Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Premodifying for class

Language Log appear to have Mark Steyn bang (and bang and possibly bang) to rights on the question of unattributed inspiration from this post by Geoffrey K. Pullum.

But Mark Liberman's latest consideration of the matter raises a potential excuse for some of the apparent echoes in Mr Steyn's piece: that he got his idea from an editor at the Daily Telegraph, who may of course have lifted it first. In an update, Prof Liberman quotes a paragraph from the Telegraph's Sam Leith pointing to the omitted "the" in the first sentence of the Da Vinci Code ("Renowned curator Jacques Saunière" and so on) and says he

might have come up with this idea independently, or he might have gotten it from Pullum and thought it didn't rise to journalistic standards of sharing credit, or he might have gotten it from someone who got it from Pullum.

There's no heavy accusation against Leith -- Liberman goes on to call it "a small thing" -- but I'd like to suggest a reason why a Telegraph editor would be disposed to notice this point independently.

In British newspaper journalism, what Geoffrey Pullum calls the anarthrous occupational nominal premodifier isn't just a thing that crops up from time to time; it's a form with connotations -- in particular, one associated with more downmarket newspapers.

The Guardian's online style book specifically bans it (look here and scroll down to the entry for "the"), calling it "beloved of the tabloids" into the bargain. I can't find an equivalent proscription in the Times style guide, but a glance over the first seven pages of May 17's paper produced no AONPs and 30 forms doing the same job: premodifiers with "the" or a possessive pronoun, or job titles or affiliations given parenthetically between commas after names. I tried the same exercise for the Telegraph (seven broadsheet pages this time, rather than tabloid, but two of them adverts) and found four AONPs against 36 similar constructions.

The picture changes as you go downmarket. The Daily Mail, considered a midmarket tabloid, had 22 AONPs to 18 other constructions. (There's a particular rash of the parenthetical ones in a story about a prize for its sports columnist, which may support the idea of them as a "prestige" form.) The Daily Mirror, downmarket again, ran 37 to nine.

This is not enough to suggest the Telegraph actively discourages AONPs, but I do think they're a class signifier in British journalism, and style-conscious British journalists -- Sam Leith included -- may be expected to notice them.

That would get Mark Steyn off his first hook. Like Dave, however, I'm afraid I can't help him with the others.

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