Friday, July 31, 2015

What's the Difference Between Pluperfect and Past Perfect? (Trick Question, No Fair)

The past perfect, or pluperfect as it sometimes called, is a verb tense that is disdained by if not most modern editors, then the most modern of editors. Seriously, the hipper your editor, the less she will like the past perfect. The way to get on her bad side for good is to refer to it as the pluperfect.

The past perfect indicates an action in the past that occurred before a different past action began. The one action must have been completed before the other started. “By the time we arrived, the girls had left.” If you were to say, “By the time we arrived, the girls left,” that would be messing up the past perfect.

In writing though, imagine how tedious a lot of past perfect usages would get. We had jumped before she ran and we had run before he jumped. Awful. In such a narrative bind, you could even be tempted to write, “had had.” This is often the result of a flawed story angle, born of either flashbacks or a ham-fisted narrative.

So use the past perfect when you need to, but like truffle salt and rock ’n’ roll harmonica, with the past perfect, a little goes a long way. If you find your story littered with the word had, there's a better way to tell it.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

From Jerry Springer to a Coffee Shop Near You: Glottal Stop Pronunciations

I may be guilty at times of being the language equivalent of the fist-waving biddy shrieking at children to stay off his lawn, and so it continues today, this time with pronunciation and with “kids today” squarely in the cross-hairs over the employment of a glottal stop in two-syllable words whose syllabic break occurs over a double-T.

An excellent test word for this is button. It is properly pronounced with the double-T being articulated by the tip of the tongue touching the roof of the mouth and then staying there as vocal vibrations are quickly sent upward into the nasal cavities to produce the N sound.

The youthful mispronunciation involves a glottal stop instead of the tongue touching the roof of the mouth, followed by the syllable “in,” which makes the overall phonetic pronunciation resemble “buh in.” The most famous example of this glottal stop pronunciation is not from a double-T, but rather a single D. It is the Jerry Springer guest’s signature prelude to a fight, “Oh no you di – in’t.”

This pronunciation seems present in all races, nationalities and sexual identities, but I notice it chiefly among Americans too young to be president, and I recommend against it enthusiastically.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Best. Movie. Ever. Did This Construction Start With Chris Berman?

Slang isn’t always word-by-word. It is also common for popular phrases, whole sentences or partial constructions to come into sudden usage. We looked at one such trope the day before yesterday with the popular slang construction, “What it is is.”

Another pop construction I will admit to having derived some amusement from goes like this: Adjective. Noun. Ever.

The adjective is almost always a superlative, usually either best or worst, but it can also be hottest, coolest, dumbest, smartest or some other expression of extremity within its category. The noun is where you can get creative, and the word ever is required.

“Meanest. Teacher. Ever,” the child sniffed. One might consider that perhaps it was derived from sportscaster Chris Berman’s famous touchdown run yawp, “Could. Go. All. The. Way.”

I first heard this rhetorical setup on the west coast four years ago, and I appreciated its potential for dramatic oratory, but like so many pop expressions, it  lost its luster and despite my brief dalliance with it, the three sentence punch holds a different place in my heart now. Worst. Construction. Ever.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Bill Clinton, Master of the Verb "to Be"

Yesterday we talked about the “What it is is” construction that seems to be making the rounds, and I was reminded of the most famous “is is” construction of them all: Bill Clinton’s explanation to Solomon Wisenburg during the Ken Starr impeachment hearings as to how Monica Lewinsky’s affidavit that was referenced by his attorney at the Paula Jones deposition was not a lie.

By leading with someone else’s (Lewinsky’s) denial of an affair that was entered into evidence at a deposition of yet a third person, Paula Jones, Wisenburg introduced two degrees of separation that, while not to such a degree as to allow the denial to fairly be called hearsay, still muddied the connection enough to give the president a little wiggle room, which is all Slick Willie ever needs.

In addition, Lewinsky’s statement, introduced at the Paula Jones deposition, was very precise in its tense management of the verb to be: “…there is absolutely no sex of any kind in any manner, shape or form, with President Clinton.”

