Showing posts with label Geoffrey Pullum. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Geoffrey Pullum. Show all posts


All you ever needed to know about the passive voice you learned in kindergarten, assuming Geoffrey Pullum was your kindergarten teacher*

* and you were precocious and paying attention. This post is for the rest of you.

Let's start with the very practical advice Paul Brians provides in Common Errors in English Usage:
There are legitimate uses for the passive voice: “this absurd regulation was of course written by a committee.” But it’s true that you can make your prose more lively and readable by using the active voice much more often. “The victim was attacked by three men in ski masks” isn’t nearly as striking as “three men in ski masks attacked the victim.” The passive voice is often used to avoid taking responsibility for an action: “my term paper was accidentally deleted” avoids stating the truth: “I accidentally deleted my term paper.” Over-use of passive constructions is irritating, though not necessarily erroneous. But it does lead to real clumsiness when passive constructions get piled on top of each other: “no exception in the no-pets rule was sought to be created so that angora rabbits could be raised in the apartment” can be made clearer by shifting to the active voice: “the landlord refused to make an exception to the no-pets rule to allow Eliza to raise angora rabbits in the apartment.” 
Good advice all the way around, stated succinctly and directly. The bad example sentences are improved by switching to active construction, and the passive verbs are correctly identified ("was written," "was attacked," "was deleted," "was sought," "could be raised").

This seems fairly simple: The passive voice is almost always formed by using a form of "to be" with the past participle form of the main verb. In the previous sentence I did it with "is" and "formed."

And as a usage point, note that Paul does not say it is always wrong or bad style to use the passive—it is the writer's prerogative to judge whether the writing would be improved by changing to active voice. Would my sentence in the previous paragraph be improved by changing it to "One forms the passive by using [. . . ]" or "You form the passive by using [. . . ]"? I decided it would not.
The key is to be well aware of what you are doing as you move along in your writing. Blindly prohibiting the passive voice will not improve your writing, but being aware of this construction and its possible overuse could help.

But is that all there is to know about the passive? Well, hardly. Over at Language Log, Geoff Pullum has been tracking this case for years, and he has thought about the passive voice far more than you or I.

What has Geoff found in all this tracking and thinking? I'll give you some highlights, but keep in mind that I'm burying the lede, which will come at the end. If you wish to skip to the end right this minute, you have to promise me you'll read that document thoroughly. If you plan on clicking the link and skimming for a minute or two, I'm sorry—that will not do. You have to at least get through the salient points:
  1. First, there is a shocking amount of misunderstanding about what the passive voice is. You may say, "Well, that's because it's a grammar term and who can be expected to know those?" But Geoff has found one instance after another of "authorities" handing out usage advice without being able to identify a passive. Quick: Name three popular style guides that every writer is familiar with. Chances are you thought of Strunk and White's Elements of Style among those three, but lest you think they know what they're talking about, keep in mind that in that book's discussion of the passive, four example "bad" sentences are provided; but only one of those four is actually a passive. In another instance, Sherry Roberts advises:

    "A sentence written in passive voice is the shifty desperado who tries to win the gunfight by shooting the sheriff in the back, stealing his horse, and sneaking out of town."

    But Pullum, the grammarian, quickly points out that she herself brazenly uses a passive in composing that sentence (the bare passive adjunct
    "written in passive voice"). Many other examples of this transgression have been catalogued on Language Log over the years.

  2. Remember that earlier in the post I claimed that the passive is almost always formed by using "to be" with the past participle form of the main verb. True enough, but there are several other passive voice constructions out there: Geoff gives us "I had the suit made by my tailor in Rome," "He got hooked on skeet shooting," and "This rug badly needs washing," along with Sherry Roberts' "A sentence written [. . . ]," as examples of other kinds of passives.

