The English Language is Broken. (Another part of a never-ending series.)
Consider the word “do”. Amongst other things, this is used to mean a party, formal dinner, or other event. (“We were invited to a posh do at the Dorchester.”) Now assume that you have a busy social life and that you have been invited to a do on Thursday and another on Saturday night. You now have two of them to write about. How do you spell the plural of do?
You ought just to be able to stick an ess on the end of it, but for old-time computer buffs like me, dos looks like a “disc operating system” and is pronounced “doss”.
So how about treating it like potato, and adding an ee and an ess? That turns it into does, which is either the third person form of the verb “to do” (as in “he does nothing”), or it’s multiple female rabbits (or deer).
Some people throw in an apostrophe, rendering those multiple events as “do’s”. That goes against convention by inserting an apostrophe into a plural (which is only normal amongst greengrocers). Furthermore, for utilitarians like me, that apostrophe has to stand for something: for the omission of specific letters, and the most likely candidate is a missing ee, so we’re back to “does”.
The basic problem here is the pronunciation. We don’t say “do” with the oh sound that terminates potato, we say it with the oo of boo. We have no problem with boos (although that makes us sound very unpopular), and, by sound, the plural of “do” should be “doos”. (Incidentally, I once worked with a lady from the Isle of Wight who pronounced the third person form of the verb “to do” as “doos”. She even managed to get the words “haves” and “doos” into a single sentence: “She haves the day off sick and then doos overtime.”)
This, I am convinced, is a case where there is no right answer (other than the impossible dream of respelling the whole of the English lexicon phonetically).
You can have a rum do and you can have a posh do. You might even have rum at a posh do.
I’ve recently (and accidentally) been exposed to some differing views on apostrophes.
I went to see a performance by Ian McMillan (poet and host of The Verb), appearing with the excellent musician Luke Carver-Goss. They did a piece called Apostrophe Amnesty Day. McMillan’s point was that, for the most part, punctuation is artificial and doesn’t matter much. (Nobody articulates punctuation marks, therefore they are a feature of the way we choose to transcribe the language.) McMillan argues that those of us who criticise greengrocers for their failing’s (sic) in advertising their cabbage’s (sic) are just wasting our time (and sneering for the sake of our own aggrandisement, rather than for the benefit of greengrocers’ customers).
A piece in German from Nicholas Richards reminded me that the German language doesn’t use apostrophes for possessives. I then got into a social discussion with a retired teacher who expected apostrophes to become the norm for plurals as well as possessives. He laid the blame on the influence of Richard Hoggart’s The Uses of Literacy for being the start of a fashion in education that encouraged expression over precision, rewarding creativity and not pouncing on every mistake. (I’m not sure that this is a fair representation of Hoggart’s legacy).
So if apostrophes can be used everywhere, don’t they become meaningless? If German can do without them (for possessives), can’t we?
Many features of punctuation came from printing conventions. Take the use of the capital letter I for the personal pronoun; that only arose as an attempt by printers to give the word due weight. Compare it with the its Western European piers: je, ich, ik, io, yo and jeg do not take capitals. Then look at the word shan’t. It’s an abbreviation of shall not. If the absent vowel deserves an apostrophe, why isn’t there one for the double ell?
The conventions are artificial, so for the most part, I’m with McMillan in believing that content (meaning) takes precedence over punctuation. However, they are also a matter of established custom and practice, and I’m a publisher. I’m prepared to shrug at unconventional usage when writing is there to lead to another subject (cabbages, for example). On the other hand, when writing is the deliverable, clarity matters; sloppy punctuation distracts the reader and gets in the way of the meaning. That’s why I see occasional rants about apostrophe abuse from the likes of Damian and Dawn. Don’t expect any leniency from proof readers.
“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”
Lewis Carol, Through the Looking Glass
Historian, internationalist and writer Séan Lang recently took to twitter condemning a specific aspect of Olympic Games commentary:-
I agree with Séan that this is deplorable usage. There is no need to turn the noun medal into a verb when perfectly good alternatives are available. (In my view it also puts the emphasis in the wrong place. The athlete’s objective is to win the race; the medal is a recognition of success, not, in itself, the purpose.) Furthermore, in this case it sounds like another verb; when the Russian Athletics Federation meddled in the 2012 games, they were doing something entirely less honourable.