Wisenburg’s failure to parse the simple present from the simple past from the past participle proved to be his undoing. Clinton knows this stuff inside out and made a meal of him.

“It depends on what the meaning of the word "is" is. If "is" means is and never has been … that is one thing. If it means there is none, that was a completely true statement.”

He went on to perform a game of rhetorical button-button-who’s-got-the-button, thanks to Wisenburg having approached him from a second person’s testimony at a third person’s deposition:

“it is somewhat unusual for a client to be asked about his lawyer's statements, instead of the other way around. I was not paying a great deal of attention to this exchange. I was focusing on my own testimony.  And if you go back and look at the sequence of this, you will see that the Jones lawyers decided that this was going to be the Lewinsky deposition, not the Jones deposition. And, given the facts of their case, I can understand why they made that decision. But that is not how I prepared for it. That is not how I was thinking about it.  And I am not sure, Mr. Wisenberg, as I sit here today, that I sat there and followed all these interchanges between the lawyers. I'm quite sure that I didn't follow all the interchanges between the lawyers all that carefully. And I don't really believe, therefore, that I can say Mr. Bennett's testimony or statement is testimony and is imputable to me. I didn't -- I don't know that I was even paying that much attention to it.”

He earned no points on that witness stand with the American people for his disingenuous gamesmanship, but when you're a goalie in a game of turd hockey, I guess you do what you have to do. Love him or hate him, one must objectively assess that Bill Clinton walked up to Solomon Wisenburg on that day, turned his hat sideways, flicked his ear, took his lunch money, turned him around and kicked him in the pants, and then sent him home over the verb to be.

Monday, July 27, 2015

"What it is is" is a Nasty Way to Start a Sentence

"What it is is,” is a popular construction that to me feels like a soapbox of condescension wherein the speaker can imply a pedagogical relationship between him and the listener. In the mind's eye of its utterer, the student sits lotus-legged, gazing up in doe-eyed hero worship at the guru, the Buddha, the subject matter expert.

“You may think grammar is for pussies,” says Grammar Dick as he hitches up his belt and spits a stream of tobacco juice that splashes his boots. “But that’s not what it is. What it is is a message that you care enough to have learned the language’s rules and conventions. What it is is an act of love.”

A noble sentiment, but delivered in a didactic tone. I recommend avoiding it always. Most especially don’t write or say, “What it is is what it is.” If you’re going to do something that horrible, at least shuffle that deck into the clichéd but slightly more tolerable, “It is what it is.”

The “is is” construction is bad in every way; in its redundancy, in its unmusicality, and in its way of letting you know the upcoming speech is intended to salve a human ego rather than solve a human problem. 

Friday, July 24, 2015

Tech Jargon Spelling Morphs Like a Caterpillar

The spelling of technology jargon changes as individual words are over time regarded as outdated or inefficient, and this morphing process can be entertaining to watch in real time and to examine in hindsight. Come on up on Grandpa’s knee and let me tell you a story … *cue harp music and echo effects* … once upon a time…

When a writer referred to a URL in an article in the 1990s, it was typically printed in its entirety:  Then the hypertext abbreviation was dropped, and soon the www wasn’t required…  *harp music stops* …

Now you can just write in cases when it is obvious you are referring to a URL. URLs are punctuated normally, and AP additionally recommends you not wrap a URL around a line break.  

The term for a URL back in the http://www days was Web site, always with a capital W, and always two words. It is now a single word, and it is not capitalized. This of course can vary within some publishing environments, but if any company’s communications function is still hanging on to either the two words or the capitalization, they are showing themselves to be out of touch.

One interesting and telling tradition is that Internet was always capitalized and remains so, because we all know that it is the boss.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Orientated is Now a Word and Neither My Mom Nor I Like It.

Sometimes a grammar mistake is made so often it bludgeons its way into the dictionary. One such word is orientate, which came to be through an exasperating persistence of error. It is now an accepted past tense of orient, though I am not ever letting go of what is in my view its only correct past tense form, oriented.

