Sunday, November 8, 2009

More Linguistic Explorations

In my last post I mentioned Geoffrey K. Pullum's witty and instructive analyses of certain aspects of Dan Brown's literary style. Today I am pleased to present a guest post by a reader who, while much entertained by Pullum's criticisms in general, was (like me) a bit surprised by one of them. We follow up on the Slumbering Moa's earlier anonymous comment with a more thorough investigation of the phrase in question.

The Slumbering Moa writes:

Let us stipulate, as the lawyers say, that Dan Brown is not a great prose stylist. Nevertheless, I think one of Pullum’s criticisms of him is unfair. Specifically, Pullum faults Brown for writing that “a handful of scientists moved briskly about,” since “‘moving briskly about’ is a cliché.” For Pullum, Brown’s use of the phrase discordantly evokes a humorous passage from Stephen Potter concerning a fictional character who enjoys one-upmanship: “To a definitely older man, of his still older wife he would comment that he was glad she ‘was still moving very briskly about.’" Pullum goes on to explain:

The remark was of course intended to be deeply unsettling if not shattering: to say of someone that they are "moving very briskly about" implies that they are extraordinarily old and infirm, and it is a wonder they can even take a step without their walker. It simply isn't something you would normally say about ordinary people who have a spring in their step, or about scientists walking from one office to another in the foyer of a research center. It's a wonderful example of Dan Brown's knack for coming up with exactly the phrase not to use.

Pullum’s criticism has two basic premises. First, the phrase “moved briskly about” is a cliché. Second, it implies extraordinary age and infirmity, making it bizarrely inappropriate to apply to working scientists.

In my earlier comment, I noted that Pullum ignores the word “still.” This word is key to the humorous effect Potter achieves, and Brown does not use it. Pullum also ignores the word “very,” which Potter employs to intensify this effect. Again, Brown does not use it.

But is Brown’s phrase a cliché? A little googling does not produce overwhelming evidence for Pullum's claim. First, let’s look at some raw numbers. I did four searches: "moved briskly about" (Brown's exact words), with 121,000 results; "move briskly about," with 4,500; "moves briskly about" with 699; and "moving briskly about," with 18,600. Given the millions of search results one often gets from Google, these numbers do not seem particularly impressive for a supposed cliché. Furthermore, when you eliminate those results from the search for "moved briskly about" that include the word "preacher," thus removing one particular joke that appears online repeatedly, it brings the number down from 121,000 to 47,600. By contrast, the phrase “proof of the pudding” produced 253,000 results, while its ubiquitous corruption “proof is in the pudding” produced 554,000.

A search for “moved briskly about” and “cliché” together produces only one result which identifies the former as an example of the latter, namely Pullum’s own post on Language Log. All the others simply had the two things appearing somewhere on the same page together. Again, by contrast, a search for “proof is in the pudding” and “cliché” together produces result after result noting this phrase’s undisputed status as a cliché.

Moving beyond the numbers, what do the search results themselves reveal about usage?

The top result from the search for "moved briskly about" was Pullum's article on Language Log, quoting Dan Brown. Twenty of the top thirty results were for the joke I mentioned above, which includes the sentence, "The preacher was wired for sound with a lapel mike, and as he preached, he moved briskly about the platform." The others included: "Desktop Calendar 2.3.7 moved briskly about," from a page that won't come up when I click on it; "the 58-year old moved briskly about the stage" from a review of a performance by Robin Williams (one of only two top results from all four searches that I thought supported Pullum's claims, however weakly); "the new officers of the 4th Battalion of New Jersey Volunteers, moved briskly about on their new errands," from a book on the Revolutionary War; "Uniformed and plain-clothed personnel moved briskly about their tasks," from an online excerpt of what appeared to be a romance novel; "The nurses who moved briskly about smiled at the young man in an ordinary suit who had come among them," from a book on psychology; "She moved briskly about the yard, taking things from the line," from "When the Bayou Overflows" (1895) by Alice Dunbar; and "Buck Mulligan's gowned form moved briskly about the hearth to and fro," from Ulysses by James Joyce. There were also two irrelevant results, in which "about" did not form a phrase with "moved briskly" but rather with the words following it (e.g., “the handpiece is moved briskly about ½ inch above the skin”).

