Showing posts with label information structure. Show all posts
Showing posts with label information structure. Show all posts

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

adverb placement

American-translator-in-Holland David wrote some time ago to say:
I've noticed that Americans often place adverbial phrases that set the scene at the start of the sentence:

At the time, I was not very interested in his work.

British writers, in contrast, are more likely to put the adverbial element in the middle of the sentence, or at the end.

I was not, at the time, very interested in his work.
I was not very interested in his work at the time.

I believe all these word orders are available in both dialects; it's a question of preference, at least in formal writing.

Indeed, all of these are available in either dialect, and Algeo's British or American English reports that some temporal adverbials occur in medial position more often in BrE than in AmE--though they most often occur in initial or final position in main clauses. He lists during the week, earlier in the week, last night/year, now, this afternoon, today and yesterday as more often occuring medially in journalistic BrE than AmE. Now, I haven't the wherewithal to do a big search, but I searched for at the time in the Guardian on-line and the Chicago Tribune on-line, and counted the first 30 main-clause-modifying at the times in each paper according to whether they occurred at the beginning, middle or end of a past-tense clause. I didn't count at the time when it was part of a longer phrase like at the time of his confinement (because the length of a clause might make it more likely to hang out at the end of the clause), and I limited myself to past tense clauses. My results:

newspaper beginningmiddle end
Guardian (UK)10614
Tribune (US)13413
The moral of the story is: if there is a difference, we're going to have to look at a lot more sentences to build up enough steam to see a significant pattern.

But I do want to note that when these adverbials occur sentence-initially, they are much more likely to be followed by a comma in AmE than in BrE. Searching the Guardian and Tribune sites again and just looking at sentence-initial At the time, 27 out of 30 Tribune instances are followed by a comma, while only 13 of 30 Guardian ones are. (You might protest that this depends on the style sheet of the newspaper and the vigilance of its [AmE] copy editors/[BrE] sub-editors, but note that each of these searches included blogs and readers' comments as well as newspaper text.) In general, British readers find AmE writing too littered with commas, while overly-literate punctuation-dependent AmE readers like me (I presume there are less punctuation-dependent readers who aren't terribly bothered) find themselves having to start sentences over again because we assume that the adverbial phrase hasn't ended yet, but then it doesn't develop into anything bigger. So I read:
At the time he...
And because there isn't a comma to stop the adverbial, I wait for the he to develop into a relative clause that modifies time (e.g. At the time he ascended to the throne, he was only 17). It doesn't matter to my reading mind that a that-less relative clause is not a likely thing to happen after a pronoun after at the time, I HAVEN'T HAD A COMMA YET! THERE ARE NO BRAKES ON THIS THING! I DON'T KNOW HOW TO STOP!!!

But back to word order.

Adverbials like at the time or last night tell you when something happened, and contrast with adverbs of frequency (always, often, never, etc.), which usually occur in a medial position in either dialect. However, the dialects differ in the placement of these with respect to auxiliary verbs. To quote Algeo "American has a higher tolerance for placement before the first auxiliary". So, either of the following is grammatical in BrE or AmE, but the second is more likely to occur in AmE:

She is usually at work before 9. (BrE or AmE)
She usually is at work before 9. (more likely in AmE)
Now, it's more likely in AmE than BrE, but usually is not more likely in AmE than is usually. As Algeo says, AmE just has a 'higher tolerance' for it. I've just searched for always, usually, and never in my blog posts and found that I've never put them before the auxiliary--except when I used examples because I already wrote about this phenomenon a bit with never. (I thought I was sounding familiar to myself...)

Another adverbial order difference that Algeo notes concerns adverbs of possibility, like certainly or probably. Searching in the Cambridge International Corpus, he found the following, expressed in 'instances per ten million words':

has certainly22.7
certainly has11.7
has probably21.2
probably has8.8
So, again, one can say either in either dialect, but He has certainly left his mark is more likely in BrE and He certainly has left his mark is more likely in AmE. Of course, this works with auxiliary verbs other than has as well.

In other business:
The folks at myGengo, a translation company, have put a mini-review of SbaCL on their 'translation resources' pages, so here is some free publicity for them in return. (I've not used them, so can't vouch for anything, but it looks like an interesting concept.)

Sunday, November 18, 2007

information structure in newspaper sentences

I don't know that I've ever mentioned here that I was raised in a funeral home. (Actually, that's easily checked, isn't it? And I have mentioned it before.) That little fact might go some way toward(s) explaining some of my personality quirks. (I like to think of them as endearing, but you may think of them as weird.) It certainly goes some way toward(s) explaining why I'm reading a book called The Dead Beat by Marilyn Johnson, a celebration of the art of obituary writing.

In my childhood home (and perhaps now my two funeral-directing brothers' homes) the obituary page is always read first--both to check whether the newspaper made any mistakes in the obits that my dad had written and, more (de)pressingly, to see what business had been lost to the competitors. But those were local newspapers that print the obituaries of just about everyone who dies in the area. They are important for their role in announcing the death and the funeral/memorial arrangements to the local community. Now, I could write an entire blog about the differences between American and British funerary customs and the funeral industry (but I have enough procrastination methods, thank you). One difference is the timing of Christian and non-religious funerals. (Jewish and Muslim funerals must happen relatively quickly after the death.) In the US, you'd expect the funeral to be 2-5 days after the death. In the UK it's more likely to be a week or two later, in my experience, and I've wondered if part of the reason for this is because of the lesser role of funeral-detail-giving obituaries in newspapers in the UK. When I've asked why funerals are put off for a couple of weeks after the death, the answer I've been given is "so that we can get in touch with everyone". Sometimes that means by writing a letter and depending on the post/mail.

