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Q. Pheevr
19 Juli 2009 @ 17:12

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:

  1. People who write very well sometimes say silly things when they try to advise others on how to write well.
  2. People who give advice on writing do not always follow it.
  3. 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.

[Dorothy L. Sayers]

“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.

Q. Pheevr
28 Juni 2009 @ 13:00

Statue of Humpty Dumpty by Kimber Fiebiger in Mesa, AZ

...and writing for the Toronto Star under the pseudonym Bob Martin:

There will be many detractors heckling you from the road side as you plod your way to Broadway. Allow yourself the satisfaction of proving them wrong. The best way to do this is by winning a brace of Tony awards. One Tony might be given out of pity, or two because the show got lucky in certain categories, but winning a brace of Tonys is an unequivocal statement of success and should be celebrated as such.

I define a "brace" as more than four.

That's a great deal to make one word mean; to be precise, it's more than twice as much as the word brace means for the rest of us poor slobs. It must be fun to be Bob Martin—imagine reading, in some old novel or other, about two gentlemen fighting a duel with a brace of pistols, and trying to picture how they managed to hold them all. And what a feast a brace of pheasants would make!

Impenetrability! That's what I say.

Q. Pheevr
28 Juni 2009 @ 12:15

...and tell sad stories about the King of Pop. That's certainly what CBC Radio's been doing for the past couple of days, anyway. (Word is they no longer have funding for chairs over there.)

Oddly enough, I, too, have a sad story about Michael Jackson to tell. I've never been interested in the type of music he made, and I didn't pay particular attention to the disturbing tales of his personal conduct, so it's not really a story about the man himself, and it's not a long story, but I think it's worth telling.

When I was in high school, I rode the school bus every day; my school was too far away to walk to, and I never did learn to drive (and even if I had, the family car would have been needed elsewhere anyway). The bus driver was a black woman named Terri (or Terry, or Teri—it feels odd that I don't know how to spell her name, but I never did have occasion to see it written down). Although she was a parent, she was not very much older than her high-school passengers, and she would chat with those of us who were sitting near the front of the bus; I didn't say much, but I enjoyed listening, and felt a pleasant and unexpected sense of continuity between high school and adulthood in these conversations. Anyway, Terri would sometimes tell us about her young son, and once or twice even brought him on board with her. One time, she told us about something he had said about his aspirations for the future: "When I grow up," he had announced, "I want to be white, like Michael Jackson."

I'm not going to blither about Role Models here, and I neither know nor care whether Jackson's gradual albinification was the result of vitiligo or cosmetic procedures or some combination of the two. I'm also not going to pontificate about the cultural significance and biological arbitrariness of racial categories; there are many interesting things to be said about them that I'm really not well equipped to say. But this story is the one thing I will always remember about Michael Jackson, even if it's not exactly about him.

Q. Pheevr
16 Maj 2009 @ 21:31

Here (scanned from the Toronto Star) is a frame from a TV ad by the Conservative Party, which attacks the Liberal Party leader, Michael Ignatieff, for running attack ads: (Note in particular the inset showing part of a Liberal ad with an image of the Conservative Party leader, Stephen Harper.) This is an example of:

cognitive dissonance
why voter turnout is so low in Canadian federal elections
Q. Pheevr

A few of you may recall from a couple of weeks ago a certain brouhaha, a bit of a to-do, about how Amazon.com suddenly failed to display various works related to lesbians and gays in search results. One of the big questions, of course, was whether it would be plausible as well as charitable to attribute this "glitch" to incompetence rather than malice (albeit incompetence nudged in one particular direction by general societal levels of homophobia).

I have no original ideas to contribute to the debate, but I thought I'd share, belatedly, one piece of circumstantial evidence that may or may not reflect on the plausibility of the incompetence hypothesis. I was recently searching on Amazon for P. G. Wodehouse's memoir Over Seventy, which, alas, appears to be out of print. Amazon does have a page for Over Seventy, with links to people selling used copies starting from usd$202.76 (too rich for my blood). In order to help its customers find what they are looking for, Amazon invites browsers to supply products with informative tags. No one has yet tagged Over Seventy, but that's okay, because Amazon's software has helpfully come up with some speculation under the heading "Suggested Tags from Similar Products." Here are some of the tags it thinks may apply to this work of autobiography by the creator of Bertie Wooster and his man Jeeves:

  • dystopia
  • african literature
  • post-apocalyptic
  • chick lit

I am not sure who is more likely to be disappointed here, aficionados of Wodehouse or fans of dystopian post-apocalyptic African chick-lit.

Q. Pheevr
05 April 2009 @ 18:06

"Abhorrent" is the word that President Barack Obama used to describe the new Afghan law that denies women certain extremely basic rights, such as the right to leave their houses on a whim, or the right to decline to have sex with their husbands. This law would, in effect, place all Afghan women under a particularly malign form of house arrest in which their captors would be permitted to rape them with impunity.

I have to agree with Obama here; abhorrent is definitely the word for it. And while we're on the subject of abhorrent laws, it is perhaps worth noting that in many states in Obama's own country, spousal rape has been outlawed only quite recently—1993 in the case of North Carolina, to take one example. Even now that spousal rape is illegal throughout the United States, it is still the case in many states that a woman who has been sexually assaulted by her husband has less recourse to legal protection than one who has been assaulted by a stranger. In some cases, the period during which such an assault can be reported is shorter; in some, a narrower range of unwanted sexual contact is prohibited; in some, the standard for demonstrating that force was used is stricter.

