AND OTHERS.

I’m going to quote the first sentence of Jenny Turner’s review of Lorrie Moore’s The Collected Stories: “Once upon a time, as Lorrie Moore begins, ‘there was a not terribly prolific American short-story writer who, caught ten years between books with things she called Life and others called Excuses, was asked to write an introduction to her own Collected Stories.'” I want you to mull the sentence over for a moment before continuing to the next paragraph, in which I discuss its possible ambiguity.
When I first read it, I interpreted “things she called Life and others called Excuses” as identifying two different classes of things: things the writer called Life and other things called (by persons unnamed) Excuses. But something bothered me, perhaps the lack of parallelism between the active “she called” and the passive “called,” and I read it over, at which point I realized that that wasn’t how Moore meant it at all: she was talking about a single class of things, things that she called Life but that others—other people—called Excuses. Which is a good, funny line, but my question is: is my initial reading a possible one, or simply a careless misreading? In other words, is the sentence ambiguous or not?

Comments

  1. jamessal says:

    I read that piece a few weeks ago, and I read it exactly as you did the first time. I think the problem is the length of that subordinated clause — you’re anxious for it to be over so you lump the last phrases together into “Life and Excuses.”
    It is a good line, though, once you get it. (I’ve just become a fan of hers: http://www.newyorker.com/online/2008/04/14/080414on_audio_erdrich)

  2. Funny, I had no problem seeing the parallelism “she called X” and “others called Y”, both characterizing “things”. I actually had to struggle a bit to understand how you parsed/ read it. The contrast of “she” versus “others” just seemed natural, maybe because it is one I am used to. Familiarity with the device in my own style made it difficult to consider an alternative. Is there a lesson here?

  3. J. Del Col says:

    I don’t see anything odd about the line. That ‘Life’ and ‘Excuses” refer to the
    same ‘things’ seems transparent to me. I can’t fathom how anyone could ambiguate it.

  4. When I say the sentence allowed, she and others get contrastive stress; I would have rewritten this to add italics so as to avoid your misreading, although I myself only see it in hindsight. Instead I had a different problem: I overlooked the comma after “who”, garden-pathing “ten years” as the object of “caught”.

  5. Ditto jamessal.

  6. I read this like you did, however I think our mistake was forgetting the “she” by the time we got to the second conjunct.
    Upon careful reading, it appears the second reading is the only one she meant.

  7. I read it the way you read it, Hat. Our initial reading, I think, falls so deep within the zone of the tortured and wrong that I consider the sentence unambiguous. That being said, I probably would have written “what” instead of “things”. I think I was thrown off by her equation of plural “things” and singular “Life”, & was looking to add to the latter to make the result fit the former, & found “Excuses”, & worked from there.

  8. SnowLeopard says:

    I made the initial mistake, but your final interpretation is the only plausible intended reading. Inserting a comma after “Life”, or else setting off “and others called Excuses” in parentheses, would probably have helped enormously.

  9. Our initial reading, I think, falls so deep within the zone of the tortured and wrong that I consider the sentence unambiguous.
    Well, except that a majority of respondents shared it, which means however wrong it may theoretically be, the sentence is clearly, in practical terms, ambiguous and should have been rewritten. This is one of those cases, though, where the writer can see only the intended reading, and it would take a reader/editor to catch the tortured but tempting alternative.

  10. J. Del Col says:

    If it’s ambiguous only if you work at it, that hardly qualifies it as being overtly ambiguous.

  11. fimus scarabaeus says:

    Being illiterate, I just equated words as the flip side of the same coin, I not having the wit to parse the sentence, but ye who doth put colons and other marks into the appropriate bin would find the sentence be confusing to the legal world.

  12. I read it first as an unclearly expressed concept: “some things she called Life and other [things she] called Excuses”–two categories, both labeled by her, but some were just life, and others she knew were really excuses.
    I simply assumed that, like many, many people, the writer hadn’t been clear when creating a series.
    I thought of the same thing you did–other people doing the labeling of the second category–as the persnickety person’s reading of the original intent.
    I never did get, on my own, to the idea that there was only ONE category, but two labelers.

