Monthly Archives: May 2012

How not to show off

Ryan Bloom has written for the New Yorker about descriptivism and prescriptivism. The piece makes a few fair points but its overall argument is slightly handicapped by his not knowing what descriptivism and prescriptivism are. There have been fine responses from Ben Zimmer and Nancy Friedman.

I want to give some attention to this passage of Bloom’s:

It [following the rules] does make a difference, at least sometimes. In order to determine when those times are, the question must be asked: For whom are you writing? Take that last sentence, for example. … Its ostentatious structure and secret message says, “I am one of you.” It also says even sneakier things like “I’m educated, an authority,” and “You can trust me about language usage.” The average New Yorker reader recognizes the effort the sentence exerts to maintain grammatical correctness, and in recognizing this, the reader bonds with the writer.

This, even if it might be a bit tongue-in-cheek, suggests a writer with supreme grammatical confidence. So let’s look again at his prize sentence:

In order to determine when those times are, the question must be asked: For whom are you writing?

How does that sound to you? I don’t mean the “for whom”; that’s fine in the context of a more formal register. I mean the first part.

To me it sounds clunky. But worse, the reason for its clunkiness is its grammatical weakness.

Here’s section 5.107 of the Chicago Manual of Style (16th edition), on dangling infinitives, written by Bryan Garner:

An infinitive phrase can be used, often loosely, to modify a verb—in which case there must be an express or implied logical subject in the sentence. If there is none, then the sentence may be confusing. For example, in to repair your car properly, it must be sent to a mechanic, the infinitive repair does not have a logical subject; the infinitive phrase to repair your car is left dangling. But if the sentence is rewritten as to repair your car properly, you must take it to a mechanic, the logical subject is you.

Bloom has dangled his infinitive, a subjectless “to determine” that leads us nowhere. The problem is easy to fix. For instance:

In order to determine when those times are, you must ask the question: For whom are you writing?

In order for those times to be determined, the question must be asked: For whom are you writing?

They vary in their levels of pomp (and in specificity about who’s asking the question), but in both of them the symmetry and flow are improved.

You might hesitate to follow Garner and Chicago in endorsing an absolute ‘thou shalt never dangle an infinitive’ decree. But here, this aspect of Bloom’s sentence is the reason it clunks so. He wanted an “ostentatious structure” but his reach exceeded his grasp. The “effort the sentence exerts to maintain grammatical correctness” is all in vain.

Unleash your inner bureaucrat

Dense, convoluted bureaucratic waffle is everywhere these days. I do what I can to humanise it when it comes across my desk for editing, but a nice little exercise is to try going the other way.

I got the idea from George Orwell, who turned this lovely verse from Ecclesiastes:

I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

into this turgid horror of verbiage:

Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.

There is definitely a game in this.

Here’s a powerful, well-known quote that I’ve rendered into a shambling herd of zombie polysyllables:

In relation to the decision regarding the likelihood and location of combat operations, I can today announce proposals for a national rollout of military activities going forward such that both organised and irregular domestic defensive units will be situated so as to repel coastal incursions; sites currently designated for aeronautical disembarkment will be repurposed for the engagement of hostile forces; agricultural production areas and urban thoroughfares will see confrontation implementation procedures; high-altitude zones have been earmarked for the deployment and utilisation of martial resources; under no eventuality is a strategic shift towards a capitulatory stance envisaged.

Can you guess the original? Yes, of course you can.

Now try your own. Pick a famous piece of language and bureaucratise the life out of it.

Splicing with danger

Last week a comma splice almost got me into trouble at work.

A comma splice is when you link two independent clauses with a comma, creating a run-on sentence. For instance:

  • My holiday in Greece was nice, I’m going to go back next year.

Comma splices are often frowned upon by the people who specialise in frowning upon such things. They argue that these commas should be replaced with full stops or semicolons or have coordinating conjunctions added:

  • My holiday in Greece was nice; I’m going to go back next year.
  • My holiday in Greece was nice. I’m going to go back next year.
  • My holiday in Greece was nice, so I’m going to go back next year.

But the fact is that comma splices are commonly used. They have an informal air to them, but in a lot of contexts that’s OK and most readers won’t bat an eyelid.

Sometimes, though, they can get you into trouble.

I’d been proofreading a brochure and there’d been a bit of back-and-forth between the client, who wanted the word ‘through’ taken out of a sentence, and me, who wanted it kept in. The project manager, very sensibly wanting to draw a line and get the thing off to press, emailed the client:

Just had a chat with Tom about ‘through’ and he kept it in on purpose as he feels it reads better, he’s the editor so when it comes to tone of voice or copy style what he says goes.

She meant that to be a vote of confidence in me (which was nice) and an assertion of our standard working processes. But with the comma splice, it could easily have looked as if she were reporting a bit of arrogant foot-stamping on my part. I wish she’d started a new sentence there.

Luckily, no explosions resulted.