I did not get more convincing support for Pullum's assertions when I changed the tense to "move," the top ten results being: "Nurses move briskly about the room, checking the conditions of the various patients," from a site on "Care after Surgery"; "It is difficult to move briskly about the kitchen weighted down by sixty pounds of baby," from "Cooking Madness" by Carol Castellano; "She could move briskly about, while he seems fixed to the spot," from a teaching guide to Macbeth; "To move briskly about. Used chiefly in calling country dances," from Dictionary of American Regional English; "males were seen to move briskly about with the tail turned sharply at an angle of about 90 degrees from the body," from a scholarly article on the courtship habits of salamanders; "Staff officers and couriers began to move briskly about," from an account of a Civil War battle; "it is well that they move briskly about their tasks," from two different pages on microbial parasites; "Their inhabitants move briskly about in Fords," from a Time magazine article from 1928 on the cities of Egypt; and one irrelevancy (“They do, however, move briskly – about two steps per second.”)

"Moves briskly about" yielded: "the sun moves briskly about the center of our galaxy," from a book on Einstein's theory of relativity; "The player's young king moves briskly about his town," from a review of a video game; two more versions of the preacher joke; "Hoffa moves briskly about the suite as he finishes putting on his clothes," from Life magazine (1959); "She moves briskly about her laboratories," from Time magazine (1933); "Mr. Buono, who has been called J.B. for as long as he can remember, moves briskly about campus with a friendly greeting to all," from a New York Times story about a 95-year-old (the second arguably supporting citation for Pullum); "He doesn't have an actual office but moves briskly about the plant, trouble-shooting or trying out some new production theory," from an article in the Indiana Star; and "Invisibly he moves briskly about the room as if he owned the place," from a poem posted to the site Neopoet. Once again, there was also an irrelevant result (“moves briskly about a fish trap”).

What about "moving briskly about"? The first result is again Pullum himself, followed by: "An American in Paris, Moving Briskly About Town," the title of a New York Times review of Stanley Karnow's Paris in the 50s; "Maude was moving briskly about the room, putting it into the beautiful order that Mother insisted on," from "A Fortunate Mistake" (1904) by Lucy Maud Montgomery; "One need not have visions of unattached neurons moving briskly about the brain," from a blog post; "Through her bright windows we could see her moving briskly about from kitchen to sitting room," from "The Woman Who Tried to be Good" (1913) by Edna Ferber; "In all these prairie villages, the Burrowing Owl is seen moving briskly about," from the Audubon Society's website; "The group is to start moving briskly about the room," from a "community-building exercise"; yet another version of the preacher joke; "Grace was constantly surrounded by people moving briskly about," from "The Secret to Happier Meal Times"; and "It seemed as if hardly any time had passed when she heard the household moving briskly about, and breakfast preparing downstairs," from The Woodlanders (1887) by Thomas Hardy.

These seem to me to represent fairly diverse uses that are not at all suggestive of cliché. Admittedly, when you read them all together like this, the cumulative effect is to make the phrase seem tired, but I think that's inherent in the exercise. But cliché or not, the phrase, judging by these examples, hardly bears the unavoidable connotations of age and infirmity that Pullum suggests.

Ultimately, Brown’s crime in this instance seems to be that he used an innocuous expression that happened to remind Pullum of a favorite passage from a writer he much prefers.

In closing, I might add that in one of my students' papers we get the Brown-like (or perhaps merely journalistic) construction "Portrayed through sculpture is the Greek goddess of love Aphrodite, along with her son Eros, also known as Cupid."

No comments:

Post a Comment