  3. If someone tells you "My first visit to Boston will always be remembered by me" is a passive to be avoided, and that "I will always remember my first visit to Boston" is active and much better, you are entirely within your rights to remind that person that no speaker or writer of English would consider uttering or writing anything so inane as "My first visit to Boston will always be remembered by me." Geoff calls this the "general information-structure constraint," meaning that in a naturally formed passive, there needs to be new information on both sides of the verb, so the phrase "will always be remembered by me" is completely unnatural because the "by me" information adds nothing to the meaning of the sentence. "I will remember" is the natural choice, and trying to twist this sentence around to create a bad example sentence is disingenuous, but indeed, that is what William Strunk did when composing a passive voice example in an early edition of Elements of Style. Yes, you heard me right: "My first visit to Boston will always be remembered by me" was written by Strunk; it is not a real sentence, naturally formed and then later collected for discussion/examination.

  4. What I'm really getting at is that Strunk and White are shifty desperadoes who try to win the gunfight by shooting the sheriff in the back, stealing his horse, and sneaking out of town.

  5. What is labeled as "passive voice" is often just any old phrase or sentence that some critic decides is weak, an utterance that seems designed to shift responsibility and that often but not always contains a form of "to be." Thus "The election results saddened me" and "There was sadness in the room when we heard the election results" have the patina of passive voice, and so a critic ignorant of grammar may deem either of those passive. But they are not. The first sentence is just a verb with a direct object that happens to be "me"; the second sentence uses "There was"—a phrase that often can be revised for the better, but labeling it "passive" is a mistake. Other times sentences are labeled as "passive" for reasons that cannot be discerned or even guessed at. Geoff points out that the Canadian Press Stylebook labels this sentence as passive:

    The economy experienced a quick revival."

    It is impossible, for me anyway, to see how anyone could imagine that sentence uses passive voice. Another example from a site called Grammarist calls this a passive:

    I urge him to stay in cable, where he belongs."

    I have no idea what "stay in cable" means in this directive (perhaps this is advice to not acquire a satellite dish, or to avoid taking a job at a CBS?) or why "in cable" would be where someone could possibly belong, but I do know that that sentence in no way employs the passive voice.

  6. The passive voice is absolutely required at times; for that reason alone you cannot blindly go about trying to eliminate it. Here's one example from Geoff:

    "The picture you’ve been admiring wasn’t painted by Picasso at all; it was painted by me!"

    Here the one-to-one symmetry of "by Picasso" and "by me" would be lost entirely were the sentence changed to the active "Picasso didn't paint the picture you've been admiring; I did!" Note the lack of rhetorical punch; note how much worse the active is than the passive in this case. How about the ungrammatical-but-effective exclamation "We was robbed!"? The critique, if there is one, is that the verb does not agree in number with the subject—no one in their right mind would try to "improve" the phrase to "The refs robbed us" or "The judge robbed us." It's important to keep that balance of "we" and "robbed" to emphasize the injustice of the situation.

  7. Regardless of advice you may hear to avoid the passive voice, there is no writer, from the towering literary giant to the casual seller on eBay, who never uses the passive voice (an average of 13–17 percent of the time, in fact). A usage "expert" may advise you to avoid it, but doing so would only make your writing less sophisticated than that expert's.
But enough of the highlights. You really ought to go read Geoff Pullum's "Fear and Loathing of the English Passive." You will learn about several other situations that guide the use of passive voice, and you will be deeply horrified and saddened by the incompetence of many would-be usage guides. Yes, the paper is written for an academic journal, but don't let that discourage you—you won't find a more readable paper on an English usage point, and my summary barely scratches the surface—there are many more juicy parts to discover in the original.


Author appearance: Geoff Pullum at the University of Washington

Here is a rare opportunity to see the globe-trotting Geoff Pullum deliver a lecture in the Great Northwest. Next Tuesday, February 12 at 6:30. The title of the lecture,
The scandal of English grammar teaching: Ignorance of grammar, damage to writing skills, and what we can do about it
has prompted Geoff to post a clarification at Language Log:
[ . . . ] although the summary published on the registration page is entirely accurate, I would still conjecture that as many as half the people planning to attend will think that the scandal is people who write bad. They will assume that I will be dinging ordinary folks for writing (and speaking) ungrammatically. Little will they know what lies in store: that my target is the grammarians. It is the rule-givers and knuckle-rappers and nitpickers that I will be castigating for their ignorance of the content of the principles of English syntax.
But those of us who know Geoff already knew that.


