Tag Archives: grammar

The Editor Eats Humble Pie, or: It’s Okay To Change Your Mind

I’d been meaning for quite some time to write an “Editor Pontificates” post on a couple of phrases that are bugging me when people use them incorrectly. They’re the kind of thing that make me want to pull out my big rubber stamp and slap on a fat, juicy WRONG! But then, I had to change my mind on both of those matters. Well, okay, maybe didn’t have to, but I did anyway.

The phrases in question are “from whence” and “begging the question”.

“Begging the question” is actually a specific term that comes from formal logical debate. In that context, it means “a circular argument”: if something begs the question, it’s stating as a fact the very question that started the discussion in the first place. The way the phrase is misused is that people use it as a synonym for “bringing up the question”: “My socks got wet wading through the snow, which begs the question why I didn’t wear boots today.” That’s wrong – or is it?

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I did wear boots today, and very glad I was for them.

“From whence”, on the other hand, is a case of messed up archaic language. It’s rarely used nowadays in ordinary speech, which is why people (those pesky people) aren’t familiar enough with it to use it properly. “From whence” is a redundancy (as is its partner, “from hence”): “Whence” means “from where” (and hence “from here”). So, “from whence” really means “from from where”. WRONG!

So what made me change my mind on the big fat rubber stamp? It’s two different issues.

In the case of “begging the question”, the point is that language is not static. Yes, the phrase properly has a very specific use and meaning – formal debate, logical fallacy, blah blah. But this isn’t the Middle Ages, and we’re not engaged in university debates where we decimate our opponents by shouting out, preferably in Latin, the labels of the logic mistakes they made – “Ad hominem!”, “Strawman!”, “Begging the question!” No, this is the 21st century. Meanings of words and phrases change; language is democratic. And so, in informal talk today, “it begs the question” means “it brings up the question”. I heard an extremely erudite and eloquent friend of mine use it that way the other day, and as he can talk rings around everyone else where vocabulary and phrasing are concerned, it clinched the matter for me. I still wouldn’t recommend using the new meaning in an academic paper, but my bet is that before long it’ll become an accepted dictionary definition of the phrase.

“From whence” fell on the opposite end of the scale. “Whence” is an old word, and I thought people just didn’t know any more what it meant. But then, I was re-reading Sense and Sensibility. And there it was, jumping out at me: “He earnestly pressed her … to come with her daughters to Barton Park …, from whence she might judge, herself, whether Barton Cottage … could … be made comfortable to her.” Well, stay me with flagons. Austen says “from whence”?!? And she does it not just once, which might be considered a fluke, but five times in S&S alone! Well, then. Who am I to complain? Furthermore, a quick Google search turns up the fact that even Shakespeare used it, in Sonnet 48: “…the gentle closure of my breast / From whence at pleasure thou mayst come and part“. Austen and Shakespeare – all that’s left is for me to be glad I didn’t pontificate about “from whence” before, or I’d be wiping egg off my face now.

So there you have it: Life, the Universe, and an Editor’s Changed Mind. Which begs the question, From whence do people get their language?

 

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The Editor Pontificates: Lies, All Lies

Here we go with some more editorial pontification, about another issue that I’ve noticed while editing: the pesky and much-confused issue of “lie” vs. “lay”. I’m not talking about “lie” as in “telling a falsehood” – you know, “He’s lying like a rug.” Though, wait – actually, that latter example, yes, we will be talking about that. But not in the “falsehood” sense.

What this is about is the verb “lie” as in “to be in a horizontal, recumbent, or prostrate position, as on a bed or the ground; recline”. And then, “lay”, as in “to put or place in a horizontal position or position of rest; set down” (definitions courtesy of dictionary.com).

And there you have the difference in a nutshell: lie and lay are both about flat-on-your-back-ness, but the difference is who is implementing it. “Lie” means “to BE on your back”, “lay” “to PUT on the back”.

To demonstrate: Here’s me, laying Steve down:

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And here is Steve, lying down:

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So, picture 1, I lay Steve down, picture 2, Steve lies down. “Lay” always has to take an object; there always has to be a “whom?” or “what?” with it. Whom or what do I lay down? My stuffed bear, Steve. And once I lay him down, there he lies (no object) (also not a lot of initiative; he’s a bear, he’s too lazy to move).

You know the little children’s prayer, “Now I lay me down to sleep…”? That one can really throw  you off, because you’re talking about yourself here, your own flat-on-your-backness. But note it doesn’t say “Now I lay down…”, but “Now I lay me down…” Whom or what do I lay down? Me, my tired body. And once I lay me down, there I lie. Technically, the poem should say “Now I lie down…”, but that would screw up the metre, so, “lay me” instead of “lie”.

