08 June 2008

Irony Of The Day

From a description of how David Sedaris works to make his prose lean and elegant:
For Sedaris that process involves at least seven drafts and a great deal of reading aloud new pieces while on tour, listening to the cadences of the sentences and noting how the audience responds: when people laugh, when they lose interest. "You realize you're repeating yourself or being lazy," he said.
This is the kind of English up with which I will not put.


joe shropshire said...

We're mostly American, irony just goes in our one ear and out our other. Unless it's jihad against the humble colon: trailed by subordinate clauses lounging on the stoop. Please to explain.

David said...

In order to avoid splitting an infinitive, the author uses the awkward construction "reading aloud new pieces" instead of the cleaner "reading new pieces aloud." I don't think that the rule about not splitting infinitives actually is English grammar anyway, but using an awkward construction while writing about lean and elegant prose is ironic.

My comment at the end of the post was used by Churchill in an analogous situation to vividly point out how silly the rule against ending a sentence with a preposition is.

Harry Eagar said...

My rule as a professional writer is, don't experiment on the reader. Finish your work before you publish.


(But maybe I'm just peevish because I detest Sedaris's writing -- or, strictly speaking, speaking.)

Hey Skipper said...

... to vividly point out how silly the rule against ending a sentence with a preposition is.

It is mostly not silly, but the grammarians never mention why, in general, the rule makes sense.

In most cases, when people end a sentence with a preposition, it amounts to a meaningless redundancy.


"Where are you going to?"

is really

"Where are you going?

Listen up, and I think you will find most cases of prepositions at the end of a sentence fall in that category.

However, oddly, it doesn't always work the other way around.

"Where are you coming from?"

should be redundant in the same way as the above example. But if you said

"Where are you coming?"

you would be met with blank stares.

And, finally, I can think of no way to say

"I have been shot at!"

without putting the preposition at the end, absent grotesque linguistic contortions.

Anonymous said...

"What are you looking for?"

"What are you up to?"

David said...

Someone shot at me?

joe shropshire said...


Hey Skipper said...


"Where is it (at)?"

It is odd that with identical sentence constructions, some require a preposition -- the best place being at the end -- and for others the preposition is purely redundant.


Someone shot at me

Somewhat infelicitous, but proves me wrong: no grotesque linguistic distortions are required to avoid putting the preposition at the end.

joe shropshire said...

'I've been shot at' is still much better. If you've got something to say in English, especially something like 'I've been shot at', then say it with as much force as you can gather. That's what English is made for.

David said...

My only real issue with "I've been shot at" is that it is passive. How big an issue that is depends upon the circumstances, but I would think in most circumstances "I" would want to communicate, fast and hard, who did the shooting.

joe shropshire said...

Nope. 'I' would want to communicate, fast and hard, that I just got shot at. 'Someone shot at me' puts the empahsis on someone, which is right where it doesn't belong.

Anonymous said...

Skipper was right, but now he's wrong — I agree with Mr. Shropshire that "I have been shot at" and "Someone shot at me" are sufficiently different in connotation and emphasis that one is not a substitute for the other.


I thought it might be ambiguity resolution. E.g., "What are you looking for" can have other prepositions in the terminal position ("What are you looking at?").


Consider "where is it at?" vs. "where is it from?". Frequency of use? The latter of these two is a legal but odd / unusual formulation (e.g., "where did it come from" seems more natural).

joe shropshire said...

You may remember Hurricane Hugo, which tore up the Carolinas back in '89. There was this TV interview with a good old boy, and he's standing there in his John Deere hat looking around at the aftermath of his trailer, and he turns to the camera and says: 'What I want to know is, now whar, does a three hundred pound refrigerator go to? I mean, whar, is it at?' I don't think Ted Sorensen could have phrased it any better.

Hey Skipper said...

I thought it might be ambiguity resolution.

I hadn't thought of that, and concluded you were on to something.

Until Joe's example.

Taken in isolation, your examples require the preposition to eliminate ambiguity.

However, such utterances are almost never context free.

It is hard (for me) to imagine any context sufficiently ambiguous so as to cause "what are you looking for" to be confused with "what are you looking at".

So, I remain perplexed.

Harry Eagar said...

Hmmm. Re-reading a story I wrote yesterday, I find this:

'The wedding planners were alarmed by the prospect of getting — or possibly not getting — rights of entry for weddings they already have booked and received payment for.'

I don't think I could rewrite that, not end in 'for' and make it better.

Anonymous said...

"received payment for" ⇒ "been paid"?

Harry Eagar said...

That sentence would still have to end . . . been paid for.

I could recast it entirely, of course, but I thought it was grammatical the way I wrote it.

Not only grammatical, but readable.

Anonymous said...

First of all, it's nice to find David, AOG, Harry and other Judd refugees here. I've just started to look at the posts, but am happy to see no references to Julia and Eric Roberts so far.

Re the Sedaris post: This is probably apochyphal...but I choose to believe it. When he was managing the Yankees, Lou Piniella ran from the dugout to protest and umpire's call. "Where was that pitch at?," he demanded. "What did you say?," asked the ump.

"Where was that pitch at?," screamed Lou.

"Why Lou," replied the ump, his voice taking on the tone of a lecturing school marm. "You're the manager of the New York Yankees, the most famous team in the world. You must know better than to end a sentence with a preposition."

Momentarily taken aback, Lou gathered himself, smiled sweetly at the ump and hissed, "Where was that pitch at, a**hole?"