Archive for the ‘Usage advice’ Category

Grammarian Magazine

August 18, 2018

A 2012 playful creation of self-styled “Grammar Girl” Mignon Fogarty, reposted back on the 8th on the Our Bastard Language Facebook page:

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Yes, of course, it’s garmmra, not grammar, not about the grammar of English at all, but mostly about word choice, and then a lot of spelling and punctuation. (On garmmra, see my 2/22/12 posting “It’s All Grammar” and its successors.) Things like  the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language  and named frameworks of formal grammar(Transformational-Generative Grammar, Lexical Functional Grammar, Categorial Grammar, Construction Gramar, Generalized Phrase Structure Grammar, etc.) live in another world entirely.

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Motherhood and stupid PAP

July 29, 2018

Starting around the 9th, making the rounds on Facebook, a Daily Mail (U.K.) story from 2016, with a disturbing video under the heading (H):

This mother took her children’s phones and shot them to teach them a lesson!

 
(#1) You can watch the video here

(H) presents a series of complexities in interpretation, having to do with the reference of the two anaphoric pronouns them, with respect to two potential antecedent NPs: the determiner NP her children (marked as possessive) and the argument NP her children’s phones (here serving as the direct object argument of the verb took).

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Avoid needless menu words

July 18, 2018

I continue to explore menu and recipe uses of the Adj Swiss, outside of the conventionalized composites Swiss cheese, Swiss steak, and Swiss chard, all referring to things related in some way to Switzerland. That brought me to the “Signature Burgers” section of the menu at Kirk’s SteakBurgers in the Town & Country shopping center in Palo Alto:

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Ooh, the Swiss Pub Burger has no cheese at all listed in its ingredients; maybe it’s a pub burger in the Swiss style, or a burger of the sort you’d get at a Swiss pub, but either way, it looks like an appeal to Swissness. Maybe it’s the mushrooms; mushrooms are big in Switzerland.

But no, Swiss here is just a beheaded version of Swiss cheese. The burger does in fact have cheese — Swiss cheese — on it. Then why isn’t Swiss cheese in the ingredients list?

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Non sequiturs meet associative thinking

May 27, 2018

On a larger scale, the war between randomness and organization, in which Zippy fights on both sides. In today’s strip, he’s in his random mode, distributing non sequiturs from a polka-dot van:

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One thing doesn’t lead to another. Instead, things just pop up from out of nowhere, without rationale.

But at other times in Zippy’s world, everything leads to something else, in steps. On paths that might go in surprising directions, the way conversations tend to wander.

Either way, linearity bites.

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Discordance

May 25, 2018

Via Esha Neogy on the Our Bastard Language Facebook group, this Andertoon:

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Sentence 1 asserts that some text is grammatically active, but sentence 1 itself is a grammatically passive. Vice versa for sentence 2. Each sentence shows a discordance between a grammatical voice as the topic of a text and the grammatical voice of the sentence about that text. Not actually a contradiction, much less a paradoxical self-contradiction, but a language prank that flirts edgily with these possibilities.

What it is like is the discordance of the Stroop effect, where a color name and the color the name is presented in are at odds, as in this New Yorker cover by the artist Saul Steinberg:

(#2) In my 6/15/17 posting “For Saul Steinberg”, a discussion of the effect

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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 smartphones 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:

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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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