Friday, November 17, 2006

Pedantic Rant

Language is, as I keep having to remind myself, constantly evolving. Sometimes I read or hear a snippet of language that makes me fight with every cell of my being against that evolution.

As a writer, editor and former university lit and writing instructor, paying careful attention to English is my greatest joy. Now, as a parent, I also consider it a duty. It's my job to train my children properly. I don't trust our public institutions to do it well or at all. When my kids bring home school flyers, newsletters, announcements and homework assignments riddled with spelling, grammar, and mechanical errors, I scream and flap around the room like a dangerous, injured pteranodon. I also pen the corrections in red ink and send the papers back.

Yes, I am an ancient being. In my kids' eyes, I'm a crazy old bat, but it truly bothers me when a publisher or an instructor has not only not proofread the work, but also perhaps never learned what would have been correct in the first place. Our kids derive impressions from what they see in print and see and hear in other media. I want it right.

Flamboyant upsets about school documents, however, are minor compared to my fiendish reaction when I listen to public radio or PBS TV and catch a linguistic or grammatical hiccough. After all, it was Robin (Robert) MacNeil, formerly of the PBS MacNeil-Lehrer Report, who wrote all those fabulous books about the history of English, especially American English. (I've read every one of them, Robin--I love you!). It's a sad statement on people's disregard for language that, from the current mainstream media, I expect gaffes. In fact, I'm so jaded that sometimes I consider journalistic mistakes a sub-form of entertainment. As they say on the NPR program "What Do You Know?," "anybody who says otherwise is itching for a fight." So bite me. I laugh and hide my disgust behind a wall of derision. But PBS and NPR can do better, and I expect a higher standard from them.

A particular grammatical anomaly has been bothering me for years. I tend to hear it on the car radio or on TV, but because I am a mom driving or cooking or driving or cooking or waiting for kids or watching kids or cleaning or helping kids with homework, I cannot write it down the moment I hear it. My moments for the mighty pen are almost always inopportune.

This year, PBS TV takes the cake. The paragraph below illustrates an error that has driven me crazy for as long as I have heard it in colloquial speech. I do have the grace to thank wonderful PBS for finally clinching it for me at a time when I could commit it to paper and web. It's recent in my experience; I never heard it, say, ten years ago. When I hear it, I feel almost violent for two reasons: 1) I hate the mistake and want to hunt down and strangle every person who makes it; and 2) I have looked so long and so unsuccessfully for a name, diagnosis, and cure for it, and feel so defeated in my failed, dogged dedication to that end, that I want to explode.

Here is an example, as quoted verbatim from an early September broadcast of PBS's Newshour with Jim Lehrer. Context: The interviewee spoke about the alleged inaccuracy of a 9/11 "docudrama" [would you guess that I hate that coining?] to be aired on a major network channel.

Does this linguistic faux pas have an official name?
  1. Newshour Guest (someone named Thompson from Syracuse University): . . . we're walking around with ideas that we don't know where they came from.

I believe this is a corollary to the following sort of thing:

2. We were looking for cut firewood which we didn't have any.
3. At the garage sale, I found a broken-up set of encyclopedias which I had no clue of finding the A.

I don't mean to say that we can't understand the sentences. We certainly can decode them easily. Despite their inefficient articulation, they make sense in an awkward way. Let's figure out where their problems originate. First, each sentence contains a "which"/"that" (these are called "broad pronouns," as is "who").

Usually, these words indicate either restrictive or non-restrictive clauses. Since there are no commas before the whiches or thats, these "errant" clauses must be restrictive. Why? If you were to take the restrictive clause out, the sentence could stand independently, but it wouldn't have that special detail restricting the recipient(s) of the agent's action. Example (note lack of comma):
"He spent hours nursing the Indian guides who were sick with malaria."
"Who were sick with malaria" tells you which specific Indian guides were cared for. Not all of them were cared for; only the Indians with malaria were. Nursing care was restricted to malaria victims. Thus the restrictive clause.

In a non-restrictive sentence, you'd add the comma:
"He spent hours nursing the Indian guides, who were sick with malaria."
In this case, all of the Indian guides were sick; therefore he nursed all of them. He did not restrict his care to only certain Indian guides. This "who . . ." clause is non-restrictive, because it tells you that all of the guides are sick, not just some of them, and all of them received nursing care.

So far, so good; but applied to the errant sentences, the rules don't work. Something is wrong with the usage of that/which; it doesn't belong where it's placed. In errant sentence #1, the "ideas" are ones "that we don't know." But why is "where they came from" appended to our not knowing? In errant sentence #2, we didn't have logs, but why is "any" appended to the sentence? To put it another way, and it's definitely not pretty, logs were the things of which we had none. In errant sentence #3, the encyclopedia searcher had no clue about where to find one of the volumes. Among the mixed-up and possibly incomplete set of encyclopedias, the garage-sale shopper couldn't find the A book.

I once worked with a very wise editor who taught me that one of the most important strategies for fixing broken writing was finding out what was missing. This is particularly true in technical writing, where a missing step, ingredient or material completely invalidates instructions for the audience and might even result in ruined work or actual physical injury. Let's try rewriting these sentences so that they work. What's missing?

Warning: these reorganizational fixes may sound "clunky," but they are grammatically correct.

#1: We're walking around with ideas whose origin we don't know. Or: We're walking around with ideas, the origin of which we don't know. We don't know the origin of the ideas that we're walking around with. (Hah--don't end a sentence with a preposition!)

#2: We were looking for cut firewood, of which we had none. We were looking for something we didn't have any of. (Again, don't end a sentence with a preposition!)

#3: At the garage sale, I found a broken-up set of encyclopedias, among which I could not find the A volume.

In each case, the "broad pronoun" is misplaced, and what's really missing is a preposition in the proper position. The that/which needs an "of" or "among" to go with it; otherwise the sentence is nonsensical. Moving elements around also improves the sentences' clarity.

Whew, that was tiring! Well, I feel a little better knowing that I have diagnosed and cured this anomaly. I still want to know the official grammatical name of this error.

And I still want to strangle anyone who commits it. Don't commit it; learn it, know it, fix it!

Don't even get me started on the difference between "which" and "that." Oh, and don't forget "who." Remember those b-r-o-a-d pronouns! I might have to illustrate the nonspecific "it" with a baseball bat, and that would be really ugly. But effective. (Hey--don't start a sentence with "but"!) I'm not worried. Until you learn the rules first, you won't know how. Oops, look at that just then; also, don't begin a sentence with a preposition. About now--oops--that was a preposition again!

I know. The sentence you want to say contains two words and starts, "Up . . ." Oh, never mind. You know the appropriate word. And in case you're wondering, it's a possessive.

Next in this series: part of the Paramedic Method for reviving poor writing. It involves rescuing writing via ten-point resuscitation.

Heh. Like I can write a series.



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