Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Posts Tagged ‘language

Perverted couples

leave a comment »

There are some language errors that occur again and again. Of these, one of the most annoying to me is “a couple [X]” (instead of “a couple of [X]”). This construct is unfortunate in several regards, even formal incorrectness aside:

  1. It can make some sentences harder to parse or outright ambiguous through confusion with the use of “couple” as a (non-quantifying) noun. Consider e.g. “I watched a couple flying kites”: Did I watch a couple who were flying kites or did I watch a couple of kites that were flying?

    This especially in spoken English, where something like “a coupla” is fairly common: Is this a sloppy (or “cute”) pronunciation of “a couple” or “a couple of”? (With the “e” of “couple” or the “of” perverted.) Chances are that even the speaker is not always certain…

  2. The (often mis-)interpretation as a quantifier only becomes relevant through the removal of “of”: Look e.g. at the contrasts “a couple”–“two persons”, “a romantic couple”–“two persons who are romantic[ally involved]”, and “a couple of lovers”–“two lovers”. Considering the strong difference between the items in the first two pairings, it should be obvious that the same applies to the third too (even though it might be easy to overlook without the others): “a couple of lovers kissing” implies that (a) a couple is kissing and (b) the couple consists of lovers. In contrast, “two lovers kissing” implies that (a) lovers are kissing and (b) there are two of them. Also note how “couple” can be replaced by e.g. “pair” or “group”* in these examples, while “two” cannot.

    *Although the implications of “group” might be slightly different (even numbers aside). For instance, “a couple of lovers” would typically imply a mutual relationship, while “a group of lovers” might contain lovers of one or more people/things/whatnot outside the group.

    Once we drop the “of”, the interpretation as a quantifier in direct parallel to “two” (or “dozen”, or “few”) is a near given: “a couple lovers kissing” most reasonably implies that (a) lovers are kissing and (b) there are a (quantifying) couple of them. Once this interpretation exists, it is hard to not see “a couple of [X]” as implying quantification.

    In other words, dropping the “of” forces many uses of “couple” into a new grammatical class—and it does so for no good reason.

  3. When viewed as a quantifier, it is often unclear whether “couple” intends “two”/“a pair [of]”, or rather “a few”/“several”. (The former is historically correct; the latter seems considerably more common in modern use.)

    Here I recommend sticking to “two” or “a pair of”, unless there is a strong implication of unity*; resp. “a few” or “several”. This even for formulations that would have included the “of”.

    *Cf. the interpretation of “a couple of lovers kissing” vs. “two lovers kissing” above. Note that the etymology of “couple” has implications of things that are joined to each other, as opposed to things that e.g. merely happen to be in the same place, which opens a niche for continued use.

  4. Formulations like “a couple [X]” are inferior to “a few [X]” in terms of both length and aesthetics, making “a few [X]” a much more natural choice. Why shove in those extra letters to create something both ugly and grammatically incorrect?

    (Assuming modern use. The same principle holds for the historical use and “two [X]”.)

Advertisements

Written by michaeleriksson

June 24, 2019 at 6:05 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Tagged with , , , ,

A few notes on my language errors II

leave a comment »

Re-reading a text on experiences in Sweden, I found an example that simultaneously illustrates two problem areas: “false friends”* and a weaker knowledge of words for everyday items (or, more generally, a knowledge that varies with the domain). Specifically, I wanted to translate the Swedish “kartong” (“carton”) and jumped straight to “cartoon”… The mistake is understandable, seeing that all three words are derived from the French “carton” or ultimately the Italian “cartone”. The result is still border-line hilarious—and this is a mistake that a native speaker would be unlikely to make. Notably, there is a wide range of words that most native speakers learn as children and that only rarely feature outside e.g. home settings, implying that non-natives are unlikely to pick them up from language courses, science books, fiction,** whatnot.

*I.e. words from different languages that sound/look as if they mean the same thing, but where the actual meaning is different. However, to me, this is normally a greater problem between German and Swedish than a constellation involving English, because the languages are more similar. This includes many cases of words that used to mean the same but have since drifted apart. For instance, when, probably, my mother once complained that I was still unmarried, I tried the excuse that there were too few women at work—and, with the German “Frauen” (“women”) in mind I spoke of “fruar” (“wives”). (A closely related issue, if not “false friends” in a strict sense, is the many words in German that sound/look as if they would have an immediate equivalent in Swedish (or vice versa) but do not, or where there is an almost immediate equivalent with a slightly unexpected shape. Consider e.g. the Swedish “avlasta”, where a naive translator might try a faux-German “ablasten” instead of the correct “entlasten”.)

**Much unlike e.g. “homicide”, “evidence”, “subpoena”, …

More generally, knowledge of a language is often strongly domain dependent, depending on factors like what we have read and what fields we have worked in. I, e.g., am weaker with kitchen and “home” terminology in German and English than in Swedish, due to my Swedish childhood; but stronger with computer terminology, due to my German work-experiences and my English readings. Quite often, I have found myself in a situation where I am well aware of the word for a certain concept in one language but lack the same word in another, depending on what type of readings has created the awareness.*

*This is sometimes noticeable in that I use lengthier formulations or awkward terminology in one discussion and better terminology (for the same concept) a few years later. In some cases, e.g. “identity politics”, I have been aware of the concept before I learned the phrase in any language.

The “carton”–“cartoon” mix-up is not a case of confusing sound-alike words (a problem mentioned in the the first installment). In doubt, the “-ton” and “-toon” parts of the respective word are quite far apart in pronunciation. Instead, it was either a matter of having the right word in mind and not having a sufficient awareness of the spelling, or of grabbing the “false friend” instead of the correct word with too little reflection. (To tell for certain after more than a month is hard.)

