Trans-dimensional rations of walnuts

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James Parker, reviewing Matthew Pearl's new novel The Technologists, has a question ("Science Will Save Us", NYT 2/24/2012):

Bad prose [...] is arrestingly weird. It stops the clocks and twists the wires. It knits the brow in perplexity: What the hell is this? What’s going on here?

My reaction to Pearl's first novel, The Dante Club, was similar, although more charitable to the author:

The Dante Club's front matter tells us that "Matthew Pearl graduated from Harvard University summa cum laude in English and American literature in 1997, and in 2000 from Yale Law School". I ask you, is it likely that a person with that background would be so insensitive to the norms of the English language?

No, a much more plausible hypothesis is that Pearl graduated from a slightly different Harvard University, in a universe slightly different from our own, and read a body of English and American literature that is also just a bit different.

Skimming the first few pages of The Technologists, I find additional evidence for my trans-dimensional hypothesis. The book's second sentence, for example, presupposes that 19th-century American sailors received regular rations of walnuts, which they were allowed to crack under their heels on the deck:

Some of the sailors, their bearded faces browned and peeling from too much sun, cracked the last rations of walnuts in their fists or under their boot heels, singing some ancient song about a girl left behind.

I don't think that this was generally true in our current universe, if only because crushing walnut husks leaves a dark stain, and 19th-century sea-captains were notoriously fussy about the appearance of their decks. Perhaps this is meant to be a quirk of the vessel in question? We can't tell, because this ship sinks a couple of pages later, and neither it nor its sailors' walnut rations appear to play any further role in the novel.

Those sailors' walnuts were "arrestingly weird" because they violate my sense of historical plausibility, not because they violate the norms of standard English. But the next sentence of The Technologists did take me aback for linguistic reasons:

After wild March winds, stormy seas, dangerous ports, backbreaking work, and all the extremes of experience, they’d be handed a good pay at port, then freed to lose it to the city’s myriad pleasures.

"Handed a good pay at port"? Can you say that? I don't think so, at least not without crossing your readers' wires.

The noun pay occurs 13,026 times in COCA; and "a pay" occurs 875 times, but all of these are in phrases like "a pay raise", "a pay cut", "a pay phone", etc., where pay is the first element of a compound noun. The noun pay occurs 2,273 times preceded by an adjective, but again, "a [jj] pay" occurs only in phrases like "a big pay cut" or "a nearby pay phone".

In comparison, the noun salary occurs 9.725 times; and only about a third of the 835 instances of "a salary" are in phrases like "a salary increase" or "a salary cap". The other two thirds are in phrases like these — where substituting pay wouldn't work:

Grunts punch a clock and management collects a salary.
Now she is an assistant commissioner at a salary of $73,500.
…a salary in the high six figures …

Similarly, "a [jj] salary" turns up plenty of examples like these, in which pay would not work:

Even if we work long hours, we make a decent salary.
… a weekly salary of $125 …
You can still negotiate a higher salary.

Confirming this judgment distributionally, we find that "a pay of" doesn't occur in COCA, while "a salary of" occurs 171 times. Comparing the two across time in the Google n-gram viewer gives a consistent result:

On the next page of The Technologists, there's an example where the alternate history might be either linguistic or economic:

In the last few years, with so many men returned from fighting the rebellion, even modest Boston merchants had become veritable industrialists, beset as they were by excess hands.

I think of merchants as shopkeepers or traders, while industrialists are the owners of manufacturing enterprises. This impression is confirmed by The American Heritage Dictionary, which glosses merchant as "One whose occupation is the wholesale purchase and retail sale of goods for profit", or "One who runs a retail business; a shopkeeper"; and industrialist as "One who owns, directs, or has a substantial financial interest in an industrial enterprise", where industrial in turn is "Of, relating to, or resulting from industry", and the relevant sense of industry is "The sector of an economy made up of manufacturing enterprises".

