Saturday, April 25, 2015

On the placement of "only"

In the last two weeks I have marked approximately one million student assignments and copyedited a novel alongside reading several published books. As I perform these activities, my editor brain remarks on consistent issues, such as writers' apparently irresistible desire to refer to certain birds as "Canadian" geese, rather than by their species name, Canada geese. Argh.

My current peeve, however, involves the placement of the modifier only. It's a tricky word, as my set of sample sentences demonstrates:

Only I will have your heart!
I only will have your heart!
I will only have your heart!
I will have only your heart!
I will have your only heart!
I will have your heart only!

So here's the drill: only should be placed close to the sentence constituent it modifies. In most English syntax, that placement means immediately before said constituent.

I may be one of the few editors in the world clinging to this principle, though. And despite that I teach the point in first-year grammar courses, student writers are especially frequent offenders in misplacing only.

Here are some examples. Read the sentences aloud, emphasizing the word or phrase after only. Do you perceive the improved clarity?

Worse: She only uses that word when something is good.
Better: She uses that word only when something is good.

Worse: She only got out of it what she put into it.
Better: She got out of it only what she put into it.

Worse: He could only save the one.
Better: He could save only the one.

The third sentence stands out because the "better" phrasing is not typical of the way we speak. That's the difference between writing and speaking: in writing, we have the opportunity to go back and rephrase an utterance for clarity. In writing we must be more considerate of the reader than we are of the listener when we speak. A listener has our presence and can ask for clarification, but a reader is normally reading without us and cannot ask for help.

In summary, the key idea of today's lesson is this: handle only with care. 

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Yeah, yeah, uh-huh, I heard you

Haven't blogged lately. Sorry. Busy.

Here's a picture instead: late November 1990. Omg, we still have the descendants of that philodendron!

Super baby to the rescue!

Back to you after finals. Ta!

Thursday, April 09, 2015

A child's logic

When I was in grade four — in 1979 — Supertramp released "The Logical Song" as a single, and it captivated even an ear as young as mine. In particular, I was fascinated by the structuring of these lines:

Now watch what you say or they'll be calling you a radical,
Liberal, fanatical, criminal.
Won't you sign up your name, we'd like to feel you're
Acceptable, respectable, presentable, a vegetable!

A radical, a liberal? Whoa. Though I couldn't have used the idea of linkage as a ten-year-old, I certainly perceived it.

If you know even the littlest thing about me today, you'll know that "they" are calling "me" exactly these things for my politics and beliefs. And what's wonderful about my brand of resilience is that I don't care. Or to adopt masculine diction: Bring it.

Not sure why I'd attribute so much influence to a pop song (OK, OK, a prog-rock song), but it has stuck with me. This morning, as I sang along with Roger Hodgson, I was reminded of all the little details that make a (more or less) whole person.

Wednesday, April 08, 2015

How sweet it is.

In a seemingly interminable meeting yesterday, one of the speakers, asked whether her committee had discussed a particular point of granular interest to the questioner, said the following:

I don't think we really had a fulsome discussion about that.

I also hope they didn't. Fulsome means "complimentary or flattering to an excessive degree." So Polonius's praise might be described as fulsome (or obsequious), but nothing about the bureaucratic process should be.

Malapropism has always amused me, and academic committee meetings are a wonderful place to observe it. And I have certainly produced my share of diction errors in my time. But this slip (not to mention the awkwardly placed modifier) made an otherwise wrist-slicingly boring meeting a little brighter.

Thus ends my gratitude affirmation for today. Now back to my regularly scheduled snark....

Friday, April 03, 2015

A word for my mind

In my reading today I discovered a word that describes my mind, and therefore my work habits, rather well: circumforanean. It means "going about or abroad," as in walking about a marketplace or wandering through a neighbourhood (with the implication that doing so is suspicious). Despite its lack of legs, my brain is circumforanean.