Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Grammatical faux pas

I’m not exactly a purist, but I’m probably a little old fashioned when it comes to grammar. At the very least, I received my education and my upbringing in England and there’s not much I can do about that. Consequently, there are certain words and phrases in everyday use in North America which grate on me like chalk on a board.
They mainly occur in daily speech rather than in writing, and many have become accepted as natural developments of the language, but it seems to me that that defence is increasingly used to excuse sloppiness and errors.
Among my most loathed are:
  • “This is as big of a problem as any” (I have no idea where the “of” came from, or what prompted the first offender to insert it, but he or she now has a huge following.)
  • “I am finished my book” (My daughter’s favourite, this one - and yes, that was a sentence fragment. I will accept the intransitive “I am finished”, although only when the thing that is finished is the “I”, not a book or some other object or process. I will accept the transitive “I have finished my book”. I will not accept “I am finished my book.” Sorry.
  • “How are you?” “Good!” (You mean as opposed to “Bad”? “Evil”? “Incompetent”? This one is well and truly entrenched in common usage now and, however much it chafes, I fear there is now no way back.)
  • “It sounds real good” (Nah, it sounds real bad. This is another example of confusing adjectives with adverbs. Surely there must be a way back from this one. You only have to substitute an alternative word like "incredible", instead of "real" to realize that there is a "-ly" missing.)
  • “The thing is, is I can’t change now” (I can’t believe anyone would ever write the double “is”, but it appears increasingly frequently in spoken language. I even heard it on the CBC the other day. I must admit, however, I had never noticed it until I read an article about its increasing use.)
  • “I could of won” (No-one would say “I of won” instead of “I have won”, so where does this come from?)
  • "I was like 'What do you, like, want?'" (Two different, equally repellent and equally incorrect uses of a word which I could happily see eradicated from the English language.)
  • "Take the alternate road" (You mean every other road? There is, or at least there used to be, a very clear and distinct difference between "alternate" and "alternative" which I would not have thought particularly hard to grasp. The "alternate" American usage, seems to be becoming standard now, though.)
  • "I will be with you momentarily" (Could you not spare me a little more time than that? As above, "momentarily" has a very definite meaning, and that is just not it.)
  • "I have many bugbears, i.e. bad grammar, bad spelling, sloppy language, etc" (i.e. stands for "id est" and e.g. stands for "exempli gratia" - does that make it a little clearer?)
  • "Save 50% off" (Offer me savings of 50%, or give me 50% off, but you don't need to do both!)
Americans (and possibly others) may argue that the language is evolving, and that I am just an old stick-in-the-mud. I would retort that, while I understand that languages evolve and change over time, I don't consider the institutionalization of errors to constitute evolution.
I don’t think I am being unduly finicky in complaining about these. This is not tricky stuff like “different to” and “different from” such as my old copy of Usage and Abusage agonizes over. It’s not nit-picking over the use of the possessive before a gerund, or the correct use of “whom”, or the perennial problem of “which” or “that”. I don’t even insist on not ending a sentence with a preposition.
But the examples above are just plain wrong and, if this is the way the English language is supposedly evolving, then I will fight it tooth and nail.

Linguists versus Logophiles

There was an interesting article in this weekend’s Globe and Mail about vocabulary and whether we, and our children, should still be aiming to expand it.
It seems that, among educators, there are two distinct schools of thought, so to speak: the linguists and the logophiles.
The linguists, who are apparently in the ascendancy, at least in North America, believe (very roughly) that kids should only learn words that will be useful in their day to day lives. There is no such thing as a standard vocabulary, they argue, and to enforce teaching of a standard vocabulary is ineffective, limiting and, in some way, undemocratic.
Logophiles, on the other hand, welcome the teaching of any and all words, the more the merrier. They argue that it expands the mind, allows for more precision and discourages laziness. And besides, language is a beautiful thing: why deliberately mar it?
I think my position is reasonably clear (or at least I hope so). I encourage linguistic excess. I luxuriate in a superfluity of verbosity. Hell, I BROWSE through Dictionary.com! Words are “nice”.
Which is not at all the same as using obscure words in a deliberate attempt to confuse or impress.
If vocabulary is not encouraged at school, how many potential Booker Prize winners would never be inspired to write their first short story? Isn’t it the same as not teaching people where Laos and Chad are because they will probably never need to go there? That they can colour a picture red, but not carmine, vermilion or burgundy?
Neither do I go along with those who blame email and the Internet for all our vocabulary ills (although I do blame spell-checkers for our deteriorating ability to spell, and for the Americanization of spelling). It is perfectly possible to send an email consisting of more than 4-letter words - this is a symptom, not a cause, and the result of laziness, not poor education.
A couple of quotes from the article express it more eloquently than I could:
"The more words you have, the more ideas you have."
"I don't think there is any goal in having a vocabulary, I think it is its
own reward."
"The alternative is that we use fewer and fewer of them, until the world is
small enough that one word alone will suffice: Duh."

