Don’t Tell Me I’m Wrong When I’m Failing Better Than You

Hello again, Dear Readers, and prepare once again for a rant. My topic for today is ‘Correct Use of English’, and my target for today is David Foster Wallace.

Wallace was a writer, quite possibly a very brilliant one, who nevertheless continues to irritate me with his sawn-off negotiating technique when it comes to English grammar. He wrote a long, long, long article in Harper’s magazine which was, essentially, an involved and meandering rant against the abandonment of ‘correct usage’. The article was comprehensively demolished in a wonderful blog post by LanguageHat, who is an exemplary linguistics blogger – sharp as they come, and his literary analyses make for great reading in their own right. Anyway, drifting through the linguistics sections of the blogosphere I came to the incomparable Language Log, from whence I wound up on a blog run by one of DFW’s erstwhile students.

She posts this quiz, which she reports as being one of DFW’s creations: can you ‘correct’ the erroneous grammar of the 10 sentences?

IF NO ONE HAS YET TAUGHT YOU HOW TO AVOID OR REPAIR CLAUSES LIKE THE FOLLOWING, YOU SHOULD, IN MY OPINION, THINK SERIOUSLY ABOUT SUING SOMEBODY, PERHAPS AS CO-PLAINTIFF WITH WHOEVER’S PAID YOUR TUITION

1. He and I hardly see one another.

2. I’d cringe at the naked vulnerability of his sentences left wandering around without periods and the ambiguity of his uncrossed “t”s.

3. My brother called to find out if I was over the flu yet.

4. I only spent six weeks in Napa.

5. In my own mind, I can understand why its implications may be somewhat threatening.

6. From whence had his new faith come?

7. Please spare me your arguments of why all religions are unfounded and contrived.

8. She didn’t seem to ever stop talking.

9. As the relationship progressed, I found her facial tic more and more aggravating.

10. The Book of Mormon gives an account of Christ’s ministry to the Nephites, which allegedly took place soon after Christ’s resurrection.

So there you go. There are the ten sentences in which something has, apparently, gone grievously wrong. Can you fix them?

I will put up the remedied sentences below.

Just letting you know in case you’re taking this seriously and don’t want to see the offered answers.

Ready?

Here we go:

1. He and I hardly see one each another.

2. I’d cringe at the naked vulnerability of his sentences left wandering around without periods and at the ambiguity of his uncrossed “t”s.

3. My brother called to find out if whether I was over the flu yet.

4. I only spent only six weeks in Napa.

5. In my own mind, I can understand why its implications may be somewhat threatening.

6. From wWhence had his new faith come?

7. Please spare me your arguments of as to why all religions are unfounded and contrived.

8. She didn’t seem ever to ever stop talking.

9. As the relationship progressed, I found her facial tic more and more aggravating irritating.

10. The Book of Mormon gives an account of Christ’s ministry to the Nephites, which allegedly took place soon after Christ’s his (or His) resurrection.

So how did you get on? Did you do as poorly as I did? ‘Cause I sucked. I think it was because I kept getting distracted by bigger flaws than the merely grammatical ones…as and when I found any grammatical flaws at  all… Let me take you through my working.

IF NO ONE HAS YET TAUGHT YOU HOW TO AVOID OR REPAIR CLAUSES LIKE THE FOLLOWING, YOU SHOULD, IN MY OPINION, THINK SERIOUSLY ABOUT SUING SOMEBODY, PERHAPS AS CO-PLAINTIFF WITH WHOEVER’S PAID YOUR TUITION

First off, why did the full stop vanish from the end of this sentence? And shouldn’t it be whomever, rather than whoever?

Right. On to the questions themselves:

1. He and I hardly see one another.

I couldn’t figure out what the sentence meant. Does ‘hardly’ mean ‘barely’, or does it mean ‘infrequently’? The rationale offered for the correction is that ‘one another’ refers to a group of more than two individuals, but without the context, it’s impossible to determine whether or not this is in fact the case. My judgement: if clarity is that much at stake, then rewrite the sentence to be clearer. (Interestingly, the original poster of the quiz wrote that “Many commenters took umbrage with the use of “hardly,” arguing that “hardly see” means some kind of visual impairment, but I don’t find any support for this idea.” Which ought to give all of us encouragement that the OP is no English whizz herself). On to question 2:

2. I’d cringe at the naked vulnerability of his sentences left wandering around without periods and the ambiguity of his uncrossed “t”s.

