Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Coordination and Quotation Fronting in the 1800s

Posted by Neal on January 21, 2011

Last week, Grammar Girl ran a guest script I wrote on one of the topics I’ve written about here on occasion: when coordination and quotation fronting clash. This is what happens in sentences like “No,” he said, and turned away. As you know if you’ve read some of my other posts on the topic, this kind of sentence is syntactically interesting because it’s an example of a construction in standard English that does not use parallel structure. To the left of the conjunction, we have an entire clause: “No,” he said. To the right, we have only a verb phrase: turned away. Semantically, though, the conjunction is joining two verb phrases: said “No” and turned away. It’s just that the syntax of English allows this kind of rearrangement in this kind of sentence, so that things look non-parallel on the surface.

However, there is the idea in some quarters that this kind of sentence ought to be revised so that it does have a parallel structure on the surface. You do it by repeating the subject (or more likely, a pronoun referring back to the subject): “No,” he said, and he turned away. Now, the conjunction has a full clause on either side. Though I’ve seen indirect evidence of this kind of prescription, the only place where I’ve seen it explicitly articulated is in Bill Walsh’s Lapsing into a Comma. So when I tweeted about this Grammar Girl episode, I called out Bill Walsh, saying, “‘Fraid @TheSlot ‘s not gonna like this one.”

He didn’t.

He visited the Quick and Dirty Tips website, read the script, and left this comment:

“Damn,” he said, and repeated.
Does that sentence leaving you asking “What in the world did he repeat?” then you have a point. If not, well, he didn’t both say-you-shouldn’t-have and grab-the-box-of-chocolates-you-shouldn’t-have.

If I follow Walsh’s reasoning, his argument is as follows:

  1. You can parse sentences such as “Damn,” he said, and repeated as having the quotation (“Damn”) function as the direct object for each of the coordinated verbs (said, repeated). In other words, he said “Damn” and repeated it.
  2. More generally, a complement that coordinated verbs (or verb phrases) share can be moved to the front of the sentence. (Linguists call this across-the-board (ATB) movement).
  3. Therefore, if a verbal complement has been moved to the front of a sentence, it should always be interpreted as ATB movement when the verb (or VP) it belongs to is part of a coordination of verbs (or VPs).

Abstracting a step, the reasoning is that if something that matches Pattern A has meaning B, then everything that matches Pattern A must have meaning B. Going by this reasoning, we could also argue the following: George and Martha woke up means that George woke up and Martha woke up. Therefore, George and Martha are a good team means that George is a good team, and Martha is a good team. Oops! It doesn’t mean that! Therefore, it’s incorrect to say George and Martha are a good team. You need to say something like, The set consisting of George and Martha is a good team.

Having reduced Walsh’s line of reasoning ad absurdum, I mainly wanted to say that this kind of non-parallel coordination has been used for too long by too many people for it to reasonably be called a mistake. In fact, even by bringing it up to defend it, I now fear that I have caused more damage. Now Grammar Girl listeners who never conceived there was any problem at all with this kind of coordination have been made aware that there are some (however misguided) who do have a problem with it, and they will forevermore be in doubt, needlessly and awkwardly avoiding the construction in their writing.

That the construction is widespread I don’t need to defend. But as for how long it’s been in use, I realized I didn’t know. I decided to see if it had been used in the 1700s and 1800s by searching through the Corpus of Late Modern English Texts (assembled by Hendrik De Smet from texts available via Project Gutenberg and the Oxford Text Archive). I searched for the string “said and” and “replied and” (with and without a comma), and here’s what I found:

With subject repeated (i.e. parallel coordination of clauses)

  1. “From England,” I replied, and without waiting for an answer, I sprang on the burra, and proceeded on my way.
    (George Henry Borrow, The Bible in Spain, 1842)
  2. “… Do forgive me!” Rebecca said, and she held out her hand with so frank and winning a grace, that Osborne could not but take it. (William Makepeace Thackeray, Vanity Fair, 1848)
  3. “It was your father’s room long before you were born, George,” she said, and she blushed as she kissed the boy. (ibid.)
  4. “I must be, I suppose,” he replied, and he sighed heavily. (Charlotte Yonge, Clever Woman of the Family, 1880