In contrast, my mistaken use of “shelve”* for “shelf” is at least partially a sound issue (partially a “not good with home terminology” issue), although of a less unconscious kind: I was uncertain whether the singular of “shelves” was “shelve” or “shelf”, decided to go with “shelve” and to let the spell-checker correct me as needed—overlooking that there is a verb “to shelve”… (Implying that the spell-checker saw “shelve” as a correct spelling, being unable to tell from context that a noun was intended. Actually researching the spelling through the Internet would have given me the correct answer in a matter of seconds…) More generally, the question of “f” vs “v[e]” is often a problem, including my often forgetting the switch to “v” in a plural (e.g. “lifes” instead of “lives” as a plural of “life”) and hypercorrecting (e.g. “believes” instead of “beliefs” as plural of “belief”).

*In a number of recent texts relating to my attempts to buy shelves online, e.g. [1].

Written by michaeleriksson

April 30, 2019 at 1:52 pm

A few notes on my language errors

with one comment

When proof- or re-reading my own texts, I am often annoyed by the number of language errors that I make, even discounting those relating to ignorance* and sloppy typing**. Below, I will discuss some issues that I have seen repeatedly recently.

*I am not a native speaker, and my understanding of the rules of English can have weird holes. For instance, it was only fairly recently that I realized that “one’s” (“someone’s”, etc.) takes an apostrophe (as opposed to “ones”, “someones”, etc.) in standard English. I also often rely on my spell-checker to find problems with words that I have only used actively on rare occasions. To boot, my own opinion on certain less regulated language questions develops over time, e.g. in that I earlier used “may” quite often to indicate a “might”, “could”, or similar—but now consider this poor style, because of the loss of precision.

**While I only very rarely pick the wrong character, I can get characters turned around (e.g. “on” instead of “no”) and occasionally pick the entirely wrong syllable (e.g. “-er” instead of “-ing”). And, yes, I would count the latter as sloppy typing in my case, because it is not a conscious choice but more of “crossed wires” at some point in the transfer from brain to computer—I pick the wrong set of keys where a less experienced typist might pick the wrong individual key. On occasion, my fingers type an entirely different word than I had in my mind.

The influence of pronunciation* is particularly frustrating, e.g. in that I might mix-up “two”, “too”, and “to”—despite having a firm grasp of when which should be used. It seems that the influence of the similarity in sound often tricks my fingers when typing and my eyes when proof-reading. This is likely an area where being a fast typist and reader is actually a disadvantage, because I spend less time on each word (compared to someone slower) and am less likely to notice such differences. Generally, proof-reading is hard for me**, because of the problems with keeping myself concentrated and suppressing the temptation to read faster.

*Beware that I might be more vulnerable to this as a non-native speaker, because different languages have different rules for pronunciation and phonetical “minimal pairs”.

**Here I found myself writing “more” instead of “me” in an example of the crossed-wire issue mentioned above—somehow, a spurious “or” was inserted.

Late stage changes and additions to a text are often stumbling blocks: The parts of the original draft that remain until publication have been proof-read at least twice (often more)—but the changes made during proof-reading, the new thoughts added after the first draft, the reformulations made because the original was too clunky,* etc., will have gone through fewer stages of checks. Factor in how boring proof-reading is, and a last-minute change might even end up with a single skimming in lieu of proper proof-reading. Sometimes these errors can distort the text, as with a recent use of “net”**: I originally wrote an example in terms of net income/profit, but decided that it made more sense to start with revenue, re-wrote the example correspondingly—and left a “net” in. This causes the numbers used in the example to seem incompatible with each other. In German, with its more complicated grammar, I often have problems like a change of words leading to a change of gender, which would require different suffixes on other words in the same sentence or the use of differently gendered pronouns (possibly, in other sentences)—but where I fail to make all of the secondary changes.***

*Yes, even I have a limit…

**The error is still present at the time of writing, but I might edit the text at a later date. I have refrained from doing so, so far, because I do not trust WordPress’ editing functionality. The same applies to other examples.

***Consider the differences between “Ich habe ein kleines Tier gesehen. Es war braun.” and “Ich habe einen kleinen Hund gesehen. Er war braun.”, and contrast this with the identical English surroundings: “I saw a small [animal/dog]. It was brown.” (However, something similar can happen with at least “a” vs. “an” in English too, e.g. “a dog” vs. “an animal”.)

The imitative character of language learning (see excursion) has often led me astray—to the point that I might find myself unconsciously making the same mistakes that I criticize in others. For instance, I have condemned linking on the word “here”* as naive (and stand by that text!), but found that I have myself made this mistake on a few occasions. (E.g. in blogroll** updates, where I have repeatedly used formulations like “That link was first described here.”, with a link on “here”.)

*Which I would see as a part of language use in the context of hyper-text.

**Originally, I wrote “role” instead of “roll”.

While I have repeatedly complained about how people screw up the “linguistic logic”* of their sentences, I am not infallible myself. For instance, I recently wrote “not entirely unsurprisingly” in a context where “not entirely surprisingly” was the actual intention. I should have stuck with a plain “unsurprisingly”, which had been less likely to cause confusion for writer and reader alike.

*E.g. through screwed up negations (as above), use of phrases like “fast speed” (a car is fast; its speed is great), or some examples from an earlier discussion.

A quite surprising problem area is line-breaks: If a line-break takes place after a (usually) one-syllable word, I often type this word again after the line-break. Likely, the end-of-the-line suffers some variation of “out of sight, out of mind”, with the result that I fail to recognize that I had already typed the word once. More rarely, the opposite happens and the word is left out entirely; however, this could be unrelated to the line-break, as it happens in other parts of the text too*.