The Artist

I just realized that over there on Facebook, Language Log is using an image I created a few years ago as their profile cover. Geoff Pullum had thought a visual representation of Language Log might work as something to be incorporated into the cover for Far from the Madding Gerund, whose type is incorporated into that Facebook profile cover also.

I'm very happy to have something I did featured like this, and hey—it looks pretty good to me. How would I know, though? I'm not an artist. I have some friends and acquaintances who are very serious and talented and successful, but I am only very lightly any of those three things. Required. To be an Artist.

That does not keep me from doing stuff, though. I came into book editing at exactly the time that computers started making layout work doable by the masses (I was, and still am, a mass), and so part of my duties in book production for a small publisher has always been design work, often creating book covers and ad pieces. Some of this work has been passable, including that cover for the Language Log book, Far from the Madding Gerund. Some of it has been hasty and quite uninspired, like a cover I generated in one 30-minute stint before going away on vacation:

I left instructions to use this type as a possible basis for creating something else that could actually be the actual cover. When I returned from vacation the book had been shipped to press with the cover more or less exactly how I had created it, including using color swatches entirely from the readymade palette that ships with Adobe Illustrator. The book went on to sell more copies than any other book we have ever done. Art, you see, doesn't matter much when it comes to selling books about computing.

For another Windows book, I created something I liked pretty well but never used or even showed to anyone:

I think it looked too fun, though. I once was told to make sure the cover never looks more fun than the book really is, and that's probably good advice.

I've created dozens of book covers over the years, and part of the reason I know I'm not an artist is that it is never torturous for me. I always enjoy it, even when it is clearly not going well at all.

Back to Language Log—I had a few other visualizations for what Language Log Plaza might look like:


All of this is true—I am not a serious artist and only consider myself a designer when it is professionally expedient to do so (I'm a book editor, that's my self-definition)—but what is really, really true is that I have no skill as a photographer, and yet (another Language Log tie-in), I am very proud that my photograph of Mark Liberman is the one that shows up on the side when you Google Mark's name: 

Which has the background knocked out. The original photo, taken at pod in Philadelphia, looks like the one you see on the left side of the row of Mark Liberman images:


Far from the Madding Eggcorn—can Webster's be far behind?

Years ago I pulled out an old sheet of newsprint, placed an acorn on it, and shot some photos with the digital camera. The day before that I had been in downtown Portland pointing the lens skyward to capture images of clouds.

The family thought it a little perverse, yes, but I had a vision; I was getting ready to build the cover of Far from the Madding Gerund, the collection of Language Log posts we were preparing for publication.

An acorn? For that? True, Geoff Pullum had imagined a large office building labeled with "Language Log," as if the blog itself had a physical location, with professional linguists in their offices all day long cranking out blog posts, running down the hallway to the copy room, ordering take-out together for a lunchtime meeting. A very romantic take on things, not unlike the announcement you hear on Car Talk when they give the address as "Car Talk Plaza." I messed around with it a little, like this:

and this:
also this:
this, too:
and even this:
But I kept going back to the acorn as the one true visual symbol of Language Log. It was the acorn, after all, that had inspired the word "eggcorn," which Mark Liberman in 2003 described on Language Log this way:

Chris Potts has told me about a case in which a woman wrote "egg corns" for "acorns." This might be taken to be a folk etymology, like "Jerusalem" for "girasole" in "Jerusalem artichoke" (a kind of sunflower). But it might also be treated as something like a mondegreen (also here and here), the kind of "slip of the ear" that is especially common in learning songs and poems. Finally, it's also something like a malapropism, where a word is mistakenly substituted for one of similar sound shape.
Although the example is somewhat like each of these three named categories of errors, it's not exactly any of them. Can anyone suggest a better term?
To which Language Log contributor Geoff Pullum responded that this kind of error should be called an "eggcorn," and thus "eggcorn" became common coin over at Language Log, where it has since been well understood by readers of the site. Too many posts have been written discussing eggcorns to link to, and a spin-off site, The Eggcorn Database, was launched in 2005. (Geoff, by the way, always told me the image on the cover has to be called an eggcorn, not an acorn, which sort of makes my head spin if I think that over too much.)

