What misspellings can tell the reader about the underlying speech: This shop on Portobello Road had three or four hand-written signs indicating the prices of various types of “scalf”:

'scalf' on a sign in London
And even more scalves.

No rhotic speaker (who would pronounce the R in scarf) would have chosen this spelling.

Confusing hedges

… ou : comment (ne pas) atténuer ses propos. Là où on emploie le conditionnel en français, l’anglais a des adverbes à sa disposition. On appelle cela un hedge. Mais parfois, signaler qu’il y a un doute sur ce qui est affirmé peut embrouiller la syntaxe.

  • 2006-02-17
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Imagine A (male) shot and killed B. In addition, some days earlier, A tried to pull off an Internet scam. This situation could be bundled into one sentence like this:

  • A tried to pull off an Internet scam just days before he shot and killed B.

But as long as A isn’t convicted and sentenced, the press aren’t supposed to employ this sort of plain language. Which is entirely proper, given that the journalists are unlikely to have been eyewitnesses of the sad events. In come the hedges. At Newsforge, the result is:

  • Suspected murderer Neil Entwistle was trying to sell OpenOffice.org on auction Web site eBay just days before he allegedly shot and killed his wife and infant child.#[1]

This sentence, however, throws my logic module into a loop. The words suspected and allegedly point to Mr Entwistle’s potential innocence. But if he is innocent, he tricked (shouldn’t there be an “allegedly” here, too?) people into buying free software just days before he — did nothing else in particular. The reader is being left hanging out in the air.

It’s got something to do with allegedly functioning as a sentence adverb. Its scope extends beyond just the verb shot (you don’t “allegedly shoot” someone) . The last part of the sentence means “it has been alleged that + [Subject] + [Predicate]”. And the alleging itself took place long (not “just”) after he made questionable use of eBay, if that’s what he did.

A possible way out of the confusion would have been to pack the entire allegation bit into the first part of the sentence: N. E., who is suspected of shooting his wife and infant child, was trying to sell … just days before the killing took place.

French goes about hedges differently. There are adverbs, of course, but most importantly, the verb is changed to the conditional#[2]. But it is quite impossible to translate the Newsforge writer’s construction very closely: avant que (before, if followed by a finite verb) forces you to employ the subjunctive mood, and your verb forms go haywire. Nominalising the verb won’t help: “avant d’avoir tué” has no trace of a hedge. But you can replace it with a noun. The press would definitely use the conditional for try to sell … on eBay as well and probably come up with something along the lines of Accusé du meurtre de son épouse et de leur enfant, N. E. aurait essayé de vendre… juste quelques jours avant la tuerie.

[Spell-check didn’t know: nominalising (huh — but it’s a new installation; suggestion: criminalising); anarthrous (suggestion: arthrograms).]

Notes: [1]: Note the two anarthrous noun phrases. [2]: In the French-speaking world, entire mailing lists have gone up in flame-wars over the question whether the conditionnel is a tense or a mood. Naively, I’d have opted for “mood” without batting an eye, but some syntactic uses of the conditional do indeed complicated matters slightly.

Dangling relative clause

Mes excuses pour le manque de billets. En attendant, une pauvre phrase relative en rade, piquée sur un site homophobe…

First my apologies for being such a spotty blogger lately. Offline life is intruding even more than it used to and makes sustained online activities a bit hard at the moment. But I will be back: with everything on my to-blog list, there is no lack of topics.

In the meantime, let me just quickly point out a very strange relative clause I’ve just come across. It’s originally from a site called Straight Talk Radio, which I understand belongs to a homophobic, fundamentalist Christian radio show made in USA. This is what they have to say about Brokeback Mountain, the recent film about the love between two cowboys, after a short story by Annie Proulx [link invalid — see alternatives at the end of this post (emphasis in the original):

Proulx’s short story contains graphic, vulgar and explicit pornographic language of homosexual sex between the two cowboys, which some who saw the movie, say remains faithful to the short story.

This radio show doesn’t seem to have permalinks to their programs, but Pandagon, where I first saw the sentence, does.

The problem is, what is the antecedent of the relative pronoun which? If you look at the stripped down relative clause

  • which some […] say remains faithful to the short story — or even shorter: –
  • which […] remains faithful to the short story

you’d expect the antecedent to be the movie. Given that the program is about the movie (it is titled America: Beware of ‘Brokeback Mountain’), this assumption seems reasonable. But this putative antecedent is nowhere to be found in the main clause. So if it isn’t the movie, what could it be? Three noun phrases are candidates for the position: Proulx’s short story, graphic, vulgar and explicit pornographic language and homosexual sex. (There’s a fourth, the two cowboys, but you’d expect who, not which, and a plural agreement of the verb in the relative clause. So we can leave this one aside at once.)