So was it true that the excess labor available after the American Civil War led "even modest" Boston shopkeepers to become manufacturers? An interesting idea, and maybe true in this universe as well as in Matthew Pearl's. But I suspect that the intended meaning is different — that the flood of returning soldiers allowed merchants to expand their businesses and to become wealthier, with "industrialist" being used in an extended sense something like "stereotypically wealthy person".

In either case, Matthew Pearl's writing has again distracted me from his story.

What about that New York Times review by James Parker? What stopped the narrative clocks for him?

I was brought up short, for example, very early in Matthew Pearl’s latest novel, “The Technologists,” by the following line: “Incredulously, the captain extended his spyglass.” I wavered and then stopped. How does one incredulously extend a spyglass? And what else can one do incredulously? Incredulously, they cut down the hanged man. . . . Incredulously, she flossed her perfect teeth. . . . Incredulously, the reviewer contemplated the latest book from the best-selling author of “The Dante Club” and “The Last Dickens,” whose literarily flavored historical novels have been published in 40 countries. . . .

I don't think that this one would have twisted the wires for me.  The verbs most frequently preceding incredulously, according to COCA, are ask, say, stare, look, watch, repeat, demand, listen, respond, laugh, … About 10% of the total instances involve verbs of looking; so by extension, extending a spyglass would work.

Perhaps the problem is the sentence-initial position of the adverb. This is indeed relatively rare for incredulously — there are just two examples in COCA, with 380 in other positions. This compares to 687 out of 9419 for surprisingly,  1313 out of 7716 for hopefully, More important, there's a tendency for sentence-initial adverbs to apply to the writer's reaction rather than to the manner of the verb written about, so that sentence-initial incredulously would mean something like "surprisingly" rather than "in an incredulous manner". Thus one of the two COCA sentences with initial incredulously, part of the description of a young woman's recovery from a serious mental illness, is

Incredulously , she decided to join the swim team.

So perhaps the whole muddled hopefully controversy has primed James Parker to worry about sentence-initial adverbs relating to mental states.

These WTF reactions, whether to content or to form, are interestingly different across individuals.

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35 Comments »

  1. Rosie Redfield said,

    March 4, 2012 @ 1:15 pm

    Walnut husks may leave stains but the shells don't, and walnuts are usually husked before being stored.

    [(myl) Crushing under boot heels is a standard way to remove walnut husks:

    If you're working with a smaller quantity, you can stomp them on pavement to loosen the husks, but be sure to wear thick-soled shoes or boots that you don't mind getting stained. As the husks come off, a brown liquid will seep out and discolor everything it touches. If it gets on your skin, it won't wash off, but will gradually fade over a week or two.

    But this is a pretty lousy way to separate the nut meat from the shells, especially on the deck of a ship at sea. Pressing hard enough to crush the shell is likely to leave you with a jumbled mass of shell and nut-meat fragments, which are further polluted by contact with the boot heel. And anyhow, I don't see a 19th-century sea captain being happy about coming into port with bits of walnut all over the decks.]

  2. Kathryn said,

    March 4, 2012 @ 1:35 pm

    Speaking of being distracted from the story, you mention COCA without any explanation of what it is. Perhaps most readers of this blog are familiar with it, but for those of us who are new here, spelling out an abbreviation is always helpful.

  3. bulbul said,

    March 4, 2012 @ 1:37 pm

    Crushing under boot heels is a standard way to remove walnut husks:
    Yes, but even your quote talks about loosening and removing the husks, not the shells. More importantly, removal of the husks is done right after the walnuts fall off the branches (early September where I come from), because the husks dry out very quickly and turn into a black dry whatchamacallit which is very difficult to remove. We are talking about naval rations here, so I would assume that – unless the Americans do things very differently – walnuts are stored already huskless.

    And anyhow, I don't see a 19th-century sea captain being happy about coming into port with bits of walnut all over the decks.
    Weren't the decks scrubbed like twice a day?

