Sunday, July 01, 2007

Too clever by half?

Once upon a time, newspapers really cared about getting things right: not least their grammar and punctuation. It is said that the printing of the New York Times was once held up for forty minutes while two sub-editors argued over the placing of a semi-colon on the front page.

That story may well be apocryphal, but the principle is not. These days, however, the front page of the London Times can use 'appraise' instead of 'apprise' and no one seems to notice (though I did) and write in to complain (I didn't).

In today's Sunday Times, however, I suspect that we have an error of another kind: a case of a pedant going a step too far. If I am wrong -- and I make no claim to being a grammarian -- you will have the pleasure of writing in to let me know. After which I will tell you that you really ought to get out more.

The ST has a feature called 'Your hundred best holiday reads' and it contains short summaries of said books. Here's the summary of The Delivery Room by Sylvia Brownrigg.
A novel of depth and intelligence based around a psychotherapist and the odd assortment of patients that parades through her office.
Now, to me this reads all wrong. It jars, and runs counter to my instinct.

You see what the summariser has done. He (it's probably a he; pedants usually are) has decided that the subject of the verb 'parades' is 'the odd assortment'. Assortment is a singular noun, and hence the summariser has used 'parades' instead of 'parade'. He has also used the pronoun 'that' instead of 'who'. He probably thinks that all this is not only grammatically correct, but also very clever.

But is it correct? Or is it too clever by half?

I think it is at least arguable that the words 'odd assortment of' constitute an adjectival phrase which qualifies the word patients. Consider what would happen if the phrase wasn't there: you would inevitably have to write:
A novel of depth and intelligence based around a psychotherapist and the patients who parade through her office.
And the same would apply if you qualified the term 'patients' with the single word 'mad'. So I think that our summariser, in trying to be orfly correct, has in fact got it all wrong.

There is actually a point here, oddly enough. And it's not the grammatical one. The point is that anyone who wants to be a writer, or a publisher, really ought to develop (if they have not, preferably, absorbed it through breast milk) a sensitivity towards this kind of thing.

Fiction, in particular, does not have to be grammatically correct, and may frequently benefit from variations from same. But in non-fiction, if you're going to be really clever, then you had better make sure that you are being clever in the right way. It might be better, even in non-fiction, to be just plain old-fashioned readable.

14 comments:

Martin said...

Michael, Michael, Michael. The problem with that phrase is actually that you cannot base anything around something. It's "upon"!

Ithaca said...

A friend of mine, Peter King, was a philosopher who insisted on using a singular verb with plural nouns proceeded by 'a number of'. It seemed to me at the time that this was exactly the sort of thing a philosopher would do -- if anything makes it correct, it's not the rules of English grammar but the habits of a mind trained in formal logic. Similarly, there are all sorts of 'correct' formulations that are not really often found in English on the hoof, but appeal to the copy-editorial mind. So if one happened to want a copy-editor as a character one would make a special point of having the character respect these distinctions -- precisely because it would mark the character off so strikingly from all the other characters in the book. I've been reading the splendid Language Log blog a lot lately -- if ONLY if ONLY if ONLY a major publisher would see the light and make Language Log its authority for house style.

Andy O'Hara said...

I like your suggestion that readability is the bottom line. An atrocious sentence remains awful, grammatically correct or not.

Mark said...

What do you expect from a News Corp. property?

Richard Havers said...

I'd just turn it around..... A psychotherapist and the odd assortment of patients who parade through her office are the inspiration for this novel of depth and intelligence.

The Writer said...

Fascinating stuff, Michael. George Orwell and Raymond Chandler both wrote the book on the correct use of language in novels (and blurbs?). Why “depth” and “intelligence”? An intelligent novel…. The only possible alternative is: “A superficially intelligent novel…” which rather defeats the aim of the blurb. “Based around…” What? Surely, in this context, the word ought to be “about”, or even “on” or, as the earlier poster correctly wrote: “upon”. Leaving aside your better suggestion of “mad”, why not simply “parading”. It flows and that’s what an author should be aiming for. I can hear Churchill muttering about the latter sentence.
So we have: “An intelligent novel about a psychotherapist and the odd…” No. What is “assortment” doing here? Are we selling Bassett’s famous sweeties? Back to mad/crazy or another word. I shall use “weird”.
“An intelligent novel about a psychotherapist and the weird patients parading through her office.”
Considering a lot of modern day fiction I believe you cannot remove the word “intelligent”, always assuming that the novel is intelligent.
That’s all for now. My doctor has told me to go for a long walk.
By the way, it’s MONDAY!!! (No apologies for exclamation marks)

Merisi said...

I am the last one qualified to let you know if you are right or wrong, so all I do is giving you my reaction, as a non-native speaker, to the text in question:
"Based around" felt wrong to me, I would have used "based upon",
"that" stopped me in my tracks and I started to reread, only to be stopped again by "parades", which I consider wrong, too.

I am always fascinated by the way a language affects me. Learning a new one, I need to have a good grammar base. Over time I forget about grammar at all (not always to my advantage *g*), and use the language instinctively. Only to get back to thinking about grammar when I encounter a phrase that sounds wrong, like the one you were pointing out today.

Thank you for another great lesson.

K.G. Schneider said...

It's Monday. Wheee! Let's edit!

"A smart novel about a psychotherapist and the odd assortment of patients parading through her office."

I don't even care if that's not grammatical, it's shorter and it sounds better. -- GLL (grumpy little librarian)

Iain said...

For what you are about to receive, may GOB forgive me. Believe me, you don't hate me for this more than I hate myself. What I am about to do is to use a little knowledge of linguistics to clarify the point at issue.

I am at one with the GOB: 'the odd assortment of patients that parades through her office' just sounds wrong, and should be rejected for that reason alone. I would always try to avoid placing a singular verb immediately after a plural noun, even where it's grammatically correct to do so.

To take an even more offensive example, Ithaca (above) tells us of one Peter King, who would insist on, for example, 'a number of witnesses WAS present'. While correct this is horrible. (I don't believe in capital punishment, but in a case such as this . . .)

But the GOB is, I'm afraid, quite wrong to suggest that 'odd assortment of' might be considered an adjective phrase qualifying the word 'patients'. This doesn't, I'm afraid, make any sense at all.

The truth is that 'odd assortment of patients' is a noun phrase -- i.e. a phrase which functions grammatically exactly as a noun. And if you want to know whether a noun phrase is singular or plural, you must look for its head -- in this case the word 'assortment', which is clearly a singular.

No, despite the GOB's best efforts, the sentence of which he complains is definitely not incorrect. Just horrible.

I am reminded of the occasion, many years ago, when I wrote the brief sentence 'Guess what?' First, I put the question mark in, then I took it out . . . then I put it back again, finally satisfied that its presence was not only justified, but necessary.

Well, one egregious pedant saw fit, with infinite pomposity, to inform me that my sentence was mistaken. 'Guess what' he told me, was imperative, not interrogative. I explained, as patiently as I could, that I knew that, but considered it much better to include the question mark. He told me that I should simply admit I'd been caught out, and not try to 'wriggle out of it.'

I shot him.

Emz said...

I agree with the ST sentence not flowing correctly. In my view, it's a problem with subject verb agreement. But then, I've noticed lots of people have trouble with concord these days. I noticed

I love your blog by the way. I've only just discovered it and will definately stop by to visit from time to time.

elberry said...

i don't see how anyone can claim to use language well if what they write or say is any harder to understand than it has to be, or ugly without very just cause.

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