Friday, 25 April 2014

25/04/14 - Words an' that

‘Words without thoughts never to heaven go.’ 

‘Hamlet’ - Act 3, Scene 3.

Writing about writing is a dangerous thing for two key reasons: firstly, you risk coming across as a pretentious smartarse - I opened with a Shakespeare quote so I’ve pretty much ticked that box already - and secondly, the myriad errors within what you write will invariably be picked out by pedants and fired back at you. (Note that I didn’t say ‘the myriad of’ – that’s what stupid people say.) Nevertheless, the gibbering of this week’s JuicyPips centres around grammatical constructs, modes of punctuation, behaviours and literary devices that can confuse, annoy and/or entertain. Enjoy, or don’t.  

The dangling modifier

This may sound amusingly disingenuous but is a real thing, and you’ve probably experienced a number of them already today, particularly if you’re a Facebook user. Facebook statuses seem to be the natural modern home of the dangling modifier.
The basic principle is that the writer intends to modify, for example, the subject of a sentence, but structures the word order so that the modifier applies to the object instead; there are various other means of leaving a modifier dangling too, giving no clear indicator of what exactly is referring to what. And from thence the hilarity arises. Take the following ambiguous sentences:
‘After being abandoned for years in a dusty attic, I found my old record player.’
‘She left the room fuming.’
‘A bird was eating his sandwich, so he violently squished it.’
…and this famous quote from Groucho Marx:
‘One morning I shot an elephant in my pyjamas. How he got into my pyjamas I’ll never know.’
Some people do this on purpose, some don’t. It’s funny either way.

The Oxford comma
I use this just to piss people off, but also because it doesn’t make sense to me not to.
Commas are used as a separating device, making it obvious which parts of a sentence fit together without the need for countless scattergun sentences that make you sound like a robot. The rules around when and where to use commas are ambiguous; I’ve been accused of overusing them, but I like my writing to have the feel of how it would be spoken aloud, so I tend to leave appropriate pauses for breath. But I digress… The Oxford comma is used as a final separation in a list of three or more things. Take this festive example, expressed with and without the Oxford comma:
‘The three kings brought gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.’
‘The three kings brought gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.’
See? It makes sense for it to be there, doesn’t it? Otherwise the last two items in the list get lumped in together – you might assume that one king brought the gold, another brought the frankincense and the myrrh, and the third king didn’t bring anything at all.
Unfortunately (and I don’t know if this is still the case, but it certainly was when I was at school), kids are taught never to put a comma before ‘and’ or ‘or’. And that’s just wrong. (They’re also taught not to start sentences with ‘and’, which is possibly a fair instruction. But sometimes I like to. [And also with ‘but’.])

The ellipsis is something else that I heavily overuse, but it’s a really useful punctuation device. This is an ellipsis: ‘…’
Ostensibly intended to replace missing sections of text (for example, if you were quoting a three-sentence statement from someone but only using the first and third sentences, you’d intersperse them with an ellipsis), its more common use is to sit within or at the end of a sentence to imply a certain mysterious tailing-off. You’ll see later that this piece ends on an ellipsis, as does this sentence…
One well-known use of the ellipsis is where Dracula says ‘I don’t drink… wine.’ The pregnant pause inserts ambiguity into an otherwise innocuous statement. It’s just three little dots doing that. Clever, eh?
The important thing to remember is that an ellipsis is composed of three dots. Always three. Four is too many. Five is a mad extravagance. Any more than six and you look mentally unbalanced.

Mondegreens, eggcorns and malapropisms
A mondegreen is the misinterpretation or mishearing of a word or phrase in a way that provides a fresh meaning or perspective. The etymology of it comes from the American writer Sylvia Wright, who penned an essay on her mishearing of a line from the 17th-century ballad ‘The Bonny Earl O'Moray’, thus:
‘Ye Highlands and ye Lowlands,
Oh, where hae ye been?
They hae slain the Earl O' Moray,
And Lady Mondegreen.’

The last line should be ‘And laid him on the green’...
My favourite example of a popular mondegreen comes from Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Purple Haze’ – the lyric ‘'scuse me while I kiss the sky’ can be heard as ‘'scuse me while I kiss this guy’. Once you’ve heard that, it cannot be unheard.
Celebrated mondegreens in popular culture also include the old Maxell ads in which people incorrectly decipher the lyrics of ‘Israelites’ and ‘Into the Valley’ from scratchy tapes, and of course the Two Ronnies’ ‘Four Candles’ sketch.
An eggcorn is slightly different; it’s usually a word that is deliberately substituted in place of something with a similar sound, like when people refer to Alzheimer’s disease as ‘old-timers’ disease’. Eggcorns can also be unintentional, when a speaker assumes that a word must be another that they’re more familiar with using: ‘cold slaw’, ‘physical year’, ‘upmost’, ‘half-hazard’, ‘damp squid’, and so on.
A malapropism is the substitution, deliberate or otherwise, of similar-sounding words with different meanings, thereby rendering the statement’s meaning nonsensical. Two notable literary characters prone to malapropisms are Shakespeare’s Dogberry (‘our watch, sir, have indeed comprehended two auspicious persons’) and Sheridan’s Mrs Malaprop, for whom the modern term is named (‘she’s as headstrong as an allegory on the banks of the Nile’). Del Trotter and George W. Bush are both keen, if accidental, employers of the device, and '’Allo ’Allo'’s Officer Crabtree’s accent is basically a constant stream of malapropisms: ‘I was pissing by the door when I heard two shats’, ‘I have a mop, would you like to take a leak?’, ‘the troon has been bummed by the RAF’, etc.
A bastard offspring of the malapropism/mondegreen family is to utter a phrase in common parlance with different words that alter (but also sort of imply) the meaning people initially think they’re going to hear – for example, on hearing a surprising piece of news, you might respond with ‘shut the front door!’. The person to whom this is addressed will most likely assume that you’re about to say ‘shut the fuck up’ – again, hilarity ensues.

