Thelwell-Hart. Language Log reveals the hard, plain truth about language, 24/7, 364 days a year.



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