The average person probably hears the word orientation more than orient, so independent of one another, people all over the country again and again instinctively modified orientation to orientate as the correct verb form.

By sheer volume, these rabble masses, these teeming hoi polloi have bulldozed this ugly construction into legitimacy, but even though most dictionaries define it without even a hint at its awfulness, I think it is still true that nearly all English speakers who have made a personal commitment to speak and write well prefer oriented.

I am particularly attached to this one, because I have a clear recollection of my mother teaching this to me when I was in fifth grade. Coincidentally, I went back home to New Hampshire last weekend to spend her 83rd birthday weekend with her. While not a strict grammar preservationist, on this one I am strongly oriented toward the traditional form.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Irony Through Oedipus

Yesterday’s missive pointed the crooked finger at poor Alanis Morissette for having butchered the meaning of irony eleven times in her hit song, Isn’t it Ironic. I’d like to soften that by applauding her power and pitch, as well as her having written a collection of songs that meant something to a generation of young girls who were inspired to develop a sense of self as a result of her talent, confidence and lyrics.

Besides which, irony is tough to get a handle on. Its simplest form is verbal irony, which amounts to sarcasm at its most base, and skilled one-upmanship at its most elevated. In order to qualify as verbal irony the standards are pretty pedestrian. Mere opposites will do, but still, in order to qualify as ironic, the words or ideas expressed must be directly related. When you call the bald guy Curly and the big guy Tiny, there’s your low-bar verbal irony. 

Dramatic irony originated with the traditions of Greek theater in which the protagonists would stand on the lip of the stage and speak to the audience, revealing their ignorance of the important events in their own lives. Oedipus fairly bleeds irony with his vow to avenge he who has brought a plague upon Thebes, when in fact it is he, the unwitting killer of Laius, who has incurred the wrath of the Gods. An even more complete example of dramatic irony is the fact that Oedipus can solve the riddle of the Sphinx, while the riddle of his own life is a mystery until the end.

We haven’t done irony justice despite having begun yesterday and despite approaching double the current preferred length for these blogs. And we haven’t even looked into situational irony, romantic irony, structural irony or the least interesting of all of the ironies, cosmic irony. Irony is a deep well indeed.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

The Word "Irony" is on the Ropes, and it's Alanis Morissette's Fault

Specific words fall in and out of vogue, usually emerging from their time on the tips of everyone’s tongues much battered and bruised. Awesome, for instance, once described a thing of humbling beauty or power like a volcano or a vision of God. Now it can serve to describe a sandwich. 

The same thing has happened to irony, only in irony’s case, it’s not a recalibration of scale; it’s a set of wholly wrong definitions. Alanis Morissette is the most notorious offender, and the one who started the wave of destroying this particular word. In her breakout song, Isn’t it Ironic, none of the eleven illustrations of irony in the lyric properly reflect irony.

I did a quick assessment, and of these eleven citations, there are three remarkable occurrences, three coincidences, two minor annoyances, two massive human tragedies and one implausible hypothetical scenario. Zero instances of irony. Morissette has cast out such a wide selection of different types of non-irony that the many listeners who  formed their definition of irony through that song have it wrong in a half-dozen different ways.

Irony is when a thing’s literal meaning belies its actual meaning. If you slammed into a bridge abutment while you were adjusting your seat belt, that would be ironic. Irony is a close cousin to sarcasm in some cases, but sarcasm’s bar is generally lower. A certain level of artfulness is expected of irony, some sort of threading together of opposing elements to make a hard-hitting point. It is a once complex, nuanced, elegant word born of Greek tragedies that we leave to the next generation a hollowed out husk of misunderstanding. And it’s mostly Alana Morissette’s fault. She seems well-meaning and nice, but man, she knocked the stuffing out of that word.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Rock 'n' Roll or Rock and Roll?

Frank Zappa said it best: “The crux of the biscuit is the apostrophe,” at least when it comes to rock ’n’ roll, because my old Merriam Webster has it as rock-and-roll. So I looked into it, and in the decades since my college years, Merriam Webster has thankfully dropped the hyphens in its spelling and added rock ’n’ roll as an alternate listing.