Oh come on. I mean, seriously, come on. Quite apart from the rest of us writing and working in that mysterious part of the world known to some Americans as ‘Foreign’ (zip code FN), and thus struggling with the  hideous image of menstruating sentences, what on earth kind of ghastly little tit needs to write a sentence like this one? The fix, including another ‘at’ before ‘the ambiguity’, only serves to prolong an already overlong sentence that suffers all the indignities of adverbial diarrhoea.  And even then the ‘fix’ is clearly unnecessary – were you confused as to the nature of the things the writer was cringing over? Frankly, I’d cringe at ever being given this sentence to read. On to question 3:

3. My brother called to find out if I was over the flu yet.

Apparently you should always use ‘whether’ as ‘if’ implies conditionality. I’m not entirely sure what that means, in this context, and I’m struggling to construct this sentence in such a way as to create a conditionality. Whether, if…it’s all good. Use whichever seems more natural to you. So, moving on from the dictats of the clearly infirm, let us proceed to question 4:

4. I only spent six weeks in Napa.

Apparently, the reasoning here is that ‘only’ refers to ‘spent’, rather than ‘six’. Which is palpably nonsense. There is no confusion possible between “I only spent six weeks” and “I spent only six weeks’. The defence which is offered, and which is, again, nonsensical, is that ‘only spent’ precludes any other activity: “I neither wept nor cried nor laughed nor frowned; I only spent the time.” The only way to defend this grammatical ‘fix’ is to assume that the reader will believe “I only spent six weeks in Napa” to mean “I only spent six weeks in Napa dead.” (Are you beginning to see why I wound up feeling so frustrated and patronised at being told I was wrong by this slack-jawed half-wit?) On to question 5:

5. In my own mind, I can understand why its implications may be somewhat threatening.

Apparently, ‘in my own mind’ is redundant – where else are you going to understand things? But this is a stylistic problem, not a grammatical one, and besides, it may be obviated by context. For example: “In my own mind, I can understand why its implications may be somewhat threatening. But in my heart of hearts I know it is what we must do.” Again, the problem with ‘correcting’ statements of this type is that their ‘correctness’ is a direct function of their context, and we aren’t provided with it in order to make a sensible determination. On to question 6:

6. From whence had his new faith come?

The correction for this one is just flat-out wrong. ‘From whence’ is perfectly valid, as is ‘whence’ – or, indeed, ‘from where’. I have been saved from trawling through the Oxford dictionary of quotations by someone rejoicing in the name of ‘parvomagnus’, who put up this helpful little rattle through centuries of usage:

c1430 Syr Tryam. 431 What do ye here, madam? Fro whens come ye?
1382 WYCLIF Matt. xxi. 25 Of whennes was the baptem of Joon; of heuene, or of men?
1590 SHAKES. Com. Err. III. i. 37 Let him walke from whence he came.
1731-8 SWIFT Pol. Conversat. Introd. 29 From whence I did then conclude..that Wine doth not inspire Politeness.

On to 7:

7. Please spare me your arguments of why all religions are unfounded and contrived.

Actually, there are a couple of corrections to this. The OP specifies ‘as to’ as ‘conforming to the idiom’ (oh really?) but you could just as easily use ‘for’, ‘concerning the reasons’ or similar… And besides, the arguer is factually incorrect. All religions, whether they happen to be true or not, are ‘founded’. Someone started them. On to the appalling question 8:

8. She didn’t seem to ever stop talking.

The answer given is hideously clunky. I would (assuming I was at gunpoint) have gone for ‘She didn’t ever seem to stop talking’, but if I wasn’t being held at gunpoint, I would have drawn a thick red line through the whole construction and written “She just never seemed to shut up”. And then, in the margin, I would have written “Why does it have to be ‘she’? Can’t we get past the fairly crude gender stereotyping here?” On to question 9:

9. As the relationship progressed, I found her facial tic more and more aggravating.

I know that irritating and aggravating don’t mean the same thing. But I am fed up to the back teeth with people ‘correcting’ me when I use aggravating. I know it means ‘worse-making’. That is the sense in which I use it. If I am aggravated, I am made worse. Your irritating facial tic aggravates me – I start fantasising about cutting the relevent muscle out of your face with a fish knife. I am a worse human being than I was before you started talking to me. Now go away and take your tic and your dictionary with you.

*calms down*

The last question:

10. The Book of Mormon gives an account of Christ’s ministry to the Nephites, which allegedly took place soon after Christ’s resurrection.

Apparently this too is redundant. But it is only redundant if the reader has a knowledge base that includes the core tenets of Christianity. The ‘correction’ offered for this one is based on the ‘corrector’s’ own understanding of the context of the quotation, and should be treated as such. In other words, ignored. Apart from anything else, I find the repetition of ‘Christ’ aesthetically pleasing in terms of how the sentence sounds, and would probably keep it in on that basis even without the additional justification I’ve offered.

