Thursday, May 9, 2013

Making it up at the Wall St. Journal

In today’s Wall Street Journal, Daniel Henninger tries a little grammatico-rhetorical analysis in his critique of Obama's Sunday speech at Ohio State:
The job market, he said, is "steadily healing." An adverb fronting a gerund; talk doesn't get any weaker than that.
Wait, aren't we all supposed to think that the passive voice is the wimpiest wording in the English language?  But leave that aside. Ignore, as well, the fact that in a grammar that distinguishes between gerunds and participles -- the grammar Henninger and I learned in school -- Obama's "healing" is a participle.

No, what's interesting is the Henninger's idea that the grammatical combination itself -- adverb modifying participle -- results in a "weak" expression, regardless of content. Yes, there are writers who make a fetish of disdaining adverbs. But even Elmore Leonard probably wouldn't argue that "[is] steadily healing" is somehow weaker than "[is experiencing a] steady recovery" (adjective, noun). 

And what if the economy happened to be “rapidly improving” or “audibly humming” or “still booming”? Are those adverb-participle combos examples of talk that "doesn't get any weaker than that"? "Steadily healing" may be an optimistic description of a limping economy, but there's nothing inherently "weak" about the grammatical structure of the phrase.


Bryan White said...

“audibly humming”


Yeah, I'm trying to think of a "stronger" way of wording that sentiment and I'm stumped. "Steadily healing" does sound a bit awkward. Maybe he mistook that awkwardness for a weak construction. Something like "The economy is getting better." has a simpler ring to it, a nice straightforward punch, but I can't see how the grammar is any stronger or weaker as an alternative.

Gregory Lee said...

Compare the senses of:

(1) All during this period, he was writing steadily.

(2) All during this period, he was steadily writing.

(1) could mean that the nervous tremors which later made his writing difficult to decipher had not yet affected his script, while (2) would mean rather that he never ceased to write, perhaps writing something down every day.

It's not clear to me exactly what is modified in these examples, but perhaps in (1) it's "write (something)", and in (2) it's "be writing (something)".

Maybe he's getting at something like that.

enterprise said...

Surely it's an adverb doing its job of describing a verb, in this case the present participle? The fact that 'healing' may also be a gerund, or an adjective, doesn't change that. The passive voice is regarded as 'weak' in US English. Here in the Uk, it's an acceptable rhetorical device, often encouraged in writing and speech. I like the blog.

empty said...

It's not accurate to say that the passive voice is regarded as weak in American English. It's true that the rumor that it is weak is widespread among what John McIntyre calls the "peeververein", but this is tempered by the fact that many of those who spread the rumor can't identify a passive construction when they see one.

Gregory Lee said...

What is meant by saying the passive voice is "weak"?

Concerning what "steadily" modifies, I'm following James McCawley's account of English adverbs. He says that an "adverb", as categorized in traditional grammar, is a modifier of anything other than a noun (because that sort of modifier has the special term "adjective"). Which means that there are a number of grammatically distinct sorts of adverbs, the differences depending in part on what sorts of things they modify.

So, there are adverbs modifying verbs (e.g., "completely"), modifying verb phrases ("intentionally"), sentences ("probably"), performatives ("frankly").

In the examples mentioned, "steadily" does not modify a verb, I think, but rather a verb phrase. And since "steadily" qualifies what happens over a span of time, and the English progressive concerns a span of time, I conclude that what "steadily" modifies includes the progressive "be +ing" marker.

Notionally, it might make sense to say that "steadily" modifies an adjective in "heals steadily", since it means "get steadily better (in health)".