A Standing Joke

The protagonist in Darren Bell’s strip Candorville is a writer. Hence, like me he’s somewhat of a grammar curmudgeon. Darren must figure that this lesson needs repeating, because I’ve seen this conversation before.

He’s absolutely correct, too.  Myself, I prefer to shop at grocery stores whose express lane says “15 or fewer items.”

Why Pronouns are Dangerous

Remember, folks, this site is not about politics. I ran into a sentence in a political context, though, that is such an excellent example of why I recommend against pronouns, that I have to quote it.

“The president believes in making sure that information is accurate before pushing it out as fact, when it certainly and clearly is not.”

What does that second “it” refer to? I predict that people will choose the antecedent based on their politics. And well they might. The sentence is not a good one, semantically speaking. It is hard to tell what the sentence literally means.

The rule with pronouns is that they should refer to the closest noun. This rule is so easy to break that ambiguity often results, and that’s the case here, and ambiguity is not something you want in a contentious environment.

I think this is what the speaker intended to mean (edited to remove ambiguity):

“The president believes in making sure that information is accurate before pushing [the information] out as fact, [especially] when the [so-called] information certainly and clearly is not accurate [to start with].”

Here’s what the grammar says:

“The president believes in making sure that information is accurate before pushing [the information] out as fact, when the [claimed] fact certainly and clearly is not accurate.”

I think That’s what was meant. Hard to tell. The second version is self-contradictory. Don’t jump all over me if you think I got it wrong, but feel free to put your own translation in the comments.

The rule: avoid pronouns. Say exactly what you mean.

 

Pet Peeve Day Three

My peevishness is aroused when people use transitive verbs as if they were intransitive, particularly “display” and “complete.”

Enough jargon. Here’s a definition by example:

When you display, you display something. When you complete, you complete something.

Back to jargon: That word “something” is called a direct object, and transitive verbs always have one. Intransitive verbs don’t have to have one: you can think, you can suppose, you can walk, you can appear or disappear (in a puff of smoke, perhaps), all without having to put something after them. That’s intransitive.

Here’s an article where they (The National Oceanography Centre in the UK) do it wrong in the headline, then do it right in the article (with a different verb, but you get the point):

The COMICS expedition completes

The COMICS team  The first COMICS expedition reached a conclusion just before Christmas, having collected a great data set on biological carbon in the Ocean’s twilight zone.

I suppose we grammar curmudgeons will have to get used to this solecism, especially the one with “display,” because computer instructions are so common. But when you press Enter, the window doesn’t display, it appears!

Harrumpf.

 

Pet Peeve of the Day: Prior

Priority is when something has to come first because of importance or its place in a series of steps. For example, “my wife has a prior claim on my affections.”

If all you mean is earlier of before, say that. Here’s an example of this misuse of prior. Two, actually:

Using our system, we detect anti-adblockers on 30.5% of the Alexa top-10K websites which is 5-52 times more than reported in prior literature. Unlike prior work which is limited to detecting visible reactions (e.g., warning messages) by anti-adblockers, our system can discover attempts to detect adblockers even when there is no visible reaction.

All they mean is earlier. I’m pretty sure these folks aren’t suggesting that the earlier literature and work are more important or ought to be read first.

Should I also mention their misuse of “which” when they should use “that”?  Nah, I already covered that.

Academics can be so pretentious. Harrumph.

Pet Peeves Make for Easy Posts

My pet peeve for today, class, it the phrase “glossary of terms.”

A glossary is always of terms, so adding “of terms” is unnecessary (read “redundant”). You may, however, use “terms” if you include a limiting adjective. You might say “glossary of unnecessary terms,” for instance.

I like the strip Pajama Diaries. Once a month, though, Terri Libenson makes me cringe with her once-a-month series of that title. Here’s the latest:

If you care to see the whole series, here’s a link to them all. I think.

And “glossary” all by itself is just fine. Harrumpf.

PS: Did you notice that I repeated myself in that sentence just ahead of the comic? I don’t normally do that (it’s redundant), but it was a good chance to use the phrase “once a month” both as a compound adjective, and not.

 

 

What we did Before TV and Radio

We read! (Okay, we talked, and played music, too.) And since the language itself was a large part of the entertainment, and we had the time to reflect on what we read, the writing could afford to be rather more complicated (or tedious) than we’re willing to tolerate in our faster-paced world.

When I started reading this comic, I figured I’d go get my copy of Milton and quote a few sentences as examples, but I see I don’t need to to give you the idea. Besides, I quoted some other elderly English several posts back.

Wanna try your hand at a sentence like that?

A Poem I Enjoy

Seems everybody is gloomy and pessimistic about the state of our culture. I first ran into this poem more than 50 years ago. (I suppose I ought to add a verse of my own, eh?) I ran into a couple variations of it; I think it dates to the early 1900’s. Okay, I thought about it. The first two lines are mine. (My grandad was president of the National Livestock Exchange.)

My granddad, with his livestock hogs,
Said things were going to the dogs;
His granddad, viewing earth’s worn cogs,
Said things were going to the dogs;
His granddad in his house of logs,
Said things were going to the dogs;
His granddad in the Flemish bogs.
Said things were going to the dogs;
His granddad in his old skin togs,
Said things were going to the dogs;
So here’s one thing I have to state –
Those dogs have had a good long wait!

So don’t give up!

Correct, but not Good

Many people write perfectly grammatical sentences that aren’t very good. Unnecessary words, modifiers out of place, that sort of thing. Here’s a (ahem) good example. Look at the item about the pencil:

Believe it or Not has long been a favorite of mine, and I don’t often find solecisms in it. This sentence has two!

Here’s the sentence:

The metal sleeve on a pencil, which holds the eraser, is called the ferrule

  • First, the comma before “which” is correct. But the remark is not an aside! They should have written “the metal sleeve on a pencil that holds the eraser…”
  • Also, they got things in the wrong order. The pencil engineering is more accurate if you say “The metal sleeve that holds the eraser on a pencil…”

Smoother, now, isn’t it?

Can Anything be More Important than Good Spelling?

Well, according to Perry Bible Fellowship, the Orca thinks not…

Unless the cartoonist is suggesting that reality is more important than spelling. On closer examination I see the Orca got the whole group of penguins, not just the lecturer. Hmm.

Two comics about spelling in one day! How can I resist???

By the way, don’t trust your spell checker a whole lot.

Why But?

English has a type of word called  a coordinating conjunction. Coordinating conjunctions go between two parts of a sentence, and they imply that the two parts are more or less equivalent, at least grammatically. You know coordinating conjunctions as “and” and “but.”

“But” is interesting because it connects the two things and implies some kind of opposition between the two things. For example,

I am sick, but I don’t think I’m contagious.

We think of contagiousness as going with sickness, so the sentence uses “but” to contradict this usual circumstance.

If I may digress a bit, I attended a sales class once in which the instructor said to avoid using but, because it’s negative.

It’s a fine encyclopedia, but it’s inexpensive.

should be

It’s a fine encyclopedia, and it’s inexpensive.

Hmm. Try getting rid of some buts and see how it feels. (It feels funny, but/and interesting.)

And that leads to my intended object lesson for this post, compliments of Curtis, which hinges on the kid ignoring the implied contradiction between corniness and the feeling of love in his dad’s statement, which definitely needs the but.

The lesson: Pay attention to your buts.