The Grumpy Grammarian: Things I Read Lately

All About, Like, Recur

Reading Entertainment Weekly, #1294 (January 17, 2014), p. 39, in a section about returning/premiering shows (in this case 24: Live Another Day), I came across this sentence, which kinda stopped me dead: “Yep, Mary Lynn Rajskub is back (as is Kim Raver), and Judy Davis will recur as the widow of a notorious terrorist."

Now, I’ve never followed 24, so it wasn’t the mention of Mary Lynn Rajskub or Kim Raver (neither of whom I know) that got me. And, even though I know of and like Judy Davis, the fact that she’ll be playing “the widow of a notorious terrorist” wasn’t what stopped me dead.

It’s the clause “Judy Davis will recur” that got me.

Have you ever seen a construction like this in your life? Now, maybe I’m nuts, but--although you can talk about a recurring character on a TV show--I don’t think that people can “recur.” Events recur.

Perhaps the writer (Lynette Rice) is congratulating herself on her turn of phrase; perhaps she’s hoping to spur an all-new use for the verb. Or perhaps she’s not familiar enough with the language to know that her usage is incorrect.

I don’t mean to pick on Ms. Rice, who is probably a nice person and a good writer and who may have merely slipped up as she was scrambling to make a deadline--but I wish that she or her editor might have caught the mistake. (To be charitable, I’m treating it as a mistake rather than something deliberate.) However, I fear that the majority of writers and editors at EW are youngish and may be inured to the many infelicities that have crept into the language. I can’t tell you how many times I read “feel like” in EW’s pages--almost always when it shouldn’t be “feel like” but should be “feel that” or just “feel.”

It’s bad enough when, in interviews, the interviewers quote (verbatim, I’m sure) this or that celebrity who says s/he “feels like” (“I feel like we made a good movie”; “I feel like people are always correcting my grammar”). You can (perhaps) forgive such lapses as attempts to quote accurately (though it’s been my experience that an interviewee never objects if you “clean up” and regularize his/her language so that s/he doesn’t sound like a nincompoop)--but, when the writers themselves use “feel like” incorrectly, they have no one to blame but themselves.

We’ve gone over this before, but I’ll mention it again. One can “feel like” if what follows “like” is a noun--the object of a prepositional phrase starting with like:

“I feel like a million.”
“I feel like throttling you for saying ‘like’ so much.”
“I feel like a fool for saying ‘like’ so much.”

One cannot “feel like” if what follows is a subordinate clause:

“I feel like I’m getting the hang of this like usage now.” [Wrong. You’re not.]
“I feel that I’m getting the hang of this like usage now.” [Right.]
“I feel I’m getting the hang of this like usage now.” [Also right.]

Okay--I’ve brought up two things here. I didn’t mean to go off on a like tangent, but I felt I had to (not “felt like I had to”).

It’s just a guess, but I suspect that people incorrectly use “like” after “feel” and “think” because they’re so used to sticking “like” into their conversations these days--as “filler,” the way earlier generations might have inserted “um” or “uh” (or “you know,” as HWA newsletter editor, Kathy Ptacek, reminded me--—though she shouldn’t have had to because that’s what my generation said/says a lot):

“I’m, like, sick and tired of hearing like so often.”
“And he’s like, ‘I’m, like, wow!’ And I’m like, ‘I’m, like, wow, too!’ And he’s like, ‘Like, do you want to, like, do it again?’”

(Did I ever tell you about what my older daughter, when she was in junior high, heard a classmate say? A teacher asked him why he didn’t have his homework, and he answered, “My, like, dog ate it”--not “My dog, like, ate it”; he couldn’t even be incorrect correctly!)

I’m not trying to ban “like” from the language. We all use it on occasion as “filler”--it’s automatic, inadvertent, unavoidable. But the overuse of “like” in that context--and the misuse of “like” with “feel” and “think” is too much for me.

If you’re game, you might try an experiment sometime: you could see if you could, for one day--one hour--avoid the word “like” except in its proper context (as a verb--“I like that”; as a preposition--“like lightning,” “like a poke in the eye with a sharp stick,” etc.; or, more infrequently, as a noun--well, maybe not so infrequently in these days of Facebook “likes”). Of course, this attempt would mean that you would need to know the difference between a prepositional phrase and a subordinate clause--but you know that difference, don’t you?

Or maybe you’d prefer to make a drinking game of it. Get together with some friends (designate a sober driver) and do shots every time someone within earshot uses “like” as filler or incorrectly. See how quickly you get drunk. I’m sure, in the proper circumstances (i.e., practically anytime), everybody in your party would be, like, smashed in under 15 minutes.

Now, the other thing is this: consider recur. In what context does the word recur? When should it be used? You wouldn’t say, “He recurs at all my parties (and he’s such a bore),” would you? (I mean, he might be a bore, but you’d be more likely to say he “shows up at” or “appears at”--or crashes--my parties rather than “recurs,” right?) I maintain that people cannot recur, just as they cannot occur. (“Was he born?” “No, he just occurred.”--That can’t be right. Can it?)

I await your findings. I’m willing to be convinced, though I don’t think I will be.

