Tuesday, July 27, 2010

"But for the grace of God go I"

Writing in this morning's Times about Tony Robbins's new reality TV show, Alessandra Stanley summed up the appeal of such real-life rescues: "These shows tap into viewers' 'but for the grace of God go I' horror at heartbreaking stories."

Wait, said my husband -- "but for the grace of God go I where?" The standard formulation is "There but for the grace of God go I" (add commas if you like) or, elliptically, "There but for the grace of God …" But we had never seen the saying without a "there" tucked in somewhere.

In this case but for means "if not for," "were it not for," and it needs a conclusion. But for seems to be considered a conjunction, but here it has the force of a protasis, the "if" clause in a conditional. Maybe a real grammarian can give me a better description, but this much I know: "If not for the grace of God, I go," period, doesn't make sense.

After a little research, I'm inclined to blame Keith Urban and his co-songwriters:

But for the grace of God go I
I must've been born a lucky guy

he sings, and not until the end of the song does he use but for in the standard way, completing the thought:

I'd be lost
But for the grace of God.

The original saying looks to be about 200 years old, though its authorship is uncertain. "There, but for the grace of God, go I" is often attributed to John Bradford, the Protestant divine martyred in 1555, I learned from The Phrase Finder: "The earliest example of it that I have found is in 'A treatise on prayer,' by Edward Bickersteth, 1822, in which the author repeats the Bradford story."

But there's no hard evidence that Bradford said it, and the sentiment was widely repeated throughout the 19th century, with and without attribution. Some Google Books cites:

"Had he truly possessed gratitude, he … would have said in his heart, 'I should have been as that publican, but for the grace of God.'" (The Missionary Magazine, 1802)

"The best amongst you may look upon the vilest of the human race and say, 'Such an one might I have been, but for the grace of God!'" ("Horae homilecticae," 1832)

"The author of Pilgrim's Progress [said], on seeing a condemned malefactor passing on his way to Tyburn, — 'Ah, me! but for the grace of God, there goes John Bunyan.'" (Annual Report of the Massachusetts Dept. of Education, 1848)

"Said Wesley once when he saw a murderer led out to execution, 'but for the grace of God there goes John Wesley.'" ("Itinerating Libraries and Their Founder," 1856)

This seems to be yet another case of modern usage losing its grip on a semi-archaic construction. It's happening with the subjunctive "suffice it to say." It was evident in Ray Charles's misinterpretation of the subjunctive in his embellishments of "America," which Geoff Pullum and I noticed at almost the same moment. It's revealed in the many manglings of the Biblical "unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required," and, of course, in all those ungrammatical jokes about cups (plural) that "runneth" over. But picky editors have to remember that the adage applies to everyone:  There but for the grace of God go we, too.

Friday, July 23, 2010

The hazards of stealth corrections

Chris Shea, my Globe Ideas colleague, points to a Slate story about Politico's sloppy corrections policy that is itself fascinatingly riddled with updates, clarifications, and corrections. I'm not a hard-liner on minor blog corrections -- and as a part-time print journalist, I'm grateful that the online version of a piece can be corrected -- but it interests me that even among serious journalists, the issue of courtesy to one's fellow scribblers rarely comes up.

It arose for me way back in 2003, when I quoted Mickey Kaus's blog at Slate, Kausfiles, in a Globe language column. Commenting on reports of Arnold Schwartzenegger's sexual misconduct, Kaus had written, "He's not a groper the way Clinton was a groper -- Schwarzenegger seems to actually have a cruel streak."

Luckily, I went back to verify the quote before publication -- because Kaus had silently changed it to read, "He's not a groper the way Clinton was a masher." And luckily the change was made before my column went to press; I would have looked and felt incompetent (although I imagine Kaus would have copped to the change, if asked).

When I was new to blogging, I allowed myself a few minutes to fiddle with a just-published post, because it was hard to proofread (punctuation especially) in the preview version. (It  doesn't help that my dying computer screen has a one-and-a-half-inch white stripe down its center.) Occasionally I changed a word to eliminate a repetition. But now that Blogger's preview shows the published format, I manage to catch most typos before clicking on Publish.

Obviously, Mickey Kaus was far more likely than I to see his words picked up and reprinted. But if I changed a loaded word hours or days later -- groper to masher, say -- I think I'd feel obliged to note the change somewhere, in fairness to readers and especially to potential quoters.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

On my honor, I did my best ...

... but this headline from today's Globe West section had me baffled on the first two tries: 

At 100, Scouts honor code
and spread the word

The two-deck hed probably made it harder; at any rate, I kept reading "Scouts honor code" as a noun phrase and expecting something like:

At 100, Scouts honor code
still offers guidance

As crash blossoms go, this one is fairly mild; in a language where words like honor (and code and spread and word) can look the same as nouns and verbs, headline writers (and readers) have to tolerate some of this ambiguity. I wondered if maybe I was developing hypervigilance -- turning into a crash blossom peever, the way people nurture their sensitivity to misplaced apostrophes. But my husband, no nitpicker, had the same difficulty, so at least I know I'm not just being cranky.

