Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Constance Hale, Sin and Syntax

Constance Hale, Sin and Syntax, Broadway Books, New York, 1999.

The use of one to deflect culpability is a classic pronoun cop-out. One is also brought in when people feel insecure about an opinion, or just when they want to sound portentous: “One finds oneself unable to abide McInerney’s choice of pronoun, not to mention his character’s behavior.” Nonacademic writers not self-confident enough to use I and not presumptuous enough to speak for we also take recourse in the neutral, neutered, and nonspecific one. But this is fraudulent: it’s a way for people to pretend they’re not being solipsistic by being incomparably stuffy. (44-45)

“Do Your Child a Favor; Teach Them Grammar.” –Increasingly, writers defend pairing the plural they with a singular antecedent. … But solving the problem by pasting in they or them just invents a new one. … Resist replacing they with he/she—real people don’t speak in slashes. Do make the antecedent plural and use they with a vengeance. Don’t be afraid of an occasional he or she, awkward though it may be. Or take the ultimate judicious approach: some U.S. Supreme Court justices alternate between he and she when they write their decisions. (47-48)

“the regrettable” between you and I. “Anyone who uses that phrase,” warns Fowler’s “lives in a grammarless cavern.” (49)

Use who whenever the verb form that follows could be wrapped in parentheses without changing the sentence: “who (he believed had been up the mountain.” Make it whom when you would use him and her and them in place of whom. (50)

Some overly royal writers cannot give up their grammar myth than that relative pronoun whose cannot be used for antecedents that are not human. Such folly leads to unfortunate constructions like this one: A wonder of the ancient world, the Great Library in Alexandrai was an edifice in the corridors of which resided the papyrus… That sentence might have been elegant had the writer subtly changed it: A wonder of the ancient world, the Great Library in Alexandria was an edifice whose corridors housed the papyrus (51)

“the passive voice,” in which the subject of a sentence is being acted upon—by an agent named elsewhere in the sentence or left ambiguous—rather than taking the action directly. Going back to Shakespeare’s soliloquy, when Hamlet says “a consummation devoutly to be wished,” the subject, consummation, is receiving the action; who’s doing the wishing remains unclear. (57-58)

Writers and editors can get too literal-minded about “eschewing the stationary passive.” They forgot that the passive voice does exist for a reason. One syntactically challenged slot editor at the Oakland Tribune, sticking adamantly to a policy demanding the active voice, changed the screaming, above-the-folds headline “I-580 killer convicted” to “Jury convicts I-580 killer” … If you want to keep the focus on a particular subject, you may want to keep that person the subject of the sentence, using the passive voice if necessary to do so. Don’t let your editor fiddle with sentences like this: “Jerry Brown has never been able to settle for the Zen life. After being defeated in successive presidential campaigns, he set up camp in Oakland and crushed all competition in the mayor’s race.” The passive voice (after being defeated) works, because the agents—Carter and Clinton—are irrelevant to Brown’s political resurrection. (66-67)

Don’t slap on an adjective that merely repeats what the noun or verb makes obvious. … vast majority … serious danger… By the same token, pairing an adjective with a noun coined to mean the opposite just leads to confusion: … original copy … (81)

Certain adjectives should be avoided altogether if you want to “show.” George Orwell railed against “meaningless words” like romantic, plastic, human, dead, living, sentimental, natural, vital; these turn art and literary criticism into utter pap. (82)

“less calories than ice cream” and “Express line: ten items or less.” Both phrases use less incorrectly. When talking about a smaller number of things (as you are when you’re loading your arms with groceries or loading your body with calories), use fewer. When you are talking about a smaller quantity of something, use less. (Say, for instance, you need less catsup… (84)

All adverbs express either Time (immediately, now, soon), Manner (boldly, nonchalantly, purposefully), or Degree (absolutely, quite, very). Another way to think of adverbs is in terms of the questions they answer: When? Where? How? Or How much? In “Yesterday, all my troubles seemed so far away” the adverb yesterday tells When Paul McCartney’s troubles seemed so far away. In Ronald Reagan’s memorable “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall,” the adverb down modifies the verb, telling Where the wall will fall. (89)

