DO YOU MAKE ANY OF THESE EMBARASSING MISTAKES?!

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.

IF NO ONE HAS YET TAUGHT YOU HOW TO AVOID OR REPAIR CLAUSES LIKE THE FOLLOWING, YOU SHOULD, IN MY OPINION, THINK SERIOUSLY ABOUT SUING SOMEBODY, PERHAPS AS CO-PLAINTIFF WITH WHOEVER’S PAID YOUR TUITION [by David Foster Wallace]

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.

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3 responses to “DO YOU MAKE ANY OF THESE EMBARASSING MISTAKES?!

  1. Pingback: Led astray by the no-split-infinitives fetish « Motivated Grammar

  2. In Wallace’s defense, he was teaching a class, and thus trying to impart rules of usage and grammar on aspiring writers. What was he supposed to tell them? Follow whatever rules you find most comfortable? Write the way most Americans talk? Wallace wrote an essay about the prescriptivist/descriptivist war and he talked about the difficulty of teaching arbitrary rules to students and then applying grades based on the students usage (or lack there)of the arbitrary rules. But there has to be some sort of agreed upon rules, no? Especially at the high-level, nuanced level that Wallace wrote at – he had to split hairs, not infinitives. I just think the context of this document goes a long way toward justifying it’s hard and fast tone and self-assuredness. And to call David Foster Wallace “brutally ignorant of the way the language actually works”, based on a test he wrote while being paid to teach students how to write correctly is myopic, if not mean-spirited.

  3. Pingback: In the book Infinite Jest, why is “sic” included in this sentence on p. 11? | Taha Yavuz Bodur weblogging..

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