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A Swede in Germany

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Weak justifications for poor language

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*In the case of e.g. Shakespeare, they also forget that a once valid use might now be outdated; that he, as a poet, might have taken liberties in order to improve rhyme or meter; that his language might have contained dialectal features in a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

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