Monthly Archives: September 2012

Not knowing when to stop

Stan Carey’s post about comma splices (some people insist they’re incorrect, and they can cause problems, but often they’re fine) reminded of my own favourite:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

The rhythm is perfect, with the flow of the sentence making the paradox all the more striking for the gentleness of its delivery.

Consider how bad these alternatives would have been:

  • It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.
  • It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.
  • It was the best of times and it was the worst of times.
  • It was the best of times but it was the worst of times.
  • It was the best of times, and yet it was the worst of times.

The only one there that avoids clumsiness is the one with the full stop, but it still saps the strength of the contrast.

The original really is a perfect splice.

There’s only one problem: this isn’t the first sentence of A Tale of Two Cities. Sadly, Dickens got carried away and tried for a grander effect:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

Oh, Charles.

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Trying to be funny

My Gilbert and Sullivan rip-off has got my blog a bit more attention than usual, which is nice. But I’m worried that it may have raised expectations. You see, I don’t blog very much, and when I do, it’s mostly not comedy (and when I do comedy, it’s mostly not very funny).

So, just as a token offering until I can think of something else, here’s a round-up of my previous efforts at language- and editing-related humour:

Also, I’d like to take this opportunity to apologise to the people who are coming here having googled amateur model. I’m sure we’re equally disappointed.

The uncommonly bad language of Mr Julian Assange

Yesterday, after the fatal bombing of the US embassy in Libya, WikiLeaks tweeted:

By the US accepting the UK siege on the Ecuadorian embassy in London it gave tacit approval for attacks on embassies around the world.

This tweet was later deleted (screengrab here), and these went up instead:

By the US accepting the UK threat to storm the Ecuadorian embassy in London it helped to normalize attacks on embassies.

By the UK threatening to breach the Ecuadorian embassy in London it helped to normalize attacks on embassies, in general. It must retract.

We can all make up our own minds about the politics and morality of this. But I’m running a language blog here, so my beef is with the explanation that followed:

We have deleted and rephrased a previous tweet with the word ‘tacit’ in it, since the word is rare and was being misinterpreted.

The problem with this is that the word ‘misinterpreted’ is even rarer than the word ‘tacit’, as this Google Books Ngram shows:

Likewise for ‘misinterpret’ in the present tense. Oh, and ‘normalize’:

So the replacement tweets were, logically, even more incomprehensible than the original.

Choosing which readers to annoy

Oliver Kamm (Times, 1 September 2012; no link) writes:

It has long troubled me that using “man” as a generic term or “he” as a generic rather than a personal pronoun is liable to be interpreted as a political statement against sexual equality.

That isn’t the editorial opinion of The Times… But the use of “gender-neutral language”, prescribed by many publishers and other institutions, is the cause of some serious offences against English style.

I could tolerate these, while not overlooking them, if I thought that a strict disavowal of purportedly sexist language helped eradicate discrimination.

I know of no evidence that it does, however, and it is inherently unlikely that it should.

There is no reason that the use of “man” as a generic term should inculcate the idea that women are inferior, any more than using “goose” as a generic term implies the exclusion of ganders.

I’m not going to get into the politics of gender-neutral language, nor into a debate about how far language can influence people’s views. I just want to make a pragmatic point.

One thing that language definitely does influence is the way that the reader sees the writer. Kamm provides the argument himself: whether he or anyone else likes it or not, “using ‘man’ as a generic term or ‘he’ as a generic rather than a personal pronoun is liable to be interpreted as a political statement against sexual equality”.

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The very model of an amateur grammarian

(With apologies to Gilbert and Sullivan)

I am the very model of an amateur grammarian
I have a little knowledge and I am authoritarian
But I make no apology for being doctrinarian
We must not plummet to the verbal depths of the barbarian

I’d sooner break my heart in two than sunder an infinitive
And I’d disown my closest family within a minute if
They dared to place a preposition at a sentence terminus
Or sully the Queen’s English with neologisms verminous

I know that ‘soon’ and not ‘right now’ is the true sense of ‘presently’
I’m happy to correct you and I do it oh so pleasantly
I’m not a grammar Nazi; I’m just a linguistic Aryan
I am the very model of an amateur grammarian

I’m sure people appreciate my pointing out their grammar gaffes
And sorting out their sentences and crossing out their paragraphs
When you crusade for good English, it’s not all doom and gloom you sow
The secret of success is: it’s not who you know; it’s whom you know

The standards of our language are declining almost every day
Down from a peak in 18– or 19– I think – well, anyway
Pop music, TV, blogs and texting are inflicting ravages
Upon English and unchecked, this will turn us into savages

I fear that sloppy language is a sign of immorality
For breaking rules of grammar is akin to criminality
So curse those trendy linguists, lexicographers and anyone
Who shuns the model English of the amateur grammarian

Conjunctions at the openings of sentences are sickening
I wish that the decline of the subjunctive were not quickening
And that more people knew the proper meaning of ‘anticipate’
Of ‘fulsome’ and ‘enormity’, ‘fortuitous’ and ‘decimate’

I learned these rules at school and of correctness they’re my surety
I cling to them for safety despite having reached maturity
Some say that language changes, but good English is immutable
And so much common usage now is deeply disreputable

My pedantry’s demanding but I try not to feel bitter at
The fact that everyone I meet is borderline illiterate
When all around are wrong then I am proud to be contrarian
I am the very model of an amateur grammarian