Author Topic: Whoops!  (Read 9569 times)

maxsims

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Whoops!
« on: May 17, 2009, 08:39:02 AM »
In “Give Your English the Winning Edge”, you write:
“Many people discover to their dismay that their many years of formal study of English has not given them the proficiency level demanded by the job market, by the various professions, or by higher academic studies.”
Although “many years of study” has a sense of singularity, it is still undeniably a plural subject and therefore demands “have”.
And, in a list of attributes, should not there be a comma after each, except the second last?

In the same vein,
“In this exciting new volume, the National Book Award-winning author of English Plain and Simple unravels the various mechanisms and tools of English for combining words and ideas into clear, logical, and engaging writing.”
There is a comma after the second-last adjective.    In my brief squiz at the excerpt from GYETWE, I noted that you do this all the time.    Has some authority changed convention?

johari

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Re: Whoops!
« Reply #1 on: August 23, 2009, 01:21:55 PM »
It has always been my understanding that it is correct either way. That is, it is correct to use a comma after the second last item in a list and also correct to omit it. Your post is making me wonder if I am mistaken. It's certainly possible that I've been wrong for decades...

Joe Carillo

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Why I personally prefer using the serial comma
« Reply #2 on: August 23, 2009, 03:39:57 PM »
It has always been my understanding that it is correct either way. That is, it is correct to use a comma after the second last item in a list and also correct to omit it. Your post is making me wonder if I am mistaken. It's certainly possible that I've been wrong for decades...

Both are actually correct. Using or not using the serial comma before the last item in an enumerative sequence is largely a matter of stylistic choice. Personally, I prefer using the serial comma by default--meaning all the time--to avoid confusing readers particularly when the enumerative sequence involves elements that could get muddled or mixed up if the serial comma is dispensed with.

Let me present here the main points I previously gave Max Sims to justify my choice of using the serial comma:

Yes, I admit that I use the serial comma all the time as a matter of stylistic choice. I just happened to have imbibed the serial-comma tradition from Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style and the Chicago Manual of Style, both of which use the American English standard, and also from the decidedly British Modern English Usage by H.W. Fowler. However, during my early days as a campus journalist and later as a reporter for a daily newspaper, I would routinely knock off my serial commas because the newspaper I was working with just happened to have adopted the preference of the major American newspapers and news bureaus, particularly The New York Times and the Associated Press. If I didn’t knock off those serial commas myself, my editors would do so anyway and sullenly admonish me not to foist my personal preference on them despite the house rule against it.   

No, the convention on whether or not to use the serial comma has not changed at all. I am aware that the no-serial-comma tradition remains a widespread stylistic practice in the United Kingdom as well as in Canada, Australia, and South Africa, particularly in their mass-circulation newspapers and magazines. Knowing that you are based in Australia, I therefore don't take it against you when you complain against my use of the serial comma. But please understand that I just want to be consistent after making a personal choice based on my personal experience with the problems of punctuation over the years.

Of course, the usefulness of the serial comma might not be readily apparent and appreciated when the items in a sentence with a serial list consist only of a single word or two, as in the following sentences:

“She bought a lot of apples, oranges and pears.”

“For the role of Hamlet, the possible choices are Fred Smith, Ted Owen, Jim Harris and George Brown." 

But see what happens when the items in the list consist of long phrases with more than four or five words:

“The major businesses in the domestic pet services industry are traditional veterinary services, fancy pet grooming and makeover shops, a wide assortment of animal and bird food, freshwater and marine fish of various kinds and aquarium equipment and supplies for industrial and home use.”

Now, without using the serial comma to do its punctuation job, try to figure out where each enumerative item ends and begins in the phrase “freshwater and marine fish of various kinds and aquarium equipment and supplies for industrial and home use.”

You might have ultimately figured it out, of course, but see how clear and unequivocal the second and final items would have been had we deployed a serial comma between “various kinds” and “aquarium equipment,” as follows:

“The major businesses in the domestic pet services industry are traditional veterinary services, fancy pet grooming and makeover shops, a wide assortment of animal and bird food, freshwater and marine fish of various kinds, and aquarium equipment and supplies for industrial and home use.”

I therefore think it’s best to use a serial comma by default in such situations regardless of how long the phrase for each item is in the enumerative sequence. This way, we can avoid making unilateral decisions on whether or not to use a comma in a way that could just confuse readers and violate their sense of rhythm and balance. 

maxsims

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Re: Whoops!
« Reply #3 on: February 02, 2010, 10:55:41 AM »
"...Can you imagine, if he wasn’t executed by the Spanish authorities in 1896 at the age of 35, how many more stories and novels he could have written...."

Wasn't.....?

