Friday, September 11, 2009

A catholic taste

The mark of a mature taste is the ability to appreciate excellence in different forms — Carolina barbecue as well as steak au poivre. Thus, in proper appreciation of writing, one should be able to appreciate a writer who adheres to the most formal conventions of usage as well as one who writes colloquially with flair.

Here’s a parallel. I admire and appreciate the work that has been done in music with period instruments and period technique. I love the recordings that Nikolaus Harnoncourt and other musicians have done with the music of Bach, for example.

But once, more than thirty years ago, the formidable Lili Kraus came out on stage at one of the Mostly Mozrt concerts at Lincoln Center to play as an encore the Rondo Alla Turca from Mozart’s A-major piano sonata. She didn’t play it on some tinkly little reconstructed pianoforte; she banged out the bejeezus on a Steinway grand, and I can hear that glorious sound in my head to this day.

You have to be able to appreciate both.

Congress has a lot to learn

There was a brief brouhaha this week after the gentleman from South Carolina blurted, “You lie!” during the president’s address to Congress, with much pious commentary about decorum. Defenders of the gentleman from South Carolina reminded us that Democrats had booed President George W. Bush on more than one occasion — a defense rather like “those other kids did it first.”

What has been lost in this largely pointless exchange — and distraction from the national issue of health care ostensibly under discussion — is the pathetic feebleness of Congressional invective. “Boo!” and “You lie!” in the legislative body where the puissant John Randolph of Roanoke once commented that a prominent figure “shines and stinks like a rotten mackerel by moonlight.” (It is thought that Mr. Randolph was referring to Henry Clay.)

At Language Log, they are celebrating the invective of Paul Keating, the former prime minister of Australia whose comments in Parliament identified his opponents as, among other things, harlots, blackguards, brain-damaged, dullards, fools and incompetents, perfumed gigolos, unrepresentative swill, and stunned mullets. A commenter added this picturesque item:

One of Paul Keating's best insults came when he was berating the leader of the Country Party, who came from a family of undertakers. He described him as a man who had ‘accrued his wealth by stealing the pennies from the eyes of the dead.’*

When will the Republic elect legislators who can meet this lofty standard?

*Iambic hexameter. Classy.

You lie, you lay, you have lain

Thanks to a dispatch from a reader of this blog, I learned that a reader of the Maryland Gazette complained about the grammar of the opening sentence in a recent article:

An alcoholic homeless man who was run over and killed Tuesday night in Glen Burnie may have laid down in the road on purpose, an advocate for the homeless who knew him said this week.

The complaint, that laid should have been lain, prompted a defense from Rick Hutzell, the editor and, he says, “the ultimate arbiter of grammar and spelling for the newspaper.”* In his defense, Mr. Hutzell wrote:

“... I made a conscious decision to use laid in the lead, or opening paragraph, and headline instead of the grammatically correct lain.

“While the transitive verb was called for, Strunk and White note in ‘The Elements of Style’ that laid can be used in colloquial or slang speech. Because lain is almost never used in common conversation, I felt its presence in the lead paragraph and headline would have been a stopper for most readers. I ran this by another editor, who agreed.”

Permit me to express regret that a fellow ultimate aribiter should use Strunk and White as a prop for his authority and, even more regrettably, confuse transitive and intransitive.

Perhaps if the revenues of the Maryland Gazette hold up, Mr. Hutzell could lay out $45 for the third edition of Garner’s Modern American Usage,** which would help him sort out transitive and intransitive and give him a little more support for his decision on laid and lain.

Bryan Garner explains that the nonstandard use of forms of lay in place of lie is very common in speech and that some commentators insist that it is not even an error. “But make no mistake,” he says, “using these verbs correctly is a mark of refinement.”***

On his new “language-change index” feature, Mr. Garner rates laid for a past tense of lie as “virtually universal” but “opposed on cogent grounds by a few linguistic stalwarts.”

There you go, Mr. Hutzell, a defensible decision but a faulty explanation. It is never easy being an ultimate arbiter of grammar and spelling.

And catching up ...

Did you miss me during the past week? Preoccupied with new class preps and a series of freelance editing gigs, I lacked the time to post.**** So:

Item: Jesse Sheidlower’s The F Word is formally published. Maybe you say, “DILLIGAF,” a term you will find therein.

Item: On Twitter, @henryhitchings is marking the run-up to the tercentenary of Samuel Johnson’s birth (September 18) with a tweet-a-day quote. The first was Johnson’s decisive riposte to the hoary artists’ complaint that non-artists aren’t qualified to criticize their work:

“You may scold a carpenter who has made you a bad table, though you cannot make a table. It is not your trade to make tables.”

And subsequently, a salutary reminder to those of us who quibble over words:

“No word is ... intrinsically meaner than another; our opinion therefore of words ... depends wholly upon accident and custom.”

Item: Look at Headsup: The Blog for some prime examples of tortured journalistic syntax. Then ask yourself whether sheer bad writing might have something to do with the plight of newspapers.

Item: Belatedly but appropriately, the British government, in the person of the prime minister, has apologized for the unconscionable persecution of Alan Turing, which drove him to suicide. As a bonus, as Language Log notes, it is an illustration of a proper apology.

*I, too, was once such a tinpot authority. Ah, the bygone palmy days.

**About which, more in a future post.

***I am not a reader of the Maryland Gazette and so cannot comment on its degree of refinement or that of its readers.

****Dearly as I love you all, the freelance clients pay me, and you do not.