Saturday, January 5, 2013

Ouch! I fall off my hobbyhorse

President Obama addressing the Business Roundtable on 5 Dec 2012
Speaking to business leaders last month about the need to avoid the fiscal cliff, Barack Obama reportedly said “Nobody wants to get this done more than me" [9]. If commentators are to be believed he’ll have to make the same speech again in February. But let’s not talk politics, let’s talk linguistics. His speech earnt him a wagged finger from ABC News Political Director Amy Walter, who tweeted a grammar correction. The President ought to have said more than I, not more than me, she claimed. Amy Walter was wrong however. Her tweet exposed her own ignorance, not his, and gives me the chance to ride my hobbyhorse.

I rode it with gusto a couple of years ago. This error of I instead of me is too prevalent of late, and should be curbed. Here’s a dreadful example I came across the other day.  “All debts are cleared between you and I”. Any half decent writer of English knows this should read “All debts are cleared between you and me”. Between, and all other prepositions, take the accusative case: and that’s me not I.

Or so I thought. But hey what's this? It turns out that All debts are cleared between you and I occurs in The Merchant of Venice. It's prose, so probably reflects everyday speech, but Shakespeare clearly regarded it as perfectly respectable. If you’ve a mind to, you can to check the context. [1] 

References for all numbered quotes will open in a separate window.

And Shakespeare can't be wrong. Therefore I must be. Humpty Dumpty has had a great fall; I'm unseated from my hobbyhorse. Happily I have others.

By the way Shakespeare wasn’t consistent; in Hamlet we get betwixt you and me [2]. But what's important here is that to Shakespeare both were okay. And what's more, I overlooked this in the King James Bible: My father is greater than I in John’s Gospel [3].

I suppose I should gloss my statement that Shakespeare can't be wrong. He can be antiquated, yes. But that’s not the case here. When he writes prose, it rarely is.

My language gurus: Shakespeare 1564–1616, Jane Austen  1775–1817, Charlotte Brontë 1816–1855, and Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage (2nd ed 1965). 
Jane Austen agrees with me on “than I”, and so does Fowler.
A bit of history

There's a term in linguistics called the "recency illusion" *, when you wrongly suppose a usage to be new which is in fact old. That’s the very trap I've fallen into. Until this week I imagined than I & between you and I to be a 20th century development.

But look at this evidence that pedants like me have been condemning between you and I for at least 250 years: The satirist Archibald Campbell was taken to task for using this expression in 1767. In his defence, he confessed between you and I to be ungrammatical, but asserted it “is yet almost universally used in familiar conversation” [4]. As it is still.  I have examples of dialogue from Dickens and Trollope [7]
and Casablanca [8] amongst others.

Moving on to the 19th century, several language authorities warned against between you and I, and some of these blamed a campaign against it's me. (I have this information, as well as the next quote, from Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage 1994, p 181.)

This point was taken up in the 20th century, by the literary critic Jacques Barzun, who had this to say about between you and I: “This blunder has been the result of a well-meant but foolish conspiracy to root out the use of it's me. The wrongheaded war against that quite idiomatic, informal locution created a bugbear in the minds of the ignorant and timid, which drives them to saying I whenever they have a chance. The upshot is the illiterate between you and I “.

The technical term for avoiding one grammatical trap only to fall into another is hypercorrection. Until a couple of days ago that’s just how I saw the matter.

What do the gurus say?

What of Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë?  Jane Austen frowns upon than I. Her refined characters say than me [5]. So she and I are on the same side. But Charlotte Brontë isn't. In Jane Eyre, she uses than me once, but than I frequently [6].

So to my other guru, the mighty Fowler.  In his Dictionary of Modern English Usage H W Fowler calls between you and I a solecism. Can’t get much worse than that. But I have to sorrowfully jettison him, because he's wrong in three ways. Whilst he acknowledges that between you and I has a distinguished ancestry, he doesn't think that counts for anything; he's overlooked Charlotte Brontë; and he doesn't take into account (perhaps he didn't know) that he's waging a campaign that’s been pursued for 250 years without success. Sometimes you just have to say: okay you win.

So what now?

I'll continue to use between you and me, and than me. Moreover I suspect it's true that hypercorrection is one reason (but only one reason) that Amy Walter of ABC News and so many others favour I over me.

But still and all, I can't go against Shakespeare, the King James Bible, Charlotte Brontë, and 450 years (at least) of spoken English. So from now on I'll reluctantly keep my views to myself. Fowler’s condemnation is too severe. Maybe we should go along with Merriam-Webster’s conclusion: “you are probably safe is retaining between you and I in your casual speech, if it exists there naturally, and you would be true to life in placing it in the mouths of fictional characters. But you had better avoid it in essays and other works of a discursive nature. It seems to have no place in modern edited prose.”


By the way the infer/imply howler has some parallels with this me/I question. Might have something to say about that sometime. Don't groan.

* Coined by Arnold M. Zwicky, an American professor of linguistics

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

2013 – an inauspicious date

Only once in a hundred years does such a date occur, so all the more reason to wish all my readers a happy new year.

And time for a few hastily compiled notes on the unluckiness of 13.

This belief seems to be widespread in Europe. How much further afield, I'm not sure. I've seen it said that in the Persian culture, 13 is also considered an unlucky number. On the 13th day of the Persian new year (Norouz), people consider staying at home unlucky, and go outside for a picnic in order to ward off the bad luck, apparently. 

To pin down the actual reasons for the belief would be a hopeless quest, but I'll mention those that cropped up most frequently on a quick web trawl.

