Friday, October 29, 2010

On the Good Ship Management

"Yes, Your Managementship. Right away, Your Manangementship. Please don't fire me, Your Managementship."

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Two and a Half Brain Cells

I see that TV star/colossal prick Charlie Sheen is at it again, tearing up a New York hotel room in a drunken rage. His publicist, in a move that, even for a publicist, is comically inane, has stated that the alleged actor's behavior was due to "a reaction to medication." ("WARNING: Possible side effects include the urge to terrorize hookers, smash furniture, and wrestle the cops in your underpants. See your physician if these symptoms persist.")

Anyway, a line from a Life & Style press release on the incident reads:

Police were later called to Charlie's trashed suite at the Plaza Hotel around 2 a.m., where they found a passed out and half-naked Charlie and his escort screaming from inside the closet.

The problem here is that it is easy to read "a passed out and half-naked Charlie and his escort" as one phrase, making it sound like the two of them were in the closet screaming--he while unconscious. And somehow that manages to make the whole scenario sound even more absurdly sordid.

The solution, of course, is to insert a comma after "Charlie" to provide syntactical separation between him and his hapless escort. And as we all know, when it comes to hookers and Charlie Sheen (or anyone and Charlie Sheen, for that matter) you really can't have too many degrees of separation.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

The Number You Have Reached is Not in Service

Back to Bryson's At Home. In describing what he calls "one of the grandest houses ever built in England, Castle Howard in Yorkshire," our genial author says of the imposing edifice, and it's eccentric architect, Sir John Vanbrugh:
A Vanbrugh structure is always like no other, but Castle Howard is, as it were, unusually unusual. It had a large number of formal rooms--thirteen on one floor--but few bedrooms: nothing like the amount that would normally be expected.
 As mentioned before, the word to use when dealing with discrete, countable units (such as rooms) is not amount but number--a particularly noteworthy gaffe here because Bryson uses number correctly earlier in the same sentence. Amount and number, in this way, are close cousins to less and fewer, although, as we discussed recently, the rules governing the distinctions between those two are not quite so cleanly defined.

This also happens to be one of the first grammatical niceties I had ingrained in my neurotic mind as a youth. I was about 10 years old, and showing my father a homework assignment--an essay (I can't remember what it was about, but I remember being proud of it) that contained the phrase "the amount of people who..." My old man gave me a brisk on-the-spot tutorial that set me straight on my error. I remember being impressed that he, as a still-fairly-recent German immigrant, had mastered the English language to such a degree. I also remember being pissed that his nit-picky correction was the only thing he had to say about my masterwork. Were I not of such sound character, such an incident could well have set me on a course to become the sort of person who obsessively nitpicks other peoples' writing.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Get A Lode of This

New sordid revelations in the case of Canadian Forces colonel/serial killer Russell Williams have emerged. Aside from the murders he has confessed to, there is now the matter of him stealing--and wearing--lingerie and underwear he stole from a variety of victims. Today's Postmedia news service story includes an arresting photo the prosecution recovered of the buff, hirsute colonel in a stolen bra-and-panties combo. The story concludes:
Also introduced in evidence was a letter Williams wrote to the victim of one underwear theft: "I'm sorry I took these because I'm sentimental, too...Your place was kind of like the motherload," the letter says.
Actually, the word Colonel Pervypants was looking for is borrowed from the mining term for the principal vein, and it's spelled motherlode. He must be so embarrassed at that gaffe getting out.

Monday, October 18, 2010

It All Depends on How You Look at It

In Bill Bryson's new book, At Home, a significant section is devoted to a largely anecdotal history of architecture, including a brief profile of the celebrated 18-century architect, Robert Adam.

