The Objectively Objectionable Grammatical Pet Peeve

    Bad Things remained rare in the early decades of the twentieth century. Then they began to proliferate, and now I see them everywhere. One reason may be that writers imitate other writers, both consciously and unconsciously, and imitation eventually leads to stylistic convergence. Whatever the explanation, people nowadays seem more likely than ever to begin sentences with appositives or similarly irritating clauses or phrases—as in this triple punch, from the Washington Post (which has other issues, too):

    A husband of 28-years, now he was a widower. A father of two college-age boys, one was dead while the other was recovering from his own gunshot wound. A man of faith, he was burning at God for letting tragedy strike.

    A century or so ago, as near as I can tell, no one wrote like that. Then something happened. What?

    Assigning dates to transitions in grammar and usage is difficult. Arika Okrent, who earned a Ph.D. in psycholinguistics at the University of Chicago and is the author of two funny, non-scholarly books about language, told me, “You don’t always notice changes when they start, and you don’t even notice them once they’ve taken over, because by then you’re used to them.” Shifts in spelling and vocabulary are easier to document—and, because they are, historians of English once focussed mainly on those. (One of a number of examples that Okrent cites in her second book, “Highly Irregular,” is the word “debt,” which was borrowed from French roughly seven hundred years ago, and was usually spelled “dette,” as it still is in French, or “dett,” or “det.” Sometime in the fifteen-hundreds, though, English scholarly types decided that it ought to look more like the Latin word that the French had borrowed their word from—debitum—and so added a silent b.) The growth in computing power has made it possible to track innovations in syntax and usage, too, although doing so is practical only if someone has collected and accurately tagged a sufficiently vast database of texts. Quite a few such databases now exist—they’re called “corpora,” and the field is called “corpus linguistics”—but there’s still a lot that no one has bothered to figure out.

    Okrent told me that she had looked back over her own writing and discovered a few Bad Things, including this one, from the first chapter of “Highly Irregular”: “Born in Utrecht in 1870, he learned English (among other languages) the hard way, at school.” Like most people, she not only doesn’t mind this sentence but actually likes it. She explained, “I’ve already introduced the guy, and now I’m using the clause structure to cram in more information without disrupting the momentum of the point I’m trying to make.” She guessed that the practice had probably originated in efforts by newspaper writers and editors to save column inches by squeezing more information into smaller spaces.

    I found support for Okrent’s guess in the British lexicographer H. W. Fowler’s great reference book “Dictionary of Modern English Usage,” which was published in 1926. Fowler complains about Bad Things (though not by that name) in his entry on participles, under the subheading “initial participles &c.” He traces their origin to short paragraphs used in newspapers as filler, and gives several examples, among them these: “Winner of many rowing trophies, Mr Robert George Dugdale, aged seventy-five, died at Eton”; “Aged seventy-nine, the Rev. F. T. Wethered, vicar of Hurley, near Marlow, whose death is announced, bathed daily in the Thames, winter & summer, till a few months ago”; “Found standing in play astride the live rail of the electric line at Willesden & in danger of instant death, Walter Spentaford, twelve, was fined 12s. for trespass.” Fowler didn’t like this sort of writing any more than I do: “In these paragraphs, before we are allowed to enter, we are challenged by the sentry, being a participle or some equivalent posted in advance to secure that our interview with the C.O. (or subject of the sentence) shall not take place without due ceremony.” Fowler’s wording suggests that the practice was still newish in 1926, but had been around long enough to have become annoying, at least to him. He concludes, “The fussiness of this is probably entertaining while it is quite fresh; one cannot tell, because it is no longer fresh to anyone.” I recently exchanged e-mails with Jeremy Butterfield, who edited the fourth edition of Fowler’s book, published in 2015. He agreed with Okrent and Fowler that journalism is probably the principal source of the thing that I don’t like. He told me, “Fowler religiously culled his examples from newspapers and magazines, which, it is clear, he saw as the major perpetrators of the linguistic crimes he so meticulously analyzed.” If Butterfield is asked to edit a fifth edition, he has my permission to call sentry participles Bad Things.

    During the past century, Bad Things have spread far beyond newspapers. I now feel as though I see them everywhere, in good writing and bad. The other day, as a test, I picked up the top book on a pile of mysteries that my wife was about to return to the library—“Entry Island,” by Peter May—and found one after flipping through it for a minute or two: “A lonely boy trapped in the body of a man, Norman had only found company in a world he created himself on his ceiling.” There’s one in the author’s bio, too: “One of Scotland’s most prolific television dramatists, May garnered more than 1,000 credits over a decade and a half spent as scriptwriter and editor on primetime British television.” And there’s another in a blurb on the back cover.

    Journalists are guilty of more bad things than Bad Things. A common fault is one that’s known at The New Yorker as indirection, which was a pet peeve of Harold Ross, the magazine’s founding editor. It consists of inserting new information without introducing it properly, as in this sentence: “The first time I visited his six-room apartment, on the Upper West Side, I had to make my way through a labyrinth of floor-to-ceiling piles of acquisitions.” That sentence is from a New Yorker article of mine, published in 1999. The indirection is “six-room”: I haven’t mentioned the apartment before, but there’s at least a suggestion that I must have, as well as a vague implication that the owner has other apartments, of other sizes. (Oh, you visited his six-room apartment.) This particular indirection was actually added by an editor, over my mild objection, and the reason it made it into print may be that Eleanor Gould, who served as the magazine’s grammar authority from 1945 until 1999, had just retired. Indirection is still discouraged at The New Yorker, but it appears more often than it used to.