Where I depart from Séan is the statement “medal is not a verb”. English is not a prescribed language. We do not have the equivalent of l’Académie française to say what is and what is not proper usage. Our dictionaries are compiled on the basis of the way the language is used (and has been used), not on the way it should be used. Thus Peter John Cooper joined the argument, quoting the Oxford English Dictionary:
Medal (verb trans) To decorate or honour with a medal. 1822. “Irving went home medalled by the King” Thackeray.
Séan disagreed with the suggestion that this gave the permission of precedent for medal to be used as a verb. He pointed out that in the OED citation it is being used adjectivally (describing Irving’s state). All of which is to say that medal as a main verb is a recent coin; the OED points to its popularity amongst American sports commentators. But all verbs were new once, and there is a lot of cross-over between the American and British forms of English.
I think I have a good feel for the language, and can make a reasonable guess at when and where particular words emerged, but I am often wrong; words that I think are neologisms have a long history and some I take for granted may be relatively new. Fowler’s The King’s English (1906) has a whole section on Americanisms (which were to be avoided). Amongst those, I was surprised to find standpoint, placate and antagonize, all of which, in spite of Fowler’s objection, seem now to be part of standard English. One day, unfortunately, the verb form of medal may be as acceptable as the verb form of target.
This exercises me particularly because Lazy Bee Scripts edits plays for publication. Plays deliver reported speech, so if a character is given a speech using forms that I deplore, what should I do about it? That is the way the character is using the language to deliver a particular meaning. The character does not know any better and, following Humpty Dumpty’s descriptivism, I should not correct it. But does the author know any better? Ay, there’s the rub. One particular form that causes outrage in the Lazy Bee office is the use of “you better”. This is becoming the dominant form. It seems to be based on a mishearing of “you’d better”, a contraction of “you had better”. The modern form seems to me ugly and lacking something, but what it is lacking is hard to describe. (I think it lacks implicit conditionality, but what do I know?) Try analysing “you had better”. It seems to embody a grammatical case of the future looking back on the present: “your future would have been better if you had [taken a particular course of action]”. Regardless of how that old form arose, the modern one sets my nerves on edge. Nevertheless, we will accept it if the writer puts it into the mouth of someone who would use that form. To do otherwise would be to render every script into grammatical sterility. (On the other hand, give such a phrase to the wrong character and we will bat it back to the author or, in extremis, refuse publication.)
So if a word is used as a verb, then it is a verb, and I have to live with it. (In some cases, this involves gritted teeth.)
One of the most frequently heard questions in the Lazy Bee Scripts office is “should this have a capital letter”? The proof reader, usually Sue, has stumbled over a word which either has a spurious capital of an absence of an upper case lead. Mostly, the answer is clear, but sometimes we have to scratch our heads.
The most common errors concern forms of address. If you are speaking to your father, you address him as Dad with a capital because you are substituting for his name (Eric). Similarly, Your Majesty takes capitals as it stands in for Liz. On the other hand, “my dad” refers to an example of a generic type (the class of fathers), so takes lower case.
The real head-scratchers are things like the ones in the heading. Can you spot the odd one out? No, it is neither the windows nor the pasties. The anomaly is champagne.
The examples all take their name from a geographical region. The rule should be that if the item can only come from the particular area, then it is using the region as a proper noun. That’s why Cornish pasties have the capital. That style of pasty – the semi-circular enclosure, with a thick crimped crust on the curved part of the perimeter – is recognised as a regional delicacy. (The thick rim is there so that miners with dirty hands could grip something whilst eating the more gastronomically interesting filling.) The pasties with the ridge down the middle – like a small, edible Stegosaurus – are Devenish pasties, or oggies.
