September 05, 2004

The perils of prescriptivism

In Jasper Fforde's third Thursday Next novel, The Well of Lost Plots, each chapter begins with a paragraph-length quotation from some (imaginary) other work dealing with the (imaginary) world of the Great Library, where the action takes place. Chapter 22 starts with a definition of "echolocator" from the Guide to the Great Library by Cat Formerly Known as Cheshire:

An artisan who will enter a book close to publication and locate and destroy echoed words in the work. As a general rule, identical words (with exceptions such as names, small words and modified repetitions) cannot be repeated within fifteen words as it interrupts the smooth transfer of images into the reader's mind. (See ImaginoTransferenceDevice user's Manual, page 782.)

The related issue of repeated "small words", or at least a particular instance of it, is taken up at a meeting of Jurisfiction operatives in chapter 23, where the seventh agenda item is "the had had and that that problem". Lady Cavendish reports that "[a]t the last count, David Copperfield alone had had had had sixty-three times, all but ten unapproved". She also flags a problem in Pilgrim's Progress "due to its had had/that that ratio".

Specifically, she explains that the problem is "[t]hat that had that that ten times but had had had had only thrice".

"Hmm," said the Bellman. "I thought had had had had TGC's approval for use in Dickens? What's the problem?"

"Take the first had had and that that in the book by way of example," explained Lady Cavendish. "You would have thought that that first had had had had good accasion to be seen as had, had you not? Had had had approval but had had had not; equally it is true to say that that that had had approval but that that other that that had not."

"So the problem with that other that that was that ... ?"

"That that other-other that that had had approval."

"Okay," said the Bellman, whose head was in danger of falling apart like a chocolate orange, "let me get this straight: David Copperfield, unlike Pilgrim's Progress, had had had, had had had had. Had had had had TGC's approval?"

That's a lot of set-up for the eleven-had sequence, which is a form of an old joke presented more simply here, as a puzzle

Ann while Bob had had had had had had had had had had had a better effect on the teacher.

which can be understood with a little punctuation and goodwill as

Ann, while Bob had had "had", had had "had had". "Had had" had had a better effect on the teacher.

In the Well of Lost Plots passage, though, I could use some help with that "other-other that that" business. On second thought, never mind...

Echoing the topic of amazon sales rank, which has come up here recently, I note that the fourth Thursday Next novel, just published, has a current sales rank of 367, which apparently translates to sales of about 17 copies per day (though since books in this range are re-ranked every hour, this number may not be very stable). The Well of Lost Plots, published last year, is already down to a rank of 2,557, or around 4.5 copies per day.

Anyhow, it seems that this sort of thing has quite a few fans, though apparently they are thin on the ground at The Economist's letters-to-the-editor department.


Posted by Mark Liberman at September 5, 2004 12:10 PM