Saturday, September 07, 2013

The dead hand of zombie rules

So there I was, reviewing the literature and feeling all virtuous for being several hundred words downstream on a paper that doesn't even have to be presented until November, when this sentence comes into view:

We assume that such message definitions are an integral part of the information that people use in making decisions about what messages and programs to which they will expose themselves.

I don't think people write like that deliberately, and the more time I spend watching stuff go into the machinery of academic publishing, the more I suspect the hand of a copy editor on whose too much time is had. In this case, rather than just being hyper-pedantic, it looks actually wrong. Counting on my linguist friends to step in with the real explanation, this looks like a mutating McCartney preposition -- in this case, a McCartney determiner.

"What" and "which" in the underlined clause are doing the same thing. They're question determiners that become declarative when you replace them with, say, "these":

What messages do you like?
I like these messages
To which messages do you expose yourself?
I expose myself to these messages

"Expose" here wants two objects, not one -- you can say "I expose myself" if you want, but without that other complement, it's going to be a long afternoon for you at the cop shop. Pick another verb -- "watch" -- that only needs one object, and things are easier:

... decisions about what messages and programs they watch.

Or replace the "what" with a "the":

 ... decisions about the messages and programs to which they will expose themselves. 

Either way, you get a good clause and avoid the double-dip determiner. 

It'd be great if authors -- particularly those with the rank and status to get away with it -- would start writing phrases like "the messages and programs they expose themselves to" and demanding explanations when the poor unoffending preposition is moved. I don't mean to suggest wholesale harassment of copy editors, who suffer enough as it is. I do think their job would be easier (and the writers' mission less frustrating) if its expectations didn't include the enforcement of zombie rules, particularly when those rules result in errors.

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Blogger The Ridger, FCD said...

particularly when those rules result in errors

Hear, hear!

10:20 AM, September 08, 2013  

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