All these years later, Ben Zimmer tells us that, after the OED family of dictionaries added "eggcorn" last year, the American Heritage Dictionary now has "eggcorn" among its newly added terms of 2011. I like to think that this means my cover is now a word. That said, this is the final version of that cover—an acorn floating on the clouds with the smiling word "Gerund" telling you this is not all dead serious grammar talk inside, plus a joyous blurb by the great Jan Freeman resting like a crown atop the whole thing ("exuberant, tart, and totally addictive"). It may be my all-time favorite cover I've designed:
And, if you have not had enough of the "eggcorn" media blitz (it's just everywhere—it even made this blog!), you may go listen to Steve Kleinedler, executive editor of the American Heritage Dictionary, discussing "eggcorn" and other new entries with Robin Young at Here and Now.


Misspell "vise" and win a free book!

I was reading Paul Brians' account of the history of vise and vice, as told by the OED, and I could not help but remember, for better or worse, an unusual encounter I had with the vise/vice spellings when I was editing the collection of Language Log entries, Far from the Madding Gerund . . .

The final piece of that book was the Introduction written primarily by Geoffrey Pullum, the co-author of the book (in fact, though Mark Liberman is the founder of Language Log and was listed as the first author of the book, it was Geoff who worked most attentively on the book version). I remember struggling with this sentence:
It concentrates primarily on topics having to do with grammar and correctness in Standard English—how people use the language, evidence that a lot of usage criticism is flat wrong, speculations on why incorrectly framed or completely mythical rules have such a vice-like grip on the minds of educated Americans, and so on. [emphasis added]
You, no doubt, will focus on that "vice-like"—shouldn't that be "vise-like"? I thought so, too, until I consulted the Random House Dictionary of the English Language (Unabridged) at the office here. It told me that "vice" was a spelling of "vise," so (I thought to myself) don't automatically make that change. Best to query the author. Here is photo evidence (note the straightforward manner of the entry: "vice"="vise" with no "esp. British" restrictions on it, and yes, this is an American publication):

Trouble is (or, I guess . . . trouble was), the author was away in Spain, and not Madrid or Barcelona or some other reasonable location. Far away in Spain, out in the Spanish Boonies. Far, far away. "Incommunicado," I think is how they put it. I, under tight deadline, had to make an Editorial Decision.

"No problemo," as they [don't actually] say. I'll just go into the mind of Geoff Pullum, whom I had worked with enough to know things such as he would say that only fools fret over "who" and "whom" in sentences such as this one. He is not just an authoritative English grammarian, he is also a sophisticated and witty prose stylist. He excels at the self-referential sentence that is not too subtle. He enjoys bringing you in on a joke, and so I reasoned something like this:
Here is Geoff using a variant spelling of "vise" in a sentence that discusses the folly of would-be usage police. He is daring anyone to challenge the spelling, daring the reader to consult the dictionary and see that, in fact, even a dictionary editor would agree that "vice" is actually an acceptable spelling for "vise." 
Pretty clever, I thought, and let it go at that. Let's leave the spelling as is. So far, so good.

But then . . . within a few months of the book's publication, I received this note from a reader:

Good morning!
Yesterday a birthday box arrived from my firstborn son and fellow linguaphile. In it I found a copy of Far from the Madding Gerund and a box of Godiva chocolates. What bliss! I dipped into both with gusto, beginning with a chocolate cream and the Preface. In the second paragraph I chewed happily while scratching my head in puzzlement. Was I in the "vice-like grip" of a pun or a slip of the homonym. Hmmm. Yum. If you'll reply, I'll send you a chocolate with a G on top! (I'm enjoying the book enormously.)
Hopefully, (and I hope I'm using that word properly),
OK--the name of the reader was not "Devoted Reader." There was a real name involved, but I am respecting the privacy of the reader correspondent.

Naturally, I wrote back with the explanation I outlined above: "vice" is an acceptable replacement for "vise." I was strident, but my reply was not entirely without wit, and I invited the reader to contact Geoff Pullum, who had long since returned to civilization from the far reaches of rural Spain, directly for confirmation on this.