  4. Joe said,

    March 4, 2012 @ 1:44 pm

    I can only interpret "incredulously" as an evaluative adjunct (as you say, an evaluation by the speaker/writer) when it appears sentence-initially, and this includes all the example constructed by the reviewer. And while I know it's irritating when people offer their "corrections," I think I would use the adjective in this position: "incredulous, the captain extended his spyglass."

  5. Roger said,

    March 4, 2012 @ 1:47 pm

    Is "a good pay" so different from "a day's pay"?

    http://books.google.com/books?id=4F5HAAAAYAAJ&pg=PR280&dq=&hl=en&sa=X&ei=FLhTT-HDA-P00gHL0uHMDQ&ved=0CGAQ6AEwBQ#v=onepage&q&f=false

  6. bulbul said,

    March 4, 2012 @ 1:59 pm

    Also, at least for some spieces (e.g. Old World Juglans regia), most walnuts fall out of their husks as they ripen. When I was a kid, we had two Carpathian walnuts in our garden. On one, most of the nuts would fall out of their husks. On the other, about half didn't and had to be removed by hand. I think I still have an old pair of jeans somewhere with the stains.
    Nuts of the American black walnut (Juglans nigra) do not fall out of their husks, but even in their case, the husk is removed before storage (e.g.).

  7. Ralph Hickok said,

    March 4, 2012 @ 4:10 pm

    "The verbs most frequently preceding incredulously, according to COCA, are ask, say, stare, look, watch, repeat, demand, listen, respond, laugh, … About 10% of the total instances involve verbs of looking; so by extension, extending a spyglass would work."

    Not for me. He might look through the spyglass incredulously, but I can't grasp how he can extend it incredulously. Does he find it hard to believe that it's extensible?

  8. Andy Averill said,

    March 4, 2012 @ 4:50 pm

    >>>Some of the sailors, their bearded faces browned and peeling from too much sun, cracked the last rations of walnuts in their fists or under their boot heels, singing some ancient song about a girl left behind.

    Presumably the author is more interested in rhyming the sailor's faces and the appearance of the shelled walnuts than veracity. But with postmodernist novels, who knows?

  9. Ray Girvan said,

    March 4, 2012 @ 4:57 pm

    I find additional evidence for my trans-dimensional hypothesis

    But then the whole book is evidently set in a different universe: it's essentially steampunk. I haven't read it all yet, but despite the historical setting and technological bent, some of the science appears nonsense in our universe (notably the gas that can liquify glass at room temperature).

  10. Matt_M said,

    March 4, 2012 @ 6:01 pm

    @Roger: (Is "a good pay" so different from "a day's pay"?):

    Yes, it's completely different.

    In "a good pay", the word "a" modifies the nominal "good pay", which has as its head the (normally) non-count noun "pay".

    In "a day's pay", the word "a" modifies the noun "day's", which is nearly always a count noun, and thus perfectly OK with "a".

  11. Rohan F said,

    March 4, 2012 @ 9:00 pm

    What really stood out to me was not the "good pay" – I find that pretty unremarkable – but the phrase "at port", which I've never encountered. A quick Ngrams search showed that "at port" has found use, but comparison with COCA data shows that it's likely to mostly reflect place names, as "at Port Arthur", "at Port Said", and so on. Trimming out place names and collocations like "in port cities", "at port and starboard", and so forth, COCA has 137 instances of the adverbial phrase "in port", compared to just six of adverbial "at port".

    The use of unshelled walnuts as rations – presumably for a military force – is another reason that makes me wonder, though for a reason different from Dr Liberman's: since the shell takes up so much of the walnut's volume, storing unshelled walnuts is wasteful of space, and they'd never be used as rations. (The complete British Navy ration in 1808 consisted of beer, sugar, butter, cheese, peas, oatmeal, ship's biscuit, and salted beef and pork – all substances that can be carried in bulk and consumed with minimal processing and discard.) This makes me wonder if Pearl actually consulted anyone on the nautical aspects of his writing at all.

