Archive for the ‘Usage advice’ Category

A zombie lurches in the NYT

May 20, 2018

From the New York Times, “Is a Dumber Phone a Better Phone?” by John Herrman, on-line on May 16th, in print today under the title “A new crop of smarthphones has arrived, aiming to improve on the iPhone — not by being better but by being substantially worse” (crucial bit boldfaced):

[Nokia’s model] 3310 is at its genuine best when it falls like a smooth stone into your pocket, where, rather than constantly buzzing at the periphery of your consciousness, it sits inert, ready mostly to be ignored.

The alternatives, which turn on what’s in the scope of the modifying Adv mostly ‘usually, generally’ (NOAD):

(a) mostly ready to be ignoredmostly modifies the predicative AdjP ready to be ignored

(b) ready mostly to be ignored (above) – mostly is either a postmodifer of ready or modifies the infinitival VP to be ignored

(c) ready to mostly be ignored (“split infinitive”) – mostly modifies the predicative BSE-form VP be ignored

(d) ready to be mostly ignored (“split verb”) – mostly modifies the predicative PSP-form VP ignored

The intended meaning is that what is usual or general is for the user to ignore the smartphone.

Alternative (a) has the wrong meaning; alternative (d) has things just right; alternative (c) is very close to equivalent in meaning to (d); and alternative (b) is ambiguous, with one meaning not the intended one and one close to equivalent in meaning to (d), but with modifying mostly quite distant from the crucial verb-form ignored, which makes (b) really clunky (as well as potentially misleading. I’d go for something like (b) only if it was the only available alternative, and it jumped out at me unpleasantly when I read Herrman’s piece.

A great many writers and editors would avoid (c) because it’s a (so-called) “split infinitive” (SI), a construction with material intervening between the infinitive marker to and its VP complement. Irrational aversion of SIs has a long sad history, but even peevish and sticklerish usage advice has been shifting in their favor in many circumstances: the Economist and the AP Stylebook, among others, have now gotten on board.

(The 2017 print edition; 2018 is available on-line to subscribers.)

Alternative (d) — which, I remind you, ought to be the clearly favored one — falls foul of an irrational aversion that has an even sadder, and weirder, history than the proscription against SIs: a proscription against “split verbs” (an SV has material intervening between an auxiliary and its head verb), as in I will soon leave as an alternative to I soon will leave (and Soon I will leave and I will leave soon). Part of the weirdness of the no-SV “rule” is that it’s a journalist thing, essentially unknown outside of style/usage advice for journalists, but held to with great ferocity there.

There’s considerable discussion on Language Log on the SV ban, especially by Mark Liberman (search under “split verb”), and some on this blog, but the most pointed treatments of the SV ban have come from John McIntyre in his copyediting column in the Baltimore Sun. John periodically rages against this usage superstition (as Bryan Garner terms such “rules”), this zombie rule (my terminology), heaping piles of steaming abuse on it as “the dumbest rule in the AP Stylebook” and the like. On this blog, me writing about John in a 6/19/09 posting “McIntyre, simmering”.

Maybe the AP Stylebook folks finally listened to John (he talks this way at copyeditors’ conferences, after all), or maybe the revelation came down to them in a flaming pie, but it seems they’re no longer insisting that writers and editors undo SVs in favor of something else, anything else (except an SI, of course).

But old habits die hard, and we see in the passage from John Herrman’s piece (above) an experienced journalist’s adherence to the SV ban, at the cost of producing a little bit of strikingly unlovely prose. All the more noticeable because it immediately follows some lively, nicely crafted writing.

Nominalized reversed substitute

January 29, 2018

From the annals of reversed substitute,

substitute OLD for NEW ‘replace OLD by NEW’

a fresh example noticed by Betty Birner, sent to Larry Horn, David Denison, and me in e-mail on the 25th:

From Michael Wolff’s “Fire and Fury”, pp. 84-5:

“He had lived in the same home, a vast space in [REDACTED] Tower, since shortly after the building was completed in 1983.  Every morning since, he had made the same commute to his office a few floors down.  His corner office was a time capsule from the 1980s, the same gold-lined mirrors, the same Time magazine covers fading on the wall; the only substantial change was the substitution of Joe Namath’s football for Tom Brady’s.”

I don’t know much about football, but I’m pretty certain this means “Namath out, Brady in.”

The example has several features of note, but especially its nominalized form: substitution of OLD for NEW. This is of course exactly what you’d expect from speakers for whom reversed substitute is perfectly normal, but I didn’t have such an example in my files.

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But that’s not I nor you

January 6, 2018

My most recent adventure in pronoun case — the posting “Usage note: NomPred”, about nominative predicative pronouns — ended with a screen capture with the bit of dialogue

No, that’s more you. That’s not me.

which I converted to a piss-elegant pronoun version with That’s not I.

I haven’t found recent examples of this pronoun usage, not That’s not I, That’s not she/he, That’s not they, or (worse) That’s not we — NomPred we is extraordinarily unnatural — but I did find an example from the late 19th century, in a bit of didactic verse for schoolchildren:

Some folks long to die
But that’s not I nor you.

