The Deipnosophist

Where the science of investing becomes an art of living

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Location: Summerlin, Nevada, United States

A private investor for 20+ years, I manage private portfolios and write about investing. You can read my market musings on three different sites: 1) The Deipnosophist, dedicated to teaching the market's processes and mechanics; 2) Investment Poetry, a subscription site dedicated to real time investment recommendations; and 3) Seeking Alpha, a combination of the other two sites with a mix of reprints from this site and all-original content. See you here, there, or the other site!

18 May 2008

Grammar, syntax, referent pronouns -- Oh my!

Okay, this post has nothing to do with investing and the markets. But another interest of mine is language, especially English.

Yes, English, because, unlike most languages, English is a mongrel language, cobbled together (some linguists would say, bastardized) from many other languages and because those other languages' rules apply only intermittently to English. Which all helps to make English arguably the most difficult language of all to learn; certainly as a second language.

You see, when something, say a language or even, I daresay, investing (hah, I squeezed in that topic after all!) follows rules on a scattered basis, the person who attempts to learn English, investing, or whatever, is left high and dry; blowing in the breeze. Seeking a constant in the rules to help learn the topic, he or she soon realizes the sole absolute is the perceiver. Hmm, no wonder I enjoy English and investing as much as I do; they go hand in hand!

Also no wonder, then, that I love articles such as the one immediately below. More comments from me, after the article...

Back To The Other Deadly Science
by James J. Kilpatrick
Some months ago The New York Times expressed an unusually astute editorial opinion. Said the Times: "Nobody wants some sicko drilling a peephole in their locker room."

In their locker room?

Four months later, the Times was relieved by a report discounting the threat of nuclear weapons in Iran. Even so, "The new report is not an argument for anyone to let down their guard when it comes to Iran's nuclear ambitions." Let down their guard?

Yes, we're back today to that other dismal science, i.e., grammar. The question nags at every serious writer. How do we handle referent pronouns? The clumsy things won't behave. They won't go away. They flop around in our prose like wet dogs on a kitchen floor.

Last month the acting head of the Federal Aviation Administration made a reassuring statement: "We will take action against anybody who violates their obligation ..." In Time magazine, a writer discussed the Barbary States, "where everyone is making their own deals." In The Seattle Times, an education reporter spoke of a decision-making process that isn't complete "until everybody has said their piece."

This past September I heard from David Short, a retired teacher who formerly taught English at the ninth-grade level. He is of the old school: "I always taught my students that in antecedal constructions, the 'one's' and 'body's' were always singular, e.g., 'Everybody left HIS jacket on the bus.'" He asks, "Was I right?"

On this recurring question, the Times' stylebook is unequivocal: It lines up the usual suspects -- anybody, anyone, everybody, everyone, no one and someone -- and decrees: "Each of these pronouns is singular and requires 'he' or 'she' (never 'they') on further reference. Thus, 'Has anybody lost HIS ticket?'"

In its sometimes disappointing way, The Associated Press Stylebook ducks the issue. So, too, with the eminent Henry Fowler in his Modern English Usage. Fowler's inheritor, R.W. Burchfield, gently waffles. He says the indefinite pronouns "are now frequently, though somewhat controversially, followed by such plural pronouns as 'they' or 'their.'" Burchfield goes on to say: "Popular usage and historical precedent favor the use of a plural pronoun in such contexts, but many writers prefer to use 'he' or 'he or she.'"

What about it? I would love to hear from editors, authors, speechwriters and serious readers (God bless you!) and will report your consensus.

We turn now to another teeth-grinder, i.e., the abuse of "like." Horrid Examples, please.

From historian Richard Rubin, writing in The New York Times magazine: "Even as the American small town continues what often seems like an irresistible decline, some in northwest North Dakota are mounting ..."

From a Times editorial commenting on a huge Pepsi sign to be built in the Meadowlands. The company said no sign so vast has been seen before. Said the Times: "That seems like a safe bet."

What is the rule on "seems like"? Isn't a simple "seems" enough? My thought is to reserve "like" for honest similes: My love is like a red, red rose. A fighter airplane flies like a homesick angel. To the complacent Polonius, a cloud was like a camel, like a weasel, and very like a whale. When we're just "seeming" and not comparing, let us shun the encumbering word. Down with LIKE! In these constructions, truly less is more.
Referent pronouns, huh? This topic gives rise to a bugaboo of mine; one I refer to generically (and colloquially) as an over-reliance on pronouns in manners of speech and writing. A pronoun, almost always, refers back to the last named noun (person, place, or thing); whereas the referenced noun might be clear to the speaker or writer, such is not necessarily true to the listener or reader. Rather than allow too-frequent reliance on 'pronouns' to stand in for your nouns, spell them out instead, and as often as necessary. This 'rule' applies generally to the words, "this" and "that", which typically modify a noun. So name them all. ("Aha! All what?" you ask. See, even I commit this faux pas!)

Obeying rules of grammar and syntax when speaking (ooh, boy, that error is a whopper!) is difficult enough, although we all could and should make the attempt. But when writing...? C'mon. Communicating clearly is more than some egghead making pronouncements; I can name wars that began due to a misunderstanding; a misunderstanding that clearer communication perhaps could have avoided.

btw, for fun, the red lettering throughout my comments refers to the rules both Kilpatrick and I limn above. I did not indicate them all. Perhaps you could point to more examples, perhaps even other usage rules...? Which brings up another bugaboo, or two; the incorrect usage of "maybe" when "perhaps" would be the correct word. And, for that matter, the difference between "may" and "might"...

But, okay, I will step off my soap box, and now stand ready for your replies and comments.
-- David M Gordon / The Deipnosophist

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