*Just wrote “two”…

Excursion on imitation:
Human language is naturally learned by imitation, and humans seem to be strongly geared towards such imitation. This to the point that I have occasionally found myself correctly using words that I did not know (at least, on a conscious level). This imitative character can have many negative effects, including that people make incorrect assumptions about what a word means (e.g. “decimate”, “discriminate”, “petrified”), use words in a manner that causes a drift in meaning over time (e.g. “discriminate”; possibly, “decimate”); or pick up weird language errors that would have been obviously incorrect to someone who had stopped to think (e.g. “I could care less” or “literally” to imply the exact opposite of what is actually said). Correspondingly, those whose language reaches a greater number of people should see it as their duty to speak and write as correctly as possible, be they authors*, teachers, journalists, politicians, … Similarly, parents should take care when speaking to their children, lest they pick up poor habits from the beginning. In particular, they should avoid deliberate “baby words” like “doggy” and “bowwow”.

*A complication is the compromise between correct/standard/whatnot and realistic speech by fictional characters. Unless the author wishes to put heavy emphasis on some quality of a character (e.g. that he is unusually stupid or belong to a different dialectal/sociolectal/whatnot group than the main characters), I recommend erring on the side of the correct, e.g. through assuming that this particular member of a certain group is one of the more well-read and educated—the variation between e.g. construction workers on the same building site can be quite large.

Written by michaeleriksson

April 24, 2019 at 11:44 pm

A few thoughts on the word “gender”

leave a comment »

The abuse of “gender” for “sex” has long annoyed me, but I have taken the view that the use for “self-perceived sexual identity” (or similar) was acceptable or even beneficial—if nothing else, the latter is a separate concept and using a separate term for a separate concept is usually a good idea.* However, I unconsciously based this view on a faulty premise: that the grammatical gender was inherently a division into masculine/feminine/neuter or something along similar lines (e.g. just masculine/feminine or masculine/feminine/neuter/common; while an apparently genderless language can equally be viewed as having exactly one gender**). Using this premise, an application to similar*** divisions in other areas would not be absurd—if a good word was not already present.

*Indeed, one of my more common complaints about the PC crowd is the high-jacking of words to mean something different from what would be historically expected and/or expected among other speakers, e.g. (in the same area) that “man” and “woman” would refer to self-perception instead of biology. It would be much better to introduce new words for these new concepts. Even worse is deliberate re-/mis-definition for purposes like manipulation, as with e.g. “racism” and “rape” in some circles.

**At least, assuming that it follows a pattern somewhat similar to the typical Indo-European languages, as e.g. a version of English where “they” (“them”, etc.) was abused as a full replacement for “he”, “she”, “it” (“him”, etc.)—which is where, regrettably, English seems be heading. (The abuse as a generic third-person singular is already dominant.) A sufficiently different language might behave too differently (but is then unlikely to be relevant in this context).

***I stress that e.g. a grammatical “masculinity” does not automatically imply a physical or biological “masculinity”, which is obvious from languages with a more differentiated system than English—hence, “similar” above. This differentiation is another reason not to use “gender” for “sex”—grammatical gender and biological sex are not always coinciding. (In German, words for things can be grammatically masculine, feminine, or neutral, even when a logical neutral might be expected. Words applied to men can be feminine (e.g. “die Person”/“the person”); words applied to women can be masculine (e.g. “der Mensch”/“the human”); words for either can be neutral (e.g. “das Individuum”/“the individual”. Of course, the gender changes based on what word is used—not based on the entity referred to.)

This, however, is not strictly the case: it happens to be true in many languages, including English and German, but other divisions are possible. For instance, Proto-Indo-European might have had an animate/inanimate division. Even my native Swedish deviates through a somewhat arbitrary division into utrum and neutrum:* The members of these genders, for all practical and modern purposes, only differ in what indefinite (“en”/“ett”) and definite (“den”/“det”) article is used and whether an “-en” or an “-et” is to be suffixed in certain situations.** Indeed, they were more often referred to as “en-ord” och “ett-ord” (“ord” = “word(s)”) than “utrum” and “neutrum” in school.

*The discussion of actual Swedish grammar in school was superficial, incomplete, or even incorrect—a problem that native speakers of other languages might also have encountered. For this reason, I had simply never really reflected on the implications of the Swedish deviation until today. As an added complication, there are several different perspectives on Swedish genders (above, I discuss the most common) and the situation was historically different.

**E.g. “en sak”/“a thing” vs. “ett träd”/“a tree” and “den saken”/“that thing” vs “det trädet”/“that tree”.

Looking outside of grammar, there have been many uses of the word “gender” that also follow the line of a more general classification, e.g. that being English/German/whatnot or belonging to a certain family was discussed in terms of “gender”. Older use for sexual division (e.g. “the female gender”) is just a special case of this, and not* a precedent for a specialized use relating to sex or sexual identity. This makes it the more illogical to use “gender” when it is actually the sex (or even sexual identity) that is intended: a “Sex:” on a driver’s license calls for “M[ale]” or “F[emale]” with some clarity**, while “Gender:” might equally call for “E[nglish]”.

*Similarly, the fact that we could speak of someone being of the “female persuasion” does not make “persuasion” a good replacement for “sex”, because we can equally combine “persuasion” with other words implying group membership. Note that this applies to a wide range of other words too, e.g. “class”, “set”, “category”. (If it had just been “persuasion”, it might have been rejected as an abuse, or something to restrict to humorous formulations, for other reasons. The choice of “persuasion” as an example is based on the higher frequency of “female persuasion” over, say, “female category”.)