  12. Glen Gordon said,

    March 5, 2012 @ 1:46 am

    Erh… How is "they'd be handed a good pay at port" a 'bad' English phrase? Should we be concerned about the education of the author or of some of his overreaching critics? Mee-yow! I hear cat hissing. :o)

    Technological or situational implausibility aside, let's not try too hard to stretch it into a pointless, opinionated grammatical attack without factual grounding. If we can say "a good sleep", "a good vow", "a good print", etc. then there's nothing fundamentally wrong with directly using a verb as a noun in English. Allowing further for character dialects (and parallel universes), the statistical analyses of the idiolectal phrase itself is aimless overkill. It seems a bit too far even for a joke among us grammar nerds.

    [(myl) I'm afraid that you've entirely missed the point, which has nothing to do with deverbal nouns, but rather with an aspect of the distinction between mass and count nouns. Obviously there are many common nominal uses of pay, but "a good pay" is not among them. And the reason for checking patterns of usage is simply to verify that my reaction was not merely a personal quirk, but rather reflects a fact about the norms of English usage.]

    Artistic licence has not been revoked. Authors need leeway to stray from statistical norms of language otherwise it wouldn't be called 'art'. Language geeks be damned! More jarring prose, please!

    [(myl) Writers are certainly free to write as they please. But as the NYT reviewer noted (and as your phrase "jarring prose" confirms), writing in gratuitously odd ways (which the reviewer characterized as "bad prose") brings readers up short. This is probably not what you want to happen once a paragraph or so in an adventure story.

    Or maybe you do. But the point here, as usual, is not an ethical judgment but a linguistic one. A given type of English speech or writing does have norms of usage, which can be delimited by an appropriate generalization of evidence. And when a particular piece of speech or writing appears to violate those norms, this is interesting for the same reasons that an apparently-odd biological specimen is. Were we wrong about the norms? Is this a new species? Did the speaker or writing make a slip of the tongue or pen? Do they have an idiosyncratic understanding of the language? Or are they using words or phrases that they don't really understand?

    And there's a practical question about writing that consistently appears to violate linguistic (or cultural or historical) norms in particular ways -- it that helpful or harmful to the writer's goals? Matthew Pearl is a successful writer, so maybe his "jarring prose" is neutral if not helpful. But maybe his success is due to the appeal of his characters and plots, and he'd be even more successful without the stopped clocks and crossed wires.]

    (PS. I'll be the first to admit that the sequence "trans-dimensional rations of walnuts" impelled the basest curiosity within me to click to this post… and this just proves how any awkward string of words can be an effective advertising tool. Hehe. Speaking of which: Yams and the Antichrist.)

  13. Abbie said,

    March 5, 2012 @ 3:12 am

    "they’d be handed a good pay" didn't cross any of my wires. I'm pretty sure I encounter noun phrases like "decent pay" or "honest pay"; maybe the indefinite article is the issue?

  14. F said,

    March 5, 2012 @ 4:40 am

    (Rohan F:) "… at port …". Anyone who has done rifle drill will recognise this phrase. "… diagonally across and close to the body with the barrel or blade near the left shoulder", as [http://oxforddictionaries.com/definition/port--5] puts it. I must admit, though, that I'm still trying to visualise how one can be "handed a good pay" in this manner. Perhaps "pay" is, in this parallel universe, some kind of weapon.

  15. Rohan F said,

    March 5, 2012 @ 6:09 am

    F, it's true I'd never encountered that one either before today, but that's a different sense of "at port" to the one that I'm talking about and isn't the sense that Pearl's using it in. "At port" in the Pearl quotation can only be referring to the nautical sense of "port" (port(1) at the dictionary you cite). Moreover, "at port" in the sense you're talking about is not found alone in the COCA database at all; the citations that have the sense of your source's port(5) all use it in expanded phrases: "at port arms" (five COCA attestations) and "at port carry" (once in COCA). I ignored all of these because I was talking specifically about the odd use of "at port" as a synonym of "in port".