So there you have it. I don’t like being told I’m wrong at the best of times (because I’m a man), but I really, really, really object to being told I’m wrong when actually, I may not only be right, but right-er (that’s a little joke, grammar fiends) than my questioner. As I said at the beginning, and with all due credit to Samuel Beckett, “Don’t tell me I’m wrong when I’m failing better than you”.

Today’s Zen:

Gresley A4 'Mallard', which set a world speed record at 126mph. And then it failed. Brilliant, eh?

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About Gavin

I am a 32-year-old PhD student in Aberdeen, Scotland. I work in QC at an e-learning company. I'm originally Northern Irish, though I've lived here in Aberdeen for several years. I am, essentially, somebody who is very normal, yet to whom very strange things keep happening...
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9 Responses to Don’t Tell Me I’m Wrong When I’m Failing Better Than You

  1. jamessal says:

    And shouldn’t it be whomever, rather than whoever?

    No, I don’t think so. “Whoever” is not the complement of “with”; the whole clause “whoever’s paid your tuition” is. The form of “whoever” is determined by its role in that clause.

    I’ve mixed up this one a lot myself — and may be doing so now! Anyway, always nice to find another LH fan!

    • starlingford says:

      Interesting. I take your point. I still think the emphasis of the clause lies in “co-plaintiff with whom”, but I appreciate that you may well be right as I am far from certain on this one. “Whomever” just strikes me as sounding more correct, but my gut instinct is only that. I wish I could be more certain.

      Thanks for the comment, and the shared LH fandom!

      G

  2. jamessal says:

    Traditionally, I’m right, but Arnold Zwicky makes a case for your usage here.

    Also, I’m not sure how tongue-in-cheek this paragraph is — “I know that irritating and aggravating don’t mean the same thing. But I am fed up to the back teeth with people ‘correcting’ me when I use aggravating. I know it means ‘worse-making’. That is the sense in which I use it. If I am aggravated, I am made worse. Your irritating facial tic aggravates me – I start fantasising about cutting the relevent muscle out of your face with a fish knife. I am a worse human being than I was before you started talking to me. Now go away and take your tic and your dictionary with you.” — but I wouldn’t want your readers to come away thinking that “aggravate” really can’t mean “irritate.” It can. It’s been able since 1615.

    • starlingford says:

      This is why I love blogs – the ability to link to other resources that put forward relevent information. Jamessal, thank you for the link and also the complete lack of flaming – I really appreciate civilised discourse.

      And yes, the paragraph you quote is quite tongue-in-cheek. I don’t actually want to cut people’s faces up – I’ll leave that to the Joker in The Dark Knight. I thought the use of ‘aggravate’ to mean ‘irritate’ was permitted, but I had no idea the usage had such a long pedigree, so thank you for that.

      I’m not really a linguist – I’m doing a PhD in poetry, so what appeals to me about ‘aggravate’ is its potential for dual meaning, and I’m much more sensitive to that kind of wordplay than I am to the rigours of ‘Standard Written English’. The guy I study, Paul Muldoon, plays very fast and loose with that kind of thing, but his use of language is so much more imaginative and inventive and vibrant as a result that I am taking an ever-increasingly dim view of the proscriptivists…

      • jamessal says:

        I really appreciate civilised discourse.

        I know what you mean. I’m actually something of a recovering nasty commenter myself — mostly on LH, battling prescriptivists (though no matter how right I was, I still felt like shit afterward, and it ate up a lot of time). I think the medium takes a little more getting used to than most people assume. Lots of non-aggressive cues are missing, and there’s always this.

        I had no idea the usage had such a long pedigree

        Neither did I until I looked it up just now, though I had feeling — prescriptivists are so reliably wrong you can bank on it. Just the other day I was playing chess online with another LH commenter and he wrote “mind-wracking.” I teased him for the “w,” then thought wait a minute…it turns out “wrack” goes so far back, to 1553, that the MWDEU editors recommend treating the words as spelling variants.

        I’m doing a PhD in poetry,

        I guess I’ll have to keep reading then! I’m a big fan of contemporary poetry — Strand, Ashbery, Wilbur, Hass, Bidart, Charles Wright, Mark Ford (a favorite), etc. — and of poetry criticism: Helen Vendler (of course), Adam Kirsch, William Logan, and recently Dan Chiasson (pronounced CHASE-uhn — he had a great piece on Wallace Stevens a few New Yorker Reviews back). I haven’t read any Muldoon, though he makes in appearance in a fun novel about poetry I just finished, Nicholson Baker’s “The Anthologist.”

  3. jamessal says:

    Er, New York Reviews.

  4. Pingback: Led astray by the no-split-infinitives fetish « Motivated Grammar

  5. jv975 says:

    What’s up? I just wanted to tell you that I really enjoy your post.

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