Sunday, 3 January 2016

Americans and their words

The reason I find the occasional eccentricities of their English baffling is that Americans often make excellent use of the language. 

Here’s the opening of John Grisham’s The Litigators:

The law firm of Finley & Figg referred to itself as a “boutique firm.” This misnomer was inserted as often as possible into routine conversations, and it even appeared in print in some of the various schemes hatched by the partners to solicit business. When used properly, it implied that Finley & Figg was something above your average two-bit operation. Boutique, as in small, gifted and expert in one specialized area. Boutique, as in pretty cool and chic, right down to the Frenchness of the word itself. Boutique, as in thoroughly happy to be small, selective and prosperous.

Except for its size, it was none of these things.

Better written than one might expect
Why do I like this writing?

Firstly, I find it refreshing that Grisham breaks a couple of my own taboos. Repetition, for instance, as in using the word “firm” twice in quick succession. I go out of my way to avoid such repetition. He’s also relaxed about the passive (“was inserted”) which I try to avoid, on the grounds that active verbs are more dynamic. Or so I’ve been taught.

Secondly, the simplicity of the style is engaging. “Two-bit”, “pretty cool” – the language is everyday and familiar. The last three sentences don’t even have a main verb. And Grisham avoids pompous words. Indeed, the only moderately recherché word is “boutique”, but its Frenchness and slightly high-flown tone make his point. You might perhaps quibble about “misnomer”, not perhaps a common term, but it’s hard to imagine anything to replace it without a long and clumsy periphrase.

This understated style is an ideal I pursue. It feels like no style at all, letting the reader apparently straight through to the meaning underneath.

It’s only simple in appearance, however. Those last three sentences represent a classic trick of rhetoric, the rule of three ending in a cadence. Compare it with the Churchill speech:

Never in the field of human conflict
was so much
owed by so many
to so few.

It’s a powerful device of the best orators. And Grisham even closes by including a second set of three within the first: “small, selective and prosperous.”

Then he opens a paragraph with a short, punchy sentence that undermines everything he has said before. It all adds up to an effective hook to draw the reader into the rest of the book. Which, incidentally, I enjoyed.

If your taste is for something more elevated, you could do worse than turn to Carl Sandburg. He was a poet but also the author of a fine biography of Lincoln. He describes a young Civil War soldier discovering the body of another that had been left for a year sitting apparently at ease against a tree, and tells us:

He had interrupted a silence where the slants of silver moons and the music of varying rains kept company with the one against the tree who sat so speechless, though having so much to say.

The use of the word “slants” is a poet’s touch: it’s unclear that there’s such a thing as a “slant”, but perfectly clear what he means. In addition, the sentence has a single comma, dividing the long flow of description of the physical scene from the last few words – another cadence – that add a new dimension to the scene and make it representative of far more than itself.

Americans make use of the language as well as any English speaker. That’s why I find it difficult to understand the bizarre turns of phrase they sometimes adopt.

Why do they visit with, or meet with, people? You can hardly meet or visit anyone without them, can you? So what’s wrong with simply visiting or meeting them?

They can be clever about filling gaps in the language. British English has no expression corresponding to French “bon appétit.” The Americans have turned to “enjoy”, a generally transitive word used intransitively, to make up for this deplorable lack. I’ve adopted it with enthusiasm.

I wish they’d come up with some way of expressing the distinction between “connaître” and “savoir” in French, or “kennen” and “wissen” in German: it’s the difference between knowing a person and knowing a fact. The absence of a distinction in English allows us to play on words, as in “I know about him, but I don’t know him”, but the language is still poorer for not marking this real distinction.

Similarly, it’s an irritating gap in English that we have no single word for the opposite of “behind”. The French have “devant” to go with “derrière”, the Germans have “vor” as they have “hinter”. All we have is the laborious circumlocution “in front of.” With their creative approach to language, I’d have expected the Americans to come up with a bright translation for “vor” or “devant”. But they’ve done the opposite. They’ve used “in front of” as a template, to give us the equally ugly and unwieldy “in back of”, as an alternative to “behind.”

A disappointing lack of imagination, if I may be allowed the criticism.

Still, it’s nothing like as awful as the expression I came across the other day. I was informed that something had been “based off of” something else.

Now, with an expression that is essentially an image – “based” is being used metaphorically – there ought to be some link to the reality behind it (or in back of it?) If you’re off it, you’re certainly not using it as a base.

As for off of, whatever is the point of the second preposition? If something’s off its base, what more need be said? Surely it’s off your head to add that “of”? Or off of it.

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