Wednesday, February 27, 2013

More than ambiguity

More picky stuff.
A student wrote about an exercise sentence:
"Many office managers value high achievers more than risk takers.” I thought that this sentence should be left unchanged, but in the back of the book it was changed to “Many officers managers value high achievers over risk takers.” This correction was helpful for me. It made me look over the initial sentence multiple times to see what was wrong with it. Finally, I discovered the lack of clarity in the “more than” statement. Do office managers value high achievers more than risk takers value high achievers? Or do officer managers value high achievers more than they value risk takers? 

Good questions, and you can see how comparisons so often lead to ambiguity! Generally I change "over" to "more than" ("over" being a word of placement, not comparison). But in this case, you can pinpoint the problem, as "more than" makes who values and who is valued ambiguous. Another way to fix it in an edit would be to add something to "risk takers" to make its function clear-- is it a second subject (that is, doing the valuing) or an object (being valued)?
Let's see:
Risk takers as a second subject-- add a second predicate/verb (do-- that is "more than risk takers value high achievers").
Many office managers value high achievers more than risk takers do.
Or, as is more likely the meaning, risk takers are another object-- being valued.
Many office managers value high achievers more than they value risk takers.

But "they" (referring to managers) might be ambiguous itself! You can see what changing the connector word there to "over" is easier. :)

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Prepositional confusion

A student asked me about prepositions, those seemingly simple yet slippery little words:

Correct: Albert found himself very angry at Joanna.   

Correct: Albert was very mad at Joanna.

Incorrect: Albert was mad with Joanna./ Albert found himself angry with Joanna. 

That's a great example of how prepositions aren't always perfectly obvious and precise!
The example is complicated in the second instance (mad) because that word has two meanings: Angry and crazy.

Anyway, "angry at" is going to be very clear-- it means that Albert is angry/mad and that anger is aimed AT   Joanna. 

"Angry with" isn't so clear. (I grew up in the south, and I recognize that formation. Then again, we used to "brag on" our accomplishments, so "non-standard" was the common mode with prepositions.)

What will "angry with" mean to most people? "With" isn't aimed AT something. But it's about one noun "accompanying" another. "I am going to the store WITH John." So Albert being angry WITH Joanna could mean that they're both angry together (at someone else).  
And "mad with" to me could mean "crazy about" (that is, in love with), so I'd probably avoid that altogether!

I figure it's usually best to go with the uncontestable option, the one no one will misinterpret. 

What do you think? I'm looking for other examples of preposition situations where it just isn't incontrovertible which prep to use-- any examples?


Sunday, February 17, 2013

Question from comments re: sequential action

Arial asks:
I've got one for ya! Setup for the sentence: The heroine is in the saddle, sitting in front of the hero. He has just reached into his saddlebags for a bottle and... 
His arms coming around her, he uncorked a small bottle, took a swig and replaced the cork
I'm told that he can't have his arms come around her AND uncork the bottle AND take a swig AND replace the cork all at the same time. I'm told that the way the sentence is written above, that's what I'm describing. Obviously, my original intent was to have these actions happening sequentially, but I loathe writing, "After his arms came around her, he uncorked a small bottle, then took a swig before replacing the cork." BLAH! It's wordy and sloppy. Help! Thanks! Arial 
 Hey, commenters! How would you revise the sentence?

I have to ask Arial a question. Where is the bottle? In the saddlebags? Where are they in relation to the heroine?

Now let's have some suggested revisions!

Actually, this gives me the opportunity to mention a new guideline, but I haven't really formulated it yet. I'm just thinking that the complexity of the action sequence (and the time it takes) might dictate whether it's more than one sentence. I see too often that action is rendered too quickly, so the experience of the sequence is lessened. All the action pieces are made minor, and of equal importance.
So in the above, if this is a romance, it's a lot more important that his arms go around her than that he uncorks the bottle, but putting this all in one sentence makes it seem like they're of equal importance.

(Also it's hard to tell whose POV this is-- either way, though, the arms going around her should be FELT -- perception, emotion, not just movement, should be narrated here, I think.)

So I guess I'm saying, first, I wouldn't do it all in one sentence. And then, I would go into the POV of the POV character and narrate a bit of how it feels, what it means.
Okay, suggestions! What would you all do? Arial, what do  you think would help? Which of the suggestions would you think would work best?

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Infinitives: To split or not to split

Infinitives are an oddity in English, as they're basically one word made up of two words, "TO + Verb", like "to go" or "to be". (In many other languages, like French and Latin, the infinitive is one word—aller is French for "to go".)

Infinitives are used to indicate purpose or intention, as in "I want to email Billy," or "To get certified, I must pass the licensing test." They can also be used as a noun to present an action as a thing ("To know me is to love me"), but we'll be talking about infinitives used as modifiers (adjectives or adverbs).

You might have heard an old grammar edict: "Don't split the infinitive." That refers to the previous forbidden tactic of inserting an adverb in the middle between the "to" and the verb. (19th Century English grammarians tended to honor Latin grammar rules, and clearly you cannot split a one-word infinitive as exists in Latin.)

As the great grammarian H.W. Fowler commented, "No other grammatical issue has so divided English speakers since the split infinitive was declared to be a solicism in the 19th century: raise the subject of English usage in any conversation today and it is sure to be mentioned." In fact, he divided the entire English-speaking population by their attitudes towards the split infinitive: "Those who don't know and don't care, those who don't know and do care, those who know and approve, those who know and condemn, and those who know and discriminate."

Let's be among those who know and discriminate!

So here's the question. I'm going to give you two famous infinitive quotations, both stately and portentous with meaning. One has the adverb BEFORE the infinitive in a way that even sticklers would approve. One cavalierly splits the infinitive to add an adverb.

Both are correct. Why? Why is each correct when one follows the "rule" and the other doesn't?

Hamlet, the Prince of Denmark:
To be or not to be, that is the question.

James T. Kirk, the Starship Captain:
To boldly go where no man has gone before.

 Your turn! What is the difference? Why in the first should the adverb "not" be placed in front of the infinitive "to be", and in the second, the adverb is correctly placed right before the verb? Speculations please!

(Here is a site that discusses Fowler's philosophy:
(And here's a fun rendition of "to be or not to be"-- A two-year-old playing Hamlet. )