Joe Carillo

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Re: Whoops!
« Reply #4 on: February 02, 2010, 06:45:32 PM »
No, it shouldn't be the indicative "wasn't" but the subjunctive "weren't." My mistake. That line should read as follows: "Can you imagine, if he weren't executed by the Spanish authorities in 1896 at the age of 35, how many more stories and novels he could have written?" The subjunctive sounds awkward in this past modal construction, but the grammar books say it's the formal way to do it.

Thanks for calling my attention to the grammar problem, maxsims! I'll make the correction in the original posting right after this.
« Last Edit: February 02, 2010, 07:40:16 PM by Joe Carillo »

maxsims

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Re: Whoops!
« Reply #5 on: February 02, 2010, 07:00:45 PM »
So much for grammar books (except yours, of course!).  I prefer the better-sounding and much more straightforward "...if he hadn't been executed...."


Joe Carillo

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Re: Whoops!
« Reply #6 on: February 02, 2010, 07:37:43 PM »
I would prefer the form "if he hadn't been executed" myself if the time frame for the action--1896--and Rizal's age aren't indicated. It seems to me that the past perfect--even in modal form--just isn't right with a specific time frame in the past; it must be my newspapering experience getting the better of my grammar judgment! See how much better and incontrovertibly correct your chosen form sounds without the year and Rizal's age: "Can you imagine, if he hadn't been executed by the Spanish authorities, how many more stories and novels he could have written?" 
« Last Edit: February 02, 2010, 08:50:49 PM by Joe Carillo »

maxsims

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Re: Whoops!
« Reply #7 on: February 03, 2010, 07:14:48 AM »
Thank you for your swift and (as usual) lucid reply.   However, your reply raises two subsequent question.

1.  Why is the past perfect not acceptable when a specific time frame is mentioned?   I have never heard of such a rule.

2.  By definition (perhaps not everybody's), the subjunctive mood sets a notional, as distinct from a real or chronological, time.   It follows that "...if he weren't executed by the Spanish authorities in 1896 at the age of 35....etc" cannot be subjunctive.

In any case, the sooner the subjunctive is given the last rites, the better!

Joe Carillo

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The use of the subjunctive in my sentence about Rizal's writings
« Reply #8 on: February 03, 2010, 10:02:49 AM »
Here are my thoughts on those two questions of yours, maxsims:

1. Why is the past perfect not acceptable when a specific time frame is mentioned? I have never heard of such a rule.

You will recall that by definition, the past perfect in English is a verb tense formed with “had” to denote an action or state as completed at or before a past time spoken of. For example, “Rizal had written two novels by the time he turned 30 in 1891.” Here, the past perfect is used to denote an action whose time of occurrence isn’t specified (“had written”) but uses as referent another action in the past with a specific time of occurrence, “he turned 30 in 1891.” You know, of course, that the past perfect can’t be used in that sentence if the time of writing of the two novels is specified. We can’t say, “Rizal had written two novels between 1887-1890 by the time he turned 30 in 1891.” We can only use the simple past tense for both the first and second actions in such cases, like, say, “Rizal wrote two novels between 1887 and 1890, and this was before he turned 30 in 1891.”

The other use of the past perfect—and the one I referred to as commonly used in print journalism—is to indicate a past action whose time of occurrence isn’t specified at all, as in “Rizal had written two novels.” “Another presidential debate had been held.” Of course, when the time of occurrence is specified, the correct tense to use is the simple past: “Rizal wrote two novels between 1887 and 1890.” “Another presidential debate was held last January 31.”

2. By definition (perhaps not everybody’s), the subjunctive mood sets a notional, as distinct from a real or chronological, time. It follows that "...if he weren’t executed by the Spanish authorities in 1896 at the age of 35....etc” cannot be subjunctive.

As you know, the subjunctive mood denotes acts or states that are contingent on possible outcomes of the speaker’s wish, desire, or doubt, as opposed to denoting acts and states in real-world situations, which is what the indicative mood does, or to expressing direct commands, which is what the imperative mood does in turn. Here are two examples that I provided for the subjunctive in my book, Give Your English the Winning Edge:

If the Earth were flat, Magellan’s naval expedition wouldn’t have circumnavigated the globe.”

How I wish (that) I were here when she said that! I would have told her that she was a liar.”

Of course, such subjunctive constructions can sometimes take this inverted syntax:

Were the Earth flat, Magellan’s naval expedition wouldn’t have circumnavigated the globe.”

The second subjunctive sentence above becomes so convoluted when its syntax is inverted, so we won’t attempt it here, but there are other similar constructions that allow the inverted construction without any hitch, like the following:

Were she the CEO, our management wouldn’t be pursuing this erroneous course.”