  13. jamessal says:

    setting off “and others called Excuses” in parentheses, would probably have helped enormously
    I think that’s the best, easiest fix (you could also replace “others” with “other people”).
    I did also have the thought, though, that if I’d read that sentence in a book — Lorrie Moore’s book — rather than an LRB piece, I would have taken more time with it and it might have worked for me.
    Then again, the more I read it now the less I like it. “… caught ten years between books with things she called …” I don’t know. It’s sounding worse and worse to me.

  14. Like Milt, I read it right the first time and had to really think about what you found ambiguous. To me the clues were the capitalizations and the correct parallelism of “she called … others called…”
    As you note, to misread it, you have to immediately assume an incorrect parallel structure. So if a sentence is correct as written and has an alternate reading only if the parallelism is broken, I don’t think it needs fixing. The clause in question has a lot of meaning packed into a few words, which is good writing.

  15. Yeah, it’s ambiguous. I’m not even sure which reading I got first, but they’re both clearly available. (And I’m baffled by Martin’s remark that to get the reading you got at first “you have to immediately assume an incorrect parallel structure”—there’s absolutely nothing ‘incorrect’ about the structure of the unintended reading; it just isn’t parallel, and there’s no reason it should have to be.)

  16. islingtonian says:

    There’s nothing wrong with ambiguity – where would poetry be without it? The better sort of literary prose is often infused with the same desirable attribute. Having said that, the structural problem here, apart from the over-ambitious rambling sub-clause, is the missing conjunction ‘which’ (or, arguably, ‘that’). Hence “things which she called Life and which others called Excuses” clearly disambguates, though perhaps not in a desirable stylistic direction.

  17. islingtonian says:

    Pressed the button too soon. Of course, ‘which’ is a relative pronoun and ‘things’ its antecedent.

  18. If it’s ambiguous only if you work at it, that hardly qualifies it as being overtly ambiguous.
    Huh? Nobody in my camp (of initial misreading) worked at it; the “wrong” reading was the initial one, and it was the intended reading that we had to work at. Or was that your point? Are you suggesting that it’s not ambiguous because it only means the “wrong” thing?
    There’s nothing wrong with ambiguity – where would poetry be without it? The better sort of literary prose is often infused with the same desirable attribute.
    True, but irrelevant; I’m quite sure Ms. Turner did not intend the ambiguity.

  19. Since I only occasionally allow myself delusions of literacy, I don’t think my reading of the troublesome sentence is worth much, but fwiw, I read it exactly like this:
    “I read it first as an unclearly expressed concept: “some things she called Life and other [things she] called Excuses”–two categories, both labeled by her, but some were just life, and others she knew were really excuses. ”
    I was delighted to find that I was not the only person who’d read it that way, so a big “thanks” to TootsNYC for that.

  20. I had a hard time with the sentence, too, but was initially stumped by “who, caught ten years between books with things…” I had to eliminate phrases to get “caught between books.” I personally don’t like “with,” but “by things” doesn’t seem right, either. To me, if you are “caught between books,” it’s a very short period (not ten years) and if you are there, it’s not “with” something, but due to something.
    I suppose it is a matter of taste, but it seems a bit sloppy to me. I like the joke, but the set-up needed an edit.

  21. I read it exactly as did TootsNYC, and like LH, I had to work to understand the second, apparently correct, meaning. I don’t think it was a careless first reading, it was ambiguous.

  22. Arthur Crown says:

    I first read it the same way that Language did.
    @Islington, I agree, but shouldn’t it be ‘that’: “things that she called Life and that others called Excuses”? Arnold Zwicky has articles over at Language Log about the difference between ‘that’ and ‘which’, it’s something to do with how inclusive you’re being.

  23. J. Del Col says:

    There’s nothing ambiguous about the sentence in the first place. I had to work at understanding how anyone would think it was ambiguous. Those who think it was ambiguous made assumptions about the sentence that are unsupportable.
    Claims about its ambiguity seem labored at best.
    She didn’t miswrite it; you misread it.

  24. J. Del Col, you sound like someone arguing that everyone in NYC mispronounces the name of Houston Street (and yes, I have seen that argued). If lots of English speakers read a sentence a different way than was intended, it is ambiguous. It is you who are making unsupportable assumptions.