People more or less say, “Rock and roll.” They don’t bite off the letter a and launch right into the n, though most people do tend to drop the letter d in pronunciation. I’m sympathetic to rock and roll, but it looks and feels old and dreary on the page.

You may see it as rock ’n roll, and that’s horrific. Apostrophes in abbreviations or contractions indicate an omitted letter. In this case, the a and the d have been omitted and both apostrophes are appropriate.

Most style guides recommend rock ’n’ roll, but here’s the tricky part—your word processor will think you are starting a phrase in single quotes, and when you hit your apostrophe key, you’ll get a "6" shape instead of a "9" shape. You’ll need to copy and paste the apostrophe from after the n to before the n. It’s a little bit of a headache, but it’s worth it.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Nouning of Verbs: Will the Coining Never Stop?

Sometimes after addressing a particular grammatical issue, another related one comes up. Such is the case with yesterday’s verbing of nouns. The flip side to that coin is the nouning of verbs. Like verbing, nouning is found mostly in business jargon. One that has been around a while but that has been coming up lately in meetings I attend is ask.

“Margaret, could Inventory Management verify allocations for a hundred SKUs before the weekend?”

“It’s Thursday, Bob. That’s an awful big ask.”

Rather than use the correct word, request, as a way of seeming more current, that which has been asked of someone is now nouned as an ask. It has not yet insinuated its noun usage into modern dictionaries, but it seems to have legs enough to qualify one day.

A classic that has been around a long time is a tell. In any bluffing game, most obviously poker, a tell is an involuntary giveaway of something you are trying to hide. It can be the death knell of a player if the tell is discernable, reliable and unknown to the teller. It’s a wonderful usage.

So, tell is a cool one and ask is an awful one; the moral of the story is, don’t ask, do tell.

The Verbing of Nouns and Hats Off to Bill Watterson

The trend of taking nouns and transforming them into verbs was hot for a while, having bubbled up as business jargon as managers sought to workshop ideas and effort solutions. It is excruciating rhetoric that persists in some degree, but has also become a caricature of itself, so few serious business environments still propagate this kind of pompous doublespeak.

This is English though, and some of these words retain respect and even enjoy standardization, the premium example of which has additionally become the generic descriptor for all search engines, Google. Who hasn’t verbed Google? And yes, the word verbing is an example of verbing. Others that have become acceptable within my lifetime include plating (in restaurants) and accessing.

Not all nouns that have slipped past the gatekeepers and have successfully become verbs in recent memory are as charming, including impact and dialog. Both are in the dictionary as verbs, so the damage has already been done. The most horrific verbed nouns though are born of haphazard gerund creation, words like actioning, solutioning, and the worst I’ve heard lately, clienting. Sadly, incentivizing has made the cut and is now a word.

As is often the case, Bill Watterson's Calvin said it best: "Verbing weirds language."

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Collective Noun Verb Forms and Trolling That Big Baby, Liam Gallagher

Yesterday we looked at selecting proper pronouns for collective nouns. Verb use presents a similar judgment call in that when a collective noun is behaving as an aggregate, the singular form of the verb is appropriate. However, when the collective noun is behaving as a group of individuals, the plural form is used. Sometimes it’s a sky full of bees, and sometimes the hive is the organism.

Let’s look at it terms of English rock bands. You might say, “Oasis rocks.” That is a singular usage. It means the band is tight and they rock together as a unit. You might also say “Oasis arrive at the show in separate airplanes.” That is a plural usage, and it is  believable because Liam Gallagher is a little baby. It is grammatical and fine to use, but my ear still doesn’t love it.

Were I expressing what a fussy, whiny baby Liam Gallagher is, I might write, “The members of Oasis arrive in separate planes because Liam Gallagher is a a sniveling crybaby with a binky in his face.” So, your favorite band can be a they or an it, depending on whether or not their singer is a big, douchey baby or not, and the verbs will be modified accordingly.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Collective Nouns and Disappointed Audiences

Today’s topic, using pronouns with singular nouns that have plural meanings (like audience, jury or team), is easier to get wrong than you might think.

