March 18, 2007

A moment that never we going to lost

A strip by Carla Ventresca, from the Six Chix rotation:

Ventresca's retired teacher obviously feels that the role of linguistic sheepdog, keeping the flock in order, requires constant vigilance. Left to themselves, people fling apostrophes and plurals and parts of speech right and left with reckless abandon, perhaps even reverting to the orthographic and linguistic anarchy of Elizabethan times.

Of course, our linguistic sheepdogs are not really a different species from the sheep. There are some socially sanctioned sheepdog roles, like "English Teacher" and "copy editor", but sometimes retired English teachers, the children of English teachers, and random socially-minded individuals feel the call to start rounding up strays.

And unfortunately, many of the sheepdogs, whether officially licensed or self-appointed, are confused about where the flock's boundaries really should be: corrections are often incorrections. Ventresca's retired English teacher corrects five words, two of which were fine to start with. That's three right out of five, for a numerical grade of 60% and a letter grade of D-.

Three of the corrections, all connected with possessives and apostrophes, fix things that really needed to be fixed: "Today's" replacing "Todays"; "their" in place of "they're"; "yours" in place of "your's". (I'll bet that Ventresca owns a copy of Eats, Shoots, and Leaves.)

But the rightmost of the five corrections -- "Hurry in quickly" replacing "Hurry in fast" -- is wrong, at least if it's based on the notion that fast is an adjective being used inappropriately where an adverb is needed. Like slow and hard, fast is one of those monosyllables that's been used as an adverb since Chaucer's time or before. And I don't see a strong stylistic reason to prefer quickly over fast in this case -- both might be accused of redundancy after "hurry in". So this is probably an incorrection, based on the ignorant misconception that fast is an adjective sometimes misused as an adverb.

[This sort of thing doesn't just happen in the funny papers -- see comment #12 in this discussion from the WordReference Forums, which quotes The 80/20 Style Guide for Professional Quality Business Writing, by Stephen Kunkel, Ph.D., to the effect that "Fast is an adjective. Quickly is the adverb form of this descriptive word."]

And another of the five corrections -- the collective singular "shrimp" in place of the normal plural "shrimps" -- is also wrong. The OED has regular plurals for shrimp going back to 1327, and lists more recent examples by the likes of Charles Dickens:

1848 DICKENS Dombey vi, She partook of shrimps and porter.

In this morning's New York Times, the Diner's Guide has a review of a restaurant named Spicy & Tasty, where the reviewer's enthusiasm is expressed in plural shrimps:

As for the other side of the ampersand, there are juicy little shrimps with black bean paste, shredded bean curd with an irresistibly bouncy texture and a scallion and egg fried rice whose fluffiness is a revelation.

In a frame like "Today's Special: Grilled __", the collective singular is the more popular choice these days: {"grilled shrimp"} has 525,000 Google hits compared to 13,000 for {"grilled shrimps"}. But many of those 13,000 hits are in high-status contexts, like the recipe for "Adriatic Grilled Shrimps" on the site of NPR's The Splendid Table. So again, we're being told to subsitute a correct form for another form that was correct to start with.

But even if Ventresca's retired English teacher is prone to incorrections, we need her back in the classroom.

The most emailed article in today's NYT is Elissa Gootman's "For Teachers, Middle School Is Test of Wills". It's mostly about teachers' difficulties in dealing with the behavioral effects of pubescent hormone surges, but near the end, Gootman quotes from a seventh-grader's essay:

“I’m writing about one day my dog got sick,” the student wrote. “This a moment that never I going to lost. Because my dog it like my baby okay.”

This is apparently a mixture of vernacular usage ("my dog (,) it ('s) like my baby (,) okay (?) ") and non-native English, or a confused attempt to write in a formal style ("a moment that never I going to lost"). But whatever the explanation, this student has a lot to learn about writing an essay in standard English. If he or she comes out of the process believing a few falsehoods about adverbs and shrimps, that's a small price to pay.

On the other hand, if 40% of the teacher's corrections are applied to things that were OK to start with, that's a waste of time at best, and perhaps a source of confusion as well.

[Note -- the current edition of Dr. Kunkel's 80/20 Guide to Top Quality Business Writing uses slow/slowly (rather than the quoted fast/quickly) as its contrastive example for section 2.15 "Actions described by verbs should be modified by adverbs, not adjectives":

Original: New companies should go slow when developing their business plans.
Revision: New companies should go slowly when developing their business plans.

I'm not sure about top quality business writing in general, but the NYT business section has used "go slow" several times over the past few months, e.g.:

Japanese industrial production logged its biggest month-on-month decline in three years in January, casting doubt on the strength of the nation's corporate sector and reinforcing views that the Bank of Japan will go slow on any future rate increases.

So it is no surprise that Shell, Chevron and Mr. Vawter's EGL Resources, the three companies that won the 160-acre leases, say they are going to go slow with their experiments before they begin considering commercial production of synthetic fuel. The initial outlays are small, in the millions or tens of millions.

That has caused some analysts to caution its investors to go slow on the company.

This continues the long tradition in top-quality non-business writing of using slow as an adverb (these from the OED):

1590 SHAKES. Mids. N. I. i. 3 But oh, me thinkes, how slow This old Moon wanes.
1632 MILTON Penseroso 76, I hear the far-off Curfeu sound,..Swinging slow with sullen roar.
1812 BYRON Ch. Har. II. xli, As the stately vessel glided slow Beneath the shadow.
1848 THACKERAY Van. Fair viii, We drove very slow for the last two stages on the road.

And of course the famous lines from Alexander Pope's "Essay on Criticism":

366 'Tis not enough no harshness gives offence,
367 The sound must seem an echo to the sense.
368 Soft is the strain when Zephyr gently blows,
369 And the smooth stream in smoother numbers flows;
370 But when loud surges lash the sounding shore,
371 The hoarse, rough verse should like the torrent roar.
372 When Ajax strives, some rock's vast weight to throw,
373 The line too labours, and the words move slow;
374 Not so, when swift Camilla scours the plain,
375 Flies o'er th'unbending corn, and skims along the main.


Posted by Mark Liberman at March 18, 2007 08:35 AM