However, thus, nevertheless, and indeed are adverb hybrids, sharing the DNA of both adverbs and conjunctions. Called conjunctive adverbs, they juxtapose fully formed ideas, linking muscular independent clauses… (88)

Innocent though they may seem, sentence adverbs can stir wild passions in grammarians. By far the likeliest to raise hackles in hopefully, which can modify verbs. (“ ‘It’s my birthday, you’re flush, and I’m hungry,’ she hinted hopefully” ; hopefully tells How she said it, in a hopeful manner.) But everyone seems to prefer hopefully as a sentence adverb (“Hopefully, you’ll get the hint and take me out to dinner”). Some traditionalists disparage the vogue for hopefully as a sentence adverb, calling “one of the ugliest changes in grammar in the twentieth century.” Others see in the demise of “I hope that” a thoroughly modern failure to take responsibility, and even worse, a contemporary spiritual crise, in which we have ceded even our ability to hope. (89)

Adverbs are crashes in the syntax house party. More often than not, they should be deleted when they sneak in the back door. Brilliant raconteurs don’t recount in adverbs, and glorious passages tend to pass on them. (90)

You may truly, madly, deeply love adverbs, but don’t ever drag one in to prop up a wipy verb. Why waste time writing “He ran very quickly” when you can say “He darted” (91)

Omit needless words. Watch for adverbs that merely repeat the meaning of the verb: utterly reject, screeched loudly, voices aloud, rudely insulted (91)

On the other end of the bad-adverb scale are those that actually contradict the meaning of the verb they are modifying. When President Reagan confessed that he was “not fully informed” about the diversion to the Nicaraguan contras of money made illegally selling arms to Iran, he was using an adverb as an escape route. He wasn’t alone: Admiral John M. Poindexter was “not directly involved,” and Don Reagan was not “thoroughly briefed.” (92)

Putting words to the page means having the courage of your convictions. “Don’t hedge your prose with little timidities,” writes William Zinsser in On Writing Well. “Good writing is lean and confident… Every little qualifier whittles away some fraction of trust on the part of the reader. Readers want a writer who believes in himself and in what he is saying. Don’t diminish that belief. Don’t be kind of bold. Be bold.” /
Certain of these trash adverbs—really, very, too, pretty much, extremely, definitely, totally—reflect the mindless banter of surfers, Valley Girls, and adolescent mall-mouths. (93)

From the Latin for “to put before,” a preposition appears before a noun, called the “object” of the preposition. (98)

…prepositional phrases exist to modify something more important. Adjectival prepositional phrases modify a noun or pronoun: Women on the verge of a nervous breakdown contains two adjectival prepositional phrases—on the verge tells us which women we’re talking about (the ones on the verge) and of a nervous breakdown tells us what they’re on the verge of. Adverbial prepositional phrases modify a verb, adjective, or adverb: In 1964, she wowed the boy next door contains the adverbial prepositional phrase in 1964, which tells us when she wowed the boy next door. (99)

Beware the parasitic of, which sucks blood from the following phrases: He gave all of his property, Outside of the office, … (106)

To be indicative of → to indicate,
To take into consideration → to consider (106)

Not “just between you and I” → just between you and me,
Not “if it’s up to Jan and I” → if it’s up to Jan and me,
Not “the rich are different form you and I” → the rich are different from you and me /
A footnote on the last example: Did you know that F. Scott Fitzgerald got his grammar right in the 1926 story, “All the Sad Young Men” ? (“Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me.”) (109)

Believe me, like wants to be followed by a good noun; like is longing to make a nice, tight prepositional phrase: He looks like Woody Allen. As is used correctly when it introduces a clause (a subject and a verb): Do as I say, not as I do. … there’s no reason to write “You can learn this little lesson, like I have” when these options are available: “You can absorb this little lesson, as I have” or “Like me, you can learn this little lesson.” (119)

Sentence syntax makes the distinction between who and whom so easy you’re gonna cry. Think subjects and objects. Who is the subject of a sentence or of a clause: Who is calling? Whom is the object of a verb or of a preposition: You are calling whom? Or To whom shall I direct your call? (163)


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