    Other publications don’t have the same sensitivity. In fact, among sportswriters, in particular, indirection is a cherished technique—as in a recent story, on Golf Digest’s Web site, about a successful weight-loss regimen adopted by the tour pro Keegan Bradley:

    “I felt like I was kind of fatiguing,” said the 36-year-old. . . . For years the former PGA champion had bought into the same fitness regimen as most of his peers that included strength training. When the 6-foot-3 Vermont native turned pro in 2008 out of St. John’s University, he was a wiry 190 pounds.

    The writer has squeezed in an impressive amount of biographical information, in part by using the golfer’s age, major-tournament record, and height and place of birth as fact-stuffed substitutes for the pronoun “he.” Indirection is economical, in that sense, but when I read a story like this I feel as though two people are trying to talk to me at the same time, each repeatedly interrupting the other.

    Indirection is related to, and sometimes indistinguishable from, the extraordinary efforts that some writers make to avoid repeating themselves—a fault that Fowler calls “elegant variation.” (He blames it on “the advice given to young writers never to use the same word twice in a sentence—or within 20 lines or other limit.”) A while back, my wife found a good example in an article in which fortune cookies were referred to, in subsequent mentions, as “these wafer prognosticators,” “the confections,” and “these predictive desserts.” John Bennet, a longtime New Yorker editor, who died last summer, hated elegant variation, and used to tell writers, “A banana is never ‘the elongated yellow fruit.’ ” Just last week, a Washington Post travel writer, who had clearly never worked with Bennet, referred to a crutch as “the mobility aid,” to cattle prods as “bovine pokers,” and to an uncooked chicken as “the raw, pink-skinned bird”—all in the same article. Indirection and elegant variation are as bad as Bad Things.

    Recently, I spoke on Zoom with Bas Aarts, who teaches English linguistics at University College London. He told me that he personally has no problem with Bad Things, but he did show me an even more extreme example of journalistic information-compression, in a recent issue of the Daily Mail. The cover story was about the head of the Metropolitan Police Service’s antiterrorism force, who had angered some retired officers by wearing a heated garment that was designed to allow men to experience one of the symptoms of menopause. This was the headline: “Woke Stunt Row Over Met Terror Chief’s ‘Hot Flush Vest.’ ” That’s seven nouns, two adjectives, one preposition, and no verb. “It’s hard to process, actually,” Aarts said. “I teach noun-phrase structure to my grammar students, but I think they and I would be stumped to analyze it in terms of which bits modify which other bits.” Ultra-dense headlines have a poetic quality, like haiku. Still, they arise from the same shoehorning impulse that leads to Bad Things.

    In the late eighteen-hundreds, the British cleric John Henry Newman complained, in a letter, about the growing popularity of what grammarians call the passive-progressive form of the verb “to be.” Newman wrote, “Rationally or irrationally, I have an undying, never-dying hatred to ‘is being’ (in such a connection as ‘the house is being built’), whatever arguments are brought in its favour.” But “is being” took off, in a big way, because it filled a need. Before it arose, the main alternative had been what is sometimes called the “passival,” a now forgotten specialized voice that seems almost like an amalgam of the active and the passive: “the house is building.” In “Emma,” published in 1815, Jane Austen describes a visit to a shop in which some parcels “were bringing down and displaying on the counter”—as though the parcels were performing these actions on themselves. By the end of that century, the passival was no more, Cardinal Newman be damned.

    Something you realize quickly when you study the history of English is that griping about changes in grammar and usage doesn’t age well. People like Newman and me almost always end up (and, usually, start out) sounding like cranks. Nevertheless, annoying sentence forms do sometimes disappear, as the passival did. Charles Darwin opened his autobiography with a construction that even fusty writers don’t use anymore: “A German editor having written to me to ask for an account of the development of my mind and character with some sketch of my autobiography, I have thought that the attempt would amuse me, and might possibly interest my children or their children.” (This is a “periodic sentence introduced by a perfect participle clause,” a grammarian told me.) Almost any nineteenth-century novel contains multiple examples, such as this especially tricky one, from the first chapter of “David Copperfield”: “The doctor having been upstairs and come down again, and having satisfied himself, I suppose, that there was a probability of this unknown lady and himself having to sit there, face to face, for some hours, laid himself out to be polite and social.” At some point, writers stopped doing that, and thank goodness.

    “Peeves are interesting,” Okrent told me. “Sometimes one person’s opinion can affect the way something is taught from then on.” Hardly anyone had a problem with split infinitives before the nineteenth century, when a number of grammar and usage guides—among them “Live and Learn” (“over 1000 mistakes corrected”)—took a stand against them. Fowler and his successors dismissed the prohibition as wrongheaded, but many teachers continued to insist on it, as mine did in junior high. A similar example, which Okrent cites in “Highly Irregular,” has to do with “discrete” and “discreet.” These two words, she writes, were once merely alternative spellings of the same word—which, like many words, had more than one meaning. But then a grammarian or a lexicographer decided that both spellings should be preserved, and that the main meanings should be divided between them. This idea caught on, creating an orthographic distinction that writers ever since have struggled to keep straight. “This was all relatively recent,” she told me. “Now it’s something we learn in school, and you’re an idiot if you don’t get it right.”

    If a single person’s opinion can be decisive, why not mine? I don’t want people to feel like idiots for using Bad Things, but I do want everyone to stop. ♦

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