The Last Supper, Leonardo da Vinci, c. 1496
The most popular origin for European fear of the number 13 is the New Testament story of the Last Supper.  In Mark 14: 17-21 we get:

"And it was in the evening that he came with the twelve. As they were at the table eating, Jesus said 'Truly, I say to you, one of you will betray me, one who is eating with me.' They began to be sorrowful, and to say to him one after another 'Is it I?' He said to them, "It is one of the twelve, one who is dipping in the same dish with me. For the Son of man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that man by whom the Son of man is betrayed! It would have been better for that man if he had not been born.' "

The story carries the inference that one in the group of 13 is doomed. Amongst those who paid attention to this is Franklin Roosevelt who is said to have refused to have a meal with 13 people at the table – also to refuse to travel on a 13th.  The Norwegian playwright Ibsen depicts tragic consequences following a dinner with 13 guests. I think this is in his play The Wild Duck.

Whilst my bones tell me the Last Supper is the right explanation, folklorists appear reluctant to pronounce on this; and we should note that in the Greek world 13 was unlucky even earlier.

Other suggestions I've found from a web search are
•    A Norse myth about the unpleasant god Loki. This is another story on the theme of 13 at dinner. 12 gods were at dinner in Valhalla when Loki intruded uninvited, to make a total of 13. Loki tricked Hoder, the blind god of darkness into shooting Balder with a mistletoe tipped arrow. Balder died and his death plunged the Earth into darkness. The whole of Earth, both gods and humans, went into mourning.  I haven't been able to establish whether this is a genuine Norse myth or an invented one, tailored to the interests of people concerned with the number 13.  I hope to check this soon.
•    13 is unlucky because it follows 12, which in the ancient world was considered to be a lucky number associated with completion and perfection, due perhaps to having so many factors – 2,3,4 and 6. Evidence for 12 being considered a perfect number includes: 12 months in a year, 12 hours in half a day, 12 signs of the zodiac, 12 labours of Hercules, 12 tribes of Israel, and 12 apostles of Jesus. (I've also seen 12 gods of Olympus on this list, but I'm not convinced about that one.)
•    The 13th letter of the Hebrew alphabet, M, was unlucky to the ancient Hebrews due to being the first letter in the word "mavet," meaning death.  This one sounds thin and contrived to me, moreover it doesn't hang together with celebrating bar mitzvah at age 13. But I haven't had time to check it, so who knows.

The "baker's dozen" may have originated as a way for bakers to avoid being blamed for shorting their customers.
Image: Wikipedia
The baker’s dozen deserves a digression. Not that it's unlucky, far from it, you get 13 loaves when you’ve only paid for 12. It's widely believed that this phrase originated from the practice of medieval English bakers giving an extra loaf when selling a dozen in order to avoid being penalized for selling short weight. This attractive story actually appears to be substantially true. The Phrase Finder website carries a useful discussion fleshing out this derivation.

Unlucky Fridays

DePaul University library in Chicago has a webpage commenting that whatever the reasons, it is clear that 13 shows up time and time again in history as a focus for fear and uncertainty.  One of the first texts to reflect this view is Work and Days written in 700 BCE. The Greek poet Hesiod mentions the 13th of the month as an unlucky day for sewing seeds. 

Negativity towards Fridays should be mentioned. The same webpage traces this as far back as the 16th century in western literature, citing the terms "friday-faced" and "friday-look," meaning a sad or solemn demeanour. These surfaced as early as the late 1500’s.  In 1592, Greene wrote, "The Foxe made a Fridayface, counterfeiting sorrow."  The expression was used again in 1681 by Robertson who wrote, "What makes you look so sad, and moodily? with such a Friday face."  Early in the next century Rowley spoke of a "plague of Friday mornings".

Numerous websites cite the line "and on a Friday fell all this misfortune” in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. But these people haven’t actually read the tale, they are just copying each other, as this line doesn't in fact refer to the unluckiness of Fridays as such - see I seek unlucky Fridays in Chaucer and find none.

Why there's a negative association with Friday is subject to speculation.  And I've seen it stated that the special unluckiness of Friday 13th didn't arise before the 19th century.

To the Greeks, Tuesday is the unlucky day, associated with the fall of Constantinople. Twice. The city fell to the Fourth Crusade on Tuesday, April 13, 1204, and finally to the Ottomans on Tuesday, May 29, 1453.

Note: The Ides of March in the Roman calendar, notorious since 44 BC as the date of the assassination of Julius Caesar, was the 15th not the 13th.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

I read Ozymandias

        Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelley, 1818

       I met a traveller from an antique land
       Who said: "Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
       Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
       Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
       And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
       Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
       Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
       The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
       And on the pedestal these words appear:
       ' My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
       Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair! '
       Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
       Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
       The lone and level sands stretch far away".

Recorded with my new microphone. Thanks Alb!

The ultimate Romantic poem.  For the Romantics the wilderness symbolised spiritual freedom whilst ancient ruins declared the triumph of time and nature over human tyranny.

Shelley’s inspiration was the news of the excavation of a colossal head of Rameses II, for whom Ozymandias is an alternative name. This head would later be shipped to the British Museum, but Shelley never saw it. The ancient Egyptian king reigned 1279-1212 BC.

There are three characters: the traveller who gives the eyewitness account of the ruined sculpture - a kind of Ancient Mariner, though one gifted with brevity; Ozymandias; and the sculptor, whose work outlives the pharaoh. Russian poets, Carol Rumens tells us in a Guardian blog, used to have a saying that the poet outlives the tsar.

Shelley took "Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!" and the name Ozymandias from a well-known ancient Greek source, Diodorus Siculus. This information comes from John Rodenbeck “Travelers from an antique land: Shelley's inspiration for Ozymandias."

The poem’s haphazard rhyme scheme tends to conceal the fact it's a sonnet. Once you recognise it as one however, it's finality is even more final.