  25. It didn’t occur to me that “others” could be anything other than the subject of the second “called” – taking “called” as active both times feels like the path of least resistance for the brain. I have to work at it to read the sentence the other way (and then as soon as I stop working the sentence slips back to the original reading).

  26. Kári Tulinius says:

    I first came across this sentence in a different review of Moore’s book by Adam Mars-Jones in The Guardian. I immediately understood it in the intended way. I’m curious as to whether Turner’s addition of “as Lorrie Moore begins” makes the sentence harder to parse. Here’s the sentence as it is in the actual introduction: “Once upon a time, there was a not terribly prolific American short-story writer who, caught 10 years between books with things she called Life and others called Excuses, was asked to write an introduction to her own collected stories.”

  27. Arthur Crown says:

    I used to live on Houston Street, it’s the Texans who can’t pronounce it.

  28. Arthur Crown says:

    Hat: is the sentence ambiguous or not?
    Language, it’s not ambiguous, it’s meaning is clear. It is susceptible to being misread, apparently. There is a difference.

  29. J. Del Col says:

    LH:
    Your ad populum appeal is wonderfully ironic.
    Read your explanation of the alleged ambiguity. Does it make any sense at all in terms of what is actually in the sentence as quoted by Tulinius?

  30. Arthur Crown says:

    Sorry about the possessive ‘its’.

  31. It’s perfectly clear if you happen to see it that the first time you read it. But it’s very awkwardly phrased and I would bet a substantial number of people wouldn’t get it the first time.
    I would suggest: “… with what she called ‘life,’ and other people called ‘excuses.””

  32. mollymooly says:

    Elaborating on Arthur Crown’s point: it seems to be of a class distinct from both a garden-path sentence, where everyone starts wrong and realises their mistake, and an ambiguous sentence, where a careful rereading does not produce a definitive interpretation.
    Does this easily-made-mistake category have a name? If not, I propose “gotcha sentence”, borrowing the computer programming term.

  33. jamessal says:

    One more thought: “Once upon a time…” sets such a familiar rhythm that it invites misreading to follow it with an overlong, preposition-phrase-laden clause.
    Also, I’ll go for “gotcha sentence.”

  34. Your ad populum appeal is wonderfully ironic.
    Why? I’m all about the ad populum. If the populus says it, it’s English (or whatever language is under discussion). If the populus, or a significant portion thereof, understands a sentence a certain way, that is a valid reading of the sentence. The fact that those who initially read it the intended way have a hard time seeing the other reading is perfectly natural, but irrelevant. Ever see that optical illusion where the dancer is going either clockwise or counter-, depending on how you happen to see her? That one’s hell to see the other way, too. Doesn’t mean the way you happen to see it is right and the other wrong.
    And yes, my initial reading makes perfect sense; it’s just inelegant and obviously (when you analyze it) unintended.

  35. I read it the same way as Languagehat at first pass.
    “caught ten years between books with things [that] she called Life and other [thing]s [that were] called Excuses.”
    It read wrong because obviously, from its sense, the sentence was trying to make the cutesy point that what she called “Life” was regarded by others as “Excuses”. That’s why I went back and reread it and produced the second reading:
    “caught ten years between books with things [that] she called Life and other [people] called Excuses.”
    So I totally agree with Languagehat.

  36. Arthur Crown says:

    If I say x and you hear y that doesn’t mean I said y.
    If you tell bathrobe I said y, that doesn’t mean that I said y.
    If bathrobe broadcasts from the Olympics in China that I said y, that doesn’t mean I said y.
    You don’t have a valid reading of x, you have misunderstood x, and (if you’re smart) recognised its value and called it y.

