Don't be awkward

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Mark Liberman's discussion of an absurd modifier placement rule in the Associated Press Style Book reminded me of an ancient and not particularly funny joke that, the way I first heard it, is based on an offensive stereotype of gay men. I was going to explain on the Chronicle of Higher Education's language blog Lingua Franca a couple of months ago, but to my surprise I was forbidden to do so. The Chronicle lives in abject terror of offending gays or blacks or women or Asians or prudes or any other identifiable section of its readership that might take offense at something (and they may be right to be afraid: this week I was accused of ageism by a commenter for using the phrase "between 60 and 70 years old" as part of a description of an imaginary person). I'll tell you here on Language Log what I was going to say, and you can decide.

The joke is old and feeble, and wouldn't make even a high school student laugh today: students are vastly more anti-homophobic than their elders (a very interesting and encouraging moral development), and the stereotypes of what gays are like are fading as more and more respected mainstream figures like politicians and sports stars come out.

I have to sketch the joke, though, in order to explain why its silly punchline came back to me in the context of silly usage advice. [Update: People have written to point out to me that the joke is so well established that it has all sorts of non-gay-mocking versions, and its own Wikipedia entry, and a film appearance in After the Thin Man (1936), available on YouTube! But one only learns these things by taking the risk of blogging while ignorant.]

The offensive stereotype is about gay men being exaggeratedly feminine and having a ridiculous mincing walk. This is certainly very dumb, and visibly false to anyone acquainted with gay men. But suffer it we must, or the punchline will make no sense.

A straight man walks into a large drugstore and asks a male member of the sales staff where he can find talcum powder.

The highly effeminate salesperson (who at this point the teller of the joke has to impersonate) says "Certainly, sir! Walk this way!" in a very campy voice, and heads off toward the relevant aisle with an exaggeratedly butt-wiggling supposedly gay walk.

Whereupon the straight man solemnly delivers the punchline: "If I could walk that way, I wouldn't need the talcum powder.

What, I hear you cry out in unamused anguish, has this grotesquely unfunny little joke got to do with language or grammatical usage?

Well, the Associated Press Stylebook, as originally pointed out by John McIntyre at the Baltimore Sun, says you not only shouldn't let modifiers split "infinitive forms" of a verb (as in to potentially be dangerous), you shouldn't even put them between parts of "compound forms" like have been (as in has often been arrested).

But they immediately undercut themselves by saying that you should contravene this advice if doing so improves clarity or avoids awkwardness. And they admit that it often does.

So what exactly is this "awkwardness" that we should shun? And what is this clarity for which the budding AP writer should strive?

It's very hard to say, because of course they do not give definitions for these concepts. And I don't like reliance on concepts that are completely undefined.

Recently I was at a dinner party where ghosts were under discussion and one person at the table had several personal experiences with ghosts to relate. But in one of them the ghost as it went off down a passageway triggered two motion-sensor lights to switch on, and in another a ghost nun walked through a stone wall. I pointed out the inconsistency: Anything solid and physical enough to trigger a motion sensor is surely too solid and physical to pass through a wall, and anything sufficiently diaphanous and neutrino-like to do the latter would not have enough substance to accomplish the former. There seems to be no coherent theory of ghosts, just random anecdotes implying contradictory things. I don't have a high regard for claims about ghosts.

Similarly, usage books give no coherent theory of "awkwardness" in modifier placement, or of "clarity" in style. A similar problem of definition arises with the "evil" alluded to in Google's famous corporate policy "Don't be evil".

If you are a novice writer you don't have a good sense of what's awkward or unclear. Part of what is so brilliant about Steven Pinker's book The Sense of Style is that he tries (in Chapter 4) to give enough of a lesson in syntax and psycholinguistics to underpin a detailed practical analysis (in Chapter 5) of coherence in prose, and thus begins to provide what we don't have for ghosts or evil: an analysis of what awkwardness and clarity are, with copious examples. That way lies the possibility of explaining how sentences can be modified to avoid such properties, and get ideas across in ways that are elegant and comprehensible.

So the AP guide doesn't really mean its injunction to avoid having adverbs after to or an auxiliary verb; as soon as they've said it they back off and simply warn you not to write clumsily. "Don't be awkward" is the advice they are really giving. Yet knowledge of how to write in a non-awkward way is precisely what novice writers don't have.

If you could walk that way you wouldn't need the talcum powder, would you?

Thanks to Philip Minden and Jonathan Lundell for useful research findings.

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