24 Aug 2006

To properly split an infinitive

Submitted by Karl Hagen
As many of you probably know, the prohibition against the split infinitive is one of the most notorious non-rules of English grammar. I say non-rule because even incredibly conservative books Like Fowler's essentially dismiss it as necessary for good writing. And yet some people are still afraid to insert an adverb between the infinitive marker to and the verb. Hence we find sentences like the following, from a legal memo just posted on Groklaw (emphasis added):
22 Aug 2006

Before You Go Prescriptive

Submitted by Karl Hagen
We've all been there: you read a piece in a newspaper, book, blog, etc., and something about the writer's use of language annoys you. Perhaps you find a pronoun in the wrong case ("I found Alice and he waiting at the bar."). Perhaps you run across some strange word choice ("Mark consistently flaunted his parents' authority, returning well after his curfew."). In short, the writer has committed unspeakable barbarities upon the English language, and you are provoked. But before you unload your scorn on this poor, benighted soul who has assaulted your sensibilities, pause a moment to reflect.
20 Aug 2006

An Old Grammar Joke

Submitted by Karl Hagen
[The protagonist of this joke doesn't need to be a Texan, but that's how the joke was originally told to me.] A Texan is visiting a friend at Harvard, and they agree to meet at the library. He's a bit lost, so he stops a passing student. Texan: "'Scuse me, could you tell me where the library's at?" Student: "Around here, we don't end our sentences with prepositions." Texan: "All right, could you tell me where the library's at, asshole?"
14 Aug 2006

On and Off

Submitted by Karl Hagen
I've been neglecting this blog for a while, largely the result of going on vacation. I spent two and a half weeks in Malaysia, and another two weeks recovering from jet lag and trying to catch up with other work. We went to introduce our son Aran (now 14 months old) to his great grandmother and the rest of my wife's very large clan. We all had a wonderful time, even Aran, who, after getting over some stranger anxiety, seemed to lap up the attention from all his cousins.
2 Jul 2006

For Bibliophiles

Submitted by Karl Hagen
I recently discovered the site LibraryThing, which lets you catalog your books online and see how your collection matches with other people's. The social networking part of the experience is particularly nice. Right now, I'm busily engaged in entering all my books. I've been wanting to catalog them for a long time now, but I haven't had the energy. One nice feature is that you can type in the ISBN, and it will look up all the relevant information for you. It's a big time saver, although it's not always perfect. For example, there is a field for "Original Language" for the case of translations, but this is almost always blank.
15 Jun 2006

Either Literal or Actual

Submitted by Karl Hagen
Before I got sidetracked by vagueries, I was actually checking out a variation on the ongoing reanalysis of literal(ly) to mean "figurative(ly)" (i.e., the opposite of literal in its traditional sense).

The usage I mean is most familiar in contexts such as

"I skipped breakfast and lunch, so by dinner I was literally starving to death."

Usage books object to this construction on the grounds that the speaker here is certainly not actually starving. But it's easy to see such constructions as simple hyperbole, which of course speakers deploy all the time.

The question is whether the speaker intends the expression as exaggeration or has actually reanalyzed the word's meaning, thinking that literal means figurative. In sentences such as the one above, it's not really possible to tell, since either reanalysis or exaggeration could explain the sentence. Indeed, a simple substitution of "virtually" or "metaphorically" in the sentence above actually weakens the intended emphasis, so even if reanalysis has occurred, a sense of exaggeration remains.


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