Mark Liberman has
about "incorrections" -- corrections that are
themselves incorrect (in Bill Safire's phrasing). In the simplest
cases, the advice is to replace a correct variant that is falsely
believed to be incorrect by another, also correct, variant; Mark's
example was the advice to replace entitled
in examples like "a
column entitled 'Incorrections'". In more advanced cases, the
advice is to avoid a correct variant, which can lead to self-editing in
which the end product is a variant that is awkward, unfortunately
ambiguous in a way the original was not, etc. In the worst cases,
the advice can lead to self-editing in favor of things that are just
flat unacceptable in the intended sense (or even in any sense at
Today's example of truly unfortunate self-incorrection comes from a
news bulletin on NPR's Weekend
, about people whose HIV status was revealed
(1) because of a likely clerical error.
This is almost surely the result of avoiding using likely
as an adverb, as in
(2) likely because of a clerical error
'probably because of a clerical error'.
You might not be entirely happy with (2), but (1) won't do at all in
the intended sense.
I'll get back to (1) in a little while, but first some background
People have been observing for around a century that avoiding stranded
prepositions and split infinitives can lead people into rocky
terrain. Here's a case of simple self-incorrection: avoiding a
correct stranded preposition, in a work-around I reported on the ADS-L
back on 9/17/01:
... heard on a local show ("Minds Over
Matter") on the San Francisco radio station KALW. Talking about a
city street, one of the panelists asked, "Who is it named after?
I mean, for whom is it named?"
What makes the example nice is that the speaker didn't just shift from
a stranded preposition to its pied-piped [i.e. fronted] equivalent
("After whom is it named?" -- which to my ear is just awful, though
perhaps not so bad as "After which parent does Kim take?" as a
substitute for "Which parent does Kim take after?", or "For what did
you eat that fish?" as a substitute for "What did you eat that fish
for?"), but seems to have unconsciously perceived where that strategy
would lead her and shifted the preposition as well, to one that's more
acceptable in pied piping.
Whew! Good save! But there was nothing wrong with "Who is
it named after?" in the first place.
Other times you end up with stuff that's flat unacceptable, as in this
passage in LaTeX/dvips documentation (reported to me by Geoff Pullum,
The graphics backend driver now knows
with what you are TeXing the document, so it can go out and look for
the file with an admissible extension...
Pied piping is awful with what
in an embedded interrogative. It's also awful in exclamatives, as
in the second examples in the following pairs
What a curvy road we are driving on!
On what a curvy road we are driving!
What a dirty room the children are playing in!
In what a dirty room the children are playing!
(These are from a net discussion of preposition stranding I posted
some time ago. The point there was that some people found
preposition stranding so offensive that they couldn't accept either of
the alternatives above, even the perfectly correct first alternatives.)
On other occasions, people try to fix stranded prepositions by just
omitting them, as Mark noted
in connection with this dreadful example, where the (believed to be)
offending final to
has been deleted:
Designed to think the way you do, the
technology is smart, simple and
invisible. A fresh new contemporary space that takes luxury into the
wireless modern world it belongs.
For split infinitives, you don't usually get gross unacceptability
through self-incorrection. Instead, the problem is that moving an
adverb out of an infinitival VP (to avoid a split infinitive) can cause
it to be parsed, unfortunately, with the higher verb, as in these two
Mr. Blackburn added that the Panhandle
Regional Narcotics Trafficking Task Force failed adequately to
supervise the agent, Tom Coleman, in its eagerness to win battles in
the war on drugs. (NYT
3/11/04, p. A14)
Losses widened on Wall Street after Secretary of State Colin Powell
failed totally to account for its weapons of mass destruction.
(wire-service article during the run-up to the 2003 war in Iraq, as
reported by Bill Walsh, The
Elephants of Style (2004), p. 64)
Sometimes, however, infinitives are obligatorily
, and moving an adverbial out will result in unacceptability,
though the occasional example occurs, via self-incorrection of the
It is rubbing salt into the wound more
than to double the charges at such short notice. I appeal to the
Minister and to his right hon. and hon. ... (parliamentary debate, from
my 2004 posting)
Now to return to likely
adverb. The perceived problem here might be that likely
is an adjective and so
should not be used as an adverb; according to this view, that would be
as bad as writing "I feel real sorry" for "I feel really sorry".
reports in its entry
, things like "He
will likely be elected" have been disparaged for a century now, though
the usage is old, dating back to the 14th century. The matter is
complex: many usage writers accept modified likely
("He will most likely be
elected") but not unmodified likely
and unmodified likely
seem to have gone out of fashion in British formal writing, though not
in American. MWDEU
judges it to be standard usage in the U.S.
Despite this, many people avoid the adverb likely
and move it into a position
where it's available as an adjective, as in (1) -- which,
unfortunately, means that the clerical error is likely, not that the
cause was likely to have been a clerical error. This is the worst
sort of self-incorrection.
You can see why the writer of the news bulletin might have wanted likely
rather than its closest
is stronger than probably
. But then you're
stuck -- either go with adverbial likely
or settle for second-best probably
or re-cast the whole business with it
is likely that
. Moving likely
into adjectival position just won't do.
Another wretched alternative would be to take seriously the idea that likely
is only an adjective, so
that its related derived adverb, likelily
is what you want. No, you really don't want likelily
, or any other -ly
adverb derived from an
adjective ending in the suffix -ly
, etc.). They're
tremendously awkward, as that famous linguist James Thurber observed
wryly in the "Ladies' and gentlemen's guide to modern English usage"
section of his 1931 The Owl in the
Another adverbial construction which
gives considerable trouble, or will if you let it, is the adverb ending
in "-lily." The best thing to do with the adverb in "-lily" is to
let it alone. "Lovelily" is an example. You can say "he
plays lovelily," but even though the word is perfectly proper, it won't
get you anywhere. You might just get by with it at a concert; but
try shouting it at a ball game. There isn't one person in ten who
will go ahead with a friendship in which the "-lily" adverbs are likely
to occur. The possible endings of this sort are numberless: you
can even say, and be right, "heavenlily" and "ruffianlily." It is
especially advisable to avoid this construction because of its
"Thematic Potentiality." Thematic Potentiality is the quality
which certain words and phrases have of suggesting a theme song--that
is, some such thing as "Heaven Lily O'Mine," "Ruffian Lily, Come Back
to Me," "Love Vo-deo-do Lily," and so on. Think of something else.
In a word, the -lily
are ridiculous. You will likelily want to avoid them.
(Card-carrying linguists have looked at -lily
words. See, for
example, Lise Menn & Brian MacWhinney, "The repeated morph
, 1984. )
zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu
Posted by Arnold Zwicky at March 3, 2007 02:46 PM