Without subject repeated (i.e. nonparallel coordination of verb phrases)

  1. “Thus I relieve thee, my creator,” he said, and placed his hated hands before my eyes, which I flung from me with violence
    (Mary Wollestonecraft Shelley, Frankenstein, 1818)
  2. ”Naught, naught,” he said, and broke away to enjoy his grief and anger in solitude.
    (Emily Bronte, Wuthering Heights, 1847)
  3. “Oh no — I can do it, thank you,” she hastily replied, and stooped for the performance. (Thomas Hardy, Far from the Madding Crowd, 1847)
  4. It was now high time to go home, she said, and would have bid me good evening; but I was not going to leave her yet
    (Anne Brontë, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, 1848)
  5. “Were you in Captain Osborne’s company?” he said, and added, after a pause, “he was my son, sir.”
    (William Makepeace Thackeray, Vanity Fair, 1848)
  6. “I’ll ring when I want anything,” said Rawdon, and went quietly to his bedroom. (ibid.)
  7. “That’s more than any of your Lords will give, I’ll warrant,” he said and refused to attend at the ceremony. (ibid.)
  8. “Nothing, my child,” she said and stooped down and kissed him. (ibid.)
  9. “Delighted to know Captain Macmurdo, I’m sure,” Mr. Wenham said and tendered another smile and shake of the hand to the second, as he had done to the principal. (ibid.)
  10. “Psha! she may be gone from here,” he said and went in through the gate. (ibid.)
  11. “Oh, Emmy, I’ve been thinking we were very unkind and unjust to you,” he said and put out his cold and feeble hand to her. (ibid.)
  12. “I have as much as I went for,” she replied, and gravely thanked the assistant leaning on his thumbs across the counter (George Meredith, The Adventures of Harry Richmond, 1871)
  13. “I don’t know,” she replied, and turned her head to look at the prospect. (Thomas Hardy, A Pair of Blue Eyes, 1873)
  14. “You’ll find that you are misinformed,” Marian replied, and therewith went from the room. (George Gissing, New Grub Street, 1891)
  15. “Pale?” replied Lawrence, not knowing what he said, and turned abruptly away, for he dared not stand another look of Jem’s
    (Maria Edgeworth, The Parent’s Assistant, 1897)
  16. “As soon as the Varietes reopens we’ll go and see her,” he replied, and then gave his detailed version of the career of Hortense Schneider. (Arnold Bennett, The Old Wives’ Tale, 1908)
  17. “I have done,” she replied, and instantly produced them out of the darkness of the corridor. (ibid.)
  18. “Va bene,” he replied, and accepted it. (E. M. Forster, A Room With a View, 1908)
  19. “In the afternoon, of course!” he replied, and looked at Tibby to see how the repartee went. (E. M. Forster, Howard’s End, 1910)

I think the numbers speak for themselves. I don’t seriously expect to change Bill Walsh’s mind, but for anyone else reading, maybe you’ll find this persuasive. All these books, and the countless books I’ve read since I was a boy, can’t all have been poorly edited.

[UPDATE, the next morning: As I shoveled snow off the driveway this morning, I thought about why I shouldn’t publish blog posts at 1:00 in the morning. Or at least, as all good writers recommend, put it aside and look at it with fresh eyes before proceeding.

First of all, I would have toned down the strident tone of the piece. Though I still think that Bill Walsh is way off base on this one, an argument should be much more egregiously wrong, and on many fronts, before you use the rhetorical question “Where to begin?” to introduce your rebuttal. So I’ve deleted that flourish. Walsh has a lot of good advice (in the book I linked to and in his other one The Elephants of Style), and I appreciate his literal-mindedness as a like spirit. (See, for example, this post.)

Second, I would have caught the two misgrouped examples in which the subject was repeated. I was working so fast to find the source and year on the last few that this little detail slipped by. I’ve made the corrections. Thanks for catching them, Ran!

Finally, I meant to put in links to the Grammar Girl episode in question, and to the compiler of the LME corpus. Those links are now in place.]