In the case of french windows and brussels sprouts, the items can be made or grown anywhere, so the name is an indicator of the style, rather than specific origin, and takes lower case. The same applies to cheddar cheese (to Sue’s distress, as she grew up close to Cheddar), since the documentation of a standardised manufacturing system allowed the cheddar method to travel the world. (If you are interested in this from a cheese-making viewpoint, rather than a purely linguistic one, then try, for example, The Somerset Rural Life Museum in Glastonbury.) Sampling the case of champagne, we find that it really ought to be capitalised, because it comes exclusively from the Champagne region, but the word has been so long in English as a generic that it has been allowed to stay that way.
There is an oft-cited rule of English grammar that one should never begin a sentence with ‘and’. And it is wrong. In fact it is wrong on several counts.
Firstly, it isn’t a rule. The next time you are challenged by anyone who fetishizes this issue, ask for their opinion of the King James Bible, frequently cited as one of the greatest repositories of well-turned English phrases. The fragment “And it came to pass” occurs 396 times. The vast majority of these are at the beginning of sentences.
Secondly, pedantically, it isn’t grammar. That may surprise you, but think of it this way: grammar is about the structure of language – arranging the nouns, verbs and other components so that they make sense. Sentences – in the sense of units that start with capital letters and end in full stops – are not part of grammar; they are elements of orthography. Try saying the following passage aloud: “There are seventeen pirates on this ship, every pirate has a cutlass and the most dangerous pirate is One-eyed Jake.” Now ask anyone who is willing to listen to you reciting such nonsense how many sentences there were in that speech. The answer could be one, two or three. From a grammatical viewpoint, it doesn’t matter. Generally, you can’t hear whether the speaker put in a comma or a full stop after “ship”. On the other hand, from a point of view of orthography – the presentation of the written form of the language – the punctuation and capitalisation matters: it helps to clarify meaning and improves readability.
The third point about whether or not sentences can begin with ‘and’ is that putting it that way mis-states the intention of the guideline. ‘And’ is a conjunction. It says that whatever comes after the word is joined to whatever went before. Go back to the King James Bible. Those sentences beginning “And it came to pass” are using ‘And’ to indicate that what follows is part of the same story. That’s story, not sentence. We’re definitely onto a new subject (because it came to pass that something new happened with a new main verb) and therefore onto a new sentence, but it is a continuation of the same story. Or take the following fragment of horror from Shakespeare’s King John:-
Arthur: Must you with hot Irons burne out both mine eyes?
Hubert: Young Boy, I must.
Arthur: And will you?
Hubert: And I will.
In this case, ‘And’ indicates continuity with the previous statement, but since the previous statement was made by another speaker, it is punctuated as the start of a new sentence.
A case can also be made for emphatic use: the writer may wish to give prominence to a sub-clause. And this demonstrates the appropriate stress. Similarly, particularly in recorded speech, it may demonstrate a linked afterthought.
So if the rule doesn’t apply here, where does it apply? This particular rant was occasioned by a play script that contained 85 sentences starting with the word ‘and’. Many of them were legitimate, for the reasons cited above. Others were not, because the structure reduced rather than enhanced the meaning. Take the following:
But let us indeed continue. And trust that a more seemly life emerges.
The second sentence does not have a subject, or rather the subject is in the first sentence, and the second sentence only makes sense as a continuation of the first. As a general test of this, do away with the ‘and’ and see if the sentence still makes sense. The examples from Kings James and John pass that test. The above example does not.
The point of the rule is not that you shouldn’t start a sentence with ‘and’; the point of the rule is that you should not put a full stop in the middle of a sentence.
I sometimes give talks. My focus is somewhere on the interface between writer and publisher; that’s the interesting part: boundaries are where the friction happens. Unfortunately, I always seem to run out of time to talk about Raymond Chandler, and Chandler was a byword for friction with his publishers. Probably his best-known blow to the publishing nose is the following:
“By the way, would you convey my compliments to the purist who reads your proofs and tell him or her that I write in a sort of broken-down patois which is something like the way a Swiss waiter talks, and that when I split an infinitive, God damn it, I split it so it will stay split, and when I interrupt the velvety smoothness of my more or less literate syntax with a few sudden words of bar-room vernacular, that is done with eyes wide open and the mind relaxed but attentive. The method may not be perfect, but it is all I have.”
