True Detective Season 3: Strunk and White

Police tape marks the scene. Red and blue lights flash. A young, nervous-looking BEAT COP sees STRUNK and WHITE approaching.
It’s over here, detectives. The body was found about an hour ago.
Use the active voice, rookie.
Oh god, it’s horrible. I feel nauseous.
Unless you mean you’re sickening to contemplate, you mean “nauseated.” Now get out of  my crime scene before you puke all over it.
WHITE (inspecting the body)
It’s definitely our guy, Strunk.
The Crossword Killer?
Yeah. And look, he’s getting more confident. This time, he used a pen.

True Detective needs a reboot anyway.

That moment when we played with syntax

In That Way We're All Writing Now, Clive Thompson investigates the rise of a form of writing I'll refer to as the stand alone subordinate clause, often accompanied by an image, a sequential grid of images, an animated GIF, or a Vine.

One of the most popular forms is the “when you” subordinate clause:

Popular sub genres include “when your” and “when your ex,” but let your imagination roam and you will find yourself deep down many a rabbit hole.

Another popular form is “that moment when.” Here's one that functions also as a humblebrag, a more sophisticated instance of the form.

Searching Twitter for “that awkward moment when” is the new, low-fi form of America's Funniest Home Videos, which is ironic since the form defies any highbrow incarnations.

Thompson offers a couple explanations for the rise of this type of expression online.

1) It creates a little puzzle.
Grammatically speaking, what’s going on here is the rise of the “subordinate clause.” A subordinate clause isn’t a sentence on its own. As the name implies, it requires another sentence fragment to complete it, as with this example that McCulloch and I looked at on Yik Yak:
Usually you can quickly deduce what the missing part would be. Maybe it’s something like You, sadly, always know what to do when she’s holding a dog on her Tinder and you’re like, “cute dog.” Or maybe the full sentence that emerges in your head is more convoluted, like Nothing is more bittersweet than reflecting on the challenges of dating someone who is superficially attractive but owns a pomeranian and thus, you worry, has all sorts of dog/partner priority issues, which you can instantly intuit when you’re using a dating app and see someone when she’s holding a dog on her Tinder and you’re like, “cute dog.”
The point is, it’s up to you imagine the rest of the utterance. It’s like the author is handing you a little puzzle. Subordinate-clause tweets and Yik-Yak postings seduce us into filling out that missing info, McCulloch says. “Our brain has to work a little bit harder to figure out what it’s referring to, and so making that connection is very satisfying. It’s like getting a joke. You have to draw that connection for yourself a little bit — but because you can do it, it works really well.”
A historic parallel? The crazy, long chapter headings in 19th-century novels, which often were also dependent clauses, inviting the reader to imagine the rest of the baroque narrative. “In Which Our Protagonist Meets A Dashing Stranger,” McCulloch jokes. “The ‘in which’ is doing a very similar thing.”

The ordering of the best of these subordinate clauses is critical; the punch line needs to come at the end. Like a joke, the setup comes in the first part of the clause so the closing can knock the pins down with maximum effect.

I'm more partial to Thompson's final explanation, which isn't a reason as much as it is an observation of how much we tinker with syntax online.

What’s happening now is different. Now we’re messing around with syntax — the structure of sentences, the order in which the various parts go and how they relate to one another. This stuff people are doing with the subordinate clause, it’s pretty sophisticated, and oddly deep. We’re not just inventing catchy new words. We’re mucking around with what makes a sentence a sentence.
“Playing with syntax seems to be the broad meta trend behind a whole bunch of stuff that’s going on these days,” McCulloch tells me. And it goes beyond this subordinate-clause trend. Many of the biggest recent language memes were about syntax experimentation, such as the “i’ve lost the ability to can” gambit (which I wrote about a few months ago), or the gnarly elocution of doge, or the “because” meme. (Indeed, Zimmer points out, the American Dialect Society proclaimed “Because” the Word of the Year for 2013, largely because it had been revitalized by this syntax play.)
Why would we be suddenly messing around with syntax? It’s not clear. McCulloch thinks it may be related to a larger trend she’s identified, which she calls “stylized verbal incoherence mirroring emotional incoherence”. Most of these syntax-morphing memes consist of us trying to find clever new ways to express our feelings.