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36 Responses to “Coordination and Quotation Fronting in the 1800s”

  1. Dw said

    How would you refer to the years 1800-1809 inclusive?

    I would use “the 1800s” to refer to that decade, but you seem to be using that phrase to refer to 1800-1899, in other words the nineteenth century, more or less.

    I think this may be a US vs British difference.

    • There’s no American vs. British difference. “The 1800s” means the whole of that century (1800-1899). For each decade, it’s 1800-10, 1810s, 1820s, 1830s, etc. Yes, there’s always a bit of a problem/overlap with the Noughties.

      P.S. I was an editor for 32 years before I switched to the less profit-challenged line of printing.

      • dw said

        Well, it’s funny that a Google Books search for “the 1900s” brings up a slew of books with that title, most of them apparently American, the majority of which appear to cover the period 1900-1909, not 1900-1999.

        @Thenakedlistener: you edited both American and British prose in your 32-year career?

      • Yeah, I did. And I hope you’re not taking the tone that I think you’re taking, because I’ve seen it lots of times before in difficult authors and even more difficult print customers. If I misunderstand you, then I deeply apologise.

        As an English lawyer (not making the solicitor/barrister distinction since I’m not in practice right now), allow me to summarise my editorial history: Random House (under Jacqueline Bouvier, RIP), Churchill Livingston, Mills & Boon, Faber & Faber, OUP, The Wall Street Journal, American Chamber of Commerce (various countries), Longman USA, Longman Group, Macmillan Tokyo, special correspondent for various U.S. trade magazines (‘cos the USA has more and does them better) – and then I packed it in and went into financial/security printing (because working for crooks is a more honest way of making a living).

      • dw said

        @Thenakedlistener:

        I plead guilty to mild sarcasm in my previous reply. I am generally unimpressed by blog comments that spend more time describing the credentials of the commenter than pointing to empirical evidence: for one thing it’s impossible to verify that anyone’s credentials are genuine on the internet so it’s all rather pointless.

        Here’s the Google N-gram comparing 1780s,1790s,1800s,1810s, and 1820s in American English:

        http://tinyurl.com/66htks6

        “1800s” is far far more popular than any of the others. Now if “1800s” were used for the decade, we would expect it to be roughly as frequent as, say “1790s”. The fact that it is far more frequent is a sign that it is being used for the century as well as, or instead of, the decade.

        Now compare the same N-Gram for British English:

        http://tinyurl.com/6c9rugc

        We see that that “1800s” is actually less frequent than “1820s”. Until around 1995 “1800s” was also less frequent than “1780s” and “1790s” as well. This indicates that 1800s is generally used for the decade, not the century, although the recent spike in “1800s” may indicate a recent change in British English towards using that phrase for the entury as well.

      • dw said

        @Thenakedlistener:

        I plead guilty to mild sarcasm in my previous reply. I am generally unimpressed by blog comments that spend more time describing the credentials of the commenter than pointing to empirical evidence: for one thing it’s impossible to verify that anyone’s credentials are genuine on the internet so it’s all rather pointless.

        [My previous comments containing links to Google N-grams have all been held for moderation, possibly indefinitely, so I’m going to have to omit the links. However it’s easy to replicate the N-gram searches yourself]

        Here’s the Google N-gram comparing 1780s,1790s,1800s,1810s, and 1820s in American English:

        [URL OMITTED TO AVOID MODERATION]

        “1800s” is far far more popular than any of the others. Now if “1800s” were used for the decade, we would expect it to be roughly as frequent as, say “1790s”. The fact that it is far more frequent is a sign that it is being used for the century as well as, or instead of, the decade.

        Now compare the same N-Gram for British English:

        [LINK OMITTED TO AVOID MODERATION]

        We see that that “1800s” is actually less frequent than “1820s”. Until around 1995 “1800s” was also less frequent than “1780s” and “1790s” as well. This indicates that 1800s is generally used for the decade, not the century, although the recent spike in “1800s” may indicate a recent change in British English towards using that phrase for the entury as well.

