May 14, 2007

The unfab four

A little while ago, after a discussion of the evil passive voice (as characterized by Sherry Roberts in her little handbook on business writing), I set Language Log readers a take-home question:

Take-home.  Section 9 of the Roberts booklet begins:

Watch out for these four commonly misused words.

Some words in the English language take a constant beating in business correspondence. Be one of those writers who use them properly and pleasantly surprise your readers. Your conscientiousness may sell your next idea or product.

So, what do you think these four words are, and what's the problem with them?

The envelope, please!  And the losers are:

That vs. which. Which often follows a comma and introduces a phrase that provides additional information not essential to the meaning of the sentence. That introduces a phrase that is essential to the meaning of the sentence.

The report, which is twenty pages long, is mandatory reading. (Which introduces additional, but unnecessary, information.)

The report that is twenty pages long is mandatory reading. (That points out a characteristic of the report and distinguishes it from a ten-page report.)

Hopefully. This doesn't mean I hope. Hopefully, I'll finish the report by noon. Do you mean you'll finish the report in a hopeful frame of mind by noon? Or do you mean you hope you'll finish the report by noon? Say what you mean: I hope to finish the report by noon.

Very. Avoid this lukewarm, unspecific adverb. I'm very happy that you elected me chairman of the Society for People with Super Sensitive Feet. Is very happy happier than just happy?  [Note rhetorical question, conveying that very happy is not in fact happier than happy.]  Why not overjoyed or: I'm tickled to be the new chairman of the Society for People with Super Sensitive Feet.

How disheartening: Fowler's Rule (which counts as two misused words), speaker-oriented sentence adverbial hopefully, and the intensifier very.

We've written a lot about Fowler's Rule here on Language Log and I don't see any point in rehashing the topic, though I will note that Fowler (who was not the originator of the principle, but did serve as the major vector of its spread in the 20th century) merely said that it might be better if the functions of restrictive and non-restrictive relativization were cleanly split between that and which, respectively -- while admitting that writers in English generally did not do this.

Speaker-oriented (or "stance") adverbial hopefully has been taking abuse pretty steadily for 30 or more years (see MWDEU).  Linguists are mostly just baffled by this disparagement; see the discussion in the American Heritage Book of English Usage, where it's noted that "hopefully seems to have taken on a life of its own as a shibboleth."  But the word fits right into long-standing patterns of the language  -- cf. frankly in "Frankly, this soup stinks" and surprisingly in "Surprisingly, this soup is delicious" -- and it provides a way of expressing the speaker's attitude towards a proposition which is both (a) brief and (b) subordinate: "I hope that S", "I have a hope that S", "It is to be hoped that S", and the like are wordier, and have the hoping expressed in a main clause (as the apparent main assertion), while what writers want is to assert the proposition provisionally, adding a modifier expressing their attitude towards it.  So speaker-oriented hopefully is a GOOD thing, and it's no surprise that it's spread so fast.

As for very, I intend to post on this eventually -- I've had a piece in draft for some time -- because it's a venerable proscription (going back to Strunk (1918) and before), and one that has its puzzling aspects.  For the moment, the crucial thing is that for many people who use very, very happy is indeed happier than happy, while replacements like extremely happy and overjoyed are often too far up on the happiness scale.  (Tickled is just an elaborate joke, and somewhat out of place in a manual of business writing.)

[Added 5/15/07: On ADS-L, Doug Harris pointed how how effective repetition of the very can be, citing a story from the Oneonta (NY) Daily Star, in which a local farmer who'd been struck by lightning was said to be "very, very, very sore".  I then reported having found ca. 69,800 Google webhits for {"be very very afraid"}, some of the form "Be afraid. Be very(,) very afraid." and others with just the second part.  Jesse Sheidlower then supplied the source of the formula: "Be afraid. Be very afraid." (from the 1986 horror film "The Fly") -- an effective use of very as an intensifier, it seems to me.  Bill Mullins suggests that the use of "Be afraid. Be very afraid." by Wednesday in "Addams Family Values" (1993) was probably a bigger vector for its spread.]

Some general remarks...  Note that Roberts simply asserts Fowler's Rule and similarly just asserts what the meaning of hopefully is; these are just inarguable FACTS about English, deriving presumably from some higher authority.  And she just asserts that very is lukewarm (a judgment of taste) and unspecific (a judgment of meaning), brooking no objection from those whose judgments are not the ones she reports.

We are, indeed, in shibboleth territory.  Roberts is merely repeating three very fashionable proscriptions on grammar, style, and usage.  Neither reason nor actual practice have anything to do with it.

Propagating such shibboleths has a variety of unfortunate consequences.  Some people become "blinded by the rules", as I've put it: they can't help noticing the proscribed items and may find that these items slow down their comprehension.  In extreme cases, these sadly afflicted folks suffer from a willful failure to understand -- reporting that they can't understand things like "Hopefully, it's not going to rain today" (because "it" cannot be hopeful) and maintaining that people who say "I didn't do nothing" are saying that they did something -- and so exhibit stunningly uncooperative behavior: in ordinary language use, we're trying to gauge others' intentions from their words, not to enforce what we believe to be language norms.  

For a final flourish, let's return to the evil passive voice.  After Jon Lighter quoted from Roberts's handbook on ADS-L, Larry Horn (5/2/07) came up with this even wilder critique of the passive, from the 5/7/07 New Yorker, p. 87:

Constructing passive sentences is a way of concealing your own testicles, lest someone cut them off.  (psychoanalyst Ernesto Morales, played by Ian Holm in the new film "The Treatment")

Horn commented wryly, "I'm not sure whether according to this theory women can construct passive sentences with impunity."

[Added 5/15/07: Language Hat writes to say that the Morales quote is not in the Daniel Menaker book on which the movie is based, though in the book Morales does have something of a preoccupation with genitals and castration.  Further commentary: "The screenwriter is Daniel Saul Housman, and this seems to be his first movie, so we can't investigate his corpus for other evidence of Strunkism; we can only speculate about what he may have been exposed to at Columbia while getting his MFA."]

zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at May 14, 2007 02:27 PM