Saturday, May 03, 2008

Have red pen. Will travel. (part I)

Mxrk has encouraged me to be kind to Jeff Deck and his migrant mavens over at TEAL. I heard about these galloping grammarians a few weeks ago over at Grammar Grater.

But why does Mxrk accuse me of hating any kind of corrections?

Because it's not true. I believe mistakes should be corrected by the appropriate parties. I think what he's getting at is my typical response to careless peevology: those complaints about language that falsely describe language. I also jump on those statements about language that show an irrational fear of change. I like the challenge of the argument.

Deck and his red-pen roamers travel around the country looking for typos and grammatical mistakes on signs. They correct them when they can. If they've got the money and the time and they do it without an attitude...fine. I don't care.

So how good are they at their mission? Not too bad. But there are some slips.

The site includes a blog with pictures and a rundown of the typos they have found. One post reports a minor punctuation issue on a sign: a missing comma in the following sentence.

The Museum's first taxidermist, John James Audubon was hired in the winter of 1819 to do taxidermy, build collections, and create exhibits.

Our faithful servant put a comma after Audubon because he believes "John James Audubon" is the appositive. There is some ambiguity here and some commenters disagree with him. So do I.

What we have is a fronted appositive. Consider a similar structure in the following sentences.

- A skilled stuntman, Evel Knievel set several world records.

- A strict disciplinarian, my father never let me watch more than 4 hours of TV a day.

- A prolific writer, Fouqué gathered much of his material from Scandinavian sagas and myths. (online Brittanica -- subscription needed)

The indefinite article makes the intended structure especially clear in the second sentence where I'm certainly not using my father to specify a strict disciplinarian. The definite article on the sign makes the intention less clear. But if the name is the appositive we have a strange sentence explaining why the first taxidermist, any first taxidermist, was hired. If the sentence ended with the date the first taxidermist was hired then the name as appositive would make more sense.

One commenter even mentions what I believe is the best clue to the intended meaning. If the name is the appositive the simplified sentence would be The Museum's first taxidermist was hired to do taxidermy, build collections, and create exhibits which is grammatical but has an odd redundancy.

In a response to comments Mr Deck defends his reading saying Audubon may have been mentioned in the title, but this is his first mention in the text itself. Ergo the newspapery construction that they had originally did not work. So Deck is arguing that this structure can't occur on first mention. But he gives no reason why this should be so.

Because it isn't so.

It's fine as a first mention. It was good enough for the above Britannica entry on Fouqué right after a heading. And it's fine for the little bio of Patrik Ervell on this page that begins

- The son of Swedish parents, Patrik Ervell grew up in Northern California.

The only previous mention of Ervell? In the heading.

Deck then adds an 'and besides...' argument claiming that the full name would not likely be used as a subject because since such a structure only works when the name has already been mentioned only the first or last name would be used. This simply isn't true.

Even when an individual has been mentioned the full name might be used:
The son of Guianan parents, René Maran was born in Martinique fifty three years ago [1887-1960]. (here)

A gifted musician, Bill Evans studied classical music prior to his lifelong commitment to jazz in the late 1940s. (pdf here)

The eldest of fourteen children, Léon-Pamphile Lemay was born 5 January 1837 at Lotbinière, Quebec... (here)

The full name can be mentioned any time a writer wants to stress it. Sometimes a little known middle name is used for the effect of biographical detail. But whatever the reason for the use -- Deck's argument falls over.


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