      • That’s a matter of opinion. Yours is not mild scarcasm, thank you very much. It’s actually sneering. And you need to stop this overweening attitude of yours, because it comes through very quickly even from your written words. At least I gave 18 words at the outset about my line of work, and afterwards a helluva lot more than I would normally like because of your sardonic remark – as if editors exclusively work in one English and not the other, which everyone knows full well they don’t.

        Took you long enough to come up with this cheap courtroom trick of turning the tables back on me by insinuating that I was spending more time on my credentials and that those credentials are unverifiable. To that, I can’t say with any confidence that your input to the thread is any better or worse than mine, either.

        You linguistics types are like CLONES: the same tetchiness, the same passive aggressiveness, and this bizarre, inflexible literalmindedness.

      • Ran said

        And the same actually-reading-the-posts-we’re-replying-to?

    • Neal said

      This is an ambiguity that I only began to become aware of in the last week or so, a couple of days before I read these comments and found that it was more troublesome than I’d thought. For me, “the 1800s”, etc. obviously refers to an entire century, being that I used it that way in this post. But I think it can also refer to just “the aughts” for whatever century, in the appropriate context. Kinda surprised this ambiguity never hit me in the face until now.

  2. Ran said

    I find “’Damn,’ he said, and repeated” so unintelligible that at first I thought Walsh was pulling a sort of straw-man argument (“if you’re O.K. with not repeating the subject, then you must be O.K. with also not repeating the object”).

    By the way, I think these two have been misgrouped:

    > “… Do forgive me!” Rebecca said, and she held out her hand with so frank and winning a grace, that Osborne could not but take it. (ibid.)
    > “It was your father’s room long before you were born, George,” she said, and she blushed as she kissed the boy. (ibid.)

  3. The Ridger said

    I totally agree with you, Neil, so I’m going to address DW’s side point. First, I wonder how you would refer to 1840-1870, if “mid-1800s” doesn’t work? “Mid-19th-century?” I can see that… but mid-1800s means the century to me, too. It may well be a US-UK difference – but it’s wider than that.

    In my translation class a while ago there was a text referring to “Уничтожение лесоохраны в середине 2000-х (the destruction of the forestry service in the mid-2000s)” (the -x represents the Russian genitive case ending). Most of my students had some trouble deciding how to render that in English. Some felt that the “mid-2000s” were 2040-60 – one even felt it was 2500! Several put “the first decade of the 21st century”, one put “2005-2007″ (2007 is the decisive year, in fact), and one inventive guy said “in the middle of the last decade” – though of course that won’t work forever!

    • The Ridger said

      And note: this was in a context where “mid-2000s” couldn’t possibly mean 2050.

      • Your situation is so funny because it a stark naked reminder of my work before I switched to printing from editing. Lots of academic people write like that *and they aren’t even aware of this.*

        This is the sort of thing that happens when people tries to cut things a bit too fine but, simultaneously, wanting to “denumerise” the text with a view to improving readability. The result, in my 32 years as editor, is a right abortion.

        Not to put too fine a point on things, why not just give the bleeding year range? I once had a client (on a magazine) who kept messing around with phrases like the midweek of mid-May of midyear last year, etc. (You get the idea.) If the something was in 2000-2010, why not just say it’s in that decade? If it’s “in the middle of 2000-2010,” why not give the actual year (or say it the way I did just now)?

        You must be a better man than I could ever imagine to be. After 32 years of facing this crap, I just had to make an executive decision: Do I want to continue with this nonsense or want more time to ride my bike wearing my fringed leather jacket?

      • The Ridger said

        I’m entirely uncertain of your point. I didn’t write it – it wasn’t even written in English.

        And since Russians don’t say “1800s” for the century – they don’t say “eighteen hundred” at all, it’s always “one thousand eight hundred” – but “19th century”, for them “mid 1800s” means, has always meant, can only mean the middle of the 1800-1810 decade.

        As for why he didn’t say “2007”, I expect it was because he was talking about something that happened over several years. Why not say “from around 2005 to 2007″? Gee, why don’t you ask him? Russians tend to used the construction “in the middle of” with weeks, months, years, decades, and centuries with great frequency. It doesn’t confuse anyone.