Monday, July 19, 2010

The kids are all right, but the sing-a-long's wrong

"Is the use of alright  or allright all right?" asked Whitton Norris in a recent e-mail. Well, it's not all right with me, thanks to my early training, but Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage -- you could Google it, but you really should buy it -- points out that many educated and admired writers have used alright.

And since we have already and altogether and always, all originally spelled with all, it's reasonable to assume that alright will one day be all right. Still, I was pleased to see that the new movie "The Kids Are All Right" had chosen that rendering, rather than directly copying the Who's 1965 "The Kids Are Alright" (widely blamed, in editing circles, for giving alright a huge boost).

That pleasure lasted only a few days, until I noticed that the "Grease: Sing-A-Long" movie has been issued under that moronic title. I can see how all right morphs into alright, but does anyone who can read think the audience for this movie will be singing "a long," or nine longs, or a dozen longs? No, they'll be singing ALONG, all one word.

Like "The 40-Year Old Virgin," with its half-hyphenated compound, this sort of title goof makes editors crazy, since they have to choose between the illiterate version and the inaccurate (but correct) version. So today's Globe story on "Grease: Sing-A-Long" ping-pongs between the correct (generic) sing-along and the incorrect (actual) movie title.

Luckily, the story had language news to distract me from my "sing-a-long" annoyance.  Paramount, it seems, has revised some of the dirty lyrics from the original movie (not to more modern dirty lyrics, as reporter Joe Keohane would like, but to less raunchy terms). I remember how shocked I was to finally realize (after several viewings, some with children, over the years) that in the car number the guys were singing (IIRC) "The chicks'll all cream/ For Greased Lightning." Now I've gotta go see what else has been bowdlerized.

Update: Apparently "Grease" has been worked over many times since its first staging in 1971, and the 1978 movie itself has been called "bowdlerized." So someone with a deeper interest (and an original cast recording, maybe) will have to do the investigative journalism on this one.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Return to the gates to let any passengers off ...

A Wall Street Journal story last Thursday -- on the state of the airways this summer, under the new cancellation rules -- included a phrase that was not at all ambiguous, but still managed to stop me cold.
Instead [of canceling flights], airlines have adapted with new procedures, flagging long-delayed flights, sending in help and returning planes to gates before the three-hour limit to let any passengers off and then continuing without canceling the flight.
"To let any passengers off" -- I can see that it's supposed to mean "to let off any passengers who want to get off." But that isn't the normal reading of "any passengers," is it? Ordinarily, it would mean "any remaining passengers," as in this reminiscence about a bus route: "It would stop at the top [of the street] to let off any passengers and then drive to the bottom, where it would wait until it was the scheduled time to leave." Same thing in the negative: "They would not let any passengers off the ferry" (all had to stay on).


He inverted the pot to shake out any water (all remaining water).
She said the spray would repel any insects (all bugs within range).
They returned to the gate to let off any passengers (?).

There's no question that completing the thought explicitly -- "any passengers who want to get off -- seems wordy, and of course we allow shortcuts like this all the time in conversation. But they're far less common in print, and still a little jarring -- if only for editors and proofreaders like me, too well indoctrinated for our own reading pleasure.  

Monday, July 12, 2010

"Often" with a t?

John McIntyre has started a list of broadcasting language peeves, among them "Sounding the t in often." I've been interested in this one since my daughter, brought up as an OFF-en speaker, went to college at the University of Michigan and came back saying OFF-ten. I don't think it's a regional thing -- I grew up two hours south of Ann Arbor, and I don't remember OFF-ten even as a variant. It must have been something she picked up from friends.

That's why I was primed to notice when Ben Zimmer, in a public radio interview after he was named Safire's successor, said OFF-ten. Of all people, wouldn't he have a clue about the pronunciation shift? Well, no. "Funny, if you had asked me, I would've guessed I say OFF-en," he e-mailed. "Just goes to show how unreliable self-reflection is when it comes to phonetic matters." (And, of course, he might well say OFF-en 98 percent of the time; we all have variant pronunciations -- depending on circumstance, audience, whim -- for some words.)

He pointed me to a discussion at ADS-L, where posters had not been able to establish that OFF-ten was either a generational shift or a regional variant, though one noted that it was an old pronunciation:
The variation seems to go quite far back in history. The American Heritage Book of English Usage (1996) suggests that the /t/ was lost in the 15th century, but that "Because of the influence of spelling," often "is now commonly pronounced with the t." That would, as Robert suggests, make the t-full version a spelling pronunciation.
Naturally, the t version has been scorned as both an ignorant goof and a pretentious mannerism. "The bad odor of class-conscious affectation still clings to it," says Charles Harrington Elster in "The Big Book of Beastly Pronunciations." And it's true that OFF-ten deviates from the usual pattern of soften, listen, fasten, christen, etc.

But ever since I started reading similar criticisms of my native Ohio speech oddities, I've been wary of ascribing motives to people's pronunciations. I grew up with "mirror" pronounced MERE and grocery as GROSHERY. But my parents didn't use those pronunciations because they were uneducated; they used them because everyone did. And my Eastern friends who said VAHZ for vase and AHNT for aunt weren't being pretentious; they too were speaking the language they'd grown up with.