With collective nouns (as they are called), use singular pronouns if the represented group is acting or being described en masse: It was a hung jury and the audience showed its disappointment. You could proudly state at a board meeting, “the team achieved their goal,” but if you did, your team hitting its goal is the only thing to be proud of, as your grammar would be a shambles.

After the game, however, the team head to their homes, just as the hung jury head to theirs. Plural usage. The audience doesn't wave its hands; they wave their hands, each acting as individuals. 

There are ambiguous cases, and it depends on what you wish to suggest. You could say, “The audience showed its disappointment,” or “The audience showed their disappointment by throwing full or empty bottles, cups of ice, or whatever was in reach,” drawing a picture of mobocracy at the theater. Perhaps someone was texting.

Tomorrow we’ll consider collective noun usage with verbs and find out if your favorite band is an it or a they

Monday, July 13, 2015

Semicolons and Cormac McCarthy

Semicolons have it rough. Some suggest they are rarely necessary. Others insist they are never necessary. They have been characterized as the refuge of hacks. One considerable indictment of semicolons is that Cormac McCarthy doesn’t use them at all.

I admit to semicolon use. What I like about them is probably the same thing their critics disdain: the projection of uncertainty, of arguable timidity. On the left side of the semicolon the writer can set up a thought, and on the right he or she may ruminate upon it further, but in seeming collusion with the reader. “Olaf missed the midterm; the Maple Leafs were playing.”

They can be overused, but in addition to providing a fulcrum for a setup and punch, they also offer a tool for controlling the velocity of a complex sentence. If you were to break a complex idea into two sentences, you’d have a hard stop with a period and at the end of one idea; but the semicolon avoids that abruptness and lets you take your foot off the gas about halfway through the sentence. Kind of nice.

As to Cormac McCarthy, he doesn’t use quotation marks either.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Elder or Older, Which One is Grandpa?

The word elder drips with age. It fairly creaks. It is wise and learned. Decades of knowledge, philosophy, joy and sorrow rest within elder’s inferred laudations.

Part of the distinction between elder and older is that elder may only refer to human beings, whereas older is an equal opportunity age descriptor. Some naturalists buck that trend in great ape studies, but their efforts have yet to expand the definition.

Elder in general is giving way to older, and that’s fine. Elder can’t go out alone. It always has to have a noun to modify, and not just any noun. It has to be a group of human beings. Fussy old coot.

Plus, elder sounds a little pretentious. And what is this “humans only” restriction? The bristlecone pine at 5,000 can’t be the eldest tree, but if you’re a first-born teenager, then you’re the eldest of your siblings? Seems egotistical.

That’s the way it is with elder though. It must modify a noun that defines a human group. Elder can function without a noun, but only if the noun is implied. Elder is nice to have, and it connotes respect where respect is due, but its proper use is fairly restricted.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Double Negatives and the Rubes, Noobs and Boobs Who Use Them

In English, double negatives are a chief identifying mark of the bumpkin. Add ain’t, a drawl and some gerunds with letter Gs dropped off and you’ve got a vicious American stereotype, the uneducated rural simpleton. Whether portrayed to be lovable like Jethro Bodine or disquieting like Honey Boo Boo,  the iconic American rube is a stalwart of our folklore, and in most cases, they ain't heard nothin', they ain't seen nothin', and they don't know nothin'.

Another notable demographic that uses double negatives are non-native speakers. The reason for that is because most languages employ a grammatical system whereby the second negative intensifies or affirms the first. This is called negative concord. The sentence, “I never did nothing,” could come out of either our rural stereotype’s mouth or a recent immigrant’s. The French, “Je ne faisais rien,” for instance, translates literally as “I didn’t do nothing.”

As with all things in language, there are two sides to the double negative coin, and its second is its entirely grammatical use as a weakened positive. It is the stingy compliment, the eked out affirmation, the grudging endorsement. The comedian wasn’t unfunny, his wife was not unattractive, and on these two points each might not disagree.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

All the Pretty Pronouns, Well, Half of Them I Guess...

