Tag Archives: how come

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.