**Or at least it used to… However, even for those who cannot or does not want to be classified as male or female, the type of the classification is clear. On the other hand, confusion with sexual acts is highly unlikely outside of the famous joke about the girl who found her mother’s driver’s license (“Mommy! I know why Dad divorced you! You got an ‘F’ in sex!”).

I re-iterate my recommendation never, ever to use “gender” when “sex” is the traditional word. When it comes to sexual identity, the question is trickier because, again, a separate* word makes sense, and I am unable to offer an alternative that is both sufficiently understandable and has a sufficient current use to not cause as much confusion as “gender”*. However, this might be an area where “persuasion” (see earlier footnote) has some possibilities, actually gaining through its more regular meaning in the area of opinions and convictions, e.g. in that the-athlete-previously-known-as-Bruce would be considered of the male sex and the female persuasion.** Possibly, some shortening of “sexual persuasion”, e.g. “sexper” or “seper”, might work as a replacement for “gender” in such an attempt.***

*Another strong argument against the abuse of “gender” for “sex” is that many will assume a reference to sexual identity where biological sex was intended and vice versa.

**Or at least was so “pre-op”. Possibly, additional terminology is needed for the “post-op” case.

***Using an unabbreviated “sexual persuasion” would be too lengthy in many contexts, e.g. on driver’s licenses. It would also risk a dropping of “sexual” in sloppy use, with negative effects on other meanings of “persuasion”—just like “discrimination” and “intercourse” has seen a drift towards using the word solely for a special case implied by a longer phrase. To start with just “persuasion” would be even worse.

Addendum to the linked-to text:
Possibly ten years ago, I wrote “The possibility that existing literature eventually would be actively re-written to adhere to ‘gender-neutrality’ is not at all far-fetched:”. Indeed not: Consider e.g. my (much later) text on distortion of Blyton, where I lament that the actual events and characters of her books, not just specific words, have been altered for similar reasons.

Written by michaeleriksson

April 1, 2019 at 7:47 am

Brief thoughts on the decline of Latin and Greek as a scientific languages

with one comment

When I first, as a child, learned of the use Latin and Greek names for various plants, animals, and whatnot, it was explained to me that this was done to (a) ensure that there was a name that scientists speaking different languages could use and still be understood by each other, (b) still keep the names in a single language.

I am far from certain that this explanation is correct: More likely, the likes of Linnaeus simply started a tradition based on Latin as the then “science language” for his extensive classifications,* which was kept long after Latin lost ground to modern languages.

*Just like I prefer to write in English over Swedish—why not use the language more likely to be understood?

Still, the purported idea is quite sound: Using a single language allows for greater consistency and enables those so interested to actually learn that single language in order to make identification of the item behind the name that much easier;* and Latin has the advantage of lacking** potential for conflict (as might have been the case if English and French or Mandarin and Japanese were pitted against each other).

*Indeed, even a limited knowledge can be a great help, e.g. by knowing a few commonly occurring suffixes and prefixes.

**Or should do so in any sane era: Some politically correct fanatics apparently consider anything relating to “Western Culture” something to be condemned in a blanket manner. Nothing is certain, except for death, taxes, and human stupidity.

Unfortunately, the scientists of old did not stick to Latin, often turning to Greek. (This includes the names of many (most?) dinosaurs.) However this situation was still reasonably tolerable.

Then things started to get out of hand: Over the last few decades names have increasingly been coined in any locale language. For instance, this text was prompted by the recent discovery of the dinosaur genus Ledumahadi—apparently named “a giant thunderclap at dawn”* in Sesotho

*The silliness and apparent lack of “scientificity” of the meaning, however, has little to do with the language. Dinosaurs have been given similarly silly names from the early days of scientific attention (and many less silly names for extinct animals are obscure through e.g. referring to the shape of a tooth). In contrast, many of Linnaeus names could draw directly on existing Latin names for at least the genus (as e.g. with “homo sapiens”—“homo” being the Latin word for human).

Going by Wikipedia, Sesotho has some five or six million native speakers—considerably less than Swedish today and an even smaller proportion of the world population than Sweden in the days of (my fellow Swede) Linnaeus*. If Linnaeus picked Latin over Swedish back then, how can we justify picking Sesotho over both Latin and English today? The idea is contrary to reason.

If someone were to argue that Latin and Greek, specifically, had grown impractical due to the reduced knowledge among today’s scientists, I might have some sympathies. However, if we concluded that they should go, the reasonable thing to do would be to opt for English as the sole language, thereby ensuring the largest global understandibility. If not English, then some other, truly major language, e.g. Mandarin*, Hindi*, or Spanish should have been considered. Sesotho is useless as single language, and not using a single language will end with names that appear entirely random. It will usually even be impossible to know what language a name is in, without additional research, making it that much harder to find out the meaning.

*Here additional thought might be needed on how the names should be written. (Original writing system? Transliterated to the Latin alphabet? Otherwise?)

For those interested in “local” names, there is always the possibility of introducing an everyday name for the local language: Dinosaurs have normally been known by their scientific names even in the general population, but there is no actual law that this must be the case. Call the Ledumahadi “Ledumahadi” in Sesotho and use a Latin or Greek translation* as the scientific name and the default in other languages.

*My limited knowledge does not allow me to make a suggestion.

Written by michaeleriksson

September 29, 2018 at 5:46 pm

Weak justifications for poor language

leave a comment »

When it comes to grammar, common arguments from the “everything goes” school include “there are countless examples of X being correct; ergo, X should always be allowed”, “X is not an error, because Shakespeare used it”, and other analogy claims.