We explored first person pronouns first because we live in a narcissistic, self-referential, autocentric society, essentially the “me” generation boiled over onto the rest of the stove. Now having coddled the ego a bit, we can look at some of the other pronouns.

The first person pronoun belongs to the personal pronoun family, which comprises three pronouns for each of the first, second and third person usages, depending on whether it is functioning as the subject or the object, and whether it is singular or plural: I, me and we, and he, him and them, or she, her and them, depending on usage. You is always you, whether it is subject or object, singular or plural, and that’s what I love about you. Constancy, reliability, unshakeable resolve. Why can't the other pronouns be like you? There will never be another you.

Possessive pronouns are a good tangent, especially if we start with mine. That way we can stick with the self-obsession theme and urge all Americans to participate in that most patriotic of activities, accumulating possessions. His, hers, ours, theirs, even its. Once the nation’s economic engines are stoked, we’ll need those possessive pronouns to figure out whose stuff is whose.

We also dealt with restrictive clauses when selecting which over that a few weeks ago. What we failed to do at the time was name the function of the word which, which is usually a relative pronoun. Relative pronouns introduce a restrictive or subordinate clause, e.g., “I brought a box of Jell-O Pudding Pops to the Oprah taping, which was promptly confiscated.”

There are more pronouns including demonstrative ones, intensive ones, reflexive ones and indefinite ones. Hm. Indefinite. Now that sounds like my kind of pronoun. Lots of wiggle room.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

The Grateful Dead and Dangling Participles, Written While the Dose Was Coming On

In honor of the Grateful Dead’s 50th Anniversary Fare Thee Well tour, let’s consider the sentence, “Driving that train, high on cocaine, Casey Jones is ready, watch your speed.” The participle clause here is, “Driving that train (gerundial phrase),” which is followed by yet another participle clause, “high on cocaine (adjectival phrase).” The adjunct clause that both participle clauses modify is “Casey Jones," behaving here as the subject, with "is ready” acting as the object. Boom. The sentence is set up and resolved and everyone is happy, except perhaps a few nervous passengers who may have seen old Casey clacking out a couple of lifters in the rail station bathroom. “Watch your speed” is pure gravy in terms of sentence structure, and when you think about it, just damn good advice.

If you were to remove the adjunct clause, you would be left with, “Driving that train, high on cocaine, watch your speed,” resulting in a dangling participle and an incomplete sentence. In a word, buzzkill. “Driving that train” is all set up to modify something, and when we are deprived of it, it is unsatisfying.   

The next time the lyric comes around, Jerry sings, “Driving that train, high on cocaine, Casey Jones you better watch your speed,” which is a dangling participle of sorts in that this third person advice for Mr. Jones to watch his speed doesn't relate directly to the setup of the participle clause of being zipped out of his bean on some serious Peruvian blaster flake while he operates a cross-country passenger train, but the lyric has moreover by this point become a purposeful misdirection of the expected sentence and has grown into a collection of metaphors depicting train schedules and the combined thrill and danger of being an engineer, along with general images of life and love on the road, a thing musicians can relate to, and a thing which also seems to have led to the entire sense of this article being dismantled by the example I selected to illustrate it, which when you address anything abstract using The Grateful Dead as your springboard for argument, this kind of thing is to be expected as there is no end to the mischief you can be courting once you start to go down that rabbit hole, not the least of which manifestations is the inadvisable length of the last sentence of this piece, the one going on right now, which is taking up an entire paragraph.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Gerunds and Participles Go to the Movies

There was a craze a few years back when it seemed every movie title’s first word began with -ing.  

Saving Private Ryan, Raging Bull, Leaving Las Vegas, Raising Arizona, Being John Makovich, Blazing Saddles and so forth. The grammatical function of these words is sometimes gerundial, while sometimes they serve as present participles.

