April 05, 2007

The jagged, dash-strewn syntax of Robert Fisk

Breathlessly urgent syntax from Robert Fisk in The Independent the other day:

Oh how pleased the Iranians must have been to hear Messers [sic] Blair and Bush shout for the "immediate" release of the luckless 15 — this Blair-Bush insistence has assuredly locked them up for weeks — because it is a demand that can be so easily ignored. And will be.

That first dash is the kind that introduces a new clause with a sense of its being too urgent for the writer to wait until after a period for a new sentence to begin — the extra clause must be added right now. And then, unusually, he does it again, with a second dash of the same sort to introduce the because phrase, also an expansion of the original thought tossed in as if there were only seconds to spare to get his point spewed onto the paper. And finally there is a third expansion, an afterthought in the form of an extra coordinate verb phrase with omitted VP complement (will be, meaning "will be ignored").

Well, if Fisk wrote like he was frantic and didn't have time for organized prose, he was certainly right: he posted the above at 12:05 p.m. on April 2, but contrary to his doom-laden prediction President Ahmadinejad announced on April 4 that he would free the luckless 15 as a "gift" to the British people. He did so, and all 15 landed in Britain almost exactly 72 hours after Fisk's prediction that it would be "weeks". One takes risks when one tosses words like will and assuredly around in the volatile domain of Middle Eastern geopolitical posturing. If Fisk had toyed with the draft for a couple of days, he would have missed his chance to make a prediction. Tony Blair's diplomacy seems to have smoothly extracted the 15 service personnel at least an order of magnitude faster than Fisk's anxious, jagged prose suggested. No matter. As Mark Liberman said of Fisk a few months ago, "His writings are pure attitude, and the things in them that look like facts are actually examples of a completely different rhetorical category..." Whether the things he says are true does not matter to Fisk. He will soon be hammering out more dash-strewn prose, expressing other anxious but confident predictions — he assuredly will make further such predictions &mdash because they can be so easily invented. And will be.

[Update: Let me admit, as I have fun mocking Fisk's rhetoric, that I may be in error about his syntax. Jonathan Lundell has convinced me that the second dash can be read as just closing off the parenthetical opened by the first. That is, the because might be intended as an adjunct explaining why Messrs. Blair and Bush would be pleased, rather than explaining why the Blair-Bush insistence has assuredly locked them up for weeks. At first I didn't see that reading, but I do now, and it does fit the dashes into a more familiar syntactic pattern. The double switch of thought-track that I first believed I was seeing is barely even grammatical to me (roughly comparable in unacceptability to clause coordinations of the form P1, but P2, but P3. What we're left with under the analysis with the stuff between the two dashes as an ordinary parenthetical is still jagged, but not that jagged.]

[Afterthought, Friday morning, April 6: I notice that this morning both Mark Liberman and I are struggling with problems in the analysis of British English — mine syntactic, his lexical. We may not be doing well, but you've got to admit, we are struggling gamely to improve our linguistic knowledge by analyzing texts in foreign languages.]

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at April 5, 2007 10:45 PM