Wednesday, August 20, 2008

the heaven of seven

Whatever my inclinations towards creative writing, I think I'm really an editor at heart. I draw this conclusion based on my irrepressible tendency to notice the grammatical and syntactical errors of others, and then annoy those others by correcting those errors or annoy myself by keeping quiet so as not to annoy those others. It's a tough life. "Forgive me as an old philologist," Nietzsche says at the opening of some paragraph or another in Beyond Good and Evil; my sentiments exactly (in the linguistics sense), except without the penetrating insights and unforgettable philosophy that follows when he says it. I love language and I love structure and I could write a whole essay about how actually English does retain cases and it is precisely because people don't understand this that they have so much trouble deciding when to use "I" instead of "me." I will not present that essay here, for which all should be grateful. But I will blab about the split infinitive for a bit.

I feel fairly confident in asserting that the split infinitive is a uniquely English screw-up. That is because English is unique in allowing for the infinitive to be split in the first place. The Romance languages all have unique verb endings to indicate the infinitive form - for instance "parler" for "to speak" as opposed to "parle" for "I speak." Attic Greek does the same thing. I haven't studied any German/Anglo-Saxon/whatever hybrid languages besides English, hence the uncertainty expressed above, but a quick search via the almighty Google tells me that German also uses one word to express what we English-speakers need two for.

This is getting more drawn-out than it should. The point is that English alone chops the idea of action without person into a pair of words, and once there is that first split it is all too easy to jam something else in between the "to" and the "[verb of choice]." This is a problem because somewhere along the way someone decided that to separate the parts of the infinitive any more than they already are greatly decreases the strength of the infinitive, and we're all about strength so this is an outcome we do not desire. That attitude actually makes sense, because the infinitive is a compact concept, and the more one spreads out what is by nature compact, the more diluted and weak-sauce it becomes, and we're all about strong-sauce, so this is also an outcome we do not desire, which may sound like it is the same outcome as before but is in fact totally different. To draw an analogy with magnets, when a straight magnet is cut in half perpendicular to its axis, the newly cut ends become magnetized and long to join once more, to be whole and complete again as once they were. But the more the two halves are pulled apart, the weaker the attraction becomes, until finally the beautiful whole is reduced to two broken pieces that just sit around all day watching bad stand-up and not accomplishing anything. Tragic.

Nonetheless it's somehow become easy to make this mistake, and in writing it is fortunately just as easy to correct it if one is paying attention. Usually adverbs are at fault - "to quietly sneak up" becomes "quietly to sneak up" or "to sneak up quietly" or "doesn't sneak up imply quietly?" I'm a proponent of correct syntax so of course I would think it sounds better the right way, but it really does sound better the right way. More professional and capable of benching a baby elephant. Much more difficult is to avoid split infinitives in speaking. I try to do this, and often succeed, but it's like trying to preserve the nominative-thingy that I forgot the name of and said I wasn't going to write about, and say "It is I" or (worse) "It's I" instead of "it's me" - certain habits of speech have become so deeply ingrained that to go against them just sounds silly, even if it's technically more correct. It's a losing battle and morality is low. But anyway, at least make sure the only split you enjoy while writing features a banana.

It's strange that we should ever have gotten to the point of having conciously to avoid (see what I did there?) split infinitives, though. My theory is that we are a people of action! and exclamation points! and because of the odd twist of linguistic fate that gave "to" an existence of its own as a verb of sorts, we have associated it with the essence of action, and we're so eager to get to the action that we do so before we've thought through the nature of the action. Actually one could elaborate this and say pure action has to bookend everything which is why the modifiers such as "quietly" and "quickly" and "greasily" (hmm) end up in the middle of the construction. Probably it is this same bias for action that explains that other very American habit of giving perfectly happy and innocent nouns new un-death as the verbal forces of darkness, and then going a step further and converting them into adverbs, which has resulted in such abominations as "impactful."

Anyway. I guess I ought to immediately and with no further ado but with generosity and the usual humor and wit in an impactful manner give you the latest episode of Ye Old Quest-a-Lot, huh? Featuring NEW(!) pre-episode plot synopsis (NEW)! (NEW!)

