Superannuated Syntax: Bradford, Edwards, and Holmes

What do those three men have in common?

One is fictional. Two were ministers. The phrase “There but for the grace of God goes [name]” is associated with all three.

“But for the grace of God”? What does “but for” mean in that phrase? I’ll wager you’ve heard it often, and perhaps even said it, but what does it mean? Continue reading

Superannuated Syntax: Fast Might Not Mean Quick

“Tight Times at Ridgemont High”?

“The Tight and the Furious”?

Karen, what in tarnation are you on about now? Those titles make no sense.

Nope, they don’t. I’m playing with words to introduce today’s topic: “fast,” in the sense of “tight” or “secure.” As in “hold fast,” or “steadfast,” or even “a fastener.” Continue reading

Superannuated Syntax: Say what, now?

In the last week or so I’ve had conversations around the ‘net with people about syntax, word choices, and usages that confound many “modern” readers and writers and speakers of English (native and otherwise). One such usage is “suffer” in the sense of “allow.” “Suffer the children” does not mean “the children are suffering.” It means “allow the children” (“suffer the children, and forbid them not, to come unto me,” in context as attributed to Christ in Matthew 9:14, KJV). Anyone who says otherwise has fallen victim to superannuated syntax.

I deliberately avoided calling this series “Outmoded Syntax” because that’s associated with programming, and this ain’t that.

In any case, this series is meant to talk about phrasing we don’t hear much anymore and wording that confuses “modern readers,” and maybe even to provide some tips and suggestions for strengthening historical fiction by using appropriately outdated choices (in appropriate ways, of course). I’ve not yet decided on that part of it, but know I’m thinking about it.

To kick things off, here’s a link to a post at Vocabulary.com from 2012 about the language of Christmas carols. Chock full of superannuated syntax/usage/vocabulary!

Agree to Disagree? Or: How Many Is (Are?) a Team?

It’s been a while since I wrote about subject-verb agreement. In fact, it’s been close to a year. I’ll leave the searching to you, though. I don’t want to take away all the fun.

The concept of agreement means that we want the same “number” (singular or plural) for our subject and our verb. When they don’t agree, we notice. Not because we know some arcane rule. Because it just sounds wrong. Very, painfully, obviously wrong. Most of the time, anyway.

The cat were lazing in the window.

How many cats? Only one? Then it’s “was lazing,” not “were.” Two or more? Then we need to fix “cats” and leave “were” alone. That one’s pretty clear, and a simple contextual reading will probably suffice for clarification. (This bypasses the rules for the subjunctive mood in English, which does weird things with number and tense, like “God save the queen” and “if I were you.” This isn’t that, and I’m not going there right now.)

But look at this one:

The A-group, as he called his team, were clocking out at the end of the shift.

On a quick read that sounds all right, maybe. Depends on how you like your collective nouns. They swing, you know. Singular or plural, either way, depending on the concept of “notional concord.” It also matters whether you’re an AmE or BrE speaker/writer. In the United States, we tend to treat “team” as a singular entity, like we do with companies. “Apple is announcing a new gadget.” “The team is entering the stadium.” (BrE speakers/writers tend to say “Apple are announcing a new gadget.” Looks weird to me, but it’s their style.) That matters, because the audience brings its expectations along to your work. What are your readers likely to expect? Go with what they’ll think. It’ll save you hassle in the long run (fewer 1-star reviews from grammar pedants worse than me).

If you’re an AmE speaker/writer, I suggest going with “The A-group, as he called his team, was clocking out. . . .” No one will argue with you, I don’t think. To check the flow and sense of it, remove what’s set off by the commas. “The A-group was clocking out.” If that sounds right to you in that form, it’s still right when you put that phrase back in: “The A-group, as he called his team, was clocking out.”

Certainly one could argue that a team comprises several members, and therefore could be considered as plural. That’s notional concord at work. What sounds right to you? What makes sense to you? After you figure that out, then ask the same about your audience. What will make them scream? Pick the other one.

 

 

More thoughts on “singular they”

This time, I have backup from none other than John McWhorter, linguist, author, and senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research. That backup comes from his book Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English.

Early on in Chapter Two (“A Lesson from the Celtic Impact: The ‘Grammatical Errors’ Epidemic Is a Hoax”), he discusses the bias against the usage of “they” to mean “one of an indeterminate gender.” Of course, he points out its appearance as early as the 15th century in the phrase “Iche mon in thayre degree” (each man in their degree) in the Sir Amadace tale. Then he names Shakespeare, of course, and Thackeray, too (“A person can’t help their birth,” from Vanity Fair). And yes, I hear the grumblings and see the head-shakings that “just because the Bard did it doesn’t make it right.” Well . . . I disagree, you see. He did it because it was being done. All over. By many, many people. The 19th-century grammarians and their blind insistence on making English conform to Latin grammar took issue, but that’s because . . . well, they meant well, but didn’t understand much about linguistics back then. Continue reading

More -Nyms: Bacro- and Retro-

“Hey, we need something called the PATRIOT Act. That’s patriotic. We need to come up with a name that uses those letters.”

“We need to add USA to that, to be really clear that it’s American!”

And thus we have the USA PATRIOT Act: The Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act. Not that anyone really remembers that wording. Most of us don’t even remember that “USA” is part of the name. We just call it the PATRIOT Act. (Not the best naming device, in my opinion, if folks can’t remember the actual words . . .) Continue reading

It’s a Circa Circus

One of my Twitter followers (I can’t bring myself to refer to them as tweeps in public, sorry) emailed me with a question about the proper use of the Latin abbreviation “ca.” It seems she’d worked with an author who claimed he had never encountered it before despite being “someone with a graduate degree, [who has] written thousands of papers, read 100s of books.”

Forgive my incredulity, but all right; he says he’s never seen it.

I’ve seen it plenty and I don’t have a graduate degree. I see it in periodicals like National Geographic and Smithsonian. I see it in resources like encyclopedias. I see it all over.

But in any case, here’s the deal. Continue reading

He loves pizza more than . . .

“more than me?”

Or “more than I?”

Well, it depends. I know, you all HATE when that’s the answer, but it’s the answer. Suck it up and keep reading.

What are you trying to say? What possible difference can that make? It can make or break a relationship. Seriously. Keep reading. Continue reading

Which or That? Who Cares?

If you’re a speaker/writer of American English (AmE), these two relative pronouns may well strike terror into your heart. Which one to use? How to keep them straight in your head?

If you’re a speaker/writer of British English (BrE), you probably wonder what I’m on about in that first paragraph. (That is, unless you’re also versed in the quirks of AmE usage.) Continue reading

Let’s chew some GUM.

Grammar, Usage, and Mechanics. And we’ll throw in Syntax and Style for good measure. And no, those won’t be capped for the entire post. That’d be silly. First use is plenty, because now you readers know what the Important Terms are going to be for the rest of this discussion. (That’s a style thing. You’ll learn more about it later.)

We can’t write or speak—we can’t use language—without at least four of those things. Grammar tells us the rules that explain how our words work. It tells us about nouns, verbs, adverbs, adjectives, pronouns, prepositions, and more. It tells us what we need for a complete sentence (a subject and a verb). It tells us how to form a question. Grammar is a set of rules. Not suggestions, not guidelines. Rules. And you know what? Most of us learn these rules by osmosis. We absorb them from hearing other people talk; we are exposed to them when we read. (Sadly, we may read poorly-written material and learn the wrong things, but that’s another post for another time.) Continue reading