The first, Proulx’s short story, is farthest away from the relative clause, and furthermore doesn’t make any sense at all (Proulx’s short story remains faithful to the short story : a tautology). But neither do the other two because the main, or matrix clause talks about the short story only, and when it mentions graphic, vulgar and explicit pornographic language of homosexual sex it is understood that it means in the short story.

So, what now? I’ve read complaints about which becoming, for inexperienced writer, some sort of universal relative pronoun or universal linking word, to be employed when unsure how to connect two clauses. Maybe that’s the case here.

As for the dire warnings, I don’t know yet if I’m going to watch Brokeback Mountain when it comes over to Europe, but I did enjoy the short story. It works for me: it talks about feelings and desire, and does contain two short sex scenes, depicted in stark, economic language. As always, it is best to make up one’s own mind.

[Update, 2005/12/17: Apparently, the New Yorker has taken the story offline. I’m looking for another link to it. Further update: There’s a html version and a .pdf file available. If these links prove ephemeral, a Google search will help, if necessary via the “Cache” links. ]

Via Crooked Timber, a comic-strip style overview of the rules of cricket [.pdf] — in French. Published, in fact, by the Fédération Française de Basketball - Softball & Cricket. Not only did I understand everything (wow!), including the very strange point about the defending team being the one that tries to destroy the wicket, but […]

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Reading Little Women

À la suite du billet précédent, quelques réflexions sur Little Women, le livre de Louisa May Alcott.

I just posted about how several French translations of Louisa May Alcott’s novel Little Women are wretchedly bowdlerised, pale reflections of the original, and that there is indeed an entire editorial history of a) removing all references to religion (the entire Pilgrim’s Progress dimension, the profession of the girls’ father, the Catholicism of the maid […]

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The usage of the verb snob

Le verbe snober vient du nom anglais snob, emprunté par le français. Mais il ne se dit pas snob en anglais — je parle toujours du verbe —, mais snub. Peu surprenant que certains anglophones s’y perdent. Et même plus que ça : on trouve une foule de formations verbales faites à partir de snob, toutes absentes des dictionnaires.

  • 2005-10-29
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When the sentence “He [Karl Marx] would probably snob his nose at it [blogging]” flickered by me on IRC some hours ago, I just thought that this was a nice blend of snob n., snub v. and the idiom turn up one’s nose at sth., possibly influenced by the semantically less pertinent snub-nosed. […]

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  • 2005-10-26
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The Eggcorn Database has its own forum now. I also made some changes to the posting rules. Oh, and we’ve managed to pass the threshold of 500 eggcorns this month. Sometimes apparently simple entries can turn out to be more complex than meets the eye. Yesterday, Kaz Vorpal entered the substitution of flounder v. for […]

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Mellifluous punctuation and somebody else’s umbrella

«The Elements of Style» de William Strunk et E.B. White est, en plus court, à l’anglais américain ce qui est le Grevisse au français. Toute une frange des anglophones instruits, dont un certain nombre de profs, ne jurent que par ce manuel de style et de grammaire.

Malheureusement, les auteurs ont poussé le stalinisme grammatical au point de proscrire des tournures utilisées par les plus grands écrivains depuis des siècles, et s’avèrent occasionnellement incapables de suivre leurs propres conseils. Certains donc, et pas les moindres, vouent le livre aux gémonies et n’ont qu’un désir : qu’il n’eusse jamais été écrit.

Maintenant, une version illustrée par une dessinatrice et auteure de livres pour enfants et un cycle de chants par un jeune compositeur néo-dadaiste font leur apparence sur ce champs de bataille grammaticale et stylistique.

I imagine Geoffrey Pullum has a file on his computer named “Strunk and White adjectives”, and every time he posts about The Elements of Style he chooses a new one and ticks it off as “used”. He’s called the opus a horrid little notebook of nonsense, a stupid little book, a poisonous little collection of […]

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Avoiding the asterisks … of avoidance

Quelques remarques au sujet des gros mots dans la presse. Et comment éviter les astérisques d’évitement.

  • 2005-10-07
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The software upgrade seems to have gone all right (please report any problems you may have with this site). Posting, on the other hand, has been light; mainly because I’m recovering from a particularly tenacious cold/cough/bronchitis, which has me look at the more substantial posts in the pipeline and shake my head in disgust about […]

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Amuse-bouche to zaibatsu

Des entrées nouvelles dans le Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate® Dictionary, l’un des dictionnaires les plus réputés de la langue anglaise.

  • 2005-10-04
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New entries in the 2005 edition of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate® Dictionary. I was slightly surprised about the new sense of neoconservative. There must have been some semantic variation over the last few years.

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