I consider these to be a formal type of internet expression just as haikus and sonnets are forms of poems. Just as genres of movies are constraints within which artists can focus their creativity, this form of social network post has its own formal conventions within which everyone can exercise their wit. As soon as the reader's eye spots the opening “that awkward moment” or sees a grid of images with giant text overlaid, their mind is primed for the punch line.

The science behind good writing

This hunger for coherence has important implications. As Pinker shows, the letter sequence M-D-P-H-D-R-S-V-P-C-E-O-I-H-O-P is difficult to remember, though not when chunked as MD-PHD-RSVP-CEO-IHOP. Each chunk contains subsets of meaning; if these unfold coherently, the reader makes sense of them; complexity is rendered into manageable bits. That helps explain how a memory expert dazzles 100 audience members by recalling their names, and it’s what makes even a detailed text with a clear hierarchical structure easy for the reader to assimilate: “At any level of granularity, from clauses to chapters, the passage can be represented in the reader’s mind as a single chunk, and the reader never has to juggle more than a few chunks at a time as he figures out how they are related.”

It’s fascinating to learn the science that underlies the stylistic techniques good writers seem to intuit—for example, a list is most easily grasped if the bulkiest item comes at the end (life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness ; or The Wild, The Innocent, and The E Street Shuffle; or Faster than a speeding bullet! More powerful than a locomotive! Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound!). “Light-before-heavy is one of the oldest principles in linguistics,” Pinker writes, “having been discovered in the fourth century BCE by the Sanskrit grammarian Pānini.” Why? Because the mind must hold the early items in suspension before incorporating the final one, and it’s easier to retain simple things than more complex elements.

From a review of Steven Pinker's upcoming book The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person'’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century.  I have a vast collection of usage books, and I pre-ordered this to add to my collection, to sit alongside favorites like Strunk and White's The Elements of Style (of course) and one of my favorite books of all time, Garner's Modern American Usage.

“Many experiments have shown that readers understand and remember material far better when it is expressed in concrete language that allows them to form visual images,” Pinker tells us. (This explains why white Econoline van is preferable to getaway car; and a mound of flowers, balloons, and teddy bears is more effective than impromptu roadside memorial.) Or this: “It’s good for a writer to work with the ongoing newsreel in readers’ minds and describe events in chronological order.”He showered and put on his new suit before he went to dinner is easier to understand than He went to dinner after he showered and put on his new suit. Similarly, positive statements are more readily grasped than negative ones, and so negation should not be used for no good reason. (That’s a joke.) And my favourite Pinkerism of all, the undisputed first rule of worthwhile prose: “a writer has to have both something to talk about (a topic) and something to say (the point).” Are you listening, bloggers of the world?

The zeitgeist in verbal tics

Blame the English major in me, but at any given time some spoken or written tic causes me to cringe. For a while, it was really common for me to hear people say "I'm wanting to" instead of "I want to." To my relief, that seems to have faded.

The two phrases that I hear so often now, perhaps because they're so common in business settings, are “at the end of the day” and “the reality is.” I'll be in a meeting and hear both phrases used multiple times, everyone one-upping each other with each successive "at the end of the day" or "the reality is," each successive occurrence marching us closer to the true end of the day and some greater version of reality.

When someone drops an "at the end of the day" on you, the presumption, whether explicit or not, is that whatever you've said is not bottom line enough. You haven't been seeing the big picture, you've been in the weeds.

Something similar occurs when someone hurls "the reality is" at you, but it feels worse, doesn't it? What have you been doing, dealing in unreality?

At the end of the day it doesn't matter. But the reality is it does matter. At the end of the day. Not before then. At lunch, just after dinner, but before the day has ended, it doesn't matter. But later, closer to 10pm in your time zone, maybe after you've brushed your teeth and you're about to end your day, then, and just then, it matters a lot.

One of my longstanding usage questions answered

I've been puzzled over the last ten years or so by the rise of the phrase "I am wanting to" in spoken English.