Pathos was the fourth musketeer.
Not really. That was a hilarious joke.
Pathos is the literary technique of appealing to the audience’s emotions. It’s one of the three modes of persuasion, alongside ethos (the component of argument that establishes moral competence, expertise and knowledge) and logos (reasoned discourse), and urges the audience to sympathise with the author’s point of view. It’s quite an obscure and hard-to-define concept because it’s rather different to simply writing in an emotive manner… a pathetic appeal (‘pathetic’, that is, in the sense of pathos, obviously, rather than the ‘you’re paffetic’ sense so beloved of the chav) is generally associated with tragedy, whereby the narrative conveys negative emotional connotations that encourage the reader/viewer to empathise with the author, narrator or protagonist. Pathos tickles the imagination as well as the emotion of the audience, spurring them on to decision or action.
Is that clear? Good. Easy, isn’t it? That’s why you hear people referring to pathos all the time.

Irony is not sarcasm. Irony is not an unfortunate occurrence. (Alanis Morrissette’s ‘Ironic’ should really have been called ‘Unfortunate’.) Irony is basically a difference between the literal and the implied meaning of something. Verbal irony is when you say something that implies a meaning that opposes the literal meaning of what you’re saying. An ironic situation is where there’s a disparity between the expected conclusion of an event and what actually happens. It’s that simple. Dramatic irony occurs when a character speaks or acts in a manner governed by a lack of knowledge of something the audience is aware of (like in ‘The Truman Show’ where we know he’s on a TV show but he doesn’t, or ‘Romeo and Juliet’ where the other characters think Juliet is dead but we know she’s just taken a sleeping potion).
Kurt Vonnegut’s ‘Breakfast of Champions’ offers this ironic concept:
‘As pleasant and relaxed as a coiled rattlesnake.’
Bear that in mind, you should be fine. And remember that it’s not ‘like rai-ee-ain on your wedding day’.

The apostrophe
People seem to have a lot of difficulty with apostrophes. Why is that? Should you not be comfortable using them, the basic rule is this: if in doubt, don’t. You’ll look dumber randomly peppering your copy with apostrophes than you will by missing out the odd one.
The apostrophe has two basic functions: to mark the omission of letters (don’t, can’t, Hallowe’en), and to denote possession (John’s warts, Alice’s disgust). Here are some simple tips for its correct usage:
- Don’t use it willy-nilly for all plurals – ‘two banana’s’ is wrong, ‘two bananas’ is right.
- If you’re denoting possession of a plural, the apostrophe comes after the ‘s’, e.g. ‘the horses’ hooves’, ‘the singers’ voices’. (For plural nouns not ending in ‘s’, they can have ‘‘s’ at the end, e.g. ‘men’s clothing’, ‘people’s opinions’.)
- ‘It’s’ means ‘it is’ or ‘it has’. ‘Its’ is something else. If you’re unsure, try replacing your ‘it’s’/‘its’ with ‘it is’ and see if it still makes sense.
- Possessive nouns ending in ‘s’ can either have an apostrophe or an apostrophe plus another ‘s’, depending on personal preference; ‘Agnes’ house’ and ‘Agnes’s house’ are both correct.
(We had a lot of quotation marks there that looked like apostrophes, didn’t we? Deliberately confusing. Totally different things. [Why did I use single rather than double speech marks? Because I wanted to. Let’s not open that can of worms.])

I was planning to go into tedious detail on the subject of pathetic fallacy, oxymorons, anthropomorphism, foreshadowing, maypoling, satire and repetitive designation (end of a list there, but not an appropriate place for the Oxford comma in this instance), but instead it’s time for you to do some of the work. First person to reply with a coherent sentence that employs all of the above wins a special prize…


  1. Mysteryman (Mr Ehmann)5 October 2012 at 21:34

    My favorite mondegreen from my childhood revolves around the popular hymm 'The Lord of the dance'. Even though I knew the title is The Lord of the Dance, I thought that the lyrics were 'I am the lord of the dark settee...'. I was 5 at the time.
    Now I know what to call these, and other interesting literary things. Thanks!