Friday, February 20, 2009

As for that...

Is pedantry pointless? Well, obviously I don't think so, given that I make a living from being at least something of a pedant (although not as much as you might think; some editors spend their lives banging their heads against the wall of usage, but not me).

One of my least favourite usages is "as" for "because". (I'm not fond of "since" either, but don't get me started.) The least of my complaints about that usage is that it is rarely euphonious, but that's a minor consideration. Much more important is that it often creates ambiguity.

Look at this:

"As I saw him, I shouted his name."

This sentence means either "at the same time as seeing him, I was shouting his name" or "seeing him caused me to shout his name". These are very different meanings and the sentence is hopelessly ambiguous.

The ambiguity is rarely that clear, but it often exists nonetheless, particularly if you begin a sentence with "As". Some do this because their idiot teachers told them not to begin sentences with "because".

There is nothing wrong with "because". It's not "special" in some way, so that you can't use it to begin a sentence, and any objection to beginning one with it would equally apply to "as". The reason people were told this is that, in formal English, while "Because it was raining, I took an umbrella" is a sentence, "Because it was raining" is not, even if you are answering the question "Why did you take an umbrella?" But so long as you write a complete sentence, it's fine to begin with "because".

One of the authors I'm currently working with has a serious case of the "As" disease. He begins many of his sentences with "As" (which I correct on every occasion to "Because", prompting him to ask me to change every instance back, which makes me smile because there's nothing like a man and his pet usage).

However, I have to explain to him that doing so creates an expectation in the reader, which renders this sentence ambiguous:

"As the war in Europe approached its end, the situation became ever more favourable to the advancement of Japan's imperial ambitions."

If you consistently use "As" to mean "Because", the reader is led to understand this sentence to mean that the situation became ever more favourable to the advancement of Japan's imperial ambitions becausethe war in Europe approached its end. That may be true, but what he actually means is that it became more favourable pari passu with the ending of the war. Using "As" for "Because" destroys this usage, and would necessitate rewriting this sentence to remove the ambiguity. If he used "because" consistently, he would not face this problem.

I like careful demarcation of words, where possible, because doing so retains distinctiions of meaning that are useful. Diminishing the toolbox has never struck me as wise for people who wish to communicate. So I always correct "as" when it means "because" and most writers don't notice or care. But I care, so I am not keen on changing it back. Note, above all, that if you never use "as" to mean "because", the reader has no expectation that you intend that usage, and even a sentence such as "As I saw him, I shouted his name" is functionally unambiguous.


At 7:48 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

boots sez:

'Note, above all, that if you never use "as" to mean "because", the reader has no expectation that you intend that usage, and even a sentence such as "As I saw him, I shouted his name" is functionally unambiguous.'

AS I read your sentence I breathed a sign of relief, because I was becoming worried that I might have to find a replacement for "as" in its temporal sense.

Wish I may, wish I might, know how the hell to decently write. When for example to use "that" as opposed to "which". Being slightly (?) fucktarded I use 'that' to point and 'which' to tell which one, mostly. But I think the whole bit was covered in a level of schooling to which I was denied entrance. Alas, poor me.

At 9:47 am, Blogger Dr Zen said...

Use "that" to distinguish in classes and "which" to add information.

"The dog that barked..." Which dog? the one that barked.

"The dog, which barked..." You already know which dog, and here is some information about the dog you are already aware of.

I'll post something more about it.

At 7:30 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

boots sez:

"I'll post something more about it." [that/which]

Your doing so would be most appreciated, it still seems a bit subtle and murky to me.

At 7:32 pm, Blogger Sopwith-Camel said...

"Because you're young, you'll meet a stranger some night"

Bowie agrees with you, Doctor. (and that is not a song abut dogging.)

But I. myself, would not be paying quite so much attention to the "as-es" and the "'cozzes" of the pieces in question. We all read in different ways. In your two examples given, I do not think I would have been mislead when I read them. I might even, (in fact I *would*), have been amused and entertained by any double-meanings that the usage had stirred up in my head.

I would have laughed at the Protocols of the Elders of Sion, not taken the meanings literally and become an anti-semite.

I wonder if you aren't perhaps protecting us too much? But, I know, you are the scholar-monk charged by your employers with steering us along the paths of righteous entertainment. Aad the world has an alarming number of souls in it who will, robot-like, react to the literal sense of what they read, without having a quiet think and a chuckle before moving on.

At 9:48 am, Blogger Dr Zen said...

You can't read many books if you stop and think about each sentence.

At 7:44 pm, Blogger Sopwith-Camel said...

Dr Zen wrote "You can't read many books if you stop and think about each sentence."

Quite. That was my point about the sentences used: I myself might have noticed them briefly, because I tend to read things at least twice; but millions of other readers wouldn't have seen or cared. Unless you are saying, (and if so, then I not only agree with what you say but understand why you do that editing thing), that the reader often takes in things without being aware that they have taken them in on any conscious level. But then, much as I would love to be right for once in my life, I know that, as always, I am totally wrong.

At 9:58 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

S-C wrote,

"...I know that, as always, I am totally wrong."

At least you have that bit right so what's become of your sum?

At 12:54 pm, Blogger Dr Zen said...

For most of us, the construction meaning is unconscious, and has been since we were four or five years old. HTH.


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