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Grammar challenge

Misfiring snoot, redux

Language Log links to a bizarre “grammar” quiz ((I think it was dubbed a Grammar Challenge! by the former student rather than by DFW himself, which is just as well, since, by my count, a maximum of four out of the 10 questions relate to grammar?)) that David Foster Wallace set his students. ((LL also links to this entertaining takedown of DFW’s notorious essay on language, which was subsequently reprinted in a DFW collection that I reviewed.)) I think the funniest example is the claim that “I only spent six weeks in Napa” is dangerously ambiguous, and likely to be read as something like “I only spent six weeks in Napa; I didn’t employ my time there to its full advantage” unless you move the “only” one word rightwards. But many of the others are silly too. What’s your favourite?

  1. 1  Bruce  December 7, 2009, 1:26 pm 

    The title of the “entertaining takedown” that Steven links to is “DAVID FOSTER WALLACE DEMOLISHED.” Was this some kind of SAS anti-terrorist operation or something?

  2. 2  Steven  December 7, 2009, 1:28 pm 

    I agree that it is a bit conceited for a writer to announce that he is demolishing a person-building?

  3. 3  richard  December 7, 2009, 3:58 pm 

    I like the dismissive fragment “Idiom error”.

  4. 4  richard  December 7, 2009, 4:14 pm 

    I find my mind turning to questions of social power. Who, in DFW’s world, is empowered to coin new expressions or to make original or playful use of English? Who, apart from DFW’s students, is required to write in the ways he prescribes? Did DFW wish his readers to cringe at violations of these rules?

  5. 5  sw  December 7, 2009, 4:43 pm 

    I disagree slightly with you, Richard. There are certain grammatical errors I abhor and I don’t think it is only an exercise in social power – although there are, no doubt, various class and educational power struggles lurking under the cool, calm surface of an assumed expertise in the language. Some of the errors that give me the chills are obvious: “between him and I”, for example. I loathe “from whence” almost as much as DFW – even though this is not an error, at least unless you’re willing to sneer at Shakespeare for using it (in a context where I do not think it is intended to be an error? E.g. On the other hand, I find myself uninspired to even begin to worry about split infinitives. I almost burst into tears whenever anybody uses “disinterested” for “uninterested”, but I’ve never had any problem using “aggravating” for, well, “irritating.” So, to some extent, it is a matter of taste, no? Of course, turning taste into a form of legislation is a matter of social power; and so I withdraw my disagreement, even my slight disagreement.

    Anyway, the little essay and debate @ is quite nice.

  6. 6  Dave Weeden  December 7, 2009, 5:32 pm 

    Agree about the split infinitives. DFW’s revised sentence sounds like the sort of thing a very well educated foreigner would say; it doesn’t sound right. As far as I can tell, the logic is that because infinitives _can’t_ be split in Latin (& French etc), they _shouldn’t_ be split in English. Well, no one seems to obey that rule, so I’d suggest that it’s not a rule of English at all.

    I think Steven’s review or ‘Consider the Lobster’ errs on the ungenerous. The two best essays (the one about Tracy (sp?) Austin and the John Ziegler one) are brilliant. Given Zielger’s reaction to DFW’s suicide (unnecessary repetition of DFW there?), that essay was much too generous. Oh, and what were the NS sub-eds thinking with ‘The war of the words’ when ‘The world is your lobster’ was much more apt? :-)

  7. 7  Steven  December 7, 2009, 6:02 pm 

    I will confess to having seized the opportunity to promote my own book at the end of that review (for which your suggested headline is far superior), but I don’t feel I was ungenerous to CtL. I do find something fantastically irritating about DFW’s style in his fictiony nonfiction — and, as LanguageHat’s analysis shows, if you’re going to be that preeningly, self-adoringly Correct, you’d better make sure you’re wrong less often than he was. But his nonfictiony fiction is less irritating, I think?

    I agree with sw that the subsequent htmlgiant post, that the point was to help students become “more careful writers”, is quite nice. However, the original test still says that its examples are such that you must “AVOID OR REPAIR” them, which in many instances remains silly.

  8. 8  Dave Weeden  December 7, 2009, 6:24 pm 

    I feel that you could have mentioned his less irritating essays, and in that sense only (assuming that that ‘only’ is in the right place), were you ungenerous. I actually enjoyed the piece which Language Hat destroyed so entertainingly, although I admit that DFW’s faults were pretty severe. It’s fair to say that he was particularly vulnerable to Muphry’s Law.

  9. 9  sw  December 7, 2009, 6:50 pm 

    Please find the errors in the following sentences:

    I think Steven’s review or ‘Consider the Lobster’ errs on the ungenerous.

    I agree with sw that the subsequent htmlgiant post, that the point was to help students become “more careful writers”, is quite nice.

    Answers as follows:

    Steve never errs.

    Never agree with sw.

    In the future, AVOID OR REPAIR these errors.

  10. 10  Steven  December 7, 2009, 6:51 pm 


  11. 11  dsquared  December 8, 2009, 10:00 pm 

    Halfway through “Brief Interviews with Hideous Men”, I was struck by the thought “He doesn’t half take it all a bit seriously, dunnee?”

    For my tastes, I don’t mind the grammarial snotery – I’m never going to listen to it, but people write about all sorts of subjects I find intensely trivial, some of them interestingly. But where it crossed the line was that bit in the grammar quiz where he says “IF NO ONE HAS YET TAUGHT YOU HOW TO AVOID OR REPAIR CLAUSES LIKE THE FOLLOWING, YOU SHOULD, IN MY OPINION, THINK SERIOUSLY ABOUT SUING SOMEBODY, PERHAPS AS CO-PLAINTIFF WITH WHOEVER’S PAID YOUR TUITION”.

    I mean FFS. It is one kind of carelessness to split an infinitive or leave a minor ambiguity of scope. It’s a whole different order of indifference to what you’re writing to suggest a very serious and unpleasant course of action, without actually meaning it.

    (there’s an equivalent of the “uncanny valley” for things like DFW’s imagined lawsuit; as they get closer to what might be considered practical advice, they cease being cute and begin to seem creepy. If he were to have said “YOU SHOULD THINK SERIOUSLY ABOUT BREAKING THEIR ARMS AND LEGS WITH IRON BARS AND SETTING FIRE TO THEIR GENITALS”, that would be clearly a joke because it’s so obviously a hyperbolic piece of exaggeration. In a world in which people actually do sue their universities though, that sentence is close enough-but-not-yet-close-enough in exactly the same way in which a rubber doll resembles a real woman.

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