Conan Doyle makes a mistake
In history A scandal in Bohemia, Sherlock Holmes receives a note informing him that he must receive a visit from a person who wishes his help on a very important matter but who wishes to remain incognito. While waiting for the mysterious visitor, Holmes explains to Watson how he knows the author of the note is German speaking.
The note, which asks for it to be ready for the visitor at quarter to eight, reads: âYour recent services at one of the royal houses in Europe have shown that you are someone to whom It is safe to entrust matters which are of hardly exaggerated importance. We have received this account from you everywhere. So be in your room at this time, and don’t be mistaken if your visitor is wearing a mask. Holmes points out the construction of the penultimate sentence, with its verb at the end in the German manner: “This account of you, we have received it from all parts”, as proof that the author is German-speaking.
But note that in the following sentence, in the words “don’t take it badly if your visitor is wearing a mask,” the author observed a rule of English grammar which, even in Conan Doyle’s time, was unlikely to be correct. ‘have been observed by no one other than the best educated, namely that following “if”, which introduces a conditional clause, the verb is in the subjunctive – correctly therefore: “to wear” in “to wear a mask “. Most otherwise competent English speakers might more naturally say “door a mask. âIf the writer of the note is sensitive to this degree of refinement of the English construction, he would not position the verb of the preceding sentence in the Germanic way.
Grammatical sensitivity is something so vulnerable to the force of mimicry in everyday usage that the results are wonderful to see. The motility of prepositions is an example. A century ago people said and wrote that they “call someone “and they”lawyer warning “. Now people say they are going”Phone someone “and will be”plead for warning “. The construct” advocate for “is particularly squeaky in the ear;” to phone “just sounds archaic. Because I am a person of a certain generation, I call automobiles” motor cars “because that my parents, both Edwardians, were of the generation that was born with the carriage, a time when the carriage still existed. “Automobile” seems archaic to the offspring of my second marriage, a generation younger than the offspring of my first marriage.
Most shocking to me, however, is the loss of distinction between âlessâ and âlessâ. Just because I’m such a purist doesn’t mean change in use is offensive just because it’s change; on the contrary, I accept and applaud quite often the changes, the enrichments and the savings that linguistic mutability, a permanent and omnipresent thing, brings with it. But when logic is lost due to laziness in use, the loss is material. “Less” denotes a decrease in the amount of things which is measured by weight, volume or extent, “less” denotes a reduction in number. “There were less people there” is strictly absurd, as “There was less butter on my toast” would say.
Consider that jumbled phrase, which appeared in an advertisement aimed at bus passengers on a south London route informing them of changes to the service: âSo,â the last sentence says (presumably as an encouragement), â bus services run more smoothly. and there are fewer delays â. Here there are several acts of grievous bodily harm to the tongue. The sentence, if it were grammatical and – more precisely – logical, would read: “As a result, the bus services work better and there are fewer delays”. “Smooth” is a comparative adjective; “Running” is a verb and the qualifier of a verb is an adverb, so the sentence should have “smoother” because you don’t “run smoothly” and if you run an augmented version that way, then you run âmore smoothlyâ and, if it is not yet possible to run smoother than that, then we run âsmootherâ. We wouldn’t “run smoother” any more than we “run smoothly” – or as we see now, “run smoother”.
As for the delays: since the delays are counted, there are more or less during a day of service, neither more nor less – although this last construction is now normalized by a lazy use. There may however be less delay; the difference is that an account name takes a plural form, usually adding “-s” as in “delays”, while mass terms do not: more butter is not “more butters”, more milk is not âmore milksâ. The words âbutterâ and âmilkâ are verbs and not plural nouns. He butter (verb) his toast with even more butter (trick); he treats (verb) the cow but receives less milk (trick). You can count butter knobs but not butter; you weigh butter. You can count the glasses of milk but not the milk; you measure milk in pints or liters. You can have more or less pieces of butter, and therefore you will have more or less butter. So for the glasses of milk and milk.
It is often pointed out that there are no, or at least few, fixed rules in English grammar, outside of what common usage makes them. True. But where nuances of language make differences in logic, another type of rule comes into play: the rule of intellectual, or if you prefer, conceptual, correctness of thought, as it is. entered and expressed in a choice of words and the form of their arrangement.