  16. H Klang said,

    March 5, 2012 @ 6:37 am

    "A good pay" seems perfectly grammatical to me, if a bit colloquial: "He receives a good pay at his current job". I am really surprised that it doesn't show up more frequently in the text searches by Mark Liberman. However, to my ears it refers to a recurring salary, not to a single payment.

    "Incredulously" as an expression of external reaction isn't parallel to "surprisingly" (or "unremarkably", "notably", "pathetically" and so forth) because the statement it is attached to can't be incredulous, whereas it can be surprising, unremarkable, notable, etc.

    "Hopefully" has survived this objection through mega usage but I can't think of other examples like this. A link to this discussion would be useful.

    Read simply as the manner of extending the telescope, "incredulously" does sound hilarious, but it really depends on the context in the novel, which would provide more insight than collocations.

    "Beset as they were by excess hands" – there is a hint that the merchants were surrounded or overwhelmed, but this can only be read as irony since they got rich off these workers. But the joke is distracting and probably unintended.

    To my ears, the prose of Matthew Pearl is not so much incorrect as off-key.

  17. Laura said,

    March 5, 2012 @ 8:51 am

    My first thought was that, back when I used to be paid weekly, we did use 'pay' as a count noun, and it referred to the white envelope with folded cash in it. But now that I think harder, I suppose we always used a possessive determiner ('my pay', 'have you got your pay yet', etc) so it could well have been mass, and, tellingly, when the person who handed them out looked through them to find yours, she never referred to the stack of envelopes as 'the pays', it was always 'the envelopes', 'the wage packets' or similar.

    [(myl) The context "my|your|our|her|his NOUN" isn't by any means limited to count nouns -- it works perfectly well with mass nouns, as in "his blood", "her hearing", "our oversight", etc. As you indicate, phrases like "the pays" would be more telling. And by the same token, you probably wouldn't have asked "Is there a pay in there for me?"]

    Unrelatedly, I seem to remember learning on QI once that walnuts can explode under certain conditions, and would therefore be a risky cargo anyway.

  18. Rodger C said,

    March 5, 2012 @ 12:13 pm

    "At port" reminds me of the person I once overheard describing a painting of "a bunch of sailboats at bay."

  19. un malpaso said,

    March 5, 2012 @ 12:19 pm

    All of the examples cited above strike me as having pretty clear meanings, but being very clunky writing. A good editor would have massaged them at least to smooth out the "feel"; they read like stream-of-consciousness masquerading as colloquialism. I am agnostic on the walnut question, however.

  20. Scott said,

    March 5, 2012 @ 12:29 pm

    My initial reaction was that "a pay" to refer to a salary or a wage seemed absolutely fine to me as a BritE speaker. Naturally I immediately turned to the OED, which offers:

    "4a. The action or fact of paying for something; the paying of wages; payment. As a count noun: a payment, spec. any of the regular payments of wages to an employee." [my emphasis]

    Admittedly it does seem to be rather rare in the BNC, but there are plenty of examples via Googling "a pay of".

  21. Kathryn said,

    March 5, 2012 @ 1:16 pm

    As a labor and employment attorney, I find myself struggling to understand the logical progression from being "beset with excess hands" to increasing one's business. One might take the opportunity to lower the pay of one's existing workforce (reminding them how lucky they are to have jobs–look at all those who don't!) An unusually benevolent employer might then hire many of the unemployed with the saved wages and reduce everyone's workload (in an alternate universe, indeed!) But one doesn't increase one's business because of the availability of an unused supply of /labor/; one increases one's business because of the availability of an unmet demand for one's goods or services.

  22. Jerry Friedman said,

    March 5, 2012 @ 1:27 pm

    @Kathryn: COCA is the Corpus of Contemporary English. Lots of fun for those interested in American usage, though it doesn't have the most user-friendly interface ever.

