How come it can’t be used?

I’m reading a text on minimalist syntax right now, borrowed from the library. One of the previous readers has been of the self-appointed editor type – a sort of person generally looked on by real editors about the same as vigilantes are looked on by real law enforcement officers. For instance, everywhere the author has put combined together or merging together, this person has struck out the together with black pen. (Strictly speaking, things A and B could each be combined with other things and not together, although it’s true that combined when used of two things normally implied “together” unless stated otherwise.)

On page 65, there’s an extra bit of ink: the phrase how come it can’t be used to answer A’s question has had cross-outs, writing in and an arrow to change it to why can’t it be used to answer A’s question.

Sigh. Yes, the how come phrasing is more words. Yes, it’s less formal. But it’s not incorrect. And clearly the author wanted that less formal phrasing – more casual and also less pointed. Does it suit the tone of the book? Indeed it does, as it happens. Strange as it may seem to some, adding words can (depending on the words) have the effect of relaxing prose and making it more friendly.

But the vigilante seems to be someone who just has a couple of bees in his (or her) bonnet. Obviously he/she/it is not especially thoughtful or careful. After all, the next sentence gets by unaltered: The answer which we shall give to this question here is that… A person dedicated to concision could cross out most of that to make The answer is that… but that would be less precise even as it’s more concise. It could be The answer in this instance is that… but that would change the tone. Either would be consistent with the other changes the vigilante has made, but neither relates to a specific prescriptivist hobby-horse, so it gets a pass.

It may be that trimming the sentence would be an improvement. That’s a judgement call. But it’s not the sort of judgement evinced by our vigilante, who is simply making sporadic attacks of black ink to swat bees in the bonnet.

12 responses to “How come it can’t be used?

  1. ‘Minimalist syntax’ in the first sentence reminded me of a recently encountered meaning of ‘Maximalist’ ( Russian Terrorist). It kind of amused me. Why especially Russian terrorist has to be a ‘Maximalist’? Any ideas?

  2. As an aside: I hate the idea of jotting down and crossing in books which are not owned by me; but then, it’s just me 🙂

  3. I’m with Anand; the act of vandalizing a library book is far more egregious than any possible grammatical error in the book.

    (That said, I generally don’t consider pencilled marginalia to be vandalism. Crossing out words in black ink is just disgusting.)

  4. Wilson, thank you for the exception of penciling in the margin or in-between paragraphs. Some passages simply scream for someone, anyone to give an answer or make a comment. Sometimes I just can’t bite the pencil hard enough to keep it from jotting a thought or two. And I enjoy reading the comments of previous readers, someone else came this way and this is what they thought.

  5. “Amusingly, minimalism in syntax is actually the minimalist program… But somehow it’s not the opposite of the maximalist programme.”

    Indeed. Maximalist is someone adhering to this program. The interesting thing is-only Russian guy participating in such a program came to be known as Maximalist! 😀 I mean there might be groups in other countries as well, but they’re not Maximalists!

  6. You wrote, inter alia, “For instance, everywhere the author has put combined together or merging together, this person has struck out the together with black pen.” I wonder if you considered whether “this person” may have been British? One of the differences between BritEnglish and AmerEnglish is the fondness of the latter for inserting superfluous adverbs — “merging together” is just one of a number such as “Have you returned the books BACK to the library?”, “Time to continue ON”, “He withdrew OUT from the room” and so on, where un-Americanized Brits would never use the capitalized words. A British editor, therefore, would be more likely to excise the perissological adverbs. — The North American tendency to verbosity does not limit itself to the syntactic point that I have cited. Consider NFL and CFL commentators who refer to the spectacle they are describing as a “football game” (as if any of the audience might think it was a game of tiddlywinks): in the U.K. it would be referred to as a “game”. It extends also to the pronunciation of individual words: “laboratory” and “Birmingham” (and dozens more) have two main stresses in the USA, and just one main stress in Britain, where they thus take less time to say. — Canadians have traditionally tried to steer a middle course between the British Scylla and the American Charybdis, but when the choice is so often manichean, as in these examples, they cannot easily maintain a neutral bearing.

    • I’ve actually been wondering about the native dialect of the author. The author, as it happens, is Andrew Radford, a Cantabrigian who teaches at the University of Essex; the book’s prose style occasionally seems more British than North American to me, your observations notwithstanding. Whoever wielded the pen was most likely a student at Glendon College in Toronto, where I borrowed the book, and so is actually more likely Canadian.

      What we do know about the pen-wielder is that he/she/it is/was an asshole. And should that person ever harbour designs on becoming an editor, a focused reading and understanding of “Are you editor material?” is strongly indicated.

  7. Balasubramanian.G

    Some react so strongly that they express themselves correctly or wrongly on the para, pages. Sensible comments are welcome. But when sheer urge to scribble, the urge to make one’s having read the passage felt, he or she dampens the enthusiasm of the next reader. My request to those persons will be to do it on a Xerox copy or on a sheet of paper he or she had brought in with librarian’s permission. My fervent appeal will be “do not spoil the book as well as the mood the next reader”.That itself is a great contribution.

  8. Further to Anand’s first comment: I checked on the websites for Wikipedia in Russian and some Russian dictionaries. Here is a précis:

    (A) The Union of Social Revolutionary Maximalists was the most extreme wing of the Communist party in Russia. Founded in 1905-06, in its published programme, “Maximum”, it advocated the absolute, immediate and complete reorganization of society, and preferred violent acts as a means to this end. It quickly became a group which pursued violence for its own sake (i.e., a bunch of thugs) and was rejected by the other left-wing parties.

    Nowadays the terms “Maximalist” and “Maximalism” are applied to any person who, or group which, advocates extreme beliefs or measures, and/or sees the world in absolute black-and-white terms. It thus, I suppose, could be used for many of the religious and political beliefs current in most of the countries of the world today.

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