Iatrogenic grammar sickness

From 8/26 on Lithub, “How a Self-Published Writer of Gay Erotica Beat Sci-Fi’s Sad Puppies at their Own Game”, by M. Sophia Newman:

When I was a little kid, my mother would come into the bedroom I shared with two of my sisters each night and read us a book before we slept. Inevitably, a minor fight would erupt over whose bed beside which Mom would sit

Another WTF moment, to go along with the moment of failed anaphoric reference in my posting of the 26th. In this case, it’s hard to believe that the boldfaced relative clause comes from a native speaker of English, but it was, by a professional writer, in fact — and that’s surely the source of the problem. (In contrast, the source of the problem in the anaphoric reference example is almost surely that its writer was unpracticed at the task.)

In brief, Newman would never have committed the bizarre strangulated relative clause above — let’s call it Hern — if she hadn’t been subjected to rotten advice about how to write and taken it to heart: she was told that stranded P (“ending with a preposition”) is a grammatical disorder, which can, fortunately, be treated by a simple procedure, fronting the P. That is, the putatively malformed relative clauses

which/that/∅ Mom would sit beside

(in the Strand family) should be remedied by relocating the P beside (to the front of the relative clause) and using the (prosthetic) relative pronoun which to support it. The result of this procedure  is the appalling Hern, actually a bit of sick grammar caused by ill-advised therapy: iatrogenic grammar sickness.

The point is that the Strand family don’t need treatment; they’re all perfectly healthy (they’ve been natural expressions in English since Old English), but meddling therapists (using a priori theories about grammatical health, rather than empirically based research) have convinced many people who try to be careful about their writing that the Strands all require treatment. (These meddling therapists have gained sway in a number of serious publications, like the Economist; every so often, Geoff Pullum rages on Language Log about the Economist‘s irrational insistence on avoiding stranded Ps.)

The victims of such misguided therapy include any number of ordinary people who have taken to heart the advice they were offered in school or in cheap advice books (high-end advice books on grammar, style, and usage uniformly treat avoidance of stranded P as a kind of baseless grammatical superstition); and, alas, professional writers anxious to do their job “correctly” and getting their advice from these same sources.

Unlike Colin Hutson in my posting of the 28th, Sophia Newman is a practiced writer. From her blog:

M. Sophia Newman, MPH, is a writer whose work has been published in The Atlantic, Religion & Politics, Vice, Vox, Tin House, Lithub, and elsewhere. From February 2015 to February 2016, she wrote a column, Health Horizons, for Next City on global health innovations … She’s previously reported on violence in South Africa and the US with support from the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting, from West Africa for Beacon and Pacific Standard Magazine, and in post-earthquake Nepal via an Awesome Foundation Grant for Journalism

Before beginning her writing career, Sophia completed a Critical Language Scholarship in Bengali (2011) and a year of health research as a Fulbright scholar (2012-13), both in Bangladesh. She holds a BS in cell and molecular biology (Tulane University, 2009), a master’s degree in public health (University of Illinois at Chicago, 2012), and a certificate in global mental health from the Harvard Program on Refugee Trauma (2015-16).

Note: this posting has been about stranded vs. fronted P, but there’s also considerable interest in the actual content of Newman’s piece, namely the involvement of eccentric gay pornographer “Chuck Tingle” in the 2016 Hugo Awards for science fiction writing. I’ll post separately on this affair, but here’s a foretaste, a linguistically interesting title of his:

Embedding all the way down. Next comes: Pounded in the Butt by My Book Pounded in the Butt by My book Pounded in the Butt by My Own Butt.

[Addendum: there is now a Page on this blog of postings (on Language Log and this blog) on stranded vs. fronted Ps.)

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