16 July 2013

Yet another bear-trap

As George Bernard Shaw famously suggested, “England and America are two countries divided by a common language.” In Clive James’s typically amusing and erudite review of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, there is this paragraph:
Langdon, though an American, still favours English tailoring. It must be easier to run in. Running beside him is Dr Sienna Brown, described as a “pretty, young woman”, in keeping with Dan Brown’s gift for inserting the fatal extra comma that he or one of his editors believes to be a sign of literacy. And indeed I should perhaps have written “the fatal, extra comma”, but something stopped me: an ear for prose, I hope.
 Some of the commenters take exception. alex masterley says:
 I think Brown got his comma right in “pretty, young woman.” Like that, it means a woman who is both young and pretty. No comma (a “pretty young woman”) and it would have been a woman who was only approximately young.
voxer retorts:
As opposed to precisely young? What does “approximately young” mean? I can’t see your point.
Ian agrees with alex:
The point is that ‘pretty young’ without the comma is a description of how young she is (distinct from ‘very young’, for example), whereas adding the comma makes it clear that pretty is an adjective describing the woman, not grading the extent of her youth.
James Kabala doesn’t:
No, the point here is that traditional grammar treats “young woman” as a single syntactical unit. It’s one of those “I know it when I see it” things rather than a precisely defined rule, but the underlying idea is that precisely that one CANNOT SAY “young pretty woman” – “young woman” is a unit and cannot be separated – “pretty” must come first and there should be no comma. Phrases of this type often involve ages or colors – good old boy, fine young lad, mean old man, old gray mare, old brown shoe, big yellow taxi – reversing the adjectives would create an impossible phrase (in English – other languages might have different instincts). Maybe someone who knows more grammatical terminology than I do can say if this rule has a name. 
 Frederick nails it:
In colloquial American english not having a comma after “pretty” turns it into an adverb meaning “more or less” ( in this case to modify the adjective “young” ). When a comma is placed after “pretty” it remains an adjective meaning “beautiful.” In Great Britain “pretty” is rarely as an adverb and remains an adjective in most contexts: thus for British speakers, such as James, the comma would be unnecessary.
[Mr James is Australian, BTW.]

Tejaswini says:
I concur. ‘pretty young’ could sound as if ‘pretty’ is an adjective of ‘young’, not of ‘woman’. Switching the order to young pretty goes against this adjective-ordering rule:
Pretty neat site, that.
The growing divergence of American and British usage can have subtle ramifications. The interposed comma is taken by a British reader as evidence of a tin ear; an American regards it as clarifying (though James Kabala uses the spelling “color”). Who knows what other misunderstandings arise when we read each others’ prose?

Myself, I’d have side-stepped the bear-trap and called her an “attractive young woman” or a “pretty girl”, but then I’m not Dan Brown. Or his editor. Thank heavens.

1 comment:

Hamilcar Barca said...

that's a mighty, fascinating point you make. ;-)