After we read about Adam's personal failings and his loathsome treatment of his employees, we come to this curiously ambiguous sentence:
Adam's clients, however, venerated his abilities and for thirty years simply could not give him enough work. 
 From the context, it seems clear that Adam's clients gave him plenty of work, but the phrasing "simply could not give him enough work" lends itself to an utterly different interpretation.
This reminds me of a more intentionally ambiguous statement, usually attributed to the critic Moses Hadas, purportedly in response to an author who had sent him an unsolicited manuscript for his review. "Thank you for sending me your book," Hadas wrote. "I'll waste no time reading it."

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Some More About Less

Another hockey season is underway, and here in Vancouver it means another season of speculation about how many games Canucks' workhorse goalie Roberto Luongo should work.  According to a "Hot Issue" sidebar in today's Province, this is once again a hot issue, with reporter Ben Kuzma noting:
Less games to keep Luongo healthier makes sense, but so does getting the starter off to a better start.
Here we come upon that pet bugaboo of grocery store express line grammarians everywhere: the distinction between fewer and less. That "10 items or less" sign grates on them (us) because, as we all know, fewer is the word to use when it comes to individual units, and less is the way to go when describing abstractions or  quantities that are not discretely countable. If you have fewer grains of sand, in other words, you have less sand.

That's fine as far as it goes, but it doesn't go far enough. I remember once seeing a sticker on a bike in the West End that read "One Less Car," and being momentarily dumbstruck--not just by the cyclist's peevish self-righteousness, but by the phrasing. It seemed to violate the "fewer-describes-discrete-units" rule and yet it sounded right.

That's because it is. I have June Casagrande and her book Mortal Syntax to thank for clearing up the confusion. She explains that while the formula I have outlined above...
...will work just fine nine out of ten will let you down hard when you must choose between "one less item" and "one fewer item."
She goes on to point out that
Here's your best guideline, as paraphrased from Garner's Modern American Usage: Use "fewer" for plural things. Use "less" for singular things. That way, it's clear that, yes, the express lane sign should read "ten items or fewer," but you also get it right when you take a single item out of your cart and end up with "one less item."
So now I can say with confidence that I would be happy if I read one less article about how Roberto Luongo should play fewer games.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Comma Sutra

We just got back from seeing The Social Network, and for a movie about the creation of a website, it was pretty darn good. I can hardly wait for the blockbuster thriller about Twitter.

Leafing lazily through my complimentary copy of Cineplex, as one does while waiting for the lights to go down, I came across an interview with renowned thespian Christopher Plummer, whose much-heralded performance as Prospero in this year's Stratford Festival production of The Tempest is coming to a multiplex near me for a special limited-engagement screening. (In other words, the theatre is not expecting enough interest to inspire them to commit to an unlimited engagement. It's Shakespeare, after all, not Marvel Comics).

At the end of the Q-and-A, Plummer is asked about his daughter, the actress Amanda Plummer, and he responds, in part:
She has her own kind of talent that has nothing to do with me or anybody else for that matter, she is her own woman.
A few fake-butter-smudged pages later, in the Holiday Preview section, my eyes alight on this passage in a synopsis of the upcoming remake of True Grit, starring Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon:
Yet neither Bridges nor Damon will carry this movie, that job falls to 14-year Hailee Steinfeld, who plays the bible-quoting teen leading the hunt for her father's killer.
Yes, that should, of course, be "14-year-old Hailee Steinfeld." Aside from that, however, these two quoted sentences have something in common: neither of them should be a single sentence--at least not in this form. In each instance, the writer has sent a comma to do a period's job (or a semi-colon's, or a conjunction's) and thus created an ungainly comma splice.

In the first example, for instance, we could say "because she is her own woman," and the conjunction would make it a grammatically complete sentence. But since we're dealing with a direct quote and we can't change the wording, the solution is obvious. "She is her own woman" should be its own sentence.

In the second excerpt, we can start the second clause with as, although a period or semi-colon would be more emphatic. Personally, I think an em-dash would be pretty sexy, too--God, how I love me a confidently discharged em-dash!--but I understand that not everyone shares my fetish, and some even regard the profligate use of em-dashes as a sign of loose morals.

