Notes on grammar, style, usage, spelling, slang, and anything else writing-related that catches my eye
March 2, 2017
When the doctor told me that something in my x-ray was “concerning,” I was alarmed.
My distress was not over my dislocated shoulder, which I somehow knew would heal just fine.
It was my reaction to his use of the word concerning as an adjective, which I had seldom if ever heard before, and which had something akin to a nails-on-chalkboard effect on my ears.
“You don’t use concerning that way,” I fumed silently as the doctor explained the shoulder’s ball-and-socket mechanics. To me, concerning was a perfectly useful preposition meaning “regarding” or “with respect to” or “on the subject of.” It was not a proper substitution for more familiar adjectives such as “alarming” or “disturbing” or “troubling.”
Not only did I soon learn that my position on concerning was mostly indefensible; I also began to hear it used as an adjective on a regular basis.
Searches have found the word used as an adjective in literature going back at least to the 1700s. It was not used commonly in American English until it began to take off in the late 1980s, but it is used commonly now, and it stands as yet another example of the fluidity of language over time. It also occupies a slightly different niche than some of its synonyms because it has a milder connotation (compare to alarming). Besides, several of those synonyms—distressing, disturbing, upsetting—are formed in the same way, so there is no justification for rejecting the similar usage of concerning.
Well, maybe one. It is a very specific case, but an important one if, like me, you strive above all for clarity, especially in writing. I always advocate recasting a sentence that is likely to confuse the reader momentarily, and that can happen with concerning precisely because of its common use as a preposition. For example, if we read “The police report was concerning,” we may initially think there is more coming, specifically, the subject of the report.
In that case, I would suggest changing concerning to troubling. I hate tripping up readers, which also is why I separate most multiple subject clauses with commas to keep the reader from momentarily mistaking the second subject for an object. (“The doctor fixed my shoulder and my brain learned to accept concerning as an adjective.”) But that’s a topic for another day.
Copyright 2017 Stephen Leon
March 1, 2017
A Night Off From Language Abuse–Not Quite
As expected, there have been plenty of news organizations and social-media watchdogs to point out the substantive problems in President Trump’s speech last night to the joint session of Congress: the factual inaccuracies, the hypocricies, the credit taken for things that already had happened or were under way before Trump took office. But for once, Trump’s remarks—written by smarter people and read from a teleprompter—did not give editor geeks like me too much to work with. On any other night, his off-the-cuff ramblings would contain so many unfinished sentences and other grammatical errors, so much hyperbole and vague language, that I wouldn’t even know where to begin.
Still, as an editor, I do have a couple of complaints. This minor one is from the Department of Redundancy Department: “I will not allow the mistakes of recent decades past to define the course of our future.”
Now the Stephens who wrote the speech might argue that both “recent” and “past” were necessary for full clarity, but this Stephen strongly disagrees. “Decades past” alone would not have focused sufficient attention on the “mistakes” of the Obama administration, but “recent decades” removes any need to add the word “past.” Recent is defined as “belonging to a past period of time comparatively close to the present,” so “recent decades past” is redundant, period. There is no “recent future.”
Another editor’s complaint involves a passage that is a combination of hyperbole and illogic, and may have been overlooked by the fact-checkers precisely because it doesn’t make enough sense to be singled out as factually inaccurate.
“The rebellion started as a quiet protest … But then the quiet voices became a loud chorus … Finally, the chorus became an earthquake, and the people turned out, by the tens of millions, and they were all united by one very simple but crucial demand: that America must put its own citizens first.”
OK, before I pick this statement apart, I will acknowledge that its intent seems clear. And even though Trump probably didn’t write it, it’s a page right out of his playbook: keep repeating that I inspired a huge turnout, that I won in a landslide, and that I’m one of the most popular presidents ever, and people surely will believe me and love me.
There was no earthquake, no huge turnout. People have turned out by the tens of millions for presidential elections since before I was born. In terms of sheer numbers, both Barack Obama election years saw higher turnout. In terms of the percentage of eligible voters, 2016 had the smallest turnout in twenty years.
