Here Buckle

I think we all have our internal language police. Faulty grammar, faulty punctuation – the signs are everywhere. CAR’S FOR SALE – what, only one? We curl our lip as we drive past, enjoying the pleasure of knowing better. Such pleasure is, I’m sure, behind the remarkable sales of books such as Lynne Truss’s Eats, Shoots and Leaves – pleasure and, perhaps, a little anxiety that we may be unwittingly committing grammar gaffes of our own. Truss gets in a moral tizz about these things, and it’s true that there’s a distinction to be made between “The dogs like my Dad” and “The dog’s like my Dad”, or “We’re here to help” and “Were here to help”. But most of the time, we get by – does anyone reading the latter notice really believe all the assistants are out to lunch?

Some years ago, the late Keith Waterhouse inaugurated the AAAA – the Association for the Annihilation of the Aberrant Apostrophe. But apostrophes are missing just as frequently as they are unnecessarily present, and the Association has its work cut out. The apostrophe is a relatively recent innovation in punctuation, anyway, and there is a movement afoot to abolish it altogether. Would it matter very much?

The wrong word is harder to swallow. It’s particularly irritating when a word is used in a way completely opposed to its meaning. “Literally” is probably the most widespread example: “I was literally burning up!” Well, maybe metaphorically you were. But in this case, I think the speaker usually knows what “literally” means, and is using it in this way for hyperbolic effect.

With some other words, though, it’s more mysterious why their usage strays so far from their meaning. Why, for instance, do people talk about “a quantum leap forward”? That’s a very cautious leap you’ve got there. And twice in the last week – once in the Huffington Post – I’ve noticed “enervated” used in contexts that suggested “energized” or “revitalized”. (The Huffington Post compounded the offence by bestowing an additional n.)

Again, despite the irritation I feel, I’m not sure this matters. It’s a momentary distraction, and at worst I lose a little bit of confidence in the writer who made the error.

There are some words – very few, I think – that signal two completely opposed meanings. This is the seventh, last, most extreme type of ambiguity in William Empson’s scale in his Seven Types of Ambiguity. An example he gives is “buckle”, which can mean buckle like a bicycle wheel, or buckle one’s belt. Poets love words like this, and Gerard Manley Hopkins exploits this ambiguity in “The Windhover”. He praises the pride, splendour and power of the bird, but also recognizes that, as a Jesuit priest, he should renounce these attributes, as lacking in Christ-like humility. So he says, “Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here / Buckle!” – and has it both ways. Which shows what can be done in language, when you know what you’re doing.

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Tim Tweets