Editor at Large

National Grammar Day: Exploring Unbeknownst

Happy National Grammar Day, loyal blog readers!

Before you read today’s entry, why not have a look at some previous posts on grammar, including our illustrious president’s most talked-about mistake?

Today I explore a comment left about the proper usage of unbeknownst by John Carlson.

John asks:

Can one use “unbeknownst” without the “to” that customarily follows, as in: For ten years, the waste flowed, untreated and unbeknownst, directly to the river?

An Uncommon Question

I’m already loving John because he has capitalized the “for” above: since he’s written a full sentence following the colon, with a question mark, this is correct. The full interrogative sentence after the colon is, in fact, the only occasion on which I too capitalize the first word that follows the colon. So a big wordy highfive from me, John.

I was completely flummoxed by John’s excellent actual question, however. We now know that one can use both unbeknown and unbeknownst without incurring the wrath of the grammar brigade, but what about that all-important preposition, to, that usually comes after?

It’s certainly an uncommon and unexpected usage. But is it legitimate?

A Matter of Style

My first instinct would be to say no–not because of any grammatical error, but because it would be redundant. Why argue that the waste flowed unbeknownst, when unknown would get the job done so much less syllabically?

But what if John is an aspiring novelist, who wants to use this uncommon formation to make a stylistic statement? “Untreated and unbeknownst” has a certain anapestic ring to it. Could he make this choice and stay on safe grammatical footing?

Apparently not.

While John’s question is so uncommon that there is little on the subject to be found (Fowler’s has no opinion, the concise online Oxford is terse), the scarce information out there shows that “to” is a necessary evil–an essential part of the unbeknownst construction. Old faithful M-W defines the word as

happening or existing without the knowledge of someone specified

and while it merely suggests a usual use of “to”, how else would you point to that someone specified? The questionable source of (currently running a dubious banner ad for the U.S. green card lottery–they certainly know their audience) is the most sure of itself:

adj. (formal) (cannot stand alone) unbeknownst to

Diclib’s cited source here is the unfamiliar “Bbi Combinatory Dictionary of English,” so be warned.

All in all, I would steer clear of unbeknownst without the preposition, John. Unless you’re writing poetry or embarking on a one-man language-change campaign, a lonely unbeknownst is, most likely, a misbegotten one.

Or is that misbegot?

Editor at Large

Watchwords for 2009: SWAN

Scientists at Stony Brook University in New York have found that 1 in 10 long-term couples experiences true love, as far as an fMRI can show it. Jake Young of Pure Pedantry explains why this is so much journalistic fluff. But the researchers are right about one thing: by referring to these true lovers as “swans,” they’re using a term we may hear a lot more of this year.

Ride On, Black Swan

One of the main reasons I think you’ll be reading about swans in 2009 is Nassim Nicholas Taleb. This hyperconfident public intellectual wrote a book in 2007 called The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, whose success put him in Tipping Point territory. Taleb uses the term “Black Swan” to describe those moments in history that define a generation and defy ex post facto explanation: Black Monday on Wall Street in 1987, the 9/11 attacks, World War I.

The bubble burst of 2008 means that Taleb’s term will continue to appear in the press as a synonym for the worldwide slowdown that nobody saw coming. Nobody’s seen anything like the global depression that seems to be bearing down upon us.

But to me that wasn’t a black swan; it was a white swan. I knew it would happen and I said so. It was a black swan to Ben Bernanke. I wouldn’t use him to drive my car.

Once upon a time, Europeans thought that all swans were white. A single black swan was all it would have taken to invalidate the theory–and that’s exactly what explorers found, flocks even, in Australia.

Swanning Around

If you thought that Obama post was my swan song, think again. I’ll be diving back in (a swan dive?) this year with new posts and new features.

Until next time, keep an eye out in the media for all manner of swan puns and black swan sightings. You may see a lot of them in 2009.

Editor at Large Policy Politics

A Victory For Eloquence

President Obama

Congratulations, President-Elect Obama!

Editor at Large

Communicate With Your Clients in THEIR Native Language — Not Yours!

If you e-mail me when I’m on vacation, you’ll probably receive a message in English back. When I’m traveling, I’m often too pressed for time to figure out a grammatically perfect way to express my unavailability in German. I’ll set up a message saying something like,

Thank you for your e-mail. I will be in New York on business until September 10, 2008, which means that it may take me slightly longer to reply to your message than usual. Please be assured that I will reply as soon as possible.

It’s true that my clients are not native English speakers. But it’s better than no auto-reply at all, right?

Not always!

A town council in Swansea, Wales, took a Welsh auto-reply from a translator and put it up on a road sign!

The full story is here.

Editor at Large

For Those Whom Care…

This is not stuffy schoolmarmishness. This is, for now at least, the way standard written English is supposed to work.

You said it, NYT.

Philip B. Corbett’s refresher course is designed for those who, like me, still get confused by the who/whom distinction : is it just for indirect objects (to whom) or any object at all? Sometimes speaking three other languages just makes it more confusing to remember the rules (or lack of them) in English.

Head over to After Deadline, the Times’ occasional behind-the-scenes blog, for some great examples.

Editor at Large

Unbeknown or Unbeknownst?

By the third time I noticed unbeknown in somebody’s English, I knew it was time to take action.

First stop: that U.S. English stalwart, Merriam-Webster. I smugly tapped in “unbeknown”, expecting to see M-W’s usual nonjudgmental response:

The word you’ve entered isn’t in the dictionary.

A Mistaken Mistake?

Color me surprised — or don’t, since that might be mixing metaphors: Merriam-Webster lists “unbeknown” as a variant of “unbeknownst.”