        And in my opinion, in a text already filled with numbers, the occasional “in mid May” is a lot better than “somewhere around May 15″. In fact, Gricean maxims mean that it’s better.

        In my opinion, of course, as neither a lawyer nor an editor, but a mere translator.

      • It’s okay, I get your point. I now live in Hong Kong, and the Chinese use “the middle of” whatever-the-bloody-hell probably even more than the Russians do. Like I said, at least you still have the nerve (even as translator) to face this crap.

      • Neal said

        Actually a response to TheNakedListener, but the nesting won’t go deep enough: I remember when a guy said, “California’s in the middle of a five-year drought,” and I asked, “How do they know it’s going to end in 2 1/2 more years?”

    • dw said

      [My previous comments containing links to Google N-grams have all been held for moderation, possibly indefinitely, so I’m going to have to omit the links. However it’s easy to replicate the N-gram searches yourself]

      @The Ridger:

      I would say “mid nineteenth century”, which is also much more common than “mid 1800s” in English books overall according to Google Ngrams, although, if the search is restricted to “American English” then there is a curious surge for “mid 1800s” between about 1980 and 1995 which temporarily puts it in the lead.

      Could you, or anyone else, answer my original question: do you have any way of referring to the years 1800-1809?

      • Ran said

        Personally, I’d probably just say “the years 1800–1809″. So I don’t have any concise fixed expression that refers to them, which must be what you mean: certainly I do have some way of referring to them!

      • The Ridger said

        I might say the “eighteen oughts” but only in jest.

        In seriousness, either “first decade of the 1800s” or “1800-1810″. In writing, if the century was well established, the ’00s works, but not in formal/academic prose.

        All the xx00 decades are hard to refer to, for everyone I know. In fact, articles get written in US newspapers about the problem.

  4. Dw said

    @The Ridger:

    I would say “mid nineteenth century”, which is also much more common than “mid 1800s” in English books overall according to Google Ngrams, although, if the search is restricted to “American English” then there is a curious surge for “mid 1800s” between about 1980 and 1995 which temporarily puts it in the lead.

    Could you, or anyone else, answer my original question: do you have any way of referring to the years 1800-1809?

    (Sorry for going off on a tangent, Neal).

  5. Jan Freeman said

    I’ve never thought this was a banned construction, but I admit that it sometimes trips me ever so slightly in examples where the two verbs are separated only by “and” without even a comma, as in no. 10: “‘she may be gone from here,’ he said and went in.” Adding even one more word before the second verb prevents that baby step down the garden path; “he replied, and then gave,” for instance. But maybe I’ve been oversensitized by an editing career.

    Also: Doesn’t the syntax of no. 15 make it a different case? That use of “he said, and turned” wouldn’t be misreadable, for me. (“Pale?’” replied Lawrence, not knowing what he said, and turned abruptly away.”)

    • Ran said

      No, #15 is the same as the others. Note that “turned abruptly away” is coordinated with “‘Pale?’ replied Lawrence”; the “he said” in the adjunct is just a red herring.

      • Jan Freeman said

        Ah, right. I was focused on the “said, and turned” part because that’s the string Neal searched for. So he found another relevant example here, but not one based on his search terms. (Also this reinforces my point: separate the two verbs with anything more than “and,” and nobody sees a problem.)

  6. I’m sorry, you’ve lost me. Are you saying the non-parallel coordination is a mistake or not?

    The sentence “‘No,’ he said, and turned away.” is as fine and clear-cut in the shortest practicable number of words as possible. Just from that one sentence, I can’t imagine anyone could misunderstand it – unless we’ve not been given some other context provided by its surrounding text.

    I’m one of those odd lawyer types who also took linguistics for a bit (yeah, go figure). I’m sorry to give linguists (as in linguistics) the bad news that people in the outside word actually speak and write like this. I’ve also noticed most philosophers, linguists, sociologists and economists do NOT speak or write like that.

    As a lawyer, I have to do my profession’s nasty, mediaeval headcounting: you provided 4 parallel vs. 19 non-parallel cases, and the case rests in favour of the non-parallels.

