Anyone who has paid much attention to the Language Log’s occasional examinations of prescriptivism and style manuals and such will have noticed a few truisms that come up again and again:
- People who write very well sometimes say silly things when they try to advise others on how to write well.
- People who give advice on writing do not always follow it.
- Geoff Pullum hates The Elements of Style with the sort of passionate fury ordinary people tend to reserve for terrorists, dictators, and members of rival sports teams.
I have nothing to add to the discussion on point three. I do, however, want to share some further evidence touching on points one and two, from one of my favourite authors.
Dorothy L. Sayers was, of course, the author of some of the most beautifully written detective fiction in the English language. Less famously, though, she was also the author of a remarkable collection of essays called Unpopular Opinions, published in 1946. The book is divided into three sections: Theological, Political, and Critical. The Critical section consists entirely of mock-serious “Studies in Sherlock Holmes,” which are essential reading for anyone interested in the early history of the territory now known as Fandom. The Political section includes the classic feminist essay “Are Women Human?” (a question that was taken up many years later by Catharine MacKinnon). But the essay I’d like to look at here is “The English Language,” which, perhaps tellingly, appears in the Political section as well.
“The English Language” is a remarkable mix of good sound sense, silly nonsense, and appalling jingoism. Sayers, as one might expect, is too well-informed to fall for certain familiar forms of prescriptivist poppycock:
There are pedants, God mend their ears, who, having read some cheap-jack, rule-of-thumb, cramp-wit folly in a sixpenny text-book,1 would like to break our free idiom to the bit of an alien fashion. These are not the Latinists (who know better), but the Latinisers; they remember the Latin bones of language, and will have them dry bones. These are the pinching misers, who will hoard their gold, but will not put it out to gain. Of such are the dreary little men who write to the papers protesting—in the teeth of Chaucer, Bacon, Spenser, Shakespeare, Jonson, the English Bible, Milton, Burton, Congreve, Swift, Burke, Peacock, Ruskin, Arnold and the whole tradition of English letters—that a sentence must not end with a preposition. This is no matter of syntax; it is a matter of idiom; and the freedom to handle our prepositions is among the most glorious in our charter of liberties.
Sayers is presumably not alluding here to the Magna Carta Libertatum, which was, after all, written in Latin; perhaps there's something about prepositions in the English Bill of Rights (1689). In any case, one can sense a strong nationalist undercurrent here. A couple of pages earlier, Sayers’s nationalism is no mere undercurrent:
It is well, then, to know what we mean and to learn how to say it in English. And by English I mean English, and not any other tongue. In a day when the British Broadcasting Corporation imports its language committee from Ireland and Scotland, and when Fleet Street swarms with Scots, Irish, and Americans, it is well to remember that all these persons are foreigners; that the Scots and the Irish were so from the beginning and that the Americans have become so; that they speak our language as foreigners; and that while it is childlike and charming in us to enjoy their sing-song speech and their quaint foreign barbarisms, to imitate these things is childishness and folly.
Sayers does not mention Canadians at all; perhaps she felt that they had not yet become foreigners as the Americans had. The Welsh are another interesting omission. And I really don’t know precisely what she means when she says that the Americans (et al.) “speak our language as foreigners.” Did she think that the American language had become a separate language from the English language? But under that view, surely Americans don’t generally go around speaking English as a foreign language; they speak American as their native language, with all its “quaint foreign barbarisms.”
In addition to her prejudices, Sayers had her peeves. She insists, adamantly and at length, on the semantic distinction between will and shall, and laments that “Even so correct and elegant a writer as Mr. Robert Graves is losing his English ear and writing: ‘I would like to,’ and ‘I would prefer to.’” (Her forcefulness on this point is perhaps that of a committed partisan fighting a hopeless battle.) I confess to having felt a certain thrill when I learned that Sayers shared one of my peeves; she objects to the expression meteoric rise on the grounds that “a meteor cannot rise, and in fact is a meteor only in virtue of its fall.” (I think I’m entitled to this peeve; after all, I don’t claim that meteoric rise is bad grammar, but only that it is bad astronomy, as well as a cliché.)
Sayers also inveighs against “that vile fellow the hanging participle, who, if he would but hang all his employers, would perform the one useful act of his mean existence.” She offers us the following example, together with her perhaps hyperbolically bewildered reaction to it:
“And though one might avoid the margins his lobby was too tiny not to step on the paint when crossing it.”
Who stepped on the paint? The lobby? Who crossed? The lobby? Crossed what? Did the lobby, in an access of religious fervour, cross itself?2
The thing is, I don’t think this really is an example of a hanging participle at all. Sayers purports to be confused first about the subject of to step, which is an infinitive, not a participle, and then about the subject of crossing, which is a participle, but not a hanging one. The participial clause when crossing it is correctly attached to the clause it modifies, namely not to step on the paint, and the two clauses are naturally interpreted as having the same subject. Who that subject may be is perhaps less obvious, but it is clearly intended to be the arbitrary or generic null subject (called PROarb in some modern theoretical syntactic frameworks), which is more or less equivalent to the generic pronoun one, as in Sayers's proposed rewording: “the lobby, being small, had been painted all over, so that one could not cross it without stepping on the paint.” I grant that the original sentence is an ungainly one, but it is not well chosen as an illustration of “that vile fellow the hanging participle.”
I have a better example for you. This is from page 115 of a mystery novel called The Five Red Herrings, by one of my favourite authors:
Being, however, of the female sex, the prohibition immediately aroused in her a strong spirit of inquiry [...].
Who was of the female sex? The prohibition?
To be entirely fair, the sentence quoted above is not directly attributable to the author herself, or even to her eloquent omniscient narrator; it is part of a speech made by Mervyn Bunter to his employer, Lord Peter Wimsey. Sayers certainly did, on occasion, deliberately put malapropisms into the mouths of her characters (especially if they were meant to be Scottish, Irish, or American), but Bunter is always the epitome of the gentleman’s gentleman, and I doubt that she would play such a trick on him. Furthermore, I cannot believe that if Sayers had intentionally made Bunter hang this participle, she would have allowed it to pass unremarked by both Lord Peter and the narrator.
Finally, as long as we are taking pot-shots at the nodding Homer, I may as well show you this charming example of overnegation, from page 115 of Have His Carcase:3
No theory is too silly to be dismissed without investigation.
Words to live by!
1. Does this turn of phrase remind you of anyone?
2. In case you were wondering, the word access here is not an error (on Sayers's part or mine) for excess; rather, Sayers used it in the sense given by the OED as “11. An outburst; a sudden fit of anger or other passion. (Modern, after Fr. accès.)”
3. Sayers evidently had particular trouble with hundred-and-fifteenth pages.