Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Time to Get Even

Posted by Neal on April 1, 2009

I have some advice to share today with all the people who have asked me for tips on how to improve their writing. There’s a lot of advice out there, but personally, I have found that nothing will do more to sharpen your writing than learning the proper placement of even. For that reason, I am happy to present my first annual blog post on even.

(A side note: If you’re writing about a special event that is the first of its kind, let’s say the Veeblefester Family Reunion, and you think there’s even a chance of its becoming an annual occurrence, the best practice is to call it the first annual event of its kind. You don’t want to be in the ridiculous position, a year later, of announcing the Second Annual Veeblefester Family Reunion when there hasn’t been a first one. You could retroactively call the previous year’s reunion the First Annual VFR, but that tactic is sloppy, and best reserved for events that one doesn’t envision recurring, such as the Great War/World War I.)

Did you say A Hawaiian punch, or SOME Hawaiian punch?Learning where to place even is quite simple, really. You just need to place it as close as possible to the word it modifies. Let’s take an example. Suppose there’s a fight in the schoolyard. The teacher on duty investigates, and finds that Stewart hit Phil on the nose. In fact, she learns that:

Even Stewart hit Phil on the nose.

In other words, a lot of people were more likely than Stewart to hit Phil on the nose, and every one of those people did so. And Stewart, the all-around nice guy you’d never expect to do it, hit Phil on the nose, too.

On the other hand, let’s suppose the investigating teacher discovers that:

Stewart even hit Phil on the nose.

That is, Stewart took a number of liberties with Phil’s nose. He tapped Phil on the nose, patted him on the nose, and thumped him on the nose. Did he stop there? No indeed. He went so far as to hit Phil on the nose, too.

Unfortunately, the proper placement of even cannot eliminate all ambiguity in this sentence. Stewart even hit Phil on the nose could also mean that in addition to chasing the girls, giving Zach a noogie, and going down the ladders and up the slides, Stewart crowned his accumulation of bad behavior with hitting Phil on the nose. In a situation like this, the careful writer will employ hyphens, like so:

Stewart even hit-Phil-on-the-nose.

This indicates that hit Phil on the nose is acting as a single word for even to modify, and we’re still following our rule of placing even next to the word it modifies. (If only there were a term for this kind of word that’s composed of several words. I will offer my own suggestion of calling them “multi-words.”)

Now let’s suppose the teacher finds out that:

Stewart hit even Phil on the nose.

Stewart is well-known for his penchant for nose-hitting, but this time he’s outdone himself, hitting the one person’s nose that we never thought he’d hit.

However, maybe instead it turns out that:

Stewart hit Phil even on the nose.

Stewart wasn’t content to hit Phil merely under, above, or anywhere near the nose. He got him squarely on the nose. Again, though, putting the even before the on won’t rid us of all ambiguity. Stewart hit Phil even on the nose could also mean that it wasn’t enough for Stewart to hit Phil in the mouth, in the stomach, and below the belt; he took it to the next level and hit Phil on the nose, too. This sentence is not very realistic, as one has to assume a world in which the nose is one of the less likely targets for a fist. In point of fact, it’s one of the most likely targets, especially if the victim has a particularly large nose, as Phil does. Nevertheless, this example goes to show how precise a meaning the English language sometimes allows us to convey. As before, this meaning is easily indicated with the judicious use of hyphens:

Stewart hit Phil even on-the-nose.

We’re not done yet. It may be that the teacher learns that:

Stewart hit Phil on even the nose.

Like the last sentence, this one isn’t very realistic. It requires us to imagine that of the body parts for which you use the preposition on when they are struck, there is a gradation from most likely to least likely targets, or from least serious to most serious. For most body parts, you’d use in: in the head, in the back, in the foot, etc. Those that could (also) go with on would be the head, shoulders, chest, forehead, cheek, nose, and maybe a few others. Again, we would have to imagine that the nose is the least likely or most serious target. The wonderful thing about English is not that you would express such a meaning, but that you could.

Finally, it may be that the teacher on duty finds out that what really occurred was that:

Even Stewart even hit-even-Phil-even-on=the=nose.