    No offence meant (really), but you really do take things a little too literally. (I’m not trying to be offensive, you know, I’m just saying…)

    • The Ridger said

      try reading the column again. It’s pretty clear that Neil does NOT think it’s incorrect, merely (in a surface fashion) non-parallel.

      Here: “It’s just that the syntax of English allows this kind of rearrangement in this kind of sentence, so that things look non-parallel on the surface.”

  7. Xmun said

    In my variety of English (UK born, NZ resident), “‘Damn,’ he said, and repeated” would mean he said “damn” and then belched.

    • @Xmun: Just let these Americans act out their linguistic theology on their own. They have this ‘thing’ called ‘reading between the lines’ – and they usually spread it a bit thick. You and I know well enough who said “Damn” and who “repeated,” thank you very much. Just be patient and see how long these thin-skinned people will be baying at the moderators to kick people like me off this thread. Just wait.

      • Ellen K. said

        You’ve completely missed his point, which was nothing to do with who did the repeating, but rather about word meaning.

    • The Ridger said

      Hah! I love it.

  8. Honestly, I’ve had it with this thread. Not so much that I’m the troll here more than like the rest are. Linguistics pointlessly took two years out of my life, and, more than a sense of deja vu here, seems it’s about to do the same anytime I get into ‘their’ discourse playground.

    Many thanks for the entertainment while it lasted, but man has his limits and I say I’ll “86” myself from this thread.

    (Thank you, Neil, for your indulgence. Next time, please ask commenters to stay on topic & not fly off on their tangential handles about date formats: ask a newspaperman how it’s done properly. Stop wasting time on The Light and Sound of Incredible Being Corpus of Fantastically Artificial English for Academic Purposes.)

    • Dw said

      Given your professed distaste for both linguists and “literalmindedness”, commenting on a blog entitled “Literal-Minded” and written by a linguistics Ph.D. was an interesting choice. Lol :)

    • @Dw:
      There you go again. You just don’t know when to stop, do you?

      @Neal:
      I have no “distaste” for linguists or literalmindedness. Personally, I’m breathtakingly prosaic and conventional in my ways. What’s so hard to understand about me reading a linguistics-related blog/book/etc anyway? I read lots of stuff that I’m not necessarily fond of. Big deal! How’s hard/interesting/[choose the words you like best] is that to appreciate for a linguistics-related blog? Some might say that’s a quality of a good lawyer – I wouldn’t know because I don’t practice law: I’m just a printer who happens to be a lawyer too. Variety is the spice of life: I don’t want to eat boeuf bourguignon all the time. Will you get someone to tell this little snot to shut up since I’ve already had the good grace to 86 myself from the thread because I don’t want it on my conscience for inadvertently turning your blog into a personal battlefield. And for that, Neil, please also accept my personal apologies.

      P.S. What is even more interesting is why I sucked myself into this, making myself look like a fool in the process, when I could’ve just taken a ride on my bike in my fringed leather jacket and try to pull in some chicks. But then I’m not always known for my intelligence.

  9. afshin said

    what does s in 1800s stand for? is it a plural s
    ?

    • the ridger said

      Yes.

    • Ran said

      That’s a fascinating question. Yes, it’s the plural ending — but why? You certainly can’t describe the year 1805 as “an 1800″. You can’t even describe it as “one of the 1800s”.

      I wonder if it’s related to the phenomenon of “associative plurals”, described in Chapter 36 of the World Atlas of Linguistic Structures. In many languages, the plural of a noun can mean “[noun] and other things/people associated with [noun]”; for example, if English had this property, then we could say “Neals” to mean something like, perhaps, “Neal and his family”. (I’m simplifying considerably, but that’s the idea.) Even in languages that don’t have this property in general, there can still be some stray examples of it; for example, the above-linked chapter mentions Spanish padres and reyes, which literally mean “fathers” and “kings” but actually mean “mother and father” and “king and queen”. Maybe “1800s” is a stray English example?

      • the ridger said

        I could call “1805” “one of the 1800s” easily enough, though not “an 1800″. The form is simply a clipping of “the years beginning 1800″, I imagine. But I confess I’ve never thought about it.

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