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Don't Eat With Your Mouth Full

Where can we live but days?

steepholm steepholm
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Up With Which We Will Not Put
TV Programme: "By cooking the squid slowly and gently, it becomes tender."

Me, blustering: What? What becomes tender by cooking squid gently? Some mythical squid-cooking creature? Jeez!

Do you recognize this kind of exchange with the telly? Have you been party to it? I'm certain that I'm not alone.

I thought I had my blustering habit under control until I was watching some David Attenborough programme with my daughter the other night. Said DA:

"Despite their solitary reputation, polar bears can be surprisingly sociable."

I heard my voice cry: "No! It's not not despite their reputation, it's because of it! If they didn't have a reputation for being solitary, their sociability wouldn't be surprising!"

My daughter laughed, and yet I wonder whether she didn't think there was something excessive in my zeal.

Do I need help?

Do I need help?

Nah, that's legitimately annoying. I am now trying to envision the mythical squid-cooking creature, though. My brain insists on presenting it to me as something like a kappa.

The kappa likes cucumber with its squid, I believe.

What really gets me is lines like this headline: "Serena Williams Second Highest-Paid Female Athlete Behind Sharapova" That makes me exclaim: "So who's the first highest behind Sharapova?"

Actually, the worst use of "surprising" that I've seen was a line in a TV documentary about The Lord of the Rings:
"Aragorn's reluctance to become king is surprising." To which I exclaimed: "Yes! It's surprising to anybody who's read the book!"

Edited at 2015-09-14 06:46 pm (UTC)

"'I wouldn't be king for a hundred pounds,' says Alice." Seems a very sane attitude.

Alice is Alice. Aragorn is Aragorn. Unlike, as in the movie, he isn't.

The polar bear example is one of those interesting cause vs. diagnosis issues that I am writing about at tedious length. The question is what "because" means in your proposed revision sentence. If their solitary nature causes surprise at their sociability, then because is right. But if the evidence that their solitary nature comprises of an antisocial tendency is tested by their surprising sociability, then their sociability comes surprisingly, despite evidence to the contrary.

In other words:

As a sentence about cause, their solitary nature would cause us to imagine they're not social.

As a sentence about diagnosis, having diagnosed their solitary nature already and thus having cooperated in spreading their reputation for being solitary, it is surprising that despite this diagnosis they sometimes present what prima facie looks like evidence for an opposite cause, as though willfully contradicting the evidence.

"Because" hooks into how their solitary nature should cause us to respond.
"Despite" hooks into the way their solitary nature should cause them to act, and cause us to diagnosis them based on their usual actions.

Maybe, though, the weakness of the sentence as DA says it ought to be repaired thus: "Polar bears can be surprisingly sociable, despite their solitary reputation." That way the surprise isn't directly linked to their reputation as though the reputation causes the surprise; no, the reputation intensifies the surprise we have already been instructed to feel.

Despite my attempt to be helpful, you may....

I'm very grateful to you for untangling semantic warp from syntactic weft here. I do think it's quite an interesting example, in fact. I like your proposed sentence--

"Polar bears can be surprisingly sociable, despite their solitary reputation."

--but I think I'd probably rather render it simply:

"Despite their solitary reputation, polar bears can be sociable."

This way I don't refer to surprise, but rather invoke it rhetorically by providing a field of expectation against which the surprising fact can stand as starkly as a bear dropping in the Arctic tundra. I think the fundamental problem with DA's sentence is one of redundancy.

Hi, this thread is amazing. :D

If you need help, so do I. I regularly shout red-pen commentary at my TV set. Most often at poorly scripted commercials (apparently you do not need to be proficient in your target language to write ad copy), but increasingly also at newscasts and documentaries. I try to give it a break when there are interviews; if I'd get upset every time regular people open their mouths, things would get out of hand in no time ...

Lately, I have been watching a bunch of the recent American superhero TV shows (to keep up with what all the kids are talking about). Apparently young TV script writers these days are terribly anxious in regard to when to use the subjective and objective forms of pronouns. It's as if they know there is something about the "him and me"/"he and I" constructions that they should be aware of - something that people often get wrong – but they don't seem to know exactly what it is. What's interesting is that they over-correct, usually settling for subjective forms, "just in case". Especially "Between you and I, ..." makes my brain screech.

The subjunctive always lends a show a touch of class.

That's why people are so apt to use "that" instead of "who" for people these days. (I used to hang out on a teachers' discussion board, and they were constantly saying "I have a student that does so and so.") If you use "who," occasionally you have to know when to use "whom," and everything comes to a screeching halt.

Me*, I use "who" even with animals a lot of the time.

*Idiom! It's an idiom!

I hadn't thought of that, but I see what you mean. Although, many style guides and pop linguistic publications and bloggers argue that "whom" is archaic these days (which makes me sad, and I can't bring myself to stop using it).

As for "me" in that kind of emphatic use, I always thought of that as a disjunctive, like the French use "moi". I don't have a problem with it like that. Just like "Hi, it's me" sounds perfectly idiomatic and "Hi, it is I" like Count Dracula, making a phone call for the first time. :D

Edited at 2015-09-14 11:43 pm (UTC)

Jo Walton refuses to use "whom," except possibly for period flavor. (I forget whether she took my advice to make Ethel/Maia use "whom" in the Victorian-era bit of The Just City.)

Archaism depends on the background against which it's used. I've seen people complain that using "amongst" (as opposed to "among") is archaic and affected, but it's always been part of my habitual speech, and it would be affected for me not to use it.


My mother tongue is Swedish, and our grammarians and the like love to say that the subjunctive is dead in Swedish, which always makes my father and me look at each other funny because we both use those verb forms habitually in our everyday speech. Grammatical zombies.

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While formally incorrect, it's rather common in colloquial use. I guess I have just become so fully immersed in my second culture that some formal aspects of English have started to wear off.

I dare say no one else had any trouble understanding what I meant, and everyone else was polite enough not to point it out since "funny" is not the topic of discussion in this thread; but perhaps the concept of politeness is different where you live.

Hah! I've thought that ever since I first saw the word 'moi', which was in first year French class. No one believed me when I said 'It's me' was fine, it wasn't an objective 'me', it was like the French ... er, what is that word? Anyhow it's not bad grammar, it's phonetic! When it's out there by itself you want a strong sound. Etc.

English teachers wouldn't admit it, and the French teacher said I didn't understand the disjunctive. Sigh.

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Perhaps I should also send socks for Christmas, then your commas' toes won't succumb to hypothermia, rendering them comatose.