The reader dutifully did follow up with Geoff. Came the reply:
"Vise" is one of the Americanisms of spelling that I have not internalized, despite having been an American since 1987.  I do fine with "color" and "center" and "Americanize" and "aluminum", and even vary the spellings according to my audience ("colour" and "centre" and "Americanise" and "aluminium" for British correspondents); but "vise", and above all the single "l" in words like "labeling", tend to slip by me.

MADDING GERUND is strictly supposed to be in American spelling, so you were right to pick on it.  I'd like to blame our editor, Tom Sumner, if that's all right?

Best wishes,
So ouch. Mea culpa. But what about that Random House dictionary? What was going on there? Indeed, I went home that night and consulted the Webster's I used in college. Right there in front of me was the distinction "Chiefly Brit." next to the "vice" spelling when "vise" is standard in American spelling. My heart sank. I had been let down by the hefty Random House Dictionary of the English Language (Unabridged).

There was a very happy ending for me, however. The Devoted Reader found the exchange so interesting that she sent me a copy of a really delightful children's book that had been written by her mother-in-law. 

There is a lesson here for copy editors everywhere. When you start trying to outthink the room, you'd better start with at least two dictionaries in hand. If you're really lucky, one of them will be the OED, for reasons Paul Brians explained in his recent post here.


National Grammar Day's Martha Brockenbrough reads Paul Brians; gets the wrong message

Nathan Bierma points out that Martha Brockenbrough, who serves as grammar guru for Microsoft's Encarta web site, where she writes a column called "Grumpy Martha's Guide to Grammar and Usage," endorsed March 4 as National Grammar Day. According to Nathan,
. . . she takes Elvis to task -- is no one sacred? -- for singing "I'm all shook up" instead of the proper "all shaken up."

Raise your hand if you prefer this correction. That's what I thought.
Now you can raise your hand if you recognize that this has been addressed by Paul Brians:
Elvis Presley couldn’t have very well sung “I’m all shaken up,” but that is the grammatically correct form. “Shook” is the simple past tense of “shake,” and quite correct in sentences like “I shook my piggy bank but all that came out was a paper clip.” But in sentences with a helping verb, you need “shaken”: “The quarterback had shaken the champagne bottle before emptying it on the coach.”
Last year I used this as a jumping off point for the Common Errors in English Usage Calendar entry for January 8, Elvis' birthday. The difficult-to-read caption you see on that page is this:
His unpopular act included grammatically correct hits of the fifties, all with harp accompaniment: “All Shaken Up,” “Whom Do You Love,” “There Is a Whole Lot of Shaking Going On,” etc.
I didn't know that Martha Brockenbrough would take home the wrong message from that, but she ought to have at least figured out the sarcasm by the time she got to Dylan's birthday, covering Brians' entry on ain't:

That's a little hard to read. Here's Paul's entry:
“Ain’t” has a long and vital history as a substitute for “isn’t,” “aren’t” and so on. It was originally formed from a contraction of “am not” and is still commonly used in that sense. Even though it has been universally condemned as the classic “mistake” in English, everyone uses it occasionally as part of a joking phrase or to convey a down-to-earth quality. But if you always use it instead of the more “proper” contractions you’re sure to be branded as uneducated.
And my caption reads like this:
And from his catalogue of sixties hits: “I Am Not Going to Work on Maggie’s Farm Anymore.”
The point, Martha, was that his act was unpopular; that is, there's a time to rock and a time to write formally. Your intrusions into our times to rock are not any more appreciated than our harp-playing entertainer's.

Geoffrey Pullum weighs in, pointing out that other of the King's hits could be subject to Martha's edit:
  • Treat Me Nicely
  • Do Not
  • Love Me Tenderly
  • I Cannot Help Falling in Love
  • Do You Not Think It Is Time?
  • I Do Not Care If The Sun Does Not Shine
  • It Is Not Any Big Thing (But It Is Growing)
  • Is That Not Loving You, Baby?
And by email points out that a Fats Waller hit could have been written by Martha as "I am not misbehaving," to which I say, "Your feet are too big," anyone? That's what I thought.


