Monthly Archives: December 2009


This test recently appeared on the blog HTML Giant. According to Amy McDaniel, who published the test, the questions and answers came from a worksheet from one of David Foster Wallace’s classes. As tends to be the case with prescriptive dogmatists (“kibbitzers and nudniks,” in Stephen Pinker’s terms), many of the solutions are brutally ignorant of the way language actually works. I’ve included the proffered solutions in red following each question.


1. He and I hardly see one another.

He and I hardly see one each another.

“One another” is used for a noun that is three or more in number; “each other” is used for two.

2. I’d cringe at the naked vulnerability of his sentences left wandering around without periods and the ambiguity of his uncrossed “t”s.

I’d cringe at the naked vulnerability of his sentences left wandering around without periods and at the ambiguity of his uncrossed “t”s.

This is a parallelism problem. The subject cringed at two things; the intervening prepositions “of” and “without” cloud the meaning without the repeated “at.” Lots of people put a comma before and, but that is a nonstandard way to improve clarity.

3. My brother called to find out if I was over the flu yet.

My brother called to find out if whether I was over the flu yet.

If you can use whether, always do so. If implies conditionality. Whether or not is redundant.

4. I only spent six weeks in Napa.

I only spent only six weeks in Napa.

The adverb only modifies six, not spent. If it modified spent, the sentence would be implying that the subject didn’t, say, work or weep or dance six weeks in Napa–merely spent six weeks there. Clearly, not the author’s intention.

5. In my own mind, I can understand why its implications may be somewhat threatening.

In my own mind, I can understand why its implications may be somewhat threatening.

You can understand something only in your own mind.

6. From whence had his new faith come?

From wWhence had his new faith come?

Grossly redundant. Whence means from where.

7. Please spare me your arguments of why all religions are unfounded and contrived.

Please spare me your arguments of as to why all religions are unfounded and contrived.

Idiom error.

8. She didn’t seem to ever stop talking.

She didn’t seem ever to ever stop talking.

Don’t split infinitives if you can easily avoid it. Here you can easily avoid it without sacrificing meaning or elegance of expression.

9. As the relationship progressed, I found her facial tic more and more aggravating.

As the relationship progressed, I found her facial tic more and more aggravating irritating.

Aggravating was a special peeve of Wallace’s, since you could just as easily use irritating and thereby not, ahem, irritate readers who believe that aggravate should only mean to make worse. Again, his thing was that if you can use a synonym that doesn’t come with a fraught usage history, you should, because you never want readers to be distracted in that particular way.

10. The Book of Mormon gives an account of Christ’s ministry to the Nephites, which allegedly took place soon after Christ’s resurrection.

The Book of Mormon gives an account of Christ’s ministry to the Nephites, which allegedly took place soon after Christ’s his (or His) resurrection.

Simple rule, avoid needless repetition.

Let’s take these one at a time.

1. The rule that each other is to be used with two items and one another for three or more was well-developed in 1851, but can be traced as far back as 1785 to a work by George N. Ussher. In 1851, Goold Brown noticed that “misapplication” of the phrases was very common, and he expressed bewilderment that so many people were apt to misunderstand such a common phrase. The Merriam Webster Dictionary of English Usage (MWDEU) suggests that his bewilderment was due to the fact that the rule governing the use of these two phrases has no actual basis in the use of the phrases by native English speakers: “The interchangeability of each other and one another had been established centuries before Ussher or somebody even earlier had thought up the rule.”

2. I agree with the recommended change, although I’d switch the two phrases around so that the shorter one comes first. This isn’t actually a parallelism problem – the two phrases are parallel, it’s just that the first one is so long that the reader is likely to forget the main verb by the time they get to the second phrase. Compare the sentence, “I’d cringe at the vulnerability of his sentences and the ambiguity of his uncrossed Ts.” No shortage of parallelism there.