One Little Sentence, So Many Mistakes

In Detroit, there’s an area called the Cultural Center. (Well, it used to be called the Cultural Center--now everyone on local radio and TV refers to it as “mid-town,” which may say something about the state of culture in my fair city.)

It’s called the Cultural Center because, in the space of several blocks, it houses Wayne State University, the Detroit Public Library (main branch), the Detroit Institute of Arts (whose artworks Detroit’s Emergency Manager has suggested selling off), the Detroit Historical Museum, the Children’s Museum, the International Institute, and--a little further toward downtown, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra (once one of the ten best orchestras in the country but which the administration has succeeded in turning into one that’s not).

The Detroit Institute of Arts has a theatre, out of which operates the Detroit Film Theatre, now in its fortieth year. For four decades, the DFT has been showing the latest foreign films, independent American movies, and classic Hollywood and world cinema.

In the last few years, the DFT has been doing what I assume some other venues have been doing, too--showing, about a month before the awards ceremony itself, a program of the 10 Oscar-nominated short films (five animated and five live-action). It offers die-hard moviegoers a chance to see pictures that they otherwise know of only through the almost subliminal clips that are rapidly projected onscreen on the night of the Oscars.

I’m happy that the DFT does this, and I’m happy that the DFT has such a long and noble history of offering film fare to metro-Detroit--and that it’s part of such a venerable institution as the DIA. However, whoever writes the liner notes for the flyers that the DFT puts out needs a lot of help. Here’s a sentence that I saw on the flyer for the February 9, 2014, showing of the Academy Award-Nominated Short Films:

“FYI Do to the historical value of the theatre house and its seats, NO gum, NO food and NO drinks are allowed inside of the theatre, however bottled water is permitted.”

What’s wrong with this sentence? (What’s right with it?)

1. First of all, for your information, “FYI” needs a colon.

2. “Do to”? Really? It’s “due to.”

(Of course, I’m not so sure that “due to the historical value of the theatre house and its seats” is a particularly good--or accurate--phrase. “Because of” is probably better. The theatre itself is a beautiful, old-style movie palace, built around 1928, I believe. But the seats ... well, I’ve been coming to the DFT for all of its forty years [I’m old], and I can tell you that, for years, the seats were torture to sit on. Try watching a three-hours-plus movie like Coppola’s THE GODFATHER (1972), Jacques Rivette’s CELINE ET JULIE VA EN BATEAU (1974), or Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1900 (1977), and you’ll see what I mean. A few years back, they “replaced” the seats, and I was hoping for the best--but they didn’t fix the springs--they merely reupholstered the seats in newer fabric. So the endurance aspect of sitting in that theatre remains.)

3. Unless you’re British or writing for the New York Times, you need to use the last comma in a series (the one before and or or): “NO gum, NO food, and NO drinks."

4. I’ve been having a discussion with Editor Ptacek about constructions like “off of” and whether they’re correct. (More about that in a later column, I hope.) It seems to me that there’s probably a time and place for “inside of”--and a time when just “inside” will do. This seems to be one of those times.

5. And the punctuation sucks at the end of the sentence. There’s a comma splice and then a missing comma necessary to set off the subordinating adverb however.

Need I elaborate? (That’s a rhetorical question; you know I’m going to, anyway.)

“No drinks are allowed inside the theatre” is an independent clause that could stand alone as a sentence. “Bottled water is permitted” is an independent clause that could stand alone as a sentence.

“... NO drinks are allowed inside the theatre. However, bottled water is permitted.”

The writer may choose to link these two independent clauses in a single sentence, but s/he’s got to do it correctly:

“... NO drinks are allowed inside the theatre; however, bottled water is permitted.”

“... NO drinks are allowed inside the theatre, but bottled water is permitted.”

In the first instance, the writer uses a semi-colon to join the clauses. In the latter, s/he uses a comma and a coördinating conjunction (but, which replaces “however”).

You can see, I trust, why “however” must be set off by a comma.

For one thing, it can be moved; you can put it in various places in the sentence, and the meaning will remain unchanged:

“... however, bottled water is permitted.”

“... bottled water, however, is permitted.”

“... bottled water is, however, permitted.” [However, this placement is awkward.]

“... bottled water is permitted, however.”

In the above constructions, however is the equivalent of “nevertheless” (or “but”). And it requires a comma (or two), either before, before and after, or after (depending on its placement in the sentence).

But however has other meanings--“in whatever manner,” “to whatever degree.”

“You are not going out with that bum, however [or “however much”] you might want to.” [to whatever degree]

“I’m going to teach you the difference between however and however however I can.” [in whatever manner]

The adverb however in the above two examples does not take a comma. I hope you can see that, by not using a comma with however, the DFT-flyer writer was saying something different from what s/he wanted to say (and making no sense): “however bottled water is permitted” means “in whatever manner bottled water is permitted.” I’m sure I could come up with a sentence in which that construction made sense (maybe “I don’t like it when bottled water is drunk, however bottled water is permitted”), but this one is not it.

Thank you, and good day.
-- Anthony Ambrogio (