11 January 2012

'only' peeving on the comics

i read all of my daily comic strips online now.  one of the serious downsides to this is that gocomics.com has a comments thread(!) on every single strip that they post.  they don't generate the same type of bottom-dwelling stuff as youtube comments, but they are some of the most mirthless places on the internet.  nothing is worse than going all Van Hœt on something that's just supposed to be harmless fun.  so i wasn't surprised, but still baffled when i saw this response to a Frazz comic a few weeks ago:

misplaced a modifier? what? i wasn't even familiar with this language peeve. yesterday i was catching up on my RSS backlog, and found a post about "The elusive 'misplaced only'" on Jan Freeman's blog Throw Grammar From The Train. it details how this peeve works: basically people swear up and down about a relationship between linear order and scope involving only, despite the fact that English doesn't work that way.

so the "only fetishists" would like Caulfield to put only immediately preceding heartburn, because they are blinded by dogma and can't see that it modifies the entire VP. all in spite of the fact that putting it there makes the sentence actually sound worse. in other contexts it would sound worser and worser. compare the following constructed sentences, also using heartburn just for fun.
my uncle went to the ER yesterday because he thought he was having a heart attack…

but it turned out he only had heartburn.
?but it turned out he had only heartburn.
moving only makes the sentence sound worse.  put it in the progressive and it becomes even more terrible: he was having only heartburn??  not modern English. so no, our only conclusion here is that neither Caulfield nor Jef Mallett misplaced a modifier.  he put it exactly where it's supposed to go.

09 January 2012

"un reality" and unreality

today, the following bit of Italian headlinese came across the tubes to my RSS reader:

Napoli, presentato Vargas: "Mi sembra di essere in un reality"

the post is about a new acquisition of the soccer team in Naples, and his reaction to arriving in the city. the quote in the headline appears to be "I seem to be in a reality." this would be a decidedly odd thing to say in English — some sort of metaphysical claim.

but actually, it's just the result of a creative borrowing from English. if we were talking about reality vs. fantasy, there's no doubt that the headline would have used the word realtà or verità. (note that i have absolutely no idea what Vargas actually said; the quote is given in a different form later in the article, although still including the word reality, and it may be translated from his native Spanish.)

so what is un reality? it's a reality TV show. wordreference.com even has a separate Italian to English entry for reality indicating this. Italian has a propensity for this type of clip-and-borrow process, often taking just the attributive piece of a phrase or compound, and they turn up very frequently in headlinese, where space is at a premium. (another famous example is Italian basket for English basketball, which is more common than the native pallacanestro.)

perhaps more interesting than the morphological process here, though, is the semantic shift. Vargas' use of un reality clearly indicates that the content of un reality is anything but reality! replace reality with sogno 'dream' or fantasia 'fantasy' and the sentence means basically the same thing. of course, the blame for making a compositional phrase that can easily shift to mean the opposite probably falls more on English here, but Italian helps to obfuscate the process. i'm sure if we start using a reality to mean a fantasy in English, peevers will tell us that it's just another sign that 2012 is certainly the end of days. i guess we'll just have to wait and see what the realtà turns out to be.