3. Using if instead of whether to introduce a noun phrase was disparaged by a proper English chap named J. Johnson in 1762, who called it a “Scotticism.” Unfortunately for him, the usage he attacked was considered standard English by his better-known contemporary Samuel Johnson, the author of the landmark A Dictionary of the English Language [wiki]. The MWDEU notes that “if…is almost always used to introduce a noun clause that is the object of a verb such as doubt, see, ask, wonder, decide, and know,” to which I would add find out.

4. There’s no hard and fast rule for determining adverb placement. Some prescriptivists have railed against separating a verb from its auxiliary with an adverb, others have complained about adverbs that come between a verb and its object. The MWDEU says that, in determining adverb placement, “you will need to rely on your common sense and your ear for the language rather than on a rule.” According to my ear for the language, not only does Wallace’s proposed correction sound awkward, but the possibility of readers applying the adverb to the verb spent in the original is so minuscule as to be negligible.

5. It’s true that “in my own mind” is kind of a dumb way to start this sentence, but I’m guessing that this kind of introductory phrase would be used to emphasize the fact that the author’s understanding differs from some other relevant viewpoint. Instead of striking it out altogether, I might replace it with something like “from my experience” or something, depending on the context.

6. The MDWEU cites the conflict over from whence as a result of the disparity between the idiomatic use of whence and the Latin logic behind the word. Appealing to the Latin roots, it is clear that the word whence does already include the notion of from. However, that has never stopped hundreds of thousands of native English speakers, including writers who we canonize as exemplars of great writing such as Shakespeare, Benjamin Franklin, Jonathan Swift, and Thomas Jefferson, from shamelessly using from whence in their work. Even Samuel Johnson, who observed the conflict over this phrase, was known to use it in his own writing from time to time. So although there is an argument that from whence might be redundant, based on its Latinate roots, any well-informed descriptivist must conclude, as the MWDEU does, that there is “no great fault in using it where it sounds right – and great writers have been using it where it sounded right all along.”

7. I agree with the correction wholeheartedly.

8. Split infinitives have been the darling of the prescriptivist world for at least a hundred years. Ambrose Bierce, back in 1909, suggested that all the attention paid to split infinitives has merely been a result of the construction being given a name:

Condemnation of the split infinitive is now pretty general, but it is only recently that any one seems to have thought of it. Our forefathers and we elder writers of this generation used it freely and without shame – perhaps because it had not a name, and our crime could not be pointed out without too much explanation.

Split infinitives have been used by native English speakers since at least the 14th century, and we could conceivably find examples much earlier if we had a reliable corpus that was big enough. According to the MWDEU, “the objection to the split infinitive has never had a rational basis.” They suggest that the objection stems from fear of the divergence of English from more elegant and high-class languages, such as Latin and Greek, that never split infinitives.  Due to the overwhelmingly commonality of the split infinitive among native English speakers, “the consensus in the 20th century…seems to be that awkward avoidance of the split infinitive has produced more bad writing than the use of it.”

9. The OED cites a sense of the adjective aggravating, meaning “exasperating, irritating, provoking,” that goes back to 1775. If Wallace has a problem with this usage, perhaps his best solution would be to procure a time machine.

10. I agree with this change, although I would add that in some cases this type of repetition is warranted. If the sentence in question was “Dave gave an account of Sam’s argument with Alan, which allegedly took place soon after his math exam,” the possessive pronoun his could refer to any of the three people in the main clause, and thus it would be preferable to change the word his to Sam’s to avoid confusion.

The methodology I used in this post – namely, taking a couple minutes to look things up in the OED or the MWDEU – was adapted from the work of the fine folks over at Language Log, and I would recommend that others take up this methodology as well next time they see someone making specious claims about the way language should be. After all, the MWDEU is available in full, for free, on Google Books.


Tax Havens Gardens

In May 2006, councilor Peter Ladner introduced and passed a motion to increase the number of community gardens in the Lower Mainland to 2 010 by the year 2010, as part of Vancouver’s “Olympic legacy.” Recently, since the economy took a dive, commercial property developers have taken this suggestion up with aplomb, but not because their hearts are two sizes too big.