It can be confusing, as all gerunds and present participles are born of verbs and all of them end in –ing. Wait, what? An English grammar rule that has no exceptions? In the case of gerunds and present participles, it even holds true with the most incorrigible of all verbs, to be and to go, whose gerund and present participle forms are being and going.

If they are always the same, then why have different names for them? The real reason is because of a leftover distinction from the Latin, whose case system of grammar did require two different words depending on their function, and there is a school of thought that this distinction should be sacked in favor of the term gerund-participle. For me though, the mere fact of gerunds functioning nominally (as nouns do) and present participles functioning adjectivally (as adjectives do) is distinction enough for me to appreciate having some distinguishing terminology for them.

So which of these movie titles are gerunds (functioning as a noun), and which are present participles (functioning as an adjective)? Ask yourself, “Is this an activity or a description?” Hint: there are five of each. Click your answer to see if you are right.

Saving Private Ryan                                        Gerund Participle
Raging Bull                                                     Gerund Participle
Leaving Las Vegas                                          Gerund Participle
Burning Mississippi                                        Gerund Participle
Blazing Saddles                                              Gerund Participle
Being John Makovich                                     Gerund Participle
Vanishing Point                                               Gerund Participle
Boxing Helena                                                Gerund Participle
Breaking Dawn                                               Gerund Participle
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon                   Gerund Participle

See you at the movies!

Friday, July 3, 2015

Misplaced Modifiers and the Power of Only

There have traditionally been some strict rules regarding the use of the word only, the foremost of which is that it is placed directly before the word or phrase it is modifying. You’re probably familiar with the term, misplaced modifier

If one were to write, “I only eat meat,” a reader must infer that the author doesn’t purchase or cook meat, and that he or she is presumably not a cattle rancher. In order to express exclusive carnivorousness, a disdain of poultry, fish, dairy and vegetables, it is preferred one writes, “I eat only meat.” In the latter case, our example won’t be around to vex us much longer, as those arteries are about as clogged as a Los Angeles rush hour freeway.

Very few words in the English language have the power of absolute selection. Only does. Only walks into a sentence, throws its arm over the word it is modifying and bestows upon it a declaration of uniqueness. When it states, “You’re the only girl for me,” the swooning can be heard throughout the dictionary. 

Only can also be the cudgel of the cruel. “Oh, it’s only you.” From the aardvark to the zyzzyva, every creature in the lexicon hears the disappointment and aches for the poor word being modified so dismissively, so disdainfully. For good or ill, it’s hard to imagine a word with more power than only, be it for its implied meanness or its exaltation.

This makes only a contranym of sorts. It means unequaled, matchless, one-of-a-kind, and yet it can also mean merely, simply or just. It can be said with a puffed chest and broad, sweeping gesture of the hand, or with tented eyebrows and a shrug, perhaps a dispirited and blushing look at one’s shoes. “I only had time to edit half of Mike’s book,” the hapless scrivener said sheepishly as he handed over the manuscript. Only is the last refuge of the slacker, the under-deliverer, the non-producer.

Donald Trump being in the crosshairs these days, let’s put some words in his mouth and move the modifier only around a little bit, starting with the sentence, “I only insult Mexicans.” What that means under traditional rules is that Mr. Trump does not speak to Mexicans directly, he does not walk down the street with Mexicans, he doesn’t hire them, fire them or admire them. He insults them and that is the extent of his engagement with them. 

Were Mr. Trump to say, “I insult only Mexicans,” we would infer something different. This means that of all the available ethnicities, religious proclivities, nationalities and other categories of humanity, the only ones he is aiming at, at least these days, are Mexicans.

The word only is a modifier, and what a modifier it is. It modifies like a boss. It modifies with an absolutism most words can only dream of. We have been so woefully short of modifiers that connote individuated exclusivity we had to borrow nonpareil from the French. Nobody does it better than only. And it’s practically made for songs. It rhymes with lonely for Pete’s sake. Springsteen, The Ink Spots and most perfectly, Roy Orbison all went to that well in their songwriting. Embrace the power of only, but be careful where you put it.