Such arguments are usually faulty through lack of discrimination:* It is quite possible for a certain phrasing, grammatical construct, whatnot to be correct in one situation and incorrect in another—and the analogy must only be used as justification when the circumstances are sufficiently similar. An extreme example is “over-exaggerate”: There are situations in which “over-exaggerate” is a reasonable formulation, but it remains an error of the ignorant in almost all cases. Consider e.g. a politician deliberately exaggerating a problem in order to be more convincing—but doing so to such a degree that he loses believability. He has now over-exaggerated.**

*In the case of e.g. Shakespeare, they also forget that a once valid use might now be outdated; that he, as a poet, might have taken liberties in order to improve rhyme or meter; that his language might have contained dialectal features in a pre-standardization English; and similar.

**Whether such a use of “over-exaggerate[d]” has ever taken place is unknown to me; however, until five minutes before starting this text, I had not even contemplated the possibility that it could ever be anything but wrong—and the rarity of the correctness shows the danger of superficial analogy arguments that much better. (At “five minutes before”, I read the phrase “exaggerating too much” and saw the applicability to “over-exaggerate”.)

A more common example is the use of “and”, “or”, and similar conjunctions at the beginning of a sentence. There are cases where such use could be seen as correct. For instance, “Mary had a little lamb. And everywhere that Mary went, the lamb was sure to go.” would not bring me to the barricades.* I even occasionally use incorrect** such formulations my self, in a manner that I consider acceptable in context. Correspondingly, I cannot condemn a leading “and” in a blanket manner.

*However, I would have preferred “Mary had a little lamb; and everywhere that Mary went, the lamb was sure to go.”, because the full stop implies a strong separation that the “And” then reduces, as if someone was simultaneously pressing down on the gas pedal and braking. (Alternatively, I might have tried to cut the conjunction entirely.) Generally, I always remain a little skeptical: Even when the construct can be argued as grammatically acceptable, there are often reasons of style, logic, coherence, whatnot that speak against it.

**For instance, I might use a leading “And” within brackets in situations where I (a) want to strengthen the connection to the preceding text to overcome the bracket, (b) do not consider the bracketed content important enough for more words or even fear that more words might reduce legibility in context. (Of course, others might argue that if the text was that unimportant, it should have been cut entirely…) Similarly, my footnotes are almost always intended to be read in the immediate context of the main text, and will not always be complete sentences or thoughts without that context—some footnotes and brackets could be seen as a branch on a trunk and only make sense when the branch is entered from the trunk. (Why not forego the bracket + “And”, as another case of simultaneously hitting the gas pedal and braking? Well, the bracket is often beneficial to break out less important or less on-topic thoughts, as with the current. From the point of view of the main text, the bracket serves to separate such parts. However, sometimes the connection with the unbracketed text then becomes too weak from the point of view of the bracketed, and the “And” remedies this. This argument does not hold with Mary and her little lamb.)

However, most practical uses remain both incorrect and unacceptable, and those critical of these constructs do not typically suggest a blanket ban—only a ban of incorrect cases. For instance, where someone with an even semi-decent understanding of English would write “Mary had a little lamb and a goat.”, a journalist or a pre-schooler might write “Mary had a little lamb. And a goat.”, which is incorrect by any reasonable standard.* However, the problem does not reside with the “And”, but with the way a single sentence or thought has been artificially, confusingly,, and unnecessarily divided into two parts, one of which cannot stand on its own. The error is one of interpunctuation—not of what word is allowed where. “Mary went home. And took the lamb with her.”, makes the same mistake, if a bit more subtly. A faulty separation of a subordinate clause is a common variation, and often includes a far wider range of words. Consider e.g. “John went home. Because Mary was sick.”: Both parts contain a complete sentence and the situation might be salvaged by simply removing the “Because” (at the cost of no longer having the causal connection); however, a “because” clause can come both after and before its main clause, which can cause a lot of ambiguity. For instance, how do we know that the intention was not “John went home. Because Mary was sick, Tom also went home.”, with a part of the text missing?** What if the text, as actually given, had read “John went home. Because Mary was sick. Tom also went home.”? Was it John, Tom, or possibly both, who went home because of Mary’s health?

*Notably, the complete-sentence standard; however, see an excursion for an alternate suggestion and more detail.

**This gives another reason to stick to the rules: If a text contains language errors, it is often not clear why; and by deliberately deviating from correct grammar, the ability to detect accidental errors and to deduce the true intended meaning in face of errors is reduced. Equally, a deliberate deviation can make the reader assume an accidental error where none is present, leading to unnecessary speculation. Other examples that can soon become tricky include leaving out “unnecessary” uses of “that”, “unnecessary” commas, and similar. If in doubt, doing so can lead to their exclusion out of habit in a situation where they were definitely needed.

Someone criticizing such sentences usually does so, directly or indirectly, because of the division—of which “And” is just a result. Even if we were to say that sentences are allowed to start with “and”, “or”, whatnot, these sentences would still be wrong, because they still make an absurd and ungrammatical division. As an analogy, if someone has a viral infection accompanied by a fever, the infection does not go away because the patient’s body temperature is declared normal. More generally, we must not focus on superficial criteria, like a temperature or an optical impression of a sentence—we actually have to understand what goes on beneath the surface and we have to ask the right questions. Above, the right question is “Is the interpunctuation correct and reasonable?”—not whether a sentence starts with an “and”.