Pretentious pronunciation surely exists -- I sympathize with McIntyre's aversion to "Bach uttered as if the announcer suffered from catarrh, or a Spanish name pronounced as if the studio were in the foothills of Andaluthia." But I think that in general, we're much too eager to label people dimwits or social climbers on the basis of pronunciations they probably acquired in the usual way -- by imitating the people they talk to.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Well, before? Or well before?

From the Washington Post website, a headline:

U.S. weighed spy swap well before 'sleeper' agents were arrested

I wouldn't call this a crash blossom -- its ambiguity is too discreet for "crash," and either reading of it makes sense. Still, I parsed it wrong (I think) before I parsed it right. Did the US weigh the spy swap "well" -- thoroughly -- before making the arrests? No, I think the WaPo means that the US weighed the swap "well before" the arrests.

Since this sort of thing is both work and play for me, I don't mind having to think twice. But headline writers are supposed to make it easy for readers; so why the vagueness (and syntactical ambiguity) of  "well before"?

Well, on the jump we learn that the administration began considering a swap "as early as June 11" -- two weeks and two days before the arrests. So "weeks before" would have been technically accurate, but (having just made it into plural territory) would read as overstatement. "Well before" avoids that pitfall because (like the incredibly elastic journalistic "recently") it's a flexible term. To me, in the context of spies you've been watching for years, "well before" suggests months, perhaps years; but there's no rule that says "well before" can't mean "a couple of weeks before." And so it does, in this case. I think.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Foil fail: A hidden eggcorn?

I opened the new issue of New England Home magazine today and found a plug for some outdoor dining items:

"These ocean-smoothed-stone napkin rings are the perfect foil to that sudden gust of wind that can uproot an outdoor party. $42/SET OF FOUR"

Bravely hyphenated, unknown copy editor! But what does the word foil mean in this sentence? In fashion- and decor-speak, a foil is a complement. It's "one that by contrast underscores or enhances the distinctive characteristics of another," in AHD4's definition, via Wordnik. That foil, descended from Latin folium, leaf, has several senses related to contrast and reflection, including "a thin leaf of some metal placed under a precious stone to increase its brilliancy" (OED).

But "the perfect foil to that sudden gust of wind" suggests a different foil, the verb meaning "To prevent from being successful; thwart." This foil has a complicated history, but it is not related to the leafy foil; its noun form means "a defeat."

The shelter mag's "perfect foil" looks like a combination of the two senses -- it has the phrasing of the fashion cliche, but the meaning of the (obsolete?) noun foil. Is it a hidden eggcorn, like "stagger off this mortal coil" and similar variants that interpret "mortal coil" as the surface we tread? Or did an editor shorten an earlier version -- "these napkin rings are perfect for foiling that sudden gust of wind" -- to a more familiar phrase? (I've been an editor. It happens.)

I've never before seen "a perfect foil" meaning "a perfect foiler," but that doesn't mean it's not out there. Anyone have another example?

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Obviating the need for usage anxiety

"I used the phrase obviate the need to," e-mailed Jacques W., and "my anal friends said that the phrase was redundant. I said that if a significant number of literate people use a construction, that makes it acceptable. And what say you?"

 Ordinarily I would endorse Jacques' reasoning, but in the case of obviate, there's no need to rely on the brute fact that usage makes the rule, not the other way around. The ban on "obviate the need" was wrongheaded and shortlived, usage history reveals.

The OED online defines the verb as "To meet and dispose of; to circumvent, do away with, remove (a difficulty, need, etc.); to prevent or avoid by anticipatory measures." The grammarian Alexander Bain used the disputed phrase in "A Higher English Grammar" (1891): "Certain pronouns also, as will presently be seen, obviate the necessity of repeating the great substitutes of the Noun in composition."
But in the 1950s and '60s, says MWDEU, usage gurus Theodore Bernstein and Wilson Follett "seem to have invented the notion that obviate can mean only 'make unnecessary,' not 'anticipate and prevent.' They may have arrived at this conclusion by focusing too narrowly on the second part of the definition in Webster's Second [Unabridged Dictionary]."

I haven't (yet) found these authors specifically banning "obviate the need"; the accusation of redundancy must have been made explicit by later, lesser authorities. As recently as 2001, it is explained (and dismissed) in a usage note in Microsoft's Encarta College Dictionary:

Because one of the meanings of obviate is "to make unnecessary," it is sometimes argued that obviate the need (or necessity) for is redundant. An older but still current meaning, however, is "to avoid an anticipated difficulty." In a sentence like Addressing these issues early can obviate any need for a joint resolution, the need can be perceived as a difficulty -- or early consideration can make the resolution unnecessary, in which case any need for is indeed redundant. There is little reason to prefer either interpretation to the other.

And Garner's Modern American Usage (2009) demolishes the objection: "In the sense 'to make unnecessary,' obviate often appears correctly in the phrase obviate the necessity of or need for. These phrases are not redundancies, for the true sense of obviate the necessity is 'to prevent the necessity (from arising),' hence to make unnecessary."

One more peeve you can cross off your list, assuming you've ever had the misfortune to encounter it.