Maybe I just wasn't listening closely when in the 80's and 90's, but I don't recall people saying that. For example, "I am wanting to go to the Bears game."

I try to adhere to proper usage when possible (as I recall from one episode of 30 Rock, Liz asks Jack why he's wearing a tuxedo, and Jack replies, "It's after six, what am I, a farmer?"). But I no longer correct people when they misspeak. For example, if they say "literally" but they don't mean it, or if they say "I could care less" when it's clear that they couldn't. No one likes a usage scold, and where do you draw the line? Should I be berating guys in the men's room who don't wash their hands, or counseling people not to smoke for health reasons? At some point, I trust adults to know better.

But hearing people say "I am wanting to" hits my brain with visceral discordance. It sounds so odd, even grotesque. How did it come into being? Was it once acceptable usage, back from banishment? Language has evolved quite a bit if you look at broad time periods, and so usage we once found perfectly normal, like the passival tense, now sounds like the type of error made by someone for whom English is a second or third language.

Perhaps it was just a way of softening the expression. Sometimes you want something, other times you want it, but to a lesser degree, so you're wanting it. Still sounds wrong, but perhaps that's how it arose.

I tried finding a definitive answer to the question online but couldn't, so I decided to send a tweet to my usage idol, Bryan Garner, author of my usage Bible, Garner's Modern American Usage. I revere this book so much I own three editions of it, and going to grab the link just now I realized there's now a Kindle edition, so I will probably own that version also by the time I've finished writing this post.

I asked Garner:

Can you comment on the usage of the awkward sounding phrase "I am wanting to"? When, if ever, is it preferable to "I want to"?

Garner responded:


So there you have it.

I'm still curious to hear the story of the rise of this phrase in spoken English (a quick peek at Google n-gram viewer indicates low usage in books over the years). Perhaps someone will do that sleuthing someday.

Regardless, from now on, if you say to me, "Literally, I want to eat a person, I could care less what everyone thinks." I will cringe, but I'll bite my tongue.

But if you say, "Literally, I am wanting to eat a person, I could care less what everyone thinks." We'll have words. If you want to eat a person, stand behind that feeling, don't soften it with such a feeble construction.

Pronoun usage: a psychological tell

Psychologies James Pennebaker has unearthed a hidden code in the way we use pronouns, and he shares some of the more intriguing findings in this interview

Basically, we discovered that in any interaction, the person with the higher status uses I-words less (yes, less) than people who are low in status. The effects were quite robust and, naturally, I wanted to test this on myself. I always assumed that I was a warm, egalitarian kind of guy who treated people pretty much the same.

I was the same as everyone else. When undergraduates wrote me, their emails were littered with I, me, and my. My response, although quite friendly, was remarkably detached -- hardly an I-word graced the page. And then I analyzed my emails to the dean of my college. My emails looked like an I-word salad; his emails back to me were practically I-word free.

One of the most fascinating effects I’ve seen in quite awhile is that we can predict people’s college performance reasonably well by simply analyzing their college admissions essays. Across four years, we analyzed the admissions essays of 25,000 students and then tracked their grade point averages (GPAs). Higher GPAs were associated with admission essays that used high rates of nouns and low rates of verbs and pronouns. The effects were surprisingly strong and lasted across all years of college, no matter what the students’ major.

To me, the use of nouns -- especially concrete nouns -- reflects people’s attempts to categorize and name objects, events, and ideas in their worlds. The use of verbs and pronouns typically occur when people tell stories. Universities clearly reward categorizers rather than story tellers. If true, can we train young students to categorize more? Alternatively, are we relying too much on categorization strategies in American education?
Ben Zimmer reviews Pennebaker's book, The Secret Life of Pronouns, and offers one cautionary tale of note. Many political pundits excoriate Obama for using I/me/my too often in his speeches, but using statistical analysis, Pennebaker determines that Obama uses those words less frequently than any modern U.S. President (post Truman).

But Pennebaker warns that this doesn't mean Obama is less confident than past Presidents. In fact, it's a sign of his self-confidence that he uses first-person pronouns with such low frequency.