Excursion on my historical take on “and” et al. and on the reverse mistake:
I my younger days I belonged to the “never acceptable” school, largely through committing the opposite error of “sometimes wrong; ergo, always wrong”—something equally to be avoided. My opinions have become more nuanced over the years. However, I still feel that these constructs should be left to those with a developed understanding, because (a) by simply resolving to never start a sentence with “and” et al., a great number of other mistakes will be far less likely to occur (cf. above), (b) even most grammatically acceptable uses are better solved in other ways (cf. footnote above). I would also argue that a grammar which does categorically forbid these constructs would be perfectly valid and acceptable—it just happens that established English grammar does not. (In contrast, a grammar that allows e.g. “Mary had a little lamb. And a goat.”, while conceivable, would make a mockery of the concepts of full stop and sentence. The purpose of these are to give the reader information about the text not necessarily clear from the words themselves; and it would be a lesser evil to abolish* them entirely than to spread misinformation through them.)

*while interpunctuation is a wonderful thing writing systems tend to start without it uptothepointthatthereisnotevenwordseparation we do not need interpunctuation but do we really want to forego it fr tht mttr nt ll wrtng sstms s vwls still misleading information, is even worse

Excursion on complete sentences:
A typical criterion for the use of full stops is that all sentences are complete, typically containing at a minimum subject and verb. However, I would argue that it is more important to have a thought* of sufficient completeness** and sufficient context to understand that thought. For instance, this is the case when someone takes a fall and says “ouch”; a soldier shouts “incoming” or a surgeon says “scalpel”; a (compatible) question is answered with “yes”, “no”, “probably”, “the red one”, …; one opponent exclaims “son of a bitch” to the other; any number of imperatives are used (“buy me an ice cream ”, “assume that X”); etc. Indeed, a subject–verb criterion might not even make sense in all languages. Many Latin sentences, e.g., will only contain an implicit subject, implying that at least an explicit subject cannot be a universally reasonable criterion. (The English imperatives could also be seen as a case of an implicit subject.)

*I see myself supported by the more original and non-linguistic meanings of “sentence”, which are strongly overlapping with “thought”. Also cf. “sense” and “sentiment”.

**I deliberately avoided “complete thought”, which could imply that the entirety of a thought is expressed. This, in turn, is only rarely the case with a single sentence. (Cf. [1].)

However, these examples are only valid given the right context: Go up to a random person on the street and say “yes”, and chances are that he will be very confused.

“And a goat.” will usually fail this criterion, because it is so heavily tied* to something else that it cannot stand alone. Usually, this something is the preceding own statement (“Mary had a little lamb.”), and the best solution would be to integrate the two (“Mary had a little lamb and a goat.”) or to complete the missing portions (“Mary had a little lamb. And she had a goat.”). However, there are some cases that can be argued, mostly relating to immediate interactions (spoken word, texting, and similar). Consider e.g. “And a goat.” as an afterthought** to a previous complete thought or as an interjection by a second speaker—and compare it with “Oh, wait, it just occurred to me that I would also like to have a goat.” resp. “I agree with the previous speaker, but would like to add that we should also buy a goat.”, and similar overkill. In contrast, “Mary had a little lamb. And everywhere that Mary went, the lamb was sure to go.” has two separate and independent thoughts, both of which are complete subject–verb sentences, both of which could be taken as stand-alone claims with minimal context. (Except as far as the “And” sends a confusing signal and would be better removed in a stand-alone context; however, the result remains a perfectly valid sentence even in the traditional sense.)

*Interestingly, just “A goat.” is more likely to be a valid thought, because the “And” points to something else that must already have been communicated.

**With sufficient delay that the afterthought cannot be integrated into the whole: If someone is currently writing an essay and sees the sudden need to add a goat to the discussion, there is no justification for “And a goat.”—there is more than enough time to amend the text before publication.

However, in most cases, I would recommend sticking to the traditional “complete sentence” criterion, because it makes a useful proxy and can serve to avoid sloppy mistakes when trying to be clever.

Excursion on full-stops for effect:
Full-stops are often deliberately (mis-)used for e.g. dramatic effect or to imitate the spoken word. For instance, “Mary had a little lamb. And a goat.” might arise in an attempt to put extra emphasis on the latter, to simulate a “dramatic pause”, or similar. I recognize that there is some benefit to this effect—but not to how it is achieved. I strongly recommend using the “m-dash” (“—-”) for such purposes—and do so myself all the time.* To boot, I would strongly advice against striving for a literal pause, seeing that the written and spoken word are not identical in their character. Notably, most proficient readers do not “sound out” the words in such a manner that an intended pause would actually occur.

*To the point that even I cannot deny overuse… Then again, I do not suggest that others change the frequency of their use of the effect, just that they replace one means of achieving it with another. Some might raise objections against this use of the m-dash, e.g. based on historical use for parenthesis; however, I do not use the old semantics, there are other means to achieve a parenthesis effect, and the m-dash is otherwise fairly rare in modern English.

A particularly idiotic use is the insertion of a full-stop after every word, to indicate that each words is heavily emphasized and separated in time, e.g. “Do. Not. Do. This.”: The only situation where this might even be negotiable is when spoken word is to be (pseudo-)transcribed, e.g. as part of a dialogue sequence in a book. For a regular text, including e.g. a post on a blog or in a forum, textual means of emphasis should be used (italicization, underlining, bold type, …)—the written word is not a mere transcription of the spoken.