That’s also where “lying like a rug” comes in. If you say someone lies like a rug, that means he’s a really bad liar (I mean, a good liar. He’s really bad because he lies, but good at it. Umm – whatever.). A rug, by definition, lies flat on the ground, it’s the ultimate in passivity. You can’t get more lyingly lying than a rug. The rug lies – not lays.
Laying is something a hen does, with an egg – laying hens lay eggs. Whom or what do they lay? Eggs.
So, a rug lies, a hen lays (eggs). Easy, no?

But here’s the wrench in the works: “lay” is also the past tense of “lie”. So, yesterday, the rug lay on the floor (curse its woolly hide). But the hen, at exactly the same time, laid an egg.
“Lay”, “to put down flat”, is a regular verb; its past tense (and past participle, which you use in the past perfect) is formed by adding -ed, or in this case, -id: lay, laid, had laid. Today I lay Steve down, yesterday I laid him down, the day before I had laid him down.
But lie, the “be on your back” version, is an irregular verb: lie, lay, had lain. So Steve, having never got up when I laid him down, still lies there; just as yesterday, he lay there, and the day before he had lain there.
(The “tell a falsehood” version of “lie” is a regular verb – lie, lied, lied: today I lie, yesterday I lied, the day  before I had lied – that’s where the rug simile breaks down, because you can’t say that last week Joe “lied like a rug”.)

So, one more time: “lie” stands on its own, it’s something I do, myself; “lay” needs an object, it’s something I do to another person or thing. The hen lays an egg on the rug that lies on the ground.

Now, before you’re comatose with boredom (as your lying on the floor with your eyes glazed over indicates), I’ll stop laying down grammar laws. But don’t say I never told you nothin’ – that’d be a lie.

Life, the Universe, and Lies, all Lies. Uh, I mean, Lie vs. Lay. Now you know.

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Speaking Shakespearean

800px-ShakespeareSo the Internet was flooded with Shakespeariana the last few days, thanks to the big 400-year anniversary of his death last Saturday, April 23rd, 2016. I kind of missed it, as I don’t go online as much on the weekend, which is why I’m only now weighing in on the issue. But my excuse is that today is the Great Man’s Christening Day (452 years! Significant figure!), so that’s still an anniversary and I can still shove in my oar on the celebrations.

Did you know that even though we celebrate Shakespeare’s birthday on the 23rd of April (the same day he died), we don’t actually know exactly when he was born? I think they (whoever “they” are) just picked the 23rd because it’s convenient so we don’t have to remember more than one date for his birth and death. And because he was christened on the 26th, and it was, apparently, traditional that babies were baptised three days after birth. That must be a peculiarly English custom, though; in Renaissance Germany baptism happened just one day post-partum (that’s how they decided Martin Luther’s birthday must be November 10th, based on his baptismal day).

Anyway, with all this Shakespeare stuff floating around the ‘net, I was reminded of one of my pet peeves. This link demonstrates it quite nicely: there’s a quite funny “translation” of some lyrics by Drake (whom I don’t know anything about other than this clip) into “Shakespearean language”. Except that it’s not. The “translator” falls prey to a very common misconception, which is that to make something sound Shakespearean, all you have to do is attach “th” to the end of every verb, and toss in a sprinkling of “thou”. You know, as in “thou randomly chucketh stuff around and hopeth thou soundeth like Romeo.”

Well, I hate to tell you, but all it does it make you sound like the Shakespearean equivalent of a LOLcat (“I has cheezeburger.”). Now, to avoid your embarrassing yourself further on this issue, let me explain how this “thou” and “sayeth” stuff works(eth).

It breaks up into two parts. First, let’s tackle the thou’s and thee’s, because that’s not quite as complicated as the verbs. What we want for the purpose is a nice little grid, like so:

Singular

Plural

First Person

I

we

Second Person

thou

you

Third Person

he/she/it

they

You see, the “thou” is just an old form of saying “you” – in fact, “you” is the old plural, “you two” (or “y’all”, if you’re from the Southern States). Even though “thou” sounds old-fashioned and formal today, it was actually informal and a bit rude, sort of along the lines of “Hey you!”, which is why it fell out of favour. So, what about the “thee” and “thy” stuff? Simple – they’re forms of “thou” just like “me” and “my” are variants of “I”. So whenever you’d say “me”, use “thee”; for “my” or “mine”, “thy” or “thine”: “He hit me, because my face annoyed him; he said the fault was mine,” or “He hit thee, because thy face annoyed him; he said the fault was thine.” To put it in another nice grid:

first person

second person

third person

subjective case

I

thou

he/she/it

objective case

(he hits) me

(he hits) thee

(he hits) him/her/it

possessive case

my (house)

thy (house)

his/hers/its (house)

Okay, now what about the LOLcats and their cheezeburger? Where does the “hath” come in? Quite simple: Renaissance people had a perpetual lisp. Wherever we put an “s” on the end of a verb, they put a “th”. (Completely off topic, I just found out there’s a special character for “th”, Þ, and it’s called a thorn. Cool, eh?) The third person singular (see above) present tense verb in modern English takes an -s: he jumps, she walks, it has; in old English, it takes a -th (or -eth): he jumpeth, she walketh, it hath. So, an actual Shakespearean LOLcat, messing up its first and third persons, would say “I hath cheezeburger,” or probably more like “I hath an eel pie” (or some such thing).

