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Sunday, March 19, 2006

Words, Words, Words

We've gotten into a usage discussion in the comments to Shrieking Shrubbery. This morning A.N. wrote, "While you are at it, how about the obviously wrong usage of 'different than,' instead of the correct 'different from' or 'different to'? And why do we need to say 'off of,' when 'off' would be just fine, like in 'the ball came off the bat'? Maybe these are 'outside of' the topic, but I couldn't resist a dig at these kind of silly usages spreading like the bird flu, with no known antidote!"

There certainly does appear to be a need for "filler words" these days. A neighbor of mine took a speech class and was mortified to learn that she said "uh" thirty times in a two-minute impromptu address to the class! Another one A.N. didn't mention was "continue on," in which, to me anyway, the "on" is implied in "continue."

One of my best "English" lessons in recent years was when PHOTO Techniques magazine hired Nancy Getz to do the copyediting. Nancy just had no tolerance for extra words (she would find eight or ten to strike just in this little post) and it was a revelation to see what she did to copy. I didn't always let her Draconian edits stand, but I always learned from what she did.

I used to give my students two bits of advice for writing defensively: if you get in trouble in a sentence, break it into two sentences. If you get in trouble with a clause, see if you can drop it altogether and have the sentence still make sense. It's amazing how many times those two little rules of thumb can get writers out of trouble.

Alas, "different than" is fully proper usage, sanctioned by Fowler and used by Shakespeare, no less. To me, it's one of those "preference points," like that vs. which*: I will prefer "different from" except where "different than" is necessary. (It almost never is.)

I try not to get bothered by poor usage. Language evolves, and frankly I'm happy we no longer feel the need to write like David Hume (whose English I've always found curiously opaque) or even Bob "The Great Agnostic" Ingersoll. (Although I guess Alan Greenspan qualifies.) The one thing that drives me crazy, though, is a current full-blown fad in England (of all places!) of conjoining two separate sentences with a comma instead of separating them with a period. It is rampant. Here's an example from a prime offender:

"This PMA was busier and felt far more positive than last year, we saw a good 'rounding' of product ranges by most of the manufacturers as well as some interesting new developments."

For heaven's sake—the subject in the first sentence is "this PMA" and the subject in the second sentence is "we." Don't most of us learn by the time we are eight years old that two entirely separate subjects require two separate sentences? The only explanation is that this is being done on purpose. It's a fad.

It's a curious, and sad, phenomenon of the Web that good English does not seem to fall under the heading of "professionalism." No matter how excellent the information, how good the graphics, how superb the web-page programming, most sites not connected to traditional journalism in some way fall flat on their faces when it comes to basic editing of basic English. A site that is entirely professional in every other way will often be sorely lacking in its language. A shame.

Posted by: MIKE JOHNSTON

*The rule is, prefer "that" except where only "which" will do. Next?

16 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

English is out of the hands of English-speakers, just like publishing is out of the hands of professionals. Better get used to it, 'cos we is living in a new age, mate.

3:23 PM  
Anonymous John said...

My personal peeve from the last few years is the rampant use of qualifiers in spoken English. People seem to be afraid to make definitive statements.

"He seemed sort of hesitant..." is a fictional example of what I hear all the time (although I've managed to avoid much anguish over the last year by not watching TV). What's wrong with saying that he seemed hesitant?

I was in an airport once, watching the CNN airport channel, and I heard a newscaster offer not one, not two, but four qualifiers in one sentence. I dearly wish I had written it down.

4:27 PM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

John,
I actually USE a lot of qualifiers, so I shouldn't throw stones, but one place where they really stick out is when people are trying to be sincere. I saw an actress the other night who was trying to make a case for her new movie being especially deep and compelling, but she kept using "sort of," as in "it's a deeply, sort of, emotional experience...." Ouch!

--Mike

5:15 PM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

P.S. "Sort of" is a signifier for thoughtfulness, as if the speaker is pondering what he is saying as he speaks. An even worse signifier of thoughtfulness is a visual one, the "scripted lookaway" in televison commercials. Start taking a look for it. A talking head who is telling you about a product will pause and at the same time look away from the camera and down, then look back to the camera and resume speaking again. The implication is that it [the head] is saying something especially sincere. Once you start noticing it, it's all over the place. Awful.

--Mike

5:21 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I thought the rule was: use "that" for restrictive clauses, and use "which" for non-restrictive clauses.

6:58 PM  
Blogger eolake said...

"The one thing that drives me crazy, though, is a current full-blown fad in England (of all places!) of conjoining two separate sentences with a comma instead of separating them with a period."

You're talking about Phil. :)
From his latest:
"Firstly I don't honestly see that many digital SLR owners asking for this feature, it's a neat option, it's good for upgraders coming from consumer cameras who may be used to seeing the live view on the LCD screen and it may well have one or two useful scenarios (macro shooting, live portraits shown on a TV screen) however for me I simply found myself moving back to the viewfinder more times than not."

And dang you for pointing it out, it never bothered me, and I love Phil's work! :)

7:41 PM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

Anonymous,
True, but that only works if you know what a restrictive clause is! (g)

--Mike

9:22 PM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

Eolake,
It's true, Phil's bad, but then again, I consider dpreview.com to be the #1 photography magazine right now--either electronic or print. Thus I praise him with faint damnation....

--Mike

9:24 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Actually, the sentence after the comma is in keeping with the subject, but should have been separated by a semi-colon and missed a comma (new version):

"This PMA was busier and felt far more positive than last year; we saw a good 'rounding' of product ranges by most of the manufacturers, as well as some interesting new developments."

A great reference to English expression is, The Elements of Style, by William Strunk, Jr:

http://www.bartleby.com/141/index.html

Cheers

12:50 AM  
Blogger Ade said...

I am mortified if the comma thing is viewed as "an English fad". Personally, I thought it was now rampant throughout the English-speaking world. I've even read published books in which this misuse occurs (hello? Editors?? Helloooo??!).

3:24 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mike,

I urge you to rean Lynn Truss' book

"Eats, shoots and leaves"

(note the comma position)

A proper, eloquent rant on punctuation. Excellent stuff.
Have fun

David Bennett

4:25 AM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

David,
Already read it. (s)

Ade,
I've probably read Strunk and White four times over the past 25 years, but I'm not so sure I agree with it any more. Certainly Andy White never exactly followed its dictates. While it's a great little book for making people think about clarity of expression and for making grammar seem simpler than it is, if we all took Strunk's advice we'd probably all write like Hemingway. There's more to written expression than Strunk lets in.

I do agree it's a great little book.

--Mike

5:29 AM  
Blogger Scott Kirkpatrick said...

I find that grammar has become a lost science. I have drawn blank looks from university graduates and language teachers alike when asking simple questions like "is that an indirect object or a direct object?" I wouldn't dare to argue for special treatment in the case of a restrictive clause, except, perhaps, in present company.

8:01 AM  
Blogger Scott Kirkpatrick said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

8:02 AM  
Anonymous Sukhumvit said...

I respectfully disagree with the idea that DPReview is the #1 magazine available right now. It's a good technical resource, to be sure. However, unless you're in the market for a new camera and want to make sense of all the features, there's little on that website to inspire good photography (unless you REALLY like flower pictures). The forums are full of brand fanatics, sycophants or trolls. The one or two people I've found there who have anything interesting to say have been banned for silly reasons. Better to stick with a blog like Conscientious, or a discussion list like StreetPhoto.

7:49 AM  
Blogger Uke Xensen said...

Shakespeare used plenty of extra words

http://www.rightreading.com/editing/copyediting.shakespeare.htm

1:38 PM  

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