October 06, 2003

The awful German New Yorker Language?

In his classic discussion of The Awful German Language, Mark Twain complained about the distance between subjects and verbs in written German, citing the example

Wenn er aber auf der Strasse der in Sammt und Seide gehüllten jetzt sehr ungenirt nach der neusten Mode gekleideten Regierungsräthin begegnet.

which he glosses as

But when he, upon the street, the (in-satin-and-silk-covered-now-very-unconstrained- after-the-newest-fashioned-dressed) government counselor's wife met.

Twain's comment: "You observe how far that verb is from the reader's base of operations; well, in a German newspaper they put their verb away over on the next page; and I have heard that sometimes after stringing along the exciting preliminaries and parentheses for a column or two, they get in a hurry and have to go to press without getting to the verb at all. Of course, then, the reader is left in a very exhausted and ignorant state."

In Twain's example, the verb is separated from its subject by 19 words. In the example that Chris Potts put forward as evidence for the New Yorker's prejudice against quotative inversion, the subject-verb distance in the uninverted quotative tag is 20 words (the span from 'Sekulow' to 'says'):

"I would hope that, based on the President's judicial nominations so far, you will see him appoint Justices more in line with a conservative judicial philosophy," Jay Sekulow, the chief counsel to the American Center for Law and Justice, an advocacy group funded by the Reverend Pat Robertson, says.
(Jeffrey Toobin. Advice and dissent. The New Yorker, May 26, 2003 (p. 48, column 1))

Twain's essay was unfair to the German language and its distinguished tradition of excellent prose, just as this post is unfair to the New Yorker, a distinguished publication with genuinely high standards. So what's the point?

I assume that Germans, like speakers of other languages with S(ubject) O(bject) V(erb) order, normally have no real trouble "flounder[ing] through to the remote verb," as Mark Twain put it, though some German authors may make life harder for their readers than it needs to be. Similarly, English-language journalists are prone to pile up appositives and similar stuff between subject and verb, in a way that doesn't happen in speech and rarely happens in other kinds of prose. However, this ordinarily doesn't cause any real trouble for the reader, perhaps because these journalistic appositives are pragmatically very close to more colloquial constructions. Thus a reader can see:
David Devonshire, the company's chief financial officer, said the separation will improve the way customers view the company.
and think:
David Devonshire [is] the company's chief financial officer, [and he] said the separation will improve the way customers view the company.

No similar re-construal is available inside a quotative tag, where piles of post-subject appositives force the reader to "flounder through to the remote verb" without assistance. That is, a reader seeing:
The separation will improve the way customers view the company, David Devonshire, the company's chief financial officer, said.
can't (helpfully) think:
*The separation will improve the way customers view the company, David Devonshire [is] the company's chief financial officer [and he] said. It's interesting that a linguistically-arbitrary stylistic rule -- the New Yorker's (conjectural) ban on quotative inversion -- may be forcing fine writers into these awkward constructions. This is an object lesson in the perils of trying to improve prose style by legislative fiat.

Posted by Mark Liberman at October 6, 2003 11:36 AM