Johnson focuses on the types of obits that are more concerned with paying tribute to the great and the good (and sometimes the horrible)--the kind that are more usually found in national newspapers in the UK and the major city newspapers in the US. In one chapter, she describes the structure of a typical obit, assigning names to particular parts. The typical first sentence is what she calls the tombstone, and she notes an interesting difference between UK and US obituaries. See if you can spot it in her examples:
Jeannette Schmid, the professional whistler who has died in Vienna aged 80, performed with Frank Sinatra, Edith Piaf and Marlene Dietrich; she had been born a man and had fought in Hitler's Wehrmacht before undergoing a sex change in a Cairo clinic. (Daily Telegraph, UK)

James R. Garfield II, father of the modern Cleveland auto show and great-grandson of an American president, died of a heart attack Tuesday at LakeWest Hospital in Willoughby. (Cleveland Plain Dealer, US)
In both examples, like most obit opening lines, two kinds of information are presented: the fact (and some of the circumstances) of the person's death and an abbreviated description of who they are/what they are remembered for. What is different is the order and embeddedness of the information. UK obits tend to put the fact of death in a relative clause (who has died in Vienna aged 80), which in this example is linked to an appositive (the professional whistler). Strip away these 'extras', and the main clause is about the person's life (Jeannette Schmid performed with Frank Sinatra, Edith Piaf and Marlene Dietrich...). US obits do the opposite. In this particular example, the biographical detail is in an appositive (father of the modern Cleveland auto show and great-grandson of an American president), though in other examples it is in a relative clause. Thus, the main clause in the US version reports the news of the death (James R. Garfield II died of a heart attack Tuesday at LakeWest Hospital in Willoughby).

So both versions give the identifying information and the 'news', but they do so with differing focus. There are a couple possible reasons for this difference. One, which Johnson notes, is the fact that US obituaries tend to give more information about the demise of the deceased. In the Telegraph example, we just get the fact of death and Schmid's age, whereas The Plain Dealer gives us Garfield's cause, day and place of death. (His age would undoubtedly be made clear elsewhere in the obit, e.g. by birth and death dates at the beginning or end.) If you have a lot of information to impart, it's more awkward to do so in an appositive or a relative clause. So, the UK paper can get away with a quick who has died aged 80 in the middle of the sentence, whereas the US paper leaves the heavy-lifting for the end of the sentence, in the main clause. Now, as a hypochondriac, ghoul and wannabe epidemiologist (just some of the charming traits left by my sickness-and-death-immersed childhood), I find the lack of death details to be the greatest disappointment in the otherwise great British obituary tradition. Tell me how people died! {I/E}nquiring minds want to know! (AmE advertising catchphrase) I attribute it (in part) to the British sense of privacy. It's just not decent to put people's illnesses on parade in newspapers. However, I've noticed more and more death details in UK obits the longer I've lived here. The younger the deceased, the more likely they'll tell you the cause of death.

The other (but not unrelated) possible reason for the difference in information structure in these sentences is differing ideas about the purpose of obituaries in a newspaper. The US structure seems to be treating the obit as news--so the main point has to be made in the first sentence, and that main point is the news of someone's death. The UK structure seems to be more about presenting a remembrance of the deceased. Like UK funerals, UK obituaries can also be quite a while after the person has actually died. Yesterday's (17 November) Guardian, for example, has an obituary for a marine biologist who died on 27 October. (The other two obits are in their 'Other Lives' series of obituaries for people who might not be famous, but who were really decent people--in this case a disability activist and a head teacher [AmE school principal]. These are written by friends/family of the deceased, and don't give birth/death dates.) An obituary published two weeks after a death is not 'news' in the same sense as one published within a couple of days, so it seems to be serving the purpose of remarking on the person and their death, rather than reporting it. UK obituaries have the reputation of being more colo(u)rful than their American counterparts, and this remembrance-rather-than-reporting element probably has a lot to do with the development of that tradition.

Reading about this reminded me of a query from reader Bill P some time ago, which also has to do with the order of information in UK and US newspapers. Bill wrote:
Am I right in thinking that American newspapers routinely say "rising to 112 from 111" whereas the British usage is likelier to be "rising from 111 to 112"?
Since I don't read the finance pages as thoroughly as I read the obituaries, this didn't ring a bell for me. So Bill kindly sent a couple of examples:
First the hard economic facts: The Conference Board this morning said its Consumer Confidence Index fell to 95.6 from a revised 99.5 in September. [I don't know which paper this came from, but Bill says it's from a US paper]

In Mexico, for example, ...inflation fell from 35 per cent to 7 per cent. [Financial Times, UK]
The link between obituaries and these examples is rather tenuous, but what they have in common is a difference in journalistic style with respect to what information should receive attention. The UK style, as Bill has identified it, is chronological in nature: it started at X and now it's at Y. The US style puts the current information before the old: it's at X now, as opposed to the Y it used to be. Checking a couple of newspaper sites shows that Bill's observation of the 'to...from' construction does indeed seem to be an AmE style. I searched (using Google) the Guardian (UK) and the Boston Globe (US) sites for "fell from * per( )cent to" and "fell to * per( )cent from". The * is a wildcard, and I found both per cent and percent on the Guardian site and percent on the Globe site:

fell from...to50
fell to...from
All of the to...from cases on the Guardian website were 'feed articles' from Reuters. While this is a UK-based news agency, it may be more likely that the writers are from other countries/news organi{s/z}ations. (The locales of the three feeds I could see were Istanbul, Paris and Washington, DC.)

So--well spotted, Bill! Can any journalists out there tell us whether or not to...from/ ordering is something that is taught to journalists (as part of a paper's style guide, etc.)? Or is it something that one picks up without reali{s/z}ing it?