Excursion on full-stops in long sentences:
I sometimes have the impression that an artificial full-stop has been inserted to prevent a sentence from being too long, by some standard. (Possibly, some journalists write a correct sentence, see it marked as “too long” by a style checker, and just convert a comma to a full-stop to land below the limit. Then again, some journalists appear to use a full-stop as the sole means of interpunctuation, even when length is not a concern…) The result is a completely unnecessary hindrance of the reader: Because valuable hints are now absent or, worse, misleading, it becomes harder to read the sentence. (Note that there is no offsetting help, because the actual thought expressed does not magically become shorter when a few full-stops are inserted.) For instance, when reading the FAZ (roughly, the German equivalent of the New-York Times), I have often encountered a complete sentence of a dozen or more words, followed by “Because”/“Weil” at the beginning of a subordinate clause of another dozen words—and then a full-stop… The result is that I, under the assumption that the grammar is correct, “close” the first sentence, absorb the second with the expectation of applying the causality to a later main clause, and am then thrown entirely off track. I now have to go back to the first sentence, (at least partially) re-read it, make the causal connection, re-think the situation, and then scan forwards to the end of the subordinate clause again, to continue reading. It would have been much, much better to keep the subordinate clause joined by the grammatically correct comma—the more so, the longer the sentences.

Meta-information:
My use of full-stops and capital letters in the above examples is deliberately inconsistent. Mostly, I have tried to avoid them in order to not complicate matters around the resulting double* interpunctuation. However, many examples have required them to be understandable. When it comes to standalone “And” vs “and” (quotation marks included), I have used “And” when it appeared thus in the example, and “and” when speaking of the word more generically.

*Examples like ‘abc “efg.”, hij’ are awkward and can be hard to read. I also categorically reject some outdated rules around interpunctuation and quotes that originated to solve pragmatical problems with equally outdated printing technology.

I found the asymmetry of “Mary had a little lamb and a goat.” a little annoying, and considered adding a “g-word” before “goat”; however, a reasonable “g-word” was hard to find* and some of the later stand-alone examples became awkward.

*The most orthographically and semantically obvious example is “giant”, but it is typically pronounced differently. Other candidates made too little sense.

Written by michaeleriksson

September 21, 2018 at 12:11 am

X began Y-ing

leave a comment »

Disclaimer: I set out to write a text just two or three paragraphs long. I was soon met with a series of grammatical complications and aspects that I had hitherto not considered—and I raise the warning that there could be others that I still have not discovered. However, my main objection is one of style—not grammar. (No matter what impression the text could give: It only takes so long to say “it is ugly”.)

I currently spend more time than usual reading fiction. This leads me to again, and again, and again encounter one of the most ugly formulation patterns in the English language: X began Y-ing.

He began running. She started turning. It commenced raining. Etc.

Not only are they very ugly, they are also potentially misleading, because a Y-ing construct* usually has the implication of something (already) ongoing, as with “John, running, began to tire” or “John began to tire [while] running”**. This is particularly bad with “started”, because “she started turning” could be read as “she experienced a start while turning”. The much sounder construct is “to” and an infinitive—“John began to run” over “John began running”. Indeed, I often find myself suppressing a snarky question of “What did X begin to do, while Y-ing?”, even knowing what was meant. In some cases and contexts, other formulations might be suitable, e.g. “John began with running [to lose weight]” or “John began his running [for the day]”. An entirely different road is also possible, e.g. “John broke into a run”, or “John took up running” (as a smoother alternative for the weight-loser above).

*The main cases usually are participles (or, in a noun context, gerunds). I am uncertain how “Y-ing” in “X began Y-ing” should be classified, especially since it logically fills the role of an infinitive. Conceivably, it is a gerund (cf. an excursion on “stopped” below), which would give it some grammatical justification, but would not reduce its ugliness or potential ambiguity. The matter is complicated by e.g. “John began running slowly”, which would point to a participle, not a gerund. (It might be explained as intending “John slowly began running”, but that would change the meaning.) To boot, the same string of characters can sometimes be interpreted in different roles and meanings in a given sentence—and the gerund–participle division seems very vulnerable to this (but I will ignore such complications in the rest of the text).

**This example is equally ugly and not something that I would recommend (at least not without the “while”). The purpose of the examples is solely to illustrate the potential confusion.

Moreover, even a construct using “began” is often just a waste of space—a simple “John ran” will often do the trick. That he began to do so will often be clear from context, redundant, or simply not interesting in the overall situation. Consider e.g. “John walked along the path.* A bear burst out of the woods and John ran.”: The use of “began to run” (or “began running”) adds nothing but length to the text.

*This sentence makes the issue crystal clear. However, it is not always necessary, because (a) John is more likely to have walked than to have run, and (b) what he did before the encounter with the bear is usually of secondary importance to a work of fiction (but the increased precision might be beneficial in non-fiction). In a pinch, that John was already running could be brought over by “John ran faster”. In other cases, a “began to Y”/“began Y-ing” brings no value at all, as with “John jumped into the water and began to swim”—he was hardly swimming before, so “[…] and swam” is better. The variation “John jumped into the water and began to drown” / “[…] drowned” only sees a significant difference when the event/action/whatnot was not completed, here e.g. because John was rescued. Often the action is so short that its commencement will almost always imply its conclusion—using “she started to turn” over “she turned” is hardly ever justifiable.

My advice: The first attempt should use a single, ordinary verb, e.g. “John ran”. If this does not work in the overall context, go with “began to”, e.g. “John began to run”. Never use “began Y-ing”.