According to Charlie Smith at the Straight, the tax break is roughly 80%, and the city stood to lose $650 090 this year from this type of reclassification. According to Alan Garr at The Courier, this amount gets transferred onto the tax responsibilities of other landowners; back in February, he calculated that each plot in the garden at Davie and Burrard was being subsidized by taxpayers in the amount of $3450, or roughly “$350 for the space needed for one tomato plant.” In May, the Straight reported that 17 lots had been converted since 2007, and another six were in the works – as Global notes, five of those had come through as of the beginning of December, and the garden in question was under review. Considering the apparent popularity of this tactic, the amount of lost revenue is likely nearing a million dollars.

To make this more aggravating, reports that the city council’s current policy on dealing with this loophole is to defer to the BC Assessment Authority, who is more or less doing what it’s told to do by the tax laws that govern it, so who knows when we can expect city council to do anything about it. Gregor Robertson, everybody’s favourite liberal businessman, has been supporting a major tax shift away from commercial properties and onto residential properties since before he was elected mayor, which, according to the Straight, amounts to a four percent increase for residential landowners and a zero percent increase for commercial landowners. This policy is being written into the same budget that’s about to cut $20 million in city services next year, including a $3 million cut in community services, a $2.8 million cut to parks and recreation, and a $1.4 million cut to the public library system.

Oh, and don’t forget that somewhere in there the city scrounged up $450 000 to spend on $350 uniforms for the Host City Team to wear during the Olympics.

Bruno Latour on science

The CBC documentary series Ideas did a 24-part series entitled How To Think About Science. In Part 5, Bruno Latour said this:

When I did this work on science practices, no one understood it. It was taken as a “debunking” of science. So I was very interested because I never though that that had to be debunked. I though it had to be studied and described, but not – debunking never interested me. And yet it was taken by people as debunking. So I became very interested in that argument – why is that people, when you describe science, […] people believe it is a debunking? So what’s their idea of society when a description of science becomes a threat?

This question was a response to the backlash that he received because of his first book, entitled Laboratory Life: The Social Construction of Scientific Fact, based on his use of the term “social construction” to indicate the book’s focus on the social aspects of scientific practice. He indicated that it was never his intention to debunk science, and that he only intended to enrich science by providing a more thorough and socially-grounded explanation of how science is actually done. After people began expressing distaste at the idea that scientific fact could be “socially constructed,” he came to realize that the possibility of this distaste is predicated on a dualistic view of the world that posited a sharp demarcation between nature and culture. Under this paradigm, science can be viewed as purely rational, and consequently a mere description of nature unaffected by the messy social influences of culture. Thus, a description of scientific facts as being socially constructed threatens to make science “disappear,” because it does not fit neatly into the nature/culture paradigm. (Compare arguments that gender is socially constructed; opponents of this view often feel as though traditional gender roles are in danger of disappearing. Because the view of gender as being “natural” rather than “social” fits so well into a dualistic nature/culture worldview, the acceptance of a paradigm that legitimates social influences on gender is hard to swallow, despite it’s being ostensibly more thorough.) Not surprisingly, Latour suggested that the split between nature and culture is merely political, and that it serves institutions that are in a position to benefit from speaking for one side or the other: science for nature, and politics for culture. I’ve repeatedly stated, here and elsewhere, that the nature/culture dualism is frustratingly normalized, and that things that are posited as purely in the realm of one or the other are almost always affected by a combination of both. I agree with him that overcoming this false dichotomy is a critical project. Latour seems unduly optimistic, though, when he suggests that, in David Cayley’s words, “this myth […] is now clearly finished, undone by an ecological crisis in which human and non-human agencies are clearly blended” (namely, global warming). This may be the case in philosophy of science circles, as it seems to be in academic feminist ones, but I think this dualism still underscores a vast majority of people’s understanding of the world and serves as the basis of their decision making about issues that affect it, and that fact legitimates the existence of, for instance, climate change deniers in the highest echelons of power.