Diversions? There are Eight

According to the Southwest Airlines in-flight magazine Spirit, there are just eight diversions of note, but one of them is Language Log.
They had the good taste to include Geoff Pullum's post on Ray Charles among the recommended readings at the site. It is, to my mind, one of the best things originally published on the web. The structure of the post emulates the blues it describes--commencing on one theme, segueing to a pitch-perfect improvised solo in the middle, returning to the main theme with a big finish at the end.

Geoff's own version of the blues sets the scene in an idealized California--Ray Charles, not long before his passing, appearing at a summertime blues festival in the park. From there, Geoff's solo takes us into an analysis of Ray's word selection in "America the Beautiful," and with such flare we almost don't notice we've strayed from an unabashed Ray Charles appreciation to complete grammar-geek mode. Pullum gets out of this potentially dead-end riffing by slyly reminding us that he himself has had just two real professions: blues musician and linguist. He thus circles back to praise--more forceful and meaningful this time--for Ray Charles’ musicianship. The piece concludes with the four magic words for any American: Happy Fourth of July. It’s what we in the biz call bringing it home.

But if you’re like me, you tire of trying to read so much great material onscreen. For you, there’s Far from the Madding Gerund, complete with Geoff’s masterpiece of blogging on Ray Charles and 139 other classics from the annals of Language Log.

When you pick up the book, please do not miss Mark Liberman’s “The SAT fails a grammar test.” I know there are but eight great diversions remaining in this weary world, but surely this must be one of them, too.


Geoff Pullum at The Make Out Room in San Francisco

Renowned linguist and wit Geoffrey Pullum (Far from the Madding Gerund) will be featured in Writers with Drinks at The Make Out Room on Saturday, May 12, 7:30 to 9:30 PM. Doors open at 7:00p.m. Address is 3225 22nd Street, between Mission and Valencia, in San Francisco.

from the website
Variety is more that just the name of Prince's favorite girl-singer sidekick. It's more than just having sex dressed as Alien Greenspan every once in a while. It's also a Literary Imperative! Which is why Writers With Drinks combines erotica with literature, stand-up comedy with science fiction and poetry with essays. Plus mystery, romance, memoir, rants and 'other.'

Others on the schedule for the evening include
Jami Attenberg (Instant Love)
Stephanie Paul (The Comedy Store)
Liz Maverick (Wired, Shards of Crimson)
Jaime Cortez (Sexile/Sexilo)
Blair (Black Rennaissance Noir, Burying The Evidence)

Cost of entry is $3 to $5 on a sliding scale. All proceeds go to Other magazine.

SF Weekly named Writers With Drinks events in Best of San Francisco 2006:

BEST LITERARY DRINKING. Charlie Anders' "Writers With Drinks" continues on, five years strong. What's her secret? Variety! ... You're bound to stay interested if you find yourself listening to revered children's author Daniel Handler (aka Lemony Snicket) one moment and local comedian W. Kamau Bell the next. Throw in a few cartoonists, sex workers, radio hosts and big-shot authors like Andrew Sean Greer, Vendela Vida and Michelle Tea -- as well as the hostess ... and you've got a seriously (and not so seriously) good time.


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.


Review magazine features Far from the Madding Gerund

The following sidebar appears in the Spring issue of Review magazine (University of California Santa Cruz quarterly magazine), published in mid-April.

High Profile Books from UCSC's Humanities Faculty

By Scott Rappaport -- Geoffrey Pullum, Far from the Madding Gerund, coauthored by UCSC linguistics professor Mark Liberman of the University of Pennsylvania, has garnered rave reviews from the New York Times, Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune and National Public Radio. It features the best posts from the popular blog Language Log, begun in 2003 by Pullum, Liberman, and a team of other linguists across the country.

Elected as a member of the prestigious American Academy of Arts & Sciences in 2003, Pullum has published a dozen books and nearly 200 articles on the scientific study of language. He is coauthor of The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (2002), the first definitive grammar reference book of standard international English in more than 20 years. One of his best-known books is The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax, a highly entertaining collection of satirical essays about the field of linguistics. Pullum was chosen by his fellow faculty members to give the 40th annual UCSC Faculty Research Lecture in February.

Photo of Geoffrey Pullum from UCSC Web site