O, Here Comes Teacher, Wagging His Finger

By Bob Litton

As a “man of letters” I read as much as my drowsy eyelids allow me. However, I do not progress very rapidly in my perusal of a book, regardless of whether the subject is deep or light, improving or escapist. One reason for my slowness, of course, is my inherent turtle’s metabolism in all its manifestations, mental or physical; another is, of course, my ancient age: my mind wanders.

A more laudable cause, though, is that I read as much — perhaps more — for detection of style and grammatical quirks in the author. This attribute has contributed plenty to the development of my own style. That is the positive side of the attribute; the negative is that I become annoyed, sometimes even angry, when I note faults in the diction or grammar in other writers. Just this week, for instance, I started reading Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, his last novel. In Part First, Episode III (or “Section III”— I cannot quite comprehend Hardy’s division style), I came upon this paragraph:

The boy (Jude Fawley, the protagonist) had never strayed so far north as this from the hamlet in which he had been deposited by the carrier from a railway station southward, one dark evening some few months earlier, and till now he had had no suspicion that such a wide, flat, low-lying country lay so near at hand, under the very verge of his upland world. The whole northern semicircle between east and west, to a distance of forty or fifty miles, spread itself before him; a bluer, moister atmosphere, evidently, than that he had breathed up here.

It might be a small matter to my readers, but it seems to be that an omniscient author should be more exact in his measurements. The word “some”, in particular, irritates me when it is used by either an indifferent or a lazy writer. What does “some” mean here? It could be four months or fourteen months: the word “few” would have been quite adequate if allowed to stand alone, but instead Hardy wants to make us guess. ( The word “somewhat” is often used by other writers in much the same way: I think “somewhat” should be banned from the English dictionary.) The same criticism is pertinent to the other phrase I have emphasized in bold type. If two characters were discussing the area described here, I could accept such a remark from them; but Hardy, the novelist, is supposed to be the omniscient observer, and I expect a bit more decisiveness from him even if, as a real human being, he does not know the precise radius of the semicircle: just let him lie and let us get on with the story.

Now, do not take me wrong and believe that I am judging Hardy harshly or that I do not appreciate his writing; I like his style generally and I especially like his irony. I am just using a sample of his writing to prove a point about the value of clarity (even if it is a fabrication) in getting the pace of a story moving. I see this kind of vagueness almost every day in newspaper reports. It is both funny and aggravating to read a news account in which the reporter has written something like this: There were only about two or three people in the room. My God! Cannot the knucklehead count to three?

* * * * * *

I had a brief but engrossing debate with a friend of mine this morning over how a married woman should be titled. I am as much…well, almost as much…a feminism supporter as he, but I am definitely more conservative in maintaining the conventional standards of our language than he. During our conversation I mentioned that I would like to keep as much of our language conventions as possible, but I realize that language is a live thing in that it evolves just as animals and plants do.

“There just isn’t much that can be done about it,” I said. “Take ‘want to’, for instance. The new form — ‘wanna’ — is already practically standard; and I can’t really argue against it, ugly though I view it, because that basically is what we pronounce. In my youth there was a hue and cry over the contraction ‘ain’t’, but have you ever tried to pronounce the logical contraction ‘amn’t’?”

Then we started in on my objection to the frequent introduction of some woman as “Mrs. Mary Jones”.

“It should be ‘Mrs. John Jones’!” I declared.

That is when my friend sat bolt upright in his chair.

“And I most strongly disagree with that!” he said. “The woman is not ‘John Jones’! That is her husband’s name.”

“True, but ‘Mrs.’ denotes a marital connection. Her husband’s name is not ‘Mary’. And, even if you dispense with the husband’s entire name, she still is saddled with a male’s last name: her father’s.”

Our conversation drifted off into a discussion of patriarchal and matriarchal societies — at least to the small degree we were acquainted with them. We never really settled on an answer to the marital name question, although we did agree that it will probably end up in a lengthy title involving several hyphens.

* * * * * *

A more dramatic — and therefore more fascinating to me — bump in the road to good, clear written communication is our use of the word “only”. Ponder these sentences for a few minutes:

Only Miss Muffet sat on the tuffet.
Miss Muffet only sat on the tuffet.
Miss Muffet sat only on the tuffet.
Miss Muffet sat on the only tuffet.

Now, Gentle Reader, surely you will agree that each of those sentences says something different from the others, even though the same words, and only those words, are used in each. The example above illustrates how our language is virtually totally dependent upon word order. Such has not always been the case. English has evolved from a state in which each word had several forms, each form indicating how it was to be understood in the sentence. Students of ancient Greek and Latin will immediately grasp my point, for those languages (being dead) retain their various forms. In other words, they are highly inflected. Other readers should grasp some degree of my import when I suggest they consider the few remnants of our older language as apparent in our pronouns: I, me, he, him, she, her, they, them, who, whom, they, theirs, etc. In Standard English those terms still require their unique meanings; but, sadly, one can witness every day the decline in observance of those distinctions. Even in movies and TV shows, one will hear the characters say things like “Him and I went to the ball game” or “Who are you talking to?” I was startled — almost shocked — one day a couple of years ago when I first viewed “The Thin Man” film (1931) and heard Nora Charles’ old aunt, discerning a knock at the door, say, “That must be they now!” It was a shocking utterance because it was grammatically correct, something you would not hear in a modern remake of the film.

But I have digressed from the main point I want to make about the four brief sentences above. That is, I constantly see instances in the papers where either a speaker or the reporter places the word “only” in a position which detracts from the clarity of a sentence or may even totally misrepresent it. Sorry, I do not have any real-life examples at hand, but you can find one if you keep a lookout for it. When you notice it, just try mentally relocating that word to a spot closer to the word it is meant to modify.

* * * * * *

Another of my pet peeves is the “feminine so”. The word “so” has multiple uses, but the use with which I am concerned here is that of an intensive. The word can logically be used that way, but only if it has an apparent referent or consequent. The problem is that sometimes it is employed as what we might call an “absolute intensive”, without any referent. This often occurs in conversations among high-strung teenage girls, as when they exclaim something like “I am soooo depressed!” So what? If the girl had said, “I am so depressed that I am going to get drunk!” then we would have something by which to gauge the intensity of her condition. An alternative intensive is available: “very”. The word “very” does not call out for a referent or consequent; we can simply accept its simple measure of degree above normal. I used to teach that a “that clause” should follow the “so” intensive; but I had been overstating the situation. Further study led me to conclude that the referent might be included in part of the paragraph preceding the sentence using “so” and no “that clause” be needed. For instance, somebody might say, “The earth is cracking around here and our cattle are dying from thirst. I’m going to have to give up this farm. This drought is so devastating.”

* * * * * *

Finally, I would like to reiterate the perennially pointed to problem of confusing the meanings of “effect” and “affect”. Both words can be used as nouns and both can be used as verbs. However, the meanings are different in every instance. I will not bother to take up space explaining those differences here. I will only suggest that those of my readers who wish to render their own writings grammatically logical should go to a large dictionary and compare/contrast “effect” and “affect”. (I saw one term used where the other should have been used in The New York Times either yesterday or the day before, so even the masters can goof occasionally.)

I have a similar issue with the terms “attain” and “obtain”. I see them as having entirely different meanings, but the Internet dictionary I use allows for some degree of crossover. What can I say? I am a purist!










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