(where it’s repeated as the fourth line of morally instructive quatrains; this is the end of the first verse) — here conveying ‘but that’s not the way you and I are, but you and I aren’t like that’, and so indirectly conveying both ‘but that’s not the way I am, but I’m not like that’ and also ‘nor should that be the way you are, nor should you be like that’.

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after-SPARs

December 20, 2017

A SPAR message from reader Josh Bischof, with this bulletin from the internet:

From Ragan’s PR Daily “Ultimate grammar cheat sheet” by Brendan Brown on 12/6/17:  “6 grammar errors that can affect your story telling”

At issue is the interpretation of the PP = after + NP here, after a long day at school; the grammar tip presupposes that this PP is, in my terms, a SPAR, a subjectless predicative adjunct requiring a referent for the missing subject — I’ll refer to this as the Referent (for the SPAR) for short —  in which case general principles predict that the missing subject is the dog, which is both the nearest NP to the SPAR (the Nearest Rule) and the subject of the main clause the SPAR is adjunct to (the Subject Rule).

But PPs with the temporal P after don’t generally count as SPARs; only certain ones do — those with an NP object denoting a time span (as above) — and then those SPARs are subject to the complexities of interpretation that attend all SPARs, according to which factors of syntax and discourse context come into play (making the Subject Rule only a default and not a hard constraint).

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??That is aliens for you.

November 21, 2017

From Mike Pope on Facebook a few days ago, this excerpt from Ian Frazier’s “New York’s Majestic Passage in the Sky: Revamping the Bayonne Bridge to make space for megaships” in the 11/13/17 New Yorker:

(#1)

Mike wrote:

I can’t decide here whether this is weird. In the New Yorker, a sentence where I think I’d expect a contraction (“That’s xxx for you!”). Is this an editor bending the idiom to house style, or is this a not untypical variant?

Two things: the acceptability of the example (at best, it merits the stigma ?? of great dubiousness); and the circumstances that might have given rise to ??That is aliens for you (not at all clear, but advice on style and usage might be part of the story).

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The Jargon Matrix

April 12, 2017

Yesterday’s Dilbert takes us into a dark world of language, the Jargon Matrix:

(#1)

The Matrix, but with jargon from the world of technology businesses.

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It was correction killed the desire

March 19, 2017

Yesterday’s Bizarro:

(If you’re puzzled by the odd symbols in the cartoon — Dan Piraro says there are 2 in this strip — see this Page.)

First, the adverb bad in I want you so bad. Then some notes on correction as a social practice, especially in one-on-one interactions.

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Risible (faux-)commercial name

March 13, 2017

From a posting by Randy Murray to the Facebook page‎ “THE ERRORIST MOVEMENT – Correct grammar, with humour”, where he comments, “apostrophes mean so much”:

(#1)

At first glance, this ad would seem to fall into four big topic areas on this blog: dubious commercial names; It’s All Grammar; vulgar slang; and phallic play (in particular, word play). To which I add: the conventions on the form of hashtags, e-mail addresses, and web addresses (URLs). But first, I have to tell you that this particular Dick’s Pizza is a fabrication.

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The power of the Subject Rule

March 4, 2017

Over on ADS-L yesterday, Wilson Gray reported the following example from his reading:

(X) A nine-year-old boy is being hailed a hero for saving his mother’s life after being struck by lightning.

Merriment ensued on the mailing list over the boy’s impressve act, his toughness, and the like — all these responses indicating that readers interpreted (X) as asserting that the boy performed his heroic act after he had been struck by lightning.

The phrase after being struck by lightning is a SPAR (a Subjectless Predicative Adjunct Requiring a referent for the missing subject), and virtually everyone reading the phrase in the context above will take the required referent to be the referent of the subject in the main clause (a nine-year-old boy), rather than the referent of an NP closer to the SPAR: his mother’s life, an unlikely candidate, since that referent isn’t even a concrete object that could be struck by lightning; or, better, his mother, surely the NP the writer of (X) had in mind as supplying the required referent.

If the writer had absorbed the lessons of their school grammar, they would in fact have expected that the boy’s mother would be supplied as the required referent — because that school grammar tells you, very firmly, that a SPAR will (indeed must) pick up its referent from the NP nearest to it (the Nearest Rule). (That’s not the way school grammars, and books of usage advice, talk about these things — they speak of nouns and dangling modifiers — but here I’ve cleaned up the deep conceptual confusions in the traditional way of talking about these things.) Unfortunately, the empirically more adequate general principle isn’t a Nearest Rule, but a Subject Rule (and even that’s just a default, not an inviolable law of grammar).

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International Day of Persons with Disabilities

December 4, 2016

That was yesterday, December 3rd, using the rather awkward name recommended by the UN. And the Comics Kingdom (King Features) blog offered a set of comics for the occasion, most of which I didn’t find particularly funny, though I liked this Bizarro:

(If you’re puzzled by the odd symbols in the cartoon — Dan Piraro says there are 3 in this strip — see this Page.)

V cripple, Adj crippled, N cripple. The cartoon has the V cripple, which seems not to have (yet) picked up the opprobium piled on the Adj crippled, and (worse) the N cripple (and its slang short form crip).

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