I think that this, too, is abhorrent. I suppose the idea behind these laws is that a husband has some cause to expect that his wife will consent to have sex with him—but then surely a wife has some right to expect that her husband will not assault her, and isn't this a rather more important right? And, of course, these laws are different from the Afghan law in their gender-neutral reference to spouses—in general, they give a wife just as much latitude to sexually assault her husband as they give him to assault her. But this is not, I think, the sort of equality that does anyone any good.

Abhorrent is the only word for it. I hope that with all the moral outrage going around, there's enough there to fix more than just the Afghan law.

Q. Pheevr
01 April 2009 @ 15:46

It is an ancient and noble tradition, among certain newspapers, to mark the first day of April by sneaking a fanciful work of fiction into their otherwise reliable pages. One of my favourite examples of the genre is the Guardian's classic 1977 article on the island nation of San Seriffe (comprising the islands of Upper and Lower Caisse, and ruled by the dictatorial General Pica).

But what do you do if you're in the satire business, and such spoof articles are your regular stock in trade? Well, if you're The Onion, what you do is put together an April Fool's Day issue that consists entirely of sober, factual reporting about the real events of the day. It's quite impressive, really—not just as a brilliant meta-prank, but as actual journalism. If The Onion did this every day, we wouldn't need the New York Times.

Nuværende humør: impressedimpressed
Q. Pheevr
26 Marts 2009 @ 10:45

Farhad Manjoo, reviewing some new Web browsers in the New York Times, has the following to say about the latest version of Microsoft's Internet Explorer:

It's speedy, it seems inured to crashes, and not only does it match its rivals' features — in some cases, I.E. beats them.

I suppose it would be inured to crashes by now; the question is, should the user adopt the same attitude? Or might the user, perhaps, be justified in having somewhat higher expectations?

The online Times, by the way, has a handy new feature that allows one to look up any word that appears in it; selecting a word brings up a little question mark icon that, when clicked, opens the American Hertitage Dictionary's definition. Here's what you get when you look up inure:

To habituate to something undesirable, especially by prolonged subjection; accustom: "Though the food became no more palatable, he soon became sufficiently inured to it" (John Barth).
Nuværende humør: amusedamused
Q. Pheevr
20 December 2008 @ 21:52

Since I intend to get on a plane tomorrow, I thought I'd see what my daily newspaper (online edition) had to say about what the weather has in store for us, which turned out to include the following sentence:

There are just 11 days left in 2008, but the most precipitous year on record is far from over.

I'm not sure I would—or could—have used "most precipitous" to mean 'having the most precipitation'; on the other hand, I can't think of a good concise alternative, either. ("Wettest" springs to mind, but that might be taken as referring only to rain, rather than to rain and snow and sleet and hail and whatever else has been dropping out of the sky on us over the last twelve months.)

Update: They've changed "most precipitous" to "soggiest."

Nuværende humør: gloomyprecipitous?
Q. Pheevr
04 November 2008 @ 23:04

I've been listening to CBC Radio 1 and watching the returns on the New York Times' Web site. The radio just said that Obama is now officially believed to have won, and played some audio of cheering crowds in Chicago... and then as I listened, I realized that not all the cheers were coming from the radio. People are cheering in the streets here in Toronto.

Q. Pheevr
04 November 2008 @ 16:03

If you are a citizen of the United States of America, you have a little time left to...


Me, I mailed in my absentee ballot on October 14—the same day as the Canadian federal election. This time around, I voted with a great deal of hope and enthusiasm, especially compared to the grim determination of four years ago. This time, I think my vote will make a difference: the race is close in the state where my ballot will be counted. This time, I think my candidate has a better chance of winning. (The Comic Strip of Record has already called the election in his favour.) This time, my candidate is actually... inspiring. Barack Obama is not just the better choice; he's a really good choice. He's smart and thoughtful and principled. He both gives and commands respect. He will remind people in the United States that their government works for them, and he will remind people in other countries that the United States can be a good ally. He is part of the fulfillment of the dream of the civil rights movement. I know he won't be perfect, and he'll probably do a few things I won't agree with, but I think he's the best presidential candidate I've ever voted for, and I really hope he wins.

Q. Pheevr
14 Oktober 2008 @ 08:54

If you're Canadian, this would be a good time to…


Q. Pheevr
12 Oktober 2008 @ 12:32

A message with the following subject line showed up in two of my inboxen this morning:

FELICITATION VOUS AVEZ GAGNE LA SOMME DE 150.000 EURO (ceci n'est pas un spam)

Now, I would really prefer it if René Magritte would stop sending me this kind of message altogether. L'Office québécois de la langue française, on the other hand, would simply like him to use their 1997 coinage pourriel instead of the English spam. Pourriel has the distinction of being a blend (mot-valise, or portmanteau word, sensu Dumpty) formed from another blend: pourriel is a blend of poubelle and courriel, the latter being itself a contracted form of courrier électronique. The OQLF further instructs us, in the relevant entries in the Grand dictionnaire terminologique, that courriel, unlike électronique, is to be spelled with no acute accent on the e (because French words just aren't supposed to end in -iél, you see), and that the source of pourriel is poubelle, not pourri or pourriture, "comme certains le laissent croire." Put that in your pipe and smoke it.