And of course, Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by almost three million. And the voters were not united in their values or “demands”—they were very sharply divided, and still are. Again, the only thing resembling an “earthquake” here is the fault line between red and blue America.
My parting shot comes not directly from Trump’s speech, but from a campaign incident that last night’s event brought immediately to mind. In the emotional high point of the speech, Trump paid tribute to Carryn Owens, the widow of William Ryan Owens, a Navy SEAL who died in a January raid in Yemen. No further comment on that tribute, except to say it stood out in sharp contrast to Trump’s exchange during the primaries with the parents of US Army Capt. Humayun Khan, an American Muslim who died while serving in Iraq. The soldier’s father, Khizr Khan, gave a memorable speech at the Democratic Convention in Philadelphia in which he questioned Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric and respectfully offered him his pocket-sized copy of the US Constitution to read.
In the aftermath, Trump belittled the Gold Star parents and then defended himself by saying he had been “viciously attacked” by Khan.
In its definitions of “vicious,” Merriam-Webster offers words including “savage,” “malicious,” “spiteful,” and “dangerously aggressive.”
You saw it. Khan delivered his criticism of Trump in gentlemanly, reserved tones, offering his copy of the Constitution as a pointed but polite challenge. There was nothing remotely vicious about it.
Trump’s response was hyperbole. It was loaded, exaggerated wording that can’t be defended. It was abuse of the English language. I wouldn’t accept it from students, and I don’t accept it from Donald Trump. But he does it all the time.
Last night, crutches at hand, Trump sounded, for once, almost articulate. If I sound disappointed, I’m also sure it won’t last. Before you know it, he’ll be in front of a microphone again, without a script.
And his next Twitter rampage can’t be more than a day or two away.
Copyright 2017 Stephen Leon
November 30, 2016
I Only Have Eyes for You
Just yesterday, I heard an interviewer on NPR say “That’s a whole nother story.” In informal speech, “a whole nother”–a phrase created by splitting the adjective “another”–has become commonplace and, apparently, acceptable enough to be used on a public radio network whose newscasters are known for their absurdly crisp elocution. Even in speech, though, “whole nother” is awkward-sounding and nonsensical (it translates more logically to “whole other”); in written prose it looks even more out of place.
But most speech is by its nature casual and unedited (I’ve listened to relatively few people who silently but carefully edit themselves as they talk, two notable exceptions being James Howard Kunstler and Barack Obama), and so, to an extent, anything goes–including the misplacement of the adverb “only.”
Consider the title of this post, also the title of a 1934 Harry Warren-Al Dubin love song (covered by thousands; I’m partial to Art Garfunkel’s 1975 recording). Pop songs are more exempt from the rules of grammar than even schoolyard speech, but if I wanted to get literal with this one, the writer seems to be saying that he has eyes for his love, but nothing else (no ears, no mouth, no hands, no . . . you get the point).
And the larger point is, to make your written meaning as clear as possible to the reader, the adverb “only” should be placed as close as possible to what it modifies.
A simple example I like to use is the guy who creates fake-news websites in his bedroom and gets substantial web advertising payouts when his posts are shared by thousands.
“Tom only posts fake news to make money.”
“Tom posts fake news only to make money.”
Most people are more inclined to use the first phrasing when they really mean the second–which means making money is the only incentive Tom has to post fake news (he doesn’t give a you-know-what about the politics).
The first sentence means posting fake news is the only thing Tom does to make money.
(The irony is that both sentences may apply to the most successful fake-news creators of this election cycle.)
In the titular example, almost any repositioning of “only” is a clarity improvement–“I Have Eyes Only for You,” “I Have Eyes for Only You,” etc. . . . but the easiest on the ear, IMHO, is “I Have Eyes for You Only.”
Of course, from a songwriter’s perspective, this changes everything–or at least, the cadence of the verse lines, and the possible rhyme schemes. “You” rhymes with a plenitude of other words, while “only” rhymes only with . . .
Which is why songwriters have such latitude.
Copyright 2016 Stephen Leon