Saturday, December 10, 2011

Conditional surrender

Here's a simple test of a theory of mine about grammar and language change. How simple? Just answer this question: What does the following sentence mean? Thanks.
Under a pending law, trash dumps will be permitted in every zoning district — even residential ones — statewide.
© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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33 Comments:

Blogger Fred said...

Peter,

OK, I'll bite.

When the law goes into effect, trash dumps will be permissible in every zoning district in the state.

What have I missed?

December 10, 2011  
Blogger Mark Murphy said...

Here's my guess:

The sentence might be better as:

Under a pending law, trash dumps will be permitted in every zoning district -- even residential districts -- statewide.

Otherwise, "residential ones" might be taken to mean (however absurdly) "residential trash dumps."

(Perhaps I'm overthinking this, but I've been a copy editor for more than 30 years, and literal-mindedness is an occupational hazard....)

December 10, 2011  
Blogger Mark Murphy said...

Also, I suspect "would be permitted" would be better if "pending law" means the legislation hasn't received final approval, as opposed to a law that will definitely take effect at some point.

December 10, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Fred, you read the sentence perfectly correctly, which proves precisely the point I am trying to make. Read my further replies for details.

December 10, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Literal-mindedness is an occupational hazard.

Literal-mindedness is an occupational hazard only when dealing with idiots. It has happened a time of two in my twenty-five years or so as a copy editor that a reporter, upon having a misstatement or error pointed out, said, "Oh, you're being too literal."

I believe firmly that any reporter capable of uttering such a sentiment has no business being a reporter. In any case, it's your second comment that gets to the heart of the matter, and I'll comment in my next reply.

December 10, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Also, I suspect "would be permitted" would be better if "pending law" means the legislation hasn't received final approval, as opposed to a law that will definitely take effect at some point.

Mark: Exactly. If you’re a copy editor, especially at a newspaper, you’ll know that the conditional mood is passing out of use in American English. Every week I’ll get reporters writing things like “The legislature passed a bill granting amnesty to illegal immigrants” or “The Senate measure will cut the corporate tax rate 50 percent.” Granting and will cut are wrong, of course, because the measures will grant or cut nothing until the president or governor signs them (or they become law without his or her signature). The conditional forms – would grant and would cut -- are called for, but for some reason this form seems to be dying.

Usually the writer’s intent is clear, and a quick fix can make the sentence grammatically correct – at least as long as the profession of copy editing is allowed to exist. In this case, however, the reporter's misuse of the word law compounded the confusion. Nothing is a law until the chief executive signs it (or it becomes law without etc.). So there was no way to tell if the reporter referred to legislation that has been passed and signed but had yet to take effect, or whether he was simply ignorant of the conditional and used the wrong grammatical form.

The latter turned out to be the case. The reporter’s use of the wrong form created confusion. Using the correct form matters.

I’m assuming that the conditional is going the way of the genitive, dative, accusative and other cases, and I’ll further suggest that this bit of language change has a social and economic basis. Newspapers have long been most Americans’ most frequent point of contact with written English. Now, fewer Americans read newspapers, and newspapers have singled out copy desks – the people who traditionally correct stories for grammar – for cuts. This is likely accelerating a change that may already have been taking place.

December 10, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Make that "a time or two," not "a time of two." One can never hurt one's copy by rereading it just one more time.

December 10, 2011  
Anonymous Liz said...

How about:
"A pending, Statewide, law/bill will/would allow trash dumps in all zoning district -- even residential ones."

December 11, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I think the final version was something like:

"Pending legislation would allow trash dumps in every zoning district — even residential ones — statewide."

December 11, 2011  
Blogger Dana King said...

It is disturbing for newspapers to make so many cuts to copy editing positions. What is even more disturbing is that people can graduate from major universities with degrees in journalism and not have better control of the language.

This is as much a question of vocabulary ad context as it is of grammar. I was never properly taught grammar--"linguistics" were in vogue when I was of a suitable age--but I know what words mean in context. "Will" means it's going to happen; "would" means it might, depending on (whatever). For someone who makes his or her living essentially explaining the world to others, this is the kind of sloppiness that leads to people believing in Christmas tree taxes and death panels.

December 11, 2011  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

Simplification of grammar is a particularly American trait, very noticeable in Journalese, and by extension, in crime novels. The idea is to appeal to the largest possible number of readers. Many of those have trouble with possessives, dative pronouns, the subjunctive, and irregular verb forms.
The British hold on to grammar rules a bit better. Note that it's "leaped" in the U.S., but "leapt" in the UK.
On second thought: I encountered a weird rule about "onto" when I dealt (should that be dealed?) with my British copy editor (who was otherwise excellent).

December 11, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Dana, my newspaper has many writers from whom such a mistake would not have shocked me. But this reporter is excellent, one of our best. That's what reinforced the feeling I've had for some time that the disappearance of the condiitonal is no mere mistake, but rather an example of language change in action. Today's shocking error is tomorrow's respectable usage.

December 11, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

"Simplification of grammar is a particularly American trait, very noticeable in Journalese ..."

I.J., at least I have the consolation that my newspaper has always taken such issues seriously.

Just kidding!

December 11, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

It is disturbing for newspapers to make so many cuts to copy editing positions.

Dana:

1) When crunch time comes, literacy is a luxury.

2) Newsrooms do not tend to be run by former copy editors.

December 11, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I.J., I'm not sure that simplification of grammar applies to crime novels "by extension."

