Monthly Archives: April 2013

Could they be him?

Geoffrey Pullum brings us news of a bra that delivers electric shocks to would-be rapists – or, more to the point, he brings us news that the BBC said this about it:

So how can the wearer be sure they won’t be on the receiving end of a hefty electric jolt?

That’s a singular ‘they’ where a ‘she’ would have done the job. But isn’t the point of singular ‘they’ that it’s gender-neutral?

Its best-known use is for gender neutrality, but, as Pullum says, it “also occurs in cases of reference to an arbitrary individual whose identity is not fixed” – whether gender is known or not.

I have a scrap of evidence to support this: a conversation I had with two friends, who I’ll call Henry and Jen, years ago at university.

Jen had announced that there was a new guy she was keen on. She was being faux-cagey about who, but was willing to be drawn into a twenty-questions sort of thing. Henry led this, as I was pretty sure I knew who the guy was, although I kept that to myself.

To start with, Henry used the generic ‘they’: do they live in this building, were they at that party, and so on. He could have used ‘he’, as the mystery man was definitely male, but he didn’t. Until, after a while, he did switch: is he on this course, does he do that sport, and so on.

When I noticed that switch, I knew that Henry now had someone specific firmly in mind. He – unconsciously, I’m sure – used ‘they’ to blindly fish for information and then ‘he’ to confidently test his theory.

The Telegraph’s incompetent grammar test

The Telegraph has a grammar test compiled by Nevile Gwynne. Some of the questions are on the parts of speech, while others are really questions about usage. Gwynne takes a prescriptivist view that some might call traditional and others might call unencumbered by evidence and designed to produce language that’s too formal and stilted to be effective.

Tom Chivers criticises this aspect of the test; I agree.

But my beef is with question 11, which gives us a sentence and three possible conclusions to choose from:

“I should like to introduce you to my sister Amanda, who lives in New York, to my brother Mark who doesn’t, and to my only other sibling, Evelyn.”

  • Evelyn is male
  • Evelyn is female
  • Impossible to know from the wording of the sentence whether Evelyn is male or female.

According to Gwynne, the correct answer is male:

The absence of a comma before “who doesn’t” makes that clause part of the definition of Mark, implying that there are other brothers. Try reading the sentence with the word “Mark” omitted.

This analysis is wrong.

We are in the territory of restrictive and non-restrictive clauses. Restrictive clauses give defining pieces of information and are not set off with commas, while non-restrictive clauses give additional, inessential pieces of information and are set off by commas.

Compare “the man who is eating cheese is guilty” (singling out the cheese-eating man as the guilty one, implying that there are other men in the frame) and “the man, who is eating cheese, is guilty” (saying that the only man in the frame is guilty and adding as an aside that he’s eating cheese).

But Gwynne misidentifies his own clauses.

In “my sister Amanda, who lives in New York”, “Amanda” is restrictive, implying that there are other sisters; “who lives in New York” is non-restrictive, and could be omitted without changing the rest of the meaning.

In “my brother Mark who doesn’t [live in New York]”, “Mark” is restrictive, implying that there are other brothers; “who doesn’t” is also restrictive, implying that there are other brothers called Mark. I don’t know what the parents were thinking.

So Gwynne has misapplied the conventions governing restrictive clauses.

But, more importantly, this is the kind of absurdity that arises when you rely on subtleties of grammar and punctuation to convey important differences in meaning. People – including people who publish grammar books and tout their services as grammar teachers – are likely to get it wrong and misunderstand.

Anyone uttering a sentence like the above, with whatever punctuation and whatever meaning in mind, is being silly.


Update: There has been a “correction”. Gwynne accepts that the original sentence didn’t rule out other brothers called Mark. The new version reads:

I should like to introduce you to my sister Amanda, who lives in New York, to Mark, my brother who doesn’t, and to my only other sibling, Evelyn.

And the new justification for Evelyn’s being male is:

The absence of a comma before “who doesn’t” makes that clause part of the definition of “Mark, my brother”, implying that there are other brothers. A comma after the words “my brother” would mean that there was only one brother.

It’s still wrong.

I agree that “Mark, my brother who doesn’t” implies that he’s not the only brother. But, using the same approach to commas and restrictive clauses, “my sister Amanda” still implies that she’s not the only sister. So poor Evelyn’s sex is still unknowable.

Adding a comma after “sister” would fix the sentence:

I should like to introduce you to my sister, Amanda, who lives in New York, to Mark, my brother who doesn’t, and to my only other sibling, Evelyn.

Although it would still be too ponderous and intricately self-satisfied to count as an effective piece of communication.