Friday, June 08, 2007

My top 120 novels

Next in the series (after my top 140 films and my top 100 albums), this one had me scrambling.
How do you compare Tolstoy with Martin Amis? Or Roddy Doyle with Borges? Or books from 1790 with books from 1990? Or books I read last week with books I read 20 years ago, for that matter? Tricky.
I ended up restricting myself to one book per author (otherwise I would probably have included the whole oeuvre of Jane Austen, and most of those of Ian McEwan, Peter Carey, Salman Rushdie, etc, and the choices just narrowed down too much).
I have tried to include those books which have had most impact on me for a whole variety of reasons, whether they impressed me with their ideas or the quality of their writing, or whether they seemed to me ahead of their times, or just plain good fun. Some are "one-hit wonders"; some the culmination of a long career of excellent work.
I have tried not to include books just because they are critically acclaimed or "worthy" or because I feel I "should" have enjoyed them.
Anyway, for what it's worth, here they are (in chronological order):

Laurence Sterne - The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy (1767)
Choderlos de Laclos - Les Laisons Dangereuses (1781)
Jane Austen - Sense and Sensibility (1811)
Stendhal - Scarlet and Black (1830)
Nicolai Gogol - Dead Souls (1842)
Charlotte Bronte - Jane Eyre (1847)
Charles Dickens - Bleak House (1853)
Elizabeth Gaskell - North and South (1855)
Gustave Flaubert - Madame Bovary (1857)
Fyodor Dostoyevski - Crime and Punishment (1866)
George Eliot - Middlemarch (1872)
Leo Nicoleyavich Tolstoy - Anna Karenin (1876)
Thomas Hardy - Return of the Native (1878)
Henry James - Washington Square (1880)
Emile Zola - Germinal (1885)
HG Wells - The War of the Worlds (1898)
Joseph Conrad - Nostromo (1904)
EM Forster - Howard’s End (1910)
DH Lawrence - Sons and Lovers (1913)
James Joyce - Ulysses (1922)
Thomas Mann - The Magic Mountain (1924)
Franz Kafka - The Trial (1925)
Virginia Woolf - To the Lighthouse (1927)
Andre Gide - Fruits of the Earth (1927)
Jean Cocteau - Les Enfants Terribles (1929)
Ernest Hemingway - A Farewell to Arms (1929)
Mikhail Solokhov - And Quiet Flows the Don (1929)
William Faulkner - As I Lay Dying (1930)
Aldous Huxley - Brave New World (1932)
Andre Malraux - Man’s Estate (1933)
Graham Greene - The Power and the Glory (1938)
Jean-Paul Sartre - Nausea (1938)
John Steinbeck - The Grapes of Wrath (1939)
Arthur Koestler - Darkness at Noon (1940)
Hermann Hesse - The Glass Bead Game (1943)
Malcolm Lowry - Under the Volcano (1947)
Alan Paton - Cry the Beloved Country (1948)
George Orwell - Nineteen Eighty Four (1949)
Mervin Peake - Gormenghast (1950)
Ray Bradbury - Fahrenheit 451 (1950)
JD Salinger - The Catcher in the Rye (1951)
Isaac Asimov - Foundation (1951)
Samuel Beckett - The Unnamable (1952)
JRR Tolkein - Lord of the Rings (1954)
Vladimir Nabokov - Lolita (1955)
Albert Camus - The Fall (1956)
Gunter Grass - The Tin Drum (1959)
Jorge Luis Borges - Labyrinths (1960)
Anthony Burgess - A Clockwork Orange (1962)
Sylvia Plath - The Bell Jar (1963)
Saul Bellow - Herzog (1964)
Margaret Laurence - The Stone Angel (1964)
Frank Herbert - Dune (1965)
Angela Carter - The Magic Toyshop (1967)
Philip K Dick - Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968)
Arthur C Clarke - 2001 A Space Odyssey (1968)
Gabriel Garcia Marquez - One Hundred Years of Solitude (1970)
JG Ballard - Vermilion Sands (1971)
Thomas Pynchon - Gravity’s Rainbow (1973)
Heinrich Boll - The Lost Honour of Katherina Blum (1974)
Italo Calvino - If on a Winter Night a Traveller (1979)
