Jack Hart on CSTA Grammar: Zero for Four

Spend a little time with Far from the Madding Gerund or Language Log, and you, too, can take apart usage advice by experts in the popular press!

This morning I started my day like any other. You know how it goes--straight to Living section of The Oregonian to see if (TV columnist) Peter Ames Carlin had a new column. Well, actually that’s not how I start my day, but let’s pretend that’s how I start my day, because that at least would be a quirky habit, possibly interesting. The fact is there is nothing interesting, much less quirky, about how I start my day, no matter what you may think of setting Das Lied von der Erde on the CD alarm.

But I digress. The plain truth is I did see the Carlin column this morning--thanks for asking. And I generally enjoyed his rant about The Center for Screen-Time Awareness, an organization I ought to love dearly for their well-intentioned “TV Turn-off Week.” I myself don’t watch TV per se, and I’m perfectly willing to have groups of people out there advocating that others do the same. I’ve long fantasized about setting a TV with a hammer and other implements of destruction next to it out in front of the house. I’d put a sign up, “THE TELEVISION WILL BE REVOLUTIONIZED.” The invitation to passersby, naturally, would be to apply the hammer to the television set and thus release pent-up frustrations about having the minds of the masses enslaved by the media masters, a drama well suited to be played out in my front yard. It would be the GREATEST MEDIA STATEMENT EVER.

But again I digress. Guess I'd better get started.

You see, there in the middle of Carlin’s column was a pretty damning indictment of the grammar on the web site of The Center for Screen-Time Awareness folk:

Here's the group's mission statement, also from the Web site:

"Empowering people to take control of technology and not letting technology take control of them so they can live healthier lives."

This packs so many usage errors into its 21 words that I barely know where to begin. So let's ask Jack Hart, The Oregonian's chief writing guru, for a deconstruction. He didn't know why I was asking, but here's his response:

"It's a sentence fragment. (Fragments can be effective, but this one isn't.) It's nonparallel. (The parallel form is "empowering people . . . and keeping technology from. . . .") The subordinate clause -- "so they can live healthier lives" -- seems to modify "take control of them," which was not the intended meaning. And, by strict traditional standards, it also contains a usage error because "so" is used as a subordinate conjunction. (The correct subordinate conjunction is "so that.")

Wow, I thought, Jack Hart really got them good with his subordinate clause jab and his subordinate conjunction dig. Man, Jack Hart, I thought, you are so quick, so astute, so on target.

This went on for about, oh . . . I’d say two- or three-tenths of a second. I then remembered Geoff Pullum. I then remembered that I spent about 18 months of my life getting conversant with his Language Log posts. I even remembered his admonition, “Keep your hand on your wallet when people tell you things about language; they're convinced you'll believe absolutely anything, so they have little motive to stick to even a vague semblance of truth.” I thought so much of that advice, I placed that post right at the front of the Language Log collection. And the great Jan Freeman thought so much of that quote she reprinted it in her indispensable Boston Globe column.

So then I thought, what if I did that for real? What if I kept my hand on my wallet--you know, proverbially speaking--and applied some thinking to Jack Hart’s analysis?

Well, I’m not a professional, you kids at home don’t try this, and [insert other generic caveats here], but here goes:

  1. Fragments aren't intrinsically wrong. Mr. Hart says so himself.

  2. I think Mr. Hart's right in concept about the parallelism (that jumped out at me, too), but I don't at all like his fix.

    He says to change the phrasing to this: "Empowering people to take control of technology and keeping technology from taking control [. . .]"

    But here's how I read the original:

    "[We are all about] Empowering people to take control of technology and [empowering people to] not letting technology take control of them so they can live healthier lives."

    So the parallel construction would be "take control" and "not let," so it gets revised thus:

    "Empowering people to take control of technology and to not let technology take control of them so they can live healthier lives."

    which is better, but probably still shouldn't be the final revision. Mr. Hart might even get mad at me for splitting the infinitive. He might even do it just to spite me.

    3. Mr. Hart sees a dangling modifier where the meaning is clear enough. Nobody really thinks, after reading the mission statement, that the people will live healthier lives only after technology has taken control of them.

    4. The distinction made between "so" and "so that" is just a canard. Mr. Hart tips his hand when he allows that “strict traditional standards” would advise using “so that” in this case, so I checked the trusty Merriam-Webster’s Concise Dictionary of English Usage and verified that (beneath their usual multiple citations of edited prose to bear out their advice) “[t]here does not seem to be much reason for you to fret over the choice between so and so that.”

And here I'm going end any defense of CSTA's mission statement. Mission statements are important, and I agree with Carlin's intuition--this one need help. When you try to improve or discredit writing just by looking at the grammar, though, you've already lost the scent. And here I'll offer one last warning from Pullum: "What do these writing experts think they are doing trying to take something as subtle as how to write well and boil it down to maxims as simple as the avoidance of one particular grammatical category?"

So there you have it. Sidney Goldberg may have been zero for three on NYT grammar, but I’ve got Jack Hart besting him at zero for four on CSTA grammar.

Next up: My own ill-informed study of Mahler songs. But I digress.

No comments: