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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
August 30, 2009

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Grammar, Spelling, and Mysteries

It sits there on the shelves, demanding your attention with its yellow cover and vulgar title: Eats, S*, & Leaves: Crap English and How to Use It by "A. Parody."

This book takes off on the title of Eats, Shoots & Leaves, by Lynne Truss, but it's hard to discern its purpose. Truss did a good enough job of guiding people through the thicket of English orthography; what's to make fun of?

And since "Parody's" book also purports to tell us useful and accurate information, though somewhat ribald or coarse at times, and does it with a much snootier attitude, one would expect "Parody" to go to even greater pains to be correct.

One would be disappointed.

Take this bit of advise on usage:

Different from/different than/different to

The Americanisms 'different than' and 'different to' are different from the correct English form 'different from'.

Notice the Britishisms in the above -- using single quotation marks (or "inverted commas") instead of double, and putting the period outside the quotes instead of inside. These "Britishisms" are not wrong, they're just British. Nor are "Americanisms" wrong, they're just American.

But it gets worse. Never in my life have I heard an American say or seen an American write "different to." I have only heard this usage from Brits, and old-fashioned Brits at that. So not only is the author disdainful of Americanisms, he doesn't bother to find out whether an "incorrect" (old-fashioned) usage is American, he just assumes it.

He thinks he has found oxymorons when he hasn't: "Freezer burn," "skinny broad," "virtual reality," and "death benefits" are not oxymorons; the most they achieve is irony rather than contradiction.

His proofreading was a bit lacking, as when he defines the acronym "FYO" as "for your information." Oddly enough, I thought that was "FYI."

He criticizes people who use "overelaborate wordage" instead of simple synonyms. The trouble is, his list includes pairs of words that are not synonyms at all, and the more "elaborate" word is necessary when you mean what it says rather than what the simpler word says, viz. "group/assembly," "talk/communicate," "shorten/abbreviate," "doctor/physician," "weatherman/meteorologist."

For instance, it would be absurd to talk about attending a school "group" instead of "assembly," or to insist on "talk by texting" instead of "communicate." And "physician" rules out Ph.D.s and J.D.s, who are all "doctors," while scientists who study the weather would resent being called by the same term as the guys who point to maps on the TV news.

When he writes of spelling words the way they sound, he weirdly leaves in an amazing number of silent letters, like the silent "e" at the end of words like "date," which serves to signal us that the "a" is long; yet he removes double letters which serve the equally useful function of signaling that the vowel right before them is short.

Thus his phonetic spelling of "accommodate" is "akomodate." Yet this supposedly phonetic spelling would leave a foreigner thinking that the two "o's" are pronounced the same, while in fact the first is short and the second is long -- which our spelling system clearly indicates, without the use of tedious accent marks.

And why does he turn long "i" into "y"? While "y" is pronounced that way in "why," "try," "byte," and "sky," overwhelmingly the most common sound of "y" is as a long "e" or palatalization of the following vowel, as in "friendly" (and all other adverbs in "-ly"), "you," and "yes."

You'd think that in publishing this book in America, the editors would have made it useful to Americans -- for instance, by looking at the list of commonly misspelled words that includes this gem: "diarrhoea/direrear/dihorrea = diarrhoea." Not in America, kiddo -- we dropped the useless "o" long ago. And no American outside New England would misspell it as "direrear," since most of us don't add non-existent "r" sounds to the ends of vowels.

Nowhere is the book more British than in the pronunciation guide to "ough." How many Americans would think the vowel sound in "thoughtful" rhymes with the vowel in "port"?

And what kind of bonehead guides us to pronouncing "Scarborough" by using another "gh" word, "curragh" -- especially since I don't know that there are many Brits who pronounce "curragh" correctly, since it's a borrowed Celtic word in which the "gh" is pronounced (in Scotland) like the "ch" in Bach." Which is definitely not the way you pronounce "Scarborough."

In the end, I have to say that the entire value of this book is whatever amusement you might derive from the title -- though of course even that is a Britishism, since in America the verb form of the coarse word for defecation does not take an "e" (because in America the vowel is a short "i").

*

Sometimes local detail can go too far.

Margaret Maron's very likeable mystery series about North Carolina judge Deborah Knott has the great virtue of guiding us through different cities in North Carolina. While the primary setting of the books is eastern North Carolina, Knott has solved mysteries in the mountains and in the Triad. And in each case, the better you know the town the more you'll enjoy recognizing real places where the characters eat and do business.

But in Sand Sharks, set in Wilmington, there were some pages toward the beginning where my eyes began to glaze over with the amount of detail about particular streets and restaurants. Is this a novel or a GPS? A story or the results from a Google search?

It turns out that, skillfully buried amid the plethora of detail, Maron slips in a large number of pertinent clues. Which you miss, if you skim; and these passages invite skimming.