There are resources in English grammar forms to convey information about the topic of a speech that is sometimes relevant. Chinese has “measure words” or classifiers to indicate what sort of thing one is talking about, useful among other things for disambiguation in such a homophonic language. There are measure words for everything, for rectangular things and long, thin things, for people, books, vehicles – yi ge ren “an (instance of) person”, uh ben shu “two (instances of) books”, san fen mifan “three (servings of) rice â, and so on. Likewise, in English, the less less The distinction conveys information indicating whether it is things or things, countables (denoted by count names) and measurables (denoted by mass terms), of which we are talking. The subjunctive mode in “if you were to do X, you would need to do Y” tells you that this is a conditional situation, in which the protasis of the conditional (what follows “if”) describes a counterfactual situation . (What follows the implicit “then” of the second half of the conditional is known in logic as “the apodosis”.)
For another example, “may” implies permission in most uses, “could” implies probability in most uses. As in the bus example, people will understand if you say “It may rain tomorrow”, but there might be a problem if you say “You can go to town tomorrow”. Does that mean that you are allowed to do it or that the probability that you will do it is at least quite high? These are questions of conceptual correctness that can make a huge difference – in a legal document or court, in an order to an officer in the middle of a battle, in a chain of reasoning in a forensic lab.
We use our language on the basis of habits that we unconsciously take from what we hear and read. As languages ââage, they become simpler, losing distinctions and subtleties, especially in demotic forms; high-yield tabloid newspapers are said to be based on a stock of around 800 words, although most of their readers know a lot more, perhaps the most commonly recognized 3,000 words. But note that recognize is not the same as using. It is said that a university graduate might have 30,000 words at his disposal, and that the Oxford English Dictionary contains about 250,000 entries of which about 50,000 are obsolete. Forms derived from keywords double the number of individual entries in some ways of building a dictionary. Interestingly, the keyword numbers for most dictionaries in most languages ââare roughly.
A few years ago I had a debate with Rupert Murdoch, then professor of language and communication at Oxford (yes, really, there is such a chair). Professor Rupert Murdoch’s point of view was that anything goes: languages ââchange, driven by usage, and that’s the end of the matter; any attempt to hold a line is in vain and is reactionary purism. It is 98 percent correct. Even the most demotic and varied forms of any human language are capable of great power of expression through all the uses to which the language is made – often even more than the orthodox uses. The remaining two percent are for the logic that the grammar supports, as in the examples above, because in these cases what the grammar has evolved to provide is disambiguation. Ambiguity is good in a poem, not good in a legal document. In the latter case, the choice of the grammatical form makes the difference.
Ambiguity is not the same as vagueness. Many expressions are usefully vague; âFireâ can mean anything from a flame on the tip of a matchstick to a vast bushfire in the Australian outback. Adjectives help locate the required point on the scale when greater precision is required. Ambiguity – âour mothers bore usâ – is not guaranteed to be useful except when it is intentional, for it allows for different and even competing inferences. The solutions are simple where any unwanted ambiguity is syntactic (“he said it would rain on Monday” – did he say it on Monday, or will it rain on Monday?), Lexical (“boring”) or punctual (“eat shoots and leaves”). But “buses run smoother” – better suspension or better schedule? – requires special attention to grammar. Suppose the bus company commits to “return smoother buses â, and I have such a bumpy ride that I’m injured, and I will continue, my chances of a repair depend on whether it was the suspension or the schedule that was planned.
The purpose of Graves and Hodges Drive over your shoulder, a classic of the genre, advocates clarity and accuracy of expression. He’s lashed out at verbosity, padding, and other slurs to readers, but throughout this one he’s consistently defended logic and meaning. It remains a battle to be waged, because their book remains a book to read. And by everyone: because – to illustrate by example – the fewer people who make fewer mistakes, the better and less ambiguous the language can be.
And to prove that devices such as emojis, acronyms, and abbreviations are acceptable extensions of the expressive power of language, a response to the mismanagement of that last sentence of ‘less’,’ less’, comparatives and ‘can Could well be – WTF?
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