Update 2: See also my unbelievably positive review of Gwynne’s book.

Pullum vs Orwell on clichés

I agree with Geoffrey Pullum that George Orwell’s essay ‘Politics and the English Language’ is “hugely overrated”. Being a great writer doesn’t necessarily make you good at explaining the difference between good and bad prose. There are some fair points in P&EL, but much of the analysis is ham-fisted (I rate it higher than Pullum does, but that’s not saying much). And the prose style itself is not up to Orwell’s usual standard.

But Pullum’s main argument mischaracterises one of Orwell’s recommendations: “Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.”

Pullum takes this to mean: “In effect, he wants us to collaborate in getting rid of the most widely-used phrases in the language.” He defines a phrase as any two-word sequence, and asks what would happen were we to get rid of the commonest one. The result is that the second-commonest phrase would become the commonest. So we get rid of that too. And so on… until eventually we can only use one-word sentences.

The logic is sound, but the interpretation of Orwell is unfair. Pullum has taken “figure of speech” far too broadly.

The commonest two-word phrases are not ones like ‘Achilles’ heel’, ‘acid test’ or ‘objective consideration’ (three of Orwell’s peeves) but ones like ‘and the’, ‘in a’ and ‘it is’. People don’t notice, let alone complain about, the prevalence of such phrases – because the words they’re composed of are themselves so very common.

The phrases Orwell dislikes are ones that are common enough to be (over)familiar but distinctive enough to stand out. Though he doesn’t use the word, he means clichés. So I suggest this definition instead for his dislike: phrases that are disproportionately common relative to the commonness of their constituent words. If an alliance of peevers could somehow stamp these out (by reducing their frequency to proportionate levels, not by abolishing them), the effect on language would nowhere near as disastrous as Pullum’s scenario.

But, despite this pedantic quibble, Pullum’s overall gist is right. The difference between a common figure of speech that’s stale and one that’s handy is subjective. No measure of frequency can tell us when familiarity will breed contempt.

I like a “fresh, arresting phrase” as much as Orwell. Who doesn’t? But trying to create such a thing is risky. In modern British politics, our leaders have recently given us the “big society” (David Cameron), the “squeezed middle” (Ed Miliband) and “alarm-clock Britain” (Nick Clegg). The clumsiness of these phrases is made all the more striking by their novelty.

The circumlocution of the ineffable: elegant variation and dark matter

Scientists investigating dark matter may have shed light on a contentious mystery.

‘Elegant variation’ is when a writer avoids repeating a word or phrase by substituting synonyms. The aim may be to avoid clunky repetition but the effect is more likely to be self-conscious ornateness and potential confusion as the reader tries to keep up with the changes.

While repetition can be awkward, the best solution is usually pronouns. And repetition can be powerful. Here’s an elegantly varied version of Churchill, which lacks a certain something:

We shall fight on the beaches, we shall clash on the landing grounds, we shall do battle in the fields and in the streets, we shall engage in combat in the hills; we shall never surrender.

The people most tempted by elegant variation are journalists. A journalist at the Liverpool Echo once notoriously wrote “popular orange vegetables” to avoid repeating “carrots”, and one at the Boston Transcript once followed “banana” with “elongated yellow fruit”.

But why particularly journalists? There are two theories: one is that their profession is rife with “second-rate writers”, as Henry Fowler put it, who are “intent rather on expressing themselves prettily than on conveying their meaning clearly”, and “whose notions of style are based on a few misleading rules of thumb”.

The second theory is more charitable: that journalists are trying to cram as much information as possible into limited space. Using terms such as “the French President”, “the former Mayor of Tulle”, “the socialist tax-raiser” and “the unpopular incumbent” to identify François Hollande on separate mentions across a few paragraphs of a story gives the reader more facts about him without using precious words in directly stating these facts.

I have my doubts about the second theory (its approach risks confusing readers who don’t already know these facts, while those who do know them don’t need them), but there it is.

And there the debate has stood, until scientists searching for dark matter produced a fascinating finding. (Dark matter is thought to make up most of the mass of the universe but has thus far proved impossible to detect, so incredibly little is known about it.)

Their work was covered by a piece on the BBC News website. This presents ideal test conditions: it’s online, so a lack of column inches isn’t a factor, and because so little is known about dark matter, squeezing in extra facts isn’t a factor either. According to the second theory, there would be no need for elegant variation, while the first theory would predict empty rhetorical flourishes in place of the term “dark matter”.

The following observations were made:

… dark matter … this enigmatic cosmic constituent … the elusive particles … this mysterious component …