  23. Jerry Friedman said,

    March 5, 2012 @ 1:29 pm

    Corpus of Contemporary American English, that is.

  24. Not My Leg said,

    March 5, 2012 @ 3:52 pm

    The spyglass bit depends on how you interpret "extending his spyglass." If you interpret it as the physical act of manipulating the spyglass to take it from a collapsed to an extended position, then it seems odd to do so incredulously. Presumably a ship's captain is well acquainted with the basic functionality of a spyglass, and would not be incredulous about its ability to be extended.

    On the other hand, if you take it to mean he looked through his spyglass (what the author probably intended), there is no problem. It is a simply incredulously looking, which as noted, is common.

    Reading this post I noticed a third possible interpretation of "extending his spyglass," which I only noticed when it was placed in quotation marks. Sailors, I hope you have actually been saying this, because it is a pretty good nautical double entendre.

  25. Ray Girvan said,

    March 5, 2012 @ 4:41 pm

    I didn't find this one problematical. I just read it as his going "WTF?!" already, and extending the spyglass to get a better look while in the same incredulous state about what he was seeing.

  26. Jerry Friedman said,

    March 5, 2012 @ 5:26 pm

    By the way, of the few Google hits on "ration of walnuts", none referred to anything nautical (except hits on this discussion). Possibly we need more alternate-universe novels.

  27. Smartass Remark said,

    March 5, 2012 @ 5:43 pm

    @Ray Girvan: If that was the intent, it would have been more smoothly written as "Incredulous, the captain extended his spyglass."

  28. Chandra said,

    March 6, 2012 @ 4:31 pm

    "A good pay" didn't faze me one bit, and neither did the idea of replacing "salary" with "pay" in any of the examples you gave. Not that I've heard it used that way often (or maybe at all), mind you – just that it seems unremarkable to me that it might be used that way by some people or in some dialects.

  29. David Walker said,

    March 6, 2012 @ 7:05 pm

    That sentence — "Some of the sailors, their bearded faces browned and peeling from too much sun, cracked the last rations of walnuts in their fists or under their boot heels, singing some ancient song about a girl left behind." — mashes together three completely different images: the browned faces, the cracking walnuts, and the song about a girl.

    Taken together, they give me whiplash.

  30. A Novelist said,

    March 7, 2012 @ 4:21 pm

    Two comments.

    1. All novels are alternate universe novels. That is what makes them novels, and not primary sources. Were walnuts rationed to nineteenth century Boston sailors? Maybe. Who knows? Is the image of browned sailors cracking walnuts on deck a kind of wonderful one? Yes, it is. In novels, wonder wins.

    2. The challenge with writing historical fiction lies not only in attempts at accuracy, which is hard enough, but also in signalling that accuracy to a reader. Paradoxically, the signalling requirement needed for good fiction will sometimes mean that the book must be made less "accurate".

    A good example of this difficult balancing act is The Crucible, which was based on detailed research into the historical records of the Salem witch trials, but which is nevertheless written in an idiom more designed to signal antiquity rather than recapture it. To wit: "I have seen some reddish work done at night, and I will bring a pointy reckoning that will shudder you." You know where in the Salem trial transcripts language like that appears? Nowhere, that's where. None too many "pointy reckonings" happening in 1953, either. What is inaccurate, historically or statistically, is nevertheless preferable for Miller's purposes. It is an evocative phrasing that signals its antiquity and its harshness in equal measure. In short, it is art, and not history.

    Pearl is a master at this trick of signalling in historical fiction. Whether his methods work for a given reader will inevitably vary. But picayune twiddling over the incredulity of an extended spyglass strikes me as indicative of a critic working awfully hard to miss the point.