I think that part of the reason passage gets into dictionaries of quotations is the bit about the Swiss waiter. Whilst I have sampled a few Swiss restaurants, I must have paid insufficient attention to the speech patterns of the staff, because I cannot recall any peculiarity that links them to Chandler. I suspect that what he was getting at was that people from multi-lingual countries* may speak sentences in one language using word order transposed from another.
Chandler was being self-deprecating in saying that the method was all he had. He knew exactly what he was doing. What he was doing was writing dialogue in an adopted persona. The following comes from another of his letters (to the editor of the Atlantic monthly) about an article he has written:
“I should like to mention one error in this article because it is the kind of thing I can never understand. (…) It reads: ‘and not examine the artistic result too critically’. What I wrote was: ‘and not too critically examine the artistic result’… It is obvious that somebody, for no reason save that he thought he was improving the style, changed the order of the words. I confess myself completely flabbergasted by the literary attitude this expresses, the assumption on the part of some editorial hireling that he can write better than the man who sent the stuff in, that he knows more about phrase and cadence and the placing of words that he actually thinks that a clause with a strong stressed syllable at the end, which was put there because it was strong, is improved by changing the order so that the clause ends in a weak adverbial termination.”
Chandler was one of the great stylists of the twentieth century. He wrote the Philip Marlowe detective stories in the first person and, since that person was the archetypal rough diamond, the emphasis is deliberately on the strength of the phrase rather than grammatical elegance. If he wants to split an infinitive, just stand back and admire the Chandleresque results.
Writing in the first person is to inhabit the character. It’s what playwrights do in creating dialogue that differentiates one role from another; the speech patterns belong to the character, not to Fowler’s Modern English Usage. Thus I wince every time an editor or proof reader reports that a script was full of bad grammar. However, before heaping scorn on the editorial hireling, it is worth noting that most of this criticism applies not to the construction of dialogue but to the stage directions. Whilst dialogue may well be a voyage of discovery for the actors, the directions should be beacons of clarity.
So, by all means aspire to be a stylist with your own esque, but if you want your editors to leave your dialogue unchanged, your stage directions have to be perfect.
* The best multi-lingual waiter I ever came across was in Brussels. I was dining with a Dutch colleague and there was a French couple on the next table. The waiter addressed the French people in English, the Dutchman in French and me in Dutch in what I suspect was a deliberate equality of insult.
I’ve been proof reading a script and, not for the first time, I have been dismayed by the lack of commas. Commas change the meaning of a sentence, making the difference between separate clauses and concatenation.
Proof reading in a different field, Dawn Laker of Plot Bunnies pointed out the difference made by a comma in a list. She found
…whether you’re on holiday at a wedding…
In the absence of a comma, the writer appears to believe that a wedding is a vacation destination.
In my case, I’ve been falling over the failure to create an addressee clause. Addressee clauses are features of reported speech – so very common in plays. The most familiar illustration of this is the difference between
Let’s eat, Grandma!
Let’s eat Grandma!
The first is an enthusic invitation to dine with a relative, the second an invitation to dine on a relative.
The subject of that sentence is “us”. (Let us eat.) Omitting the comma adds an object to the sentence: the thing that we are going to eat. (Let’s eat pizza.) Adding the comma creates a separate clause, making it clear to whom the sentence is being addressed.
I have seen an objection to this example. The argument runs that since we are not cannibals, the meaning is clear with or without the comma. Even if you believe that argument (and I don’t think you should), it does not absolve you from the need for addressee clauses. Take a look at the following:
Are you sure you can manage Dad?
As written, Alice is asking Tom if he can manage their father. The subject of the sentence is “you”, the object (the thing being managed) is “Dad”.
With a comma, this becomes
Are you sure you can manage, Dad?
The comma makes it clear that we have an addressee clause: Alice is asking her father if he can cope on his own.
I discussed this phenomenon with Bob Heather a while back. Bob offered an illustration coming from the opposite perspective (the spurious addressee clause), the rather disturbing:-