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Charles Butler hannibal at thegates.fsbusiness.co.uk
Fri Jan 23 18:34:50 EST 2004


> "It's this sort of attention to detail which makes the book so good, and
> feel so right."
>
> He would not (or possibly could not) accept that this might be other than
> absolutely clear, lucid and correct.  He said that it was exactly what he
> had written, and that if I thought it was other than right I was ignorant,
> and when I still failed to accept his explanations (what he meant was that
> the attention to detail made the book good, and felt right, but he wanted
> to have both the attention to detail and the book being the subject of the
> sentence simultaneously somehow), that I was stupid.  For some weeks
> thereafter he harked back to it, trying to convince me that the thing he
> had perpetrated was flawless use of English.

It's an interesting one. I think you're right, but I'd like to attempt in a
forensic spirit to reconstruct your ex-friend's thought processes. Suppose
he felt he had two things he wanted to say:

It's this sort of attention to detail which makes the book so good.
It's this sort of attention to detail which makes the book feel so right.

Rather than repeat himself (and thus incur Widdy's wrath) he decides to
combine these two ideas by making a list:

It's this sort of attention to detail which makes the book a) so good, and
b) feel so right.

There's a kind of logic to it, isn't there? So why does this sentence induce
feelings of queasiness? I think it's something to do with the fact that the
items in the list aren't grammatically comparable: one's an adjectival
phrase, one's a
verb phrase. One normally expects items on a list to be grammatically
similar, and the result is that on reaching the verb 'feel' (which signals
the beginning of a verb phrase) one takes it as a cue that one is reading a
list of verb
phrases, and tries to parse the sentence accordingly:

It's this sort of attention to detail which a) makes the book so good, and
b) feel so right.

Of course, when you do parse it this way, it is ungrammatical - and you want
to stick an 's' on 'feel'.

It's certainly a rotten sentence, though whether it's ungrammatical depends
on your definition. Are separate items in a list allowed to be different
grammatical units? I should think it's almost always a bad idea, but I've
also seen it used for comic effect - for example in the wartime description
of GIs as 'Overpaid, oversexed, and over here.'

By the way, how seriously do people take the 'which/that' distinction? On a
strict interpretation of that rule, your friend's sentence ought to have had
a 'that', anyway.

Charlie

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