  31. Glen Gordon said,

    March 7, 2012 @ 6:35 pm

    MYL: "I'm afraid that you've entirely missed the point, which has nothing to do with deverbal nouns, but rather with an aspect of the distinction between mass and count nouns. Obviously there are many common nominal uses of pay, but "a good pay" is not among them. And the reason for checking patterns of usage is simply to verify that my reaction was not merely a personal quirk, but rather reflects a fact about the norms of English usage."

    And I apparently continue to miss your point. A point is based on fact, not opinion. It seems as though you're overanalysing art in expectation that it conform to some non-sequitur arguments that you've convinced yourself are logically relevant. You're identifying "bad prose" according to an online frequency principle. To me and others here, the colloquiality of "handed a good pay" is not in itself a measure of bad prose lest we submerge into linguistic and artistic elitism. I gather that in this case, the author has deliberately penned an infrequent style simply for literary effect.

    What's left to analyse then? Are you attempting to define a mathematical formula to define good prose? I sincerely hope not for the sake of your sanity. Does a novel say something about everyday usage of English? Not necessarily. So again, what's left to say on that? In these veins, I'm in full agreement with the cogent points above made by A Novelist.

    In fact, based on Information Theory, art is quite naturally valued according to its uniqueness, not its frequency, since it's originality that's scarce. The link between value and scarcity is nothing new in economics and applies to the rest of our fascinating universe as well. If we followed your suggested rules of writing, I fear that we'd all become very common and valueless! ;o) So this is why I cheekily support "jarring prose" and even daring coinage in novels because I know where the heart of art truly lies. Is that not the point that you're missing?

  32. Bessel Dekker said,

    March 7, 2012 @ 7:16 pm

    At the very least, "a good pay" is not unique, although it seems to be used in the sense of "regular payment", e.g. here: http://answers.yahoo.com/question/index?qid=20120204131228AARywtS.

    On the other hand, while it may be very true that "art is quite naturally valued according to its uniqueness", it surely does not follow that all the elements in a work of art, and all the sentences in a written work of art should be unique? The uniqueness is a feature of the work as a whole.

  33. iching said,

    March 9, 2012 @ 8:58 am

    @Ray Girvan, @Smartass Remark:
    I reacted to the sentence in the same way as Ray Girvan, just as I would have for "The captain extended his spyglass excitedly" or "The captain extended his spyglass despondently" and other similar sentences. Smartass Remark seems to prefer "Excited, the captain extended his spyglass" and "Despondent, the captain extended his spyglass", but is the other formulation so odd or non-standard in English? It seems fine to me (an Australian English speaker).

  34. slabman said,

    April 2, 2012 @ 3:28 pm

    Strangely compelling but also a somewhat dull writer. In The Technologists, hardly a page goes by without some infelicitous English, historical anachronism, illogicality or non sequitur. Yet I read on to the end. My favourite brain-bender concerns the diving suits. The students (within a day or two) manage to knock up a couple of diving suits complete with brass helmets and weighted boots. This is while managing their college studies and their other investigative activities. A couple of chapters later, the diving suits are stolen, but the students have to search high and low within their laboratory before the theft is confirmed. Just how big and cluttered must your laboratory be if it's not immediately obvious that two diving suits have gone missing? I also think it's odd that, for a novel where many plot points hinge on science or technology, most of the scientific effects are physically impossible. A magnet powerful enough to influence ship's compasses across a whole harbour but small enough to fit in a trunk. Gas corrosive enough to melt windows, but not enough to give bystanders even a tickly cough. Boilers that blow up just because they take in some colder water. A factory hand who manages to produce bronze sculptures in his spare time. And the writing itself – it reads like it wasn't written by a native English speaker. If I were charitable, I'd say this was a poorly edited first draft. If I were less so, I'd wonder if it were really true that this guy taught literature.

  35. Andy R said,

    April 17, 2012 @ 4:35 pm

    Re: "incredulously". As at least one other person has pointed out, this would read far more naturally as "incredulous"…. Incredulous, he extended his spyglass. Simples.

    Perhaps there wasn't time (or will-power) to copy-edit, or even proof-read, the novel?

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