Life as a Literalist – Part 1 (since this will probably become a series)
An article in The Guardian about the Bad Grammar Award degenerated, as usual, into a below-the-line slanging match between descriptivists and prescriptivists. Prescriptivists typically want grammar to have immutable rules, whilst for descriptivists, grammar is the way people use the language. I would like to be in the descriptivist camp but because I have a very literal frame of mind, I also want clarity. Language should be used to make distinctions. This is illustrated by Dorothy L Sayers through her sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey in Murder Must Advertise:
If you say “Our perry is made from fresh-plucked pears only,” then it’s got to be made from pears only, or the statement is actionable; if you just say it is made “from pears,” without the “only,” the betting is that it is probably made chiefly of pears; but if you say, “made with pears,” you generally mean that you use a peck of pears to a ton of turnips, and the law cannot touch you. Such are the niceties of our English tongue.”
There’s no comma after the “Farmhouse”, so the clear interpretation is that the mushrooms were harvested from the dark, dank cellars of rural settlements, and furthermore the pâté is made from (and by the Sayers definition, chiefly from), mushrooms and peppercorns. That, however, is not what the labellers of ASDA mean. They intend that missing comma. But then it becomes a categorisation error: “farmhouse” is intended to describe the style, implying a coarse pâté, rather than a smooth Brussels pâté. It is not meant to say anything about the source or components of the product; the only time that pâté will see a farmhouse is when a customer takes it there. By contrast the fungi and spices are ingredients. What they are actually selling is farmhouse pâté with mushrooms and peppercorns.
Is this important? Well, yes. A pâté made from mushrooms and peppercorns could be expected, for example, to be suitable for vegetarians, whereas in this case the majority of ingredients are of porcine origin.
The peppercorns have, however, added some welcome ambiguity; ASDA’s “Farmhouse & Mushroom Pâté” is definitely made principally from finely chopped and ground farmhouses.