Excursion on “stopped” and similar words:
What about the mirror image “John stopped running”? I consider this formulation more acceptable, but also suboptimal, and would not see it as a justification for e.g. “X started* Y-ing”. This case differs in several regards: Firstly, the absence of strong alternatives. (There is no mirror image to “John ran”**, and “John stopped to run” is both uglier and more ambiguous than “John stopped running”.) Secondly, the lesser ambiguity. Thirdly, being less ugly in my eyes. Fourthly, having a greater grammatical justification, seeing that an interpretation as something ongoing is reasonably compatible (unlike with “start”): “John stopped running” could, if somewhat generously, be seen as “John, currently running, stopped doing so”. (Contrast this with a hypothetical and paradoxical “John, currently running, started doing so”…) Alternatively, an interpretation as gerund is less awkward than above, e.g. as “John stopped [the activity of] running”.***

*For better symmetry with “stop”, I will use “start” in this excursion. The main text mostly uses “began”, because I have seen “began” much more often in the last few days (and likely generally).

**“John stopped” would be a possible solution when only one activity is ongoing, and especially for activities that imply a movement in space (e.g. “running”). However, this will not work generally: For instance, “John sang while walking down the road. Feeling a sneeze coming on, he stopped.” is not unique enough: Did he stop singing, walking, or both? (Note that this ambiguity is more likely to affect the story than whether John ran, walked, or rested before meeting the bear above.)

***Then again, this might be better saved for more ongoing activities, states, whatnot. I would find this formulation less natural with someone who is at this very moment running, and more natural with someone who runs from time to time for exercise. Similarly, “John stopped smoking” would normally imply that he gave up smoking, rather than that he extinguished a cigarette. The same applies to the use of a gerund with “start” (“John started running to lose weight”—not “John started running to escape the bear”). In both cases, a reformulation using “gave up” resp. “took up”, or similar, is beneficial both to reduce ambiguity and to reduce ugliness. (Note that “John took up running” definitely implies a gerund. Also note that “John took up sports” works better than “John began sports”.)

A way out is to avoid “stopped” in favour of e.g. “ceased”: “X ceased to Y” is less problematic than “X stopped to Y”. For the moment, I suggest to either use this way or, when the context allows it, just “X stopped”—never “X stopped Y-ing”.

Constructs like “John continued running” are somewhere between the “start” and “stop” cases: On the one hand, the “ongoing” semi-justification holds similarly to “stop”; on the other, there are alternatives similarly to “start” (“John continued to run” and “John ran”, the latter actually being stronger than for “start”). These alternatives are my recommendation.

A “John continued running” might have some justification with a different intention, as with “John [who was originally walking] continued [now] running [because he saw a bear]”, but here a formulation like “John continued at a run” is usually better.

Excursion on “to … to …”:
A minor potential ugliness when using “to” is variations of “John wanted to begin to run”, where a “to” + infinitive appears repeatedly. The temptation to use “John wanted to begin running” is understandable, but I would recommend a greater restructuring. In the given example, the best solution is usually to just drop “to begin” entirely—“John wanted to run”. Alternatively, something like “John wanted to take up running” works again.

Excursion on other verbs:
My draft contained the following as a backup argument:

Of course, other non-auxiliary* double-verb constructs usually** follow the “to” pattern: “John wanted to run”, not “John wanted running”—conjugated verb, “to”, infinitive verb.

*An auxiliary verb could indeed use Y-ing as a participle, e.g. “John is running”—or use some other variation, e.g. “John must run” (an infinitive without “to”). Generally, some caution must be raised due to the different roles of verbs, which could imply different grammatical rules.

**A potential group of exceptions is those like “stop”, cf. excursion. While no other group of exceptional verbs occur to me, they might exist.

During proof-reading, exceptions like “loved running”, “disliked running”, “ran celebrating”, and my own uses of “took up running” belatedly occurred to me. These make the issue of precedence trickier, and I would rather not do the leg-work on the issue. However, limited to these cases:

“Took up running” is a strict gerund phrase, to the point that it can be disputed whether it is even a double-verb construct. (“Took up sports”, again, works much better than “began sports”, pointing strongly to a verb–noun construct. A gerund is, obviously, a quasi-noun. “Took up to run” is not even a possibility. ) Due to its character, there is also much less room for ambiguity.

“Ran celebrating” serves more to exemplify my objections against “began running” than to conquer them: Here two activities take place simultaneously (running and celebrating) that are not that closely connected. Someone is in a state of celebrating (e.g. having just won a track race) and is running while being in this state (e.g. during a lap of honor). Prior to winning, he was running without celebrating; after the honor lap, he will not be running but still be celebrating. Indeed, “he began, celebrating, to run” shows how awkward a formulation lie “he began celebrating” is. Even when the connection is strong, the modification by the one verb (a participle) is not necessarily on the other verb, but more (or wholly) on the actor in all cases that I can think of at the moment, e.g. “he slept dreaming” (broadly equivalent to “he slept and was dreaming”; and as opposed to “he slept dreamingly”, broadly equivalent to “he slept and did this dreamingly”).

As for “loved running” (ditto “disliked running”), it is usually solidly in the gerund territory and refers to more general activities than e.g. “John began running” typically does, e.g. “John loved running as a means of exercise”. In contrast, even if we allowed “John loved running from the bear” (referring to that one situation), it would make John a bit of a freak—and it could easily be replaced by “John loved to run from the bear”. Then again, I am skeptical to allowing “John loved running from the bear” in the first place: While it is not as ugly and ambiguous* as “John started running”, the gerund** issue arises and the construct brings no additional value over “John loved to run from the bear”.

*But it has some ambiguity: John might e.g. have been filled with love for his wife while running.

**Replacing “running” with “sports” gives us the non-sensical “John loved sports from the bear” speaking against a gerund, while variations like “John loved running speedily from the bear” point to a participle. Can the use be justified if it is not a gerund? Would it not be better to consistently use a “to” + infinitive?

Written by michaeleriksson

September 7, 2018 at 4:36 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Tagged with , , , ,