Part Seven

[, what is this called, anyway?: Our dauntless (because he doesn't know what it means) Hero has arrived on the top of a cliff overlooking a desolate land, his only company a large sign with some incomprehensible words about dragons. In his hand, a suspiciously-labeled spear he acquired from the proximity of said sign. On his person but fortunately not actually on his person, a magic potion with unknown effects from a quick-stepping witch. In his heart, the memory of his friend Stumpy and also an old confrontation with a giant of which his only memento is the handle from a counterfeit sword. Also, on the principle that the quickest way down the cliff face is by falling, he has lost his grip on the wall and plummeted, saving himself from certain pancake-dom only by deploying the grappling-hook attachment of his miraculously-reappeared pocketknife and swinging into a cave in the cliff face, which he is in the process of discovering has another occupant (the cave, not the face).]

"Dr. Livingstone, I presume?" said Hero, who was still a little dazed.

"Very funny," said the troll. "Give me one reason why I shouldn't throw you out on yer noggin and best be quick about it. And make it a good reason; I can't stand the other kind."

"Er," said Hero, "I don't suppose I could appeal to your generosity?"

"I suppose not," agreed the troll, "since I haven't got any. Generosity is a concept that must necessarily arise out of either philosophy, theology, or simple political science, and as a troll living the solitary life in a cliff out in the badlands I have little use for those particular branches of educated thought. I prefer poetry. Would you like to hear some?"

"Um." said Hero. "Is this going to be one of those situations where I can go to my death or comment on your poetry?"

"No no" said the troll "you'll be going to yer death regardless; but if you listen you might put it off a bit. Here's the first line."

He read it, which was a few musings on the interconnected nature of the rock and lichen and the psychology of the solitary mind, and also the inherent destructive bent of the elements. Hero listened with the sort of horrified fascination usually reserved for a train wreck. Then again, Hero wasn't much for poetry (remember his rejection of the love potion). When the troll, who had gotten carried away and read an entire two stanzas, finally left off, Hero searched desperately for means to prevent him starting up again. This sort of mental activity was unusual for Hero, but trials bring out the best in people. Inspiration struck.

"Don't you think," he ventured carefully, " that the drive to compose poetry is the clearest indicator of a bent towards religion and society? Troll and his god, troll and his love, sort of thing. Also it seems to me that in your ability to see the parallelism of life currents in the building blocks of nature you are in fact engaging in natural philosophy. I'm fairly certain that you do have a hidden wellspring of generosity and you're just embarrassed to admit it."

"I don't think so," said the troll. "Good effort, appealing to the drives behind my habits and whatnot, but sometimes its as simple as a rock's got to have a way to pass the time. It's not like there're many villages to terrorize or sheep to snatch, y'know. Anyway I'm ready for my daily composition but your presence, to which I am unaccustomed, is seriously damaging my calm and so I think I'll throw you out now."

Hero let him. It was easier that way, considering the alternative. But as the troll was booting him into the blue, under which there was all too much brown all too close, some instinct kicked in and Hero grabbed the tablet on which was chiseled the troll's verses.

On the whole trolls do not react quickly. When you're made of stone you can't afford to. But passion has remarkable effects and with a roar of rage the troll flipped from the edge of the cave and began running down the cliff face, which was so incredible that it's just as well Hero was preoccupied with the rapid approach of the ground and couldn't devote his full attention to the feat, thus saving his particular brand of sanity.

Of course, trolls aren't exactly use to this sort of behavior either and so when the troll had caught up with the plummeting Hero, jumped out into the abyss and caught him up in order to administer some poetic justice, it occured to the former that there was a more pressing matter to be dealt with and of course his thought-process hadn't sped up along with his reflexes and so by the time he'd gotten done with this realization, there was the ground and the troll smashed right into it with Hero cradled safely in his massive hands.

Hero was starting to wonder when he was going to see some respite from heavy impacts in his wanderings, but he jumped out of the stunned troll's hands and with a cheerful "thanks!" he laid the tablet in his place and set off. By the time the troll had shaken off his daze and gotten to his feet and composed a few verses about how mighty and solid was the ground, and how the species trollus mountainus was clearly the superior class of being through solidarity, Hero was long gone.


to be continued...

P.S. I've got a great comic in mind for tomorrow. They only get funnier, I promise. Be sure to check in.

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