Finally, it should be noted that there are a number of examples of exemplary writers using comma splices to great effect. This is one of those areas of literary connoisseurship where, perhaps unfairly, you're allowed to break the rule if you understand why you're breaking it and can justify your transgression with the result. "I came, I saw, I conquered" is poetry. The examples cited above are just vulgar.

Friday, October 08, 2010

What Not With Which to End a Sentence

I don't get it. The caption on this shirt is obviously a reference to a famous--and possibly apocryphal--quip of Winston Churchill's. It's been seen in many forms ("This is the kind of arrant pedantry up with which I will not put." "This is the sort of nonsense up with which I will not put." Etc., etc.) but no matter the variant, the purpose is to make mock of the long-held superstition about not ending a sentence with a preposition--hence the ironically convoluted, terminal-preposition-avoiding syntax. Dangling participles have nothing to do with it.

Here's another prepositional anecdote: The Guinness Book of World Records once named a winner in the category "sentence with the most prepositions at the end." The honors went to this hypothetical sentence, supposedly uttered by a boy who doesn't want to be read a book about Australia again at bedtime:
"What did you bring that book that I don't want to be read to from out of about 'Down Under' up for?"

Finally, an old joke:

"Excuse me, where is the library at?"
"Here at Harvard we don't end a sentence with a preposition."
"Sorry. Where is the library at, asshole?"

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

At Home and At Large

At Home: A Short History of Private LifeBill Bryson has a new book out today, making this as close as I get to observing a religious holiday. I loaded Sam in the off-road stroller and set off on a 60-minute backwoods route to the bookstore to seize a copy as it was being loaded into a window display.

The book, At Home: A Short History of Private Life, is another of Bryson's delightfully tangential, anecdote-laced excursions through history. I'm only a couple of chapters in, but already hopelessly in its thrall--which is why Sam spent the afternoon marinating in his own filth while I sipped Shiraz and flipped pages.

Early on, however, on Page 12, where Bryson is relating the story behind the unlikely construction of the "Crystal Palace" in London in 1851 (trust me, it's a fascinating tale) we find this:
The glass levy was abolished in 1845, just shy of its hundredth anniversary, and the abolition of the window tax followed, conveniently and fortuitously, in 1851. Just at the moment when Paxton wanted more glass than anyone ever had before, the price was reduced by more than half.
The problem here is with the word fortuitously, which Bryson seems to be using as a synonym for fortunately. But...
Fortuitous means accidental or by chance...A fortuitous occurrence may or may not be a fortunate one.
That definition comes from A Dictionary of Troublesome Words, an indispensable reference work thoughtfully compiled by--you guessed it--Bill Bryson.  Now, I'll acknowledge that it is possible that Bryson is using fortuitously in the cited passage to mean "by chance," but I'd still maintain that in that context it comes off sounding very much like fortunately.

The lesson here? Never take a child on a 2-hour hike without bringing a sippy cup and change of diaper.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

Money Never Sleeps

From today's offerings on

Maybe she left because you kept referring to her as your "finance." Well, that and the pathetic teddy bear fixation.

Friday, October 01, 2010

Is This a Dangler I See Before Me?

This morning's Province brings us a dangler which, while not quite on a par with the classic "President Lincoln wrote the Gettysburg Address while riding to Pennsylvania on an envelope," is still a good example of the mix-ups that can occur when a supporting clause wanders too far from its subject.

The story is about former Vancouver Canuck fan favorite Brendan Morrison coming back to the team for a tryout. As Jason Botchford reports:
In a battle with about seven players for one or two jobs, head coach Alain Vigneault said Morrison has a leg up on his competition for a couple of reasons.
That should read: "In a battle with about seven players for one or two jobs, Morrison blah blah blah..., according to head coach Alain Vigneault." As it stands, the juxtaposition of that opening clause with the subject "head coach Alain Vigneault" makes it sound as if it's Coach V who is battling for a job (and if he doesn't deliver a Stanley Cup this season that could yet be the case).