Sand Sharks is a very good mystery, though the series has become much more "cozy" as the years have passed by. I urge you to be patient in the beginning; think of it as a guide to fine dining in the Wilmington area, complete with directions, and take notes if you plan to visit there soon. Before long, the mystery kicks in and you'll have fun.

*

By the way, I happened to use the word "plethora" two paragraphs ago. Recently I heard a high school student talk about a teacher who often used "plethora" -- to the point that it became a signature word that students picked up and used.

But to my mild dismay, the teacher was apparently pronouncing the word incorrectly, putting the accent on the second syllable: "ple-THOR-uh." Sorry, wrong. In English the accent is on the first syllable, so it's pronounced "PLETH-or-uh" or "PLETH-er-uh."

The word means "overabundance" or "excess," and it's the opposite of "paucity," which means "scantiness" or "undersupply." Dictionary.com's example is the phrase "a plethora of advice and a paucity of assistance."

But I never think less of someone for mispronouncing words. Often mispronunciation implies that the person learned the word from reading rather than conversation, and I think that is an honorable way to acquire words. So when people correct my pronunciations of words I picked up that way, I am grateful for the information, and I provide the same service to friends who I know from experience will not take it ill.

And as long as I'm on a language rant, let me point out that the immediately preceding sentence is one in which people who have been badly educated in grammar would be tempted to insert "whom" instead of "who": "... the same service to friends whom I know from experience...."

But that would be wrong. "Who" is not the object of the verb "know," it is the subject of the clause "who ... will not take it ill."

In seventh grade in California -- back when California had the finest schools in the country instead of tying Mississippi, Louisiana, and Arkansas for the worst -- I was carefully taught how to parse such clauses and sentences until the correct usage came out of my mouth without thinking.

But it's a lost art, partly because correct uses of "whom" are actually quite rare. Well, no, that's not true. We could use "whom" quite often, as in, "Whom are you texting right now?" or "Whom were you talking to on the phone while the rest of us were trying to converse?"

But correct as they are, those usages sound affected and snooty, because the language is changing and "whom" is on the road to non-existence, like "ye" and "thou, thee, thy, thine."

To insist on "whom" is becoming as ridiculous as if I were to correct someone who said, "Finally you came up with the answer!" "No, I think ye mean 'Finally ye came up with the answer.'"

So my annoyance is not with people who fail to use "whom" whenever it is grammatically called for. It is with people who do use whom, but put it in places where it is simply wrong.

They are trying to use an elevated grammatical form, but they do not actually know how to do so correctly. The result is the worst kind of grammar error: the phony affectation.

So here is Orson's rule for avoiding looking like a pretentious idiot: Don't use whom at all, ever, unless you truly understand all the rules of correct usage of the word.

I do know the rules, and I do use whom, and I do so correctly. This means that while I am most definitely pretentious, I'm not a pretentious idiot. At least not when it comes to using whom.

*

Charles Todd's Ian Rutledge mysteries have been a delight. Set in Britain in the aftermath of World War I, they involve a police detective who is haunted -- psychologically or literally -- by the trusted sergeant whom he had to execute for cowardice at the front lines.

So I am happy to report that Charles Todd has dipped back a little farther into the period to create a character named Bess Crawford, a nurse on a hospital ship. In A Duty to the Dead, her ship is torpedoed or mined, and while she survives the sinking, she has to return home to England to recover from a compound fracture in her arm.

Todd does a good job of writing her in first person, which is actually quite difficult, because when you have a character doing bold, heroic deeds, it is hard to have her tell about it in her own voice without making her sound vain.

The story involves a promise Bess made to a dying soldier that she had halfway fallen in love with -- a message she was supposed to take to his younger brother. She delays fulfilling that promise until her ship sinks, forcing her to realize that she might have died with the promise unfulfilled.

But the message turns out to mean far more than she could have guessed, putting the dead soldier's family into turmoil for reasons that Bess only gradually comes to understand. There is a murderer in the family, and they all know it, and it has damaged them all to keep the terrible secrets about the crime.

Not that many of them thank her for stirring things up. And in the end (spoiler alert!), while that dying soldier did set in motion the righting of old wrongs, Bess realizes that he still did it in a weak and rather cowardly way. He wanted to do right, but it was always left to others to take the bold actions he should have taken himself.

Todd is a wonderful writer, though I'm afraid his view of the behavior of people who have been damaged psychologically by terrifying or painful events is rather eccentric.

But his research is probably better than mine and maybe people really do go into trances -- a lot -- in which they act out the terrible events of the past, and into which an observer can insert himself, to the point of helping the victim carry imaginary bodies into imaginary hospital tents.

For the purposes of the fiction, however, I certainly accept the device and enjoy the story. Since it's hard to find good historical fiction and it's my favorite genre, I'm happy when very good mystery writers set their stories in well-researched and fascinating periods of the past. Todd is one of the best, and this is a terrific book.


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