These examples are applications of the subjunctive to describe the outcome of an unreal situation or idea contrary to fact.* They are actually of the same structure as the following subjunctive sentence of mine that’s in question here:

“Can you imagine, if he weren’t executed by the Spanish authorities in 1896 at the age of 35, how many more stories and novels he could have written—whether in Spanish, Tagalog, or English—had he lived to the ripe age of, say, 60 to 70?”

You will recall that I originally used the indicative “wasn’t” for that sentence, but when you indicated doubt about the usage in your posting, I decided to change it to “weren’t.” This was when I realized that the sentence should, in fact, be in the subjunctive form. It isn’t a very lovely construction actually, but that’s how it should be in the subjunctive form.

(Note that that sentence can also take this inverted subjunctive form: “If he weren’t executed by the Spanish authorities in 1896 at the age of 35, can you imagine how many more stories and novels he could have written—whether in Spanish, Tagalog, or English—had he lived to the ripe age of, say, 60 to 70?”)

What throws off a lot of people, of course, is the deviant behavior of the verb “be” in such subjunctive “if”-clauses. While both regular and irregular verbs in the subjunctive take the same form as their indicative past-tense forms (“worked,” “found,” “caught,” “saw,” and so on), “be” exhibits totally maverick behavior. It sticks to the past-tense subjunctive form “were” all throughout, regardless of the person and number of its subject: “She acts as if she were a member of royalty.” “They avoided the man as if he were a leper.” “The people behaved as if their future were a big joke.”

There’s actually a grammar rule that prescribes that if the situation described by the “if” clause is not false but actually happened, its operative verb should be in the indicative form instead, as in “If she was [not “were”] sick that week, then it’s obvious why she wasn’t able to attend her classes.” This was why I was tempted to use the indicative “were” in my original construction for that sentence of mine about Rizal:

“Can you imagine, if he wasn’t executed by the Spanish authorities in 1896 at the age of 35, how many more stories and novels he could have written—whether in Spanish, Tagalog, or English—had he lived to the ripe age of, say, 60 to 70?”

On second thoughts, however, I realized that the rule applies only to situations in the “if clause” that aren’t false or that actually happened, but the hoped for or imagined outcome is actually realized. In that sentence construction of mine about Rizal, though, both the “if” clause and the imagined outcome didn’t happen or have not been realized. This is why ultimately, I think the subjunctive “weren’t executed” and not the indicative “wasn’t executed” is the correct mood for that sentence of mine.

-----
*There are actually several other applications of the subjunctive that are discussed in my book, but I will limit this discussion to only this one so as not to unduly prolong this posting.


maxsims

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Re: Whoops!
« Reply #9 on: February 03, 2010, 10:44:06 AM »
I might be waxing philosophical here, but the argument can be made that the "if" clause "...he wasn't shot..." definitely did happen, however much the writer wishes it hadn't, and hence it confirms to the rule you quoted and is not subjunctive.

Joe Carillo

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Re: Whoops!
« Reply #10 on: February 03, 2010, 12:07:09 PM »
Perhaps other grammar-passionate Forum members can weigh in with their thoughts here about the subjunctive. It's not a very pretty form, if you ask me, and I agree with you that perhaps it should be allowed to go extinct quietly. In fact, in my book, I discussed some simpler alternatives for it, but I must admit that I haven't come across one for subjunctive "if"-clauses--much less with the construction where both the "if" clause and the wished-for outcome didn't happen. If in fact that double-barreled negative-outcome situation makes the construction revert to the indicative, so be it, but can someone cite a higher authority for that rule so we can move on? 

maxsims

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Re: Whoops!
« Reply #11 on: February 03, 2010, 03:33:17 PM »
HG Fowler in Modern English Usage (the 1964 edition).  He says, among other things under "Subjunctives", that "were" is a recognizable subjunctive and applicable not to past facts, but to present of future non-facts' it is entirely out of place in an if-clause concerned with past actualities and not answered by a "were" or "would be" in the apodosis.

But who cares?    :)

Joe Carillo

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Re: Whoops!
« Reply #12 on: February 03, 2010, 04:36:37 PM »
Oh, maxsims, if that’s how H.W. Fowler himself explained the usage of subjunctive “if”-constructions, it’s one place in the realm of English grammar that I wouldn’t want to bravely go—at least not from here, and not now! It’s absolutely stultifying! It forced me, though, to find out what an animal an “apodosis” is. It’s the main clause of a conditional sentence, and its opposite linguistic beast is the “protasis,” which is the subordinate clause of a conditional sentence. Indeed, maxsims, who cares? I glad that I didn’t go into linguistics as a career!  ::)

maxsims

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Re: Whoops!
« Reply #13 on: February 03, 2010, 05:07:34 PM »
"HW" it is.    :-[