Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Let the sunshone in

Resolved, that the first two default answers to any "Ask the Editor" question should be:
  • Did you look it up?
  • OK, did you toss a coin? Then do that.
If the answer to (a) is "yes, and both forms show up a lot in standard usage," then (b) is often the solution that will let you spend your editing time on something important. But by all means resist the temptation to sling grammar terms around as if they meant something they don't:

Q. Is "The sun shined Tuesday morning," or "The sun shone Tuesday morning," correct? – from Hilton Head Island, S.C. on Mon, Apr 22, 2013
A. The sun shone (vi.) Tuesday morning. The sun shined (vt.) on Hilton Head.

No real argument with the first. It's not a usage you desperately need to regulate, but if you feel the regulating urge that strongly, "shone" is just fine.

So, for that matter, is the second usage. The one thing it isn't is "transitive." The sun isn't shining Hilton Head (that'd be transitive, as in shining your shoes or dusting your broom or putting* the ram in the rama-lama-ding-dong). It's shining on Hilton Head. There's a difference, but it isn't the difference the AP is proclaiming. And we're not going to win the War on Editing by bringing bogus grammatical claims to a knife fight.

As the Merriam-Webster Concise Dictionary of English Usage points out, shine "has had competing strong and weak principal parts since the 16th century." Even for a genuinely transitive form -- "to direct the rays of (a light) on" -- the OED's first two entries differ:

1889  Cent. Dict. 5573/3   The policeman shone his lantern up the alley.
1950  Sun (Baltimore) 14 July 8/4   Two men in the office shined a flashlight under the platform.

The MWCDEU says those are commonly British and American, respectively, with "shone" common for intransive uses in both flavors (though "shined" is also "standard in American English"). So a better style answer might be: Did you look it up? Are you in the UK or the US? Fine, toss a coin.

Stylebooks have to regulate. That's one of their jobs. But they don't have to regulate everything. Holding up the production line to argue over the sort of free choice that the vast bulk of native American and British English speakers will get right the first time anyway isn't going to win us a lot of allies at the next round of job cuts. And if you're going to invoke grammar to support your claim, you need to be right at better than coin-toss levels of accuracy, lest the bean-counters decide that we really are making all that stuff up.

That's why I still teach boring stuff like "transitive" and "intransitive." I am not an agent of the Strong Verb Conspiracy,** but I do think -- at the fundamental, kick-in-the-wallet level even a publisher could understand -- that the best way to stay out of a libel suit is to know who's doing what to whom in every sentence you write. If you can't tell whether there's a direct object somewhere, you're likely to miscalculate that equation. And worse, you may never know the pleasure of finding all the passive clauses in the prose of the next clown who tells you journalists never use the passive voice. So, like, it's for your own good.

* "Put" has to have both objects, but that doesn't mean it isn't transitive.
** Though I think it'd be a great band name.

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Anonymous Ed Latham said...

"The best way to stay out of a libel suit is to know who's doing what to whom in every sentence you write." Hear, hear. And see also dangling modifiers.

3:13 AM, April 24, 2013  
Blogger The Ridger, FCD said...

Plus, if you tell me "the sun shined on Hilton Head is (vt)" I am very likely to disregard everything else you tell me.

7:00 PM, April 25, 2013  

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