That’s right: unbeknownst to me, “unbeknown” has been an acceptable usage all along.

But let’s not just take M-W’s word for it. Not only is it important to use multiple sources, I also work into American and British English – which means that now I had to make sure that “unbeknownst,” what I’d been using all along, was actually okay to employ on either side of the Atlantic.

Covering the Bases

Luckily for me, Lynne Murphy of separated by a common language got there first. In a strange coincidence, her post was made on September 22, 2007 – almost exactly a year ago today. She writes:

John Algeo discusses this phrase in his book British or American English? Searching the Cambridge International Corpus, he found 3.0 instances of unbeknown but only 0.9 instances of unbeknownst per ten million words in BrE texts. On the other hand, he found 4.1 per ten million of unbeknownst and only 1.0/10,000,000 of unbeknown in AmE texts.

In layman’s terms, that means my hunch was right: “unbeknownst” is probably a red flag in British English! I checked the British National Corpus (remember them?) just to be sure, and out of 100 million words, there are 44 instances of “unbeknown” versus just 11 for “unbeknownst.” That’s just about exactly the inverse of what Algeo found in his American English source texts.

Of course, that still makes either usage fairly uncommon – so it’s pretty incredible that a few native U.S. English speakers have noticed the difference at all!

So the next time you use “unbeknownst” (I’m sure you hit it at least once a year), remember to decode it for your British friends, lest they think you’ve made a mistake!

Editor at Large

The Running of the Brides?

or How to Tell When You Really Need an Editor, Part II:

XYZ Hotel & Spa presents an elegant bridal open house that offers you a rare opportunity to tour our one-of-a-kind banquet rooms and the world famous St. Francis Chapel in full wedding attire.

A special event for those brides who aren’t sure whether their gowns will fit through the door.

Editor at Large Policy Politics

Of Course McCain Knows Who Zapatero Is…Right?

I’ve listened to the English interview that John McCain did with Yoli (Yoly, if you read the Washington Post account) Cuello of Radio Caracol. The Republican presidential candidate does do a good job of acting as if he knows exactly what he’s saying, although he does hit those talking points annoyingly hard.

It’s only if you study the transcript that McCain really does seem as if he might be mistaking Zapatero for a leader from somewhere in the southern hemisphere:

…all I can tell you is that I have a clear record of working with leaders in the hemisphere that are friends with us, and standing up to those who are not, and that’s judged on the basis of the importance of our relationship with Latin America, and the entire region.

The newsworthy part is that even after Cuello ensures that McCain understands that she’s talking about Spain, an issue that her director notes she was encouraged to ask about because “we’re owned by this big company in Spain,”, he repeats the same answer:

I am willing to meet with any leader who is dedicated to the same principles and philosophy that we are for human rights, democracy and freedom, and I will stand up to those that do not.

Bush Between The Lines

George W. Bush has never met with President Zapatero personally or invited him to the White House. Zapatero’s Socialist party (PSOE) wrenched power from the conservative Popular Party (PP) after the Madrid bombings occurred just before the election. I remember the masses of people who turned out in Barcelona’s Plaça Catalunya to protest when they thought the PP was stonewalling the investigation. I was among them.

Once he took office, Zapi pulled Spain’s troops out of Iraq, just as he had promised. And Bush gave him the cold shoulder.

Does McCain’s canned response hide an explicit message to his supporters? Can they count on him not just to continue Bush’s grudges, but to increase them?

The Spanish Catch It

Not only is McCain being ambiguous here, he seems to be flip-flopping as well – but you wouldn’t know it unless you read the Spanish newspaper El País.

That’s why I’ve translated some relevant coverage from Spanish into English here for your enjoyment. El País is owned by the same “big company in Spain”, Grupo Prisa, that controls Radio Caracol.

These declarations from McCain contrast with the ones he made to EL PAÍS last April, when he said that, “it’s time to leave behind discrepancies with Spain.” He added, “I would like for [President Zapatero] to visit the United States.” Yesterday diplomatic media attributed the Republican candidate’s attitude to confusion, since the interview centered on relations with Latin America and the reporter had to remind him that Spain is a European country when he insisted on using Mexico as an example. In the best case it would be evidence of his ignorance with respect to Zapatero.

The emphasis on that last quote is mine, of course. As Kos says, you can’t make this stuff up.

Editor at Large

How to Tell When You Really Need An Editor

I just found this fantastic video from Taylor Mali to show “The the Impotence of Proofreading.”

Have a look, and a laugh, on this sleepy August Thursday.

Editor at Large

Why European Subtitles Can Be Cringeworthy

Guy La Roche at A Fistful of Euros is a career subtitler. I have subtitled a few indie movies, but most of the subtitling work in Europe is on English-language films. As a native English speaker and translator, that leaves me out.

La Roche has a great explanation of why the subtitles on a film may not be equal to the dialogue:

First of all, people process spoken information faster than written information. Subtitles follow the pace of spoken language. The amount of text used in subtitles therefore needs to be reduced so that the reading speed matches the speed of the dialogue. The faster a character speaks, the more the translator needs to reduce his text. Most of the time it is simply impossible to do a word for word translation. You, the people who watch tv and movies, simply cannot read fast enough. It is your fault, not the subtitler’s.

But I’m a fast reader, you say.

It doesn’t matter.

According to a Belgian study years ago the average television viewer’s literacy level was estimated, if I remember correctly, to be that of a… fourteen year old!

If that Belgian study was years ago, and some teenagers prefer reading on the Internet to reading books, will subtitles have to change too?