Packed into this short sentence is a hint of what must have been the most intense and widespread misbehavior ever seen in the schoolyard. Most of the kids were doing most of the things they weren’t supposed to do out there, from the common offenses like twisting on the swings, to the more serious transgression of hitting each other, and hitting not just a few of each other, but hitting so many of each other that they hit Phil, one of the last guys you’d expect anyone to hit, and hitting each other and Phil not just a little bit, but in multiple places up to and including the worst possible place: on the nose. And finally, so irresistible was the urge to misbehave that Stewart, one of the best-behaved kids in school, joined in this spree of nose-hitting.

Notice again the utility and convenience of the hyphen punctuation. The second even is modifying the multi-word hit-even-Phil-even-on-the-nose. The equal signs indicate an additional hyphen for the multi-word on-the-nose, which is modified by the fourth even.

Once you learn this rule about even, nothing could be simpler! Your readers will thank you.

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9 Responses to “Time to Get Even

  1. The Ridger said

    What about “Stewart hit Phil on the even nose” or “Stewart hit Phil on the nose, even!”

  2. viola said

    Yes, what if Phil had an incredibly even nose–no deviated septum whatsoever?

    When our kids use the word “even” when telling a story, it’s hard not to purposely raise my eyebrows in great surprise. They know exactly where the emphasis lies in that word and how to evoke a response. How is that?

  3. Kyle said

    I must be out of my mind to argue something like this with you–and I loathe the idea of such a presumptuous act serving as my introduction to you–but I feel it is somehow my duty to tell you that I profoundly disagree with your assertion that “the careful writer will employ hyphens” in the manner you demonstrated. I am merely an English Language & Linguistics undergrad, and I have quietly followed your blog enough in recent weeks to know that I am little more than a puny David pointing fingers at a Goliath, but I’m hoping the language gods are on my side. Hyphens (along with most punctuation marks) are horribly abused already; I shudder at the thought of you telling people who seek your advice on writing to use them in such a way.

    Because of the way English Grammar works, nouns often modify nouns. The way we compound things really has no rhyme or reason–sometimes we make a single word (e.g. lighthouse), sometimes we hyphenate (e.g. city-state), and sometimes we let two or more words act as a single noun (e.g. garbage truck). But the phrases you are talking about aren’t compounds at all, and using hyphens in them is not merely silly–it’s wrong! Granted, hyphens sometimes appear in places other than noun compounds (they’re quite handy in clarifying what adjectives are modifying), but never in a circumstance such as the one you’ve described. Please tell me, friend, that this is some April foolery, that you were speaking hypothetically, or that you were jesting about punctuation reformation. More than that, kind sir, please retract what you’ve said and cease from spreading more punctuational confusion than what we’ve already got swarming around us!

  4. fn. d. b. said

    With all due respect, I may have to side with Kyle here…

  5. Ellen K. said

    I think it’s safe to assume it’s April Foolery. By the way, Kyle, a hyphen related suggestion. If using a hyphen in place of a dash, put a space before and after it. Or use two. Otherwise, it looks like you’ve created a strange new word, “reason–sometimes”. :)

  6. Kyle said

    Fn. D. B. – Nice to know I’m not alone.

    Ellen K. – I can’t tell you how chagrined I was by the way that turned out. I actually used two hyphens, but, for whatever reason, wordpress shoved them together into a single hyphen. If you look really closely, you can tell that it is actually infinitesimally larger than my hyphens. It’s funny that that happened to me, though, because I was thinking similar thoughts about Viola.

  7. Ellen K. said

    Ah, Okay. Looking at it now, I’m thinking it’s using en dashes instead of em dashes.

  8. John Cowan said

    It wasn’t too unreasonable to suppose that Queen Anne wouldn’t be the last queen of that name to sit the throne of Britain, but she has been so far, and so she doesn’t get a number. Queen Elizabeth, on the other hand, didn’t have a number until 1952, when she promptly acquired one retroactively.

    I don’t know what to say about King Juan Carlos I of Spain. Except that furriners is peculiar.

  9. Neal said

    Oops! Now I’ve done it! I’ve violated the style guides by calling this the first annual post on even, and then totally forgot to cover this topic again this year.

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