Now, in modern English, the third person singular is the only case in which the verb changes. But in old English, the second person singular also got its own verb ending, namely -st (or -est). So, whenever you pull out a “thou”, you also need to slap an “-est” on the verb that goes with it: thou jumpest, thou walkest, thou hast. To grid it:

Singular

Plural

First Person

I jump/have/do

we jump/have/do

Second Person

thou jumpest/hast/dost

(modern: you jump/have/do)

you jump/have/do

Third Person

he jumpeth/hath/doth

(modern: he jumps/has/does)

they jump/have/do

That’s why you get: “Methinks the lady doth protest too much,” or if you say it straight to someone’s face: “Methinks thou dost protest too much.”

So, now you know. All you need to do is add a sprinkling of “alas”, “forsooth”, “methinks”, or “knave”, and thou art all set to quaff a flagon of ale with Falstaff, Hamlet and Prince Hal.

Life, the Universe, Thou and Hath. Alas, forsooth, methinks thou hast heard enough of my pontification. I prithee that thou takest it not amiss.

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The Editor Pontificates: Past Perfect

Double-Stuf-OreosNo, I’m not talking about the perfect past – you know, where your grandma keeps going on about the Good Old Days in the Past, When Everything Was Perfect. What I’m talking about here is the grammatical “past perfect” tense.

Bear with me for a moment here. I keep stumbling over this matter in my work as editor (ahem – I almost feel like I should capitalise this: My Work As Editor. Spoken with a suitably declarative intonation, so that the capitals become evident and everyone is duly impressed. Anyway…). Now, most of you probably don’t give a rip about grammar. If so, just ignore me. But some of you might actually care, and for those, allow me to pontificate for a moment.

“Pontificate”, incidentally, comes from the Latin “pontifex”, which was an early word for “bishop” (the Pope is still called Pontifex Maximus today). So, to pontificate is, quite plainly, to preach. Speaking of Latin, “perfect” is, of course, also Latin, from “perficio”, “through + make”, or “finish building”. Something that’s perfect is completed, all the way. So in grammar terms, something that’s “perfect” is something that’s finished, over with.

I was in an online discussion the other day on this very topic, and one participant, who is an ESL teacher in Asia, said that when he talks to his students he calls the past perfect the “double past”. That’s a great term, because it describes exactly what it is. Like a Double Oreo cookie, where you get twice the filling (the Oreo of Oreos, as it were), the double past means you get the past of the past.

So, when I’m talking about today, I use, of course, the present tense. “Today I waffle on about grammar matters and bore my readers to tears.” If I talk about yesterday, I use the simple past: “Yesterday, I thought of this topic.” Now, if I want to talk about something that happened before the past, I use the past perfect: “Yesterday, I thought of this topic, because the day before yesterday I had discussed it with other writers online.” When I thought of the topic yesterday, the discussing was already in the past. Double past, or past perfect.

In English, to put it simply, the past perfect is formed by “had” and the appropriate verb form: today I eat, yesterday I ate, the day before that I had eaten. (There are some convoluted verb forms where you end up with stacks of “had”, but we’ll ignore those here.)

In daily life, we rarely use the double past. But in writing, it does become relevant. Most fiction is written in the past tense (“It was the blue bowl that started it all…”), so if you describe something that happened before that moment you’re describing, you’ve got to put it in past perfect: “It was a turquoise blue, very much like the eyes of the weird guy that had stared at Cat so disturbingly in the Room of Local Antiquities.” If that “had” wasn’t there, it would mean that the guy is standing there right now, staring at Cat – but it happened earlier, before she walked into the Ceramics Room and saw the fateful blue bowl. Because the whole story is told in past tense, anything that happened prior to it requires the double past. (If you want to know what else happened with Cat and the blue bowl and just who that weird guy was, go read Seventh Son. End of advertisement.)

The most common mistake in this regard is to have your story told in past tense, but forget to use the double past when you’re telling of events prior to your “narrative present” (i.e. the time the story takes place in), which can leave the reader scratching their head as to exactly what’s happening when. But I’ve also seen stories that are told in present tense, where the author overcompensates: the “narrative present” is the present, so anything that happens before then should be in the simple past tense (single Oreo) – but then the author tries extra-hard to get the tense right and ends up putting in an excess of “had”. Nope, you don’t want that. If you’re telling it right now, a prior event goes in the simple past – single Oreo. If you’re telling everything in the past, a prior event goes in the past perfect or double past – it gets the double Oreo.

Make sense? Good. I’ll get off my editor’s pulpit then and stop boring you.

Life, the Universe, the Past Perfect and Double Oreos. Pass the milk.

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