I've never much liked that phrase. What does it mean? Who is doing the extending? What does the term say that a simple "also" does not? To me, "by extension" implies a relationship between terms that may not, in fact, exist.

I don't read enough American crime writing to know whether it dumbs down grammar, but I suspect that newspapers may be more culpable, if only because they are more immediate barometers of language change, appearing as they do every day. And is simplification of grammar any more apparent in American crime writing than it is in American romance, horror, or fantasy writing? Perhaps it is; I don't know.

As disgusted as I am with such slippage as the ignorance of the conditional, I'd be reluctant to attribute simplification of grammar to newspapers, crime writing, America, or any other relatively recent case. The old Germanic case system began to break down in English long before the advent of American newspapers and Edgar Allan Poe.

But, as I have said often, one of the few things that make me feel good about newspapers is watching any American television news for even five minutes.

December 11, 2011  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

(I hate it when blogger swallows my comments and I have to start over again)

OK: I used the term advisedly. On mystery web sites, writers have argued the point repeatedly, and many top-selling crime writers are former journalists. There is a big difference between the language used by a reporter and the language taught to Freshman classes at a university. For that reason many journalism departments teach their own writing courses.
Most simply put, the English departments teach a more literary language with complex constructions. You get bad grades for short sentences or an overly simple vocabulary.
At the same time, the simple style is particularly effective for reporting and for writing certain types of crime novels.
For that matter, Hemingway began as a journalist.

December 11, 2011  
Anonymous Liz said...

If I may revert to an earlier comment, the phrase "pending law" may refer to a bill pending before the legislature, a bill passed but pending gubernatorial signature or veto, or a law enacted but not yet effective. Perhaps the readers are familiar with the legislative and executive procedures, but is the reporter? The published, still ambiguous, sentence reduces the probabilities to a bill not enacted or signed into but not yet law.

Furthermore, "statewide" hangs adrift at the end, and the active voice is preferable.

Whatever the merits or demerits of particular grammatical style, clarity is the goal and, in this case, depends on substantive issues.

December 11, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I.J., from the circumstantial evidence I've seen, university freshmen are not being taught English especially well. But I'm not sure I was any good at that age, either.

I'm not sure any one style is especially suited to any one kind of writing. Hammett's style was clipped, Chandler's sometimes more effusive. Is one better than the other?

December 11, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Liz, you note that the meaning of "pending law" is ambiguous. That was one of the sentence's problems. I would bet a year's salary that the reporter knows the legislative procedure; he's a fine reporter.

The sentence currently reads:

"Under a pending measure, trash dumps would be permitted in every zoning district — even residential ones — statewide."

"Measure" is a bit of journalese that reporters and headline writers use to avoid excessive use of "bill."

December 11, 2011  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter

With apologies to you and me its the blogification and twitterisation of the world. Precisely what makes those media so immediate is also what makes them so sloppy. They infect print, TV, and especially conversation. The man in the basement with a million hits a month holds us all hostage.

December 11, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

You mean with the exception of you and me.

Blog- and twitification are partly but not entirely to blame. Immediacy could account for sloppiness, but I'm not as sure it accounts as much for bad grammar (or language change).

December 11, 2011  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter

Except yourself by all means but my grammar use is rather feral. I did English O Level but didn't do it to A level and I didnt take a single course in English at Uni (it would have been impossible with my majors in the English system). I think it rather a scandal in the UK school system that most students, like me, effectively stop learning English at 15. And for many (yes I know I began that sentence with a conjunction) they effectively stop reading books at that age too.

But my wider point is that a blogger like Perez Hilton who is even more sub-literate than I am will end up having a more profound influence on our literary culture than a master prose stylist like, say, Saul Bellow, because of his extraordinary reach.

December 11, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Gee, that veers perilously close to skepticism about the liberating power of the Internet and the democratizing of media.

December 11, 2011  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

It's only getting worse. California, which "leads" the US in so many trends, has a high school graduate population that is largely unable to tackle college classes without remedial education. Remedial education classes can take up a year or more of community college/state university time. "A report from the California State University system...in fall 2010, 49 percent needed to take a remedial course in English." For more info, see "Many high school graduates face struggles at next level."

These statistics are available at many sources but I thought Peter might have "fun" with the first sentence from this one.

December 13, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Or with the second sentence: One in four were...

In retrospect, one wonders why the hell all these remedial problems are being fixed in college and not in elementary schools, where they presumably could have been taken are of at less cost.

Once again, the thing about complaints like this is that no one cares.

December 13, 2011  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

Or with the second sentence...

Yes, I should have written "...'fun' beginning with the very first sentence from this one!"

And speaking of poor grammar...

My v-word = comin

December 13, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Sumer is a-comin in,
Lhude sing cuccu!

December 13, 2011  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

I know I have that on a CD somewhere but the Medieval-19th c. Advent and Christmas CD's are in high rotation on the Bose these days. But I'll look for it erelong.

December 13, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Anon. Look for it anon.

December 14, 2011  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

Typo! I should have typed "ere long" -- perfectly acceptable in my Webster's 1913 ed ("shortly"). The trouble with anon (for me) is its also serving as an abbreviation for anonymous. But gramercy!

December 14, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

'Sblood! We could carry on all night!

December 14, 2011  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

Verily! Until beckoned into the arms of Morpheus.

December 14, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Perhaps with help from Bacchus, forsooth.

December 14, 2011  

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