Michel Tremblay - The Fat Woman Next Door Is Pregnant (1978)
Athol Fugard - Tsotsi (1979)
Umberto Eco - The Name of the Rose (1980)
Mordecai Richler - Joshua Then and Now (1980)
Robertson Davies - The Rebel Angels (1981)
JM Coetzee - The Life and Times of Michael K (1983)
Graham Swift - Waterland (1983)
Fay Weldon - The Life and Loves of She-Devil (1983)
Keri Hulme - The Bone People (1983)
Julian Barnes - Flaubert’s Parrot (1984)
Milan Kundera - The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984)
William Golding - The Spire (1984)
Doris Lessing - The Good Terrorist (1985)
Peter Carey - Illywhacker (1985)
Kazuo Ishiguru - An Artist of the Floating World (1986)
Bruce Chatwin - Songlines (1987)
Jeanette Winterson - The Passion (1987)
Michel Tournier - Gilles et Jeanne (1987)
Michael Ondaatje - In the Skin of a Lion (1987)
Toni Morrison - Beloved (1987)
Salman Rushdie - The Satanic Verses (1988)
William Gibson - Mona Lisa Overdrive (1988)
Martin Amis - London Fields (1989)
AS Byatt - Possession (1990)
Louis de Bernieres - The War of Don Emmanuel’s Nether Parts (1990)
Hanif Kureishi - The Buddha of Suburbia (1990)
Nino Ricci - Lives of the Saints (1990)
Roddy Doyle - The Snapper (1990)
Pat Barker - Regeneration (1991)
Rohinton Mistry - Such a Long Journey (1991)
Barry Unsworth - Sacred Hunger (1992)
Jim Crace - Arcadia (1992)
Peter Hoeg - Borderliners (1993)
David Malouf - Remembering Babylon (1993)
Annie Proulx - The Shipping News (1993)
Vikram Seth - A Suitable Boy (1993)
Kate Atkinson - Behind the Scenes at the Museum (1995)
Margaret Atwood - Alias Grace (1996)
Tim Binding - A Perfect Execution (1996)
Lawrence Norfolk - The Pope’s Rhinoceros (1996)
Mick Jackson - The Underground Man (1997)
Ian McEwan - Enduring Love (1997)
Andrew Miller - Ingenious Pain (1997)
Will Self - Great Apes (1997)
Murray Bail - Eucalyptus (1998)
Michael Cunningham - The Hours (1998)
Timothy Findlay - Pilgrim (1999)
Michèle Roberts - Fair Exchange (1999)
Mark Z Danielewski - House of Leaves (2000)
Helen Humphreys - Afterimage (2000)
Thomas Wharton - Salamander (2001)
Dennis Bock - The Ash Garden (2001)
Yann Martel - Life of Pi (2001)
Jamie O’Neill - At Swim Two Boys (2001)
William Trevor - The Story of Lucy Gault (2002)
Marc Estrin - Insect Dreams (2002)
Carol Shields - Unless (2002)
Mark Haddon - The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time (2003)
Khaled Hosseini - The Kite Runner (2003)
Lionel Shriver - We Need to Talk About Kevin (2003)
DBC Pierre - Vernon God Little (2003)
David Mitchell - Cloud Atlas (2004)

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Read: Who are you kidding, Canada?

Canada is embarrassing its citizens again on the international scene as Our Glorious Leader, Stephen Harper heads to the G8 meeting at Heiligendamm vowing to "mediate" between those countries committed to specific greenhouse gas reductions and the others (read: the ones who are doing most of the polluting).
His Environment Minister (read: fall guy), John Baird, is quoted as saying "We won't have an effective plan unless we get countries like the United States and like China on board." This makes the audacious (and unfounded) claim that the Canadian government is in fact "on board".
Now, assuming anyone takes Mr. Harper's offer seriously in the first place, he will presumably have to explain why Canada (along with the US) still has the highest per capita CO2 emissions among the major world players, and among the highest increases since the base year of 1990 (although not quite on a par with Brazil, China, Mexico and India).
That hardly puts him in a good mediating position, I wouldn't have thought (read: who are you kidding, Harper?)