  37. Richard Sabey says:

    Helen DeWitt says ‘It didn’t occur to me that “others” could be anything other than the subject of the second “called” – taking “called” as active both times feels like the path of least resistance for the brain.’
    The trouble I had with the sentence is that I had already found a place in its syntax for “others” before I read the second “called”. I noticed that the first “called” was an active verb and the second was a past participle, but by then the sentence had already led me up the garden path. “Others” comes immediately after “and”, so, naturally, I assume that it is the second of two noun conjuncts, and I search back for the first. ‘Life’ seems unlikely, so I search back further. I chose ‘things’ to be the first conjunct, and thus went wrong. Why did I choose ‘things’ rather than ‘she’? I offer two suggestions:
    * when I read the phrase “things she called Life”, I imagined the words spoken with more stress on the word “things” than the word “she”. “She” didn’t get the contrastive stress that John Cowan mentioned, because, when I read those words, I didn’t know that “she” would need to contrast with a later noun. Thus “things” stood out more as a candidate first conjunct than “she” did.
    * the author has deleted the object relativizer. If there had been just the one relative clause, it would have been a simple matter for the reader to understand the sentence correctly, suppling the missing relativizer. However, here, there is a conjunction of two relative clauses neither of which has its object relativizer expressed, and this gives more opportunity for the reader to go up the garden path.

  38. Arthur Crown says:

    One advantage of the dogma that we are the prisoners of our own discourse, unable to advance reasonably certain truth-claims because such claims are merely relative to our language, is that it allows you to drive a coach and horses through everybody else’s beliefs while not saddling you with the inconvenience of having to adopt any yourself. It is, in effect, an invulnerable position, and the fact that it is also purely empty is simply the price one has to pay for this. The view that the most significant aspect of any piece of language is that it doesn’t know what it is talking about smacks of a jaded resignation to the impossibility of truth which is by no means unrelated to post-1968 historical disillusion. But it also frees you at a stroke from having to assume a position on important issues, since what what you say of such things will be no more than a passing product of the signifier and so in no sense to be taken as ‘true’ or ‘serious’. A further benefit of this stance is that it is mischievously radical in respect of everyone else’s opinions, able to unmask the most solemn declarations as mere dishevelled plays of signs, while utterly conservative in every other way. Since it commits you to affirming nothing, it is as injurious as blank ammunition.
    Terry Eagleton on Post-Structuralism, Literary Theory.
    I’m not saying you’re doing all this, Language, but it’s good to bear in mind.

  39. You, Arthur, are taking the Humpty position:
    ‘I meant “there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!”‘
    ‘But “glory” doesn’t mean “a nice knock-down argument”,’ Alice objected.
    ‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’
    Arthur’s Theorem: If Humpty said “glory” and you hear y that doesn’t mean Humpty said y.

  40. Crown, Arthur says:

    Just read the Terry Eagleton.

  41. outeast says:

    Does it make any sense at all in terms of what is actually in the sentence as quoted by Tulinius?
    Yes, actually, it does: she spent her time partly on things that she felt fell into the category of ‘Life’ and partly on things that were ‘Excuses’. What is meant by ‘Excuses’ is not clear, but then that’s still the case with the intended reading (presumably it’s ‘Excuses Not To Write’, but it’s not explicit – and in the unintended reading it could be interpreted as ‘Excuses Not To Live’).

  42. A. Crown says:

    And here’s some good advice I got at Language Log: “you’ve made your point many times now. You misunderstood the focus of the sentence, people have explained it to you, and rather than saying “OK, I get it now, as you were” you’re acting as though everyone is attacking you. You might want to think about letting it go.”

  43. outeast says:

    but shouldn’t it be ‘that’: “things that she called Life and that others called Excuses”? Arnold Zwicky has articles over at Language Log
    Funny to fall for the unfounded prescriptivist rejection of ‘which’ in a restrictive relative clause and cite Zwicky in support of that (since Zwicky’s LL articles, iirc, explicitly dismiss that particular nonsense)…
    Incidentally, one other solution to the ambiguity would be to change ‘and’ to ‘but’ (‘things she called Life but others called Excuses’).

  44. jamessal says:

    Arnold Zwicky has articles over at Language Log…
    I have to say I found that strange too. Can you give us links? I would be curious to read what Zwicky says the distinction is.
    Just read the Terry Eagleton.
    Eagleton on Post-Structuralism seems irrelevant at best, especially considering that everyone seems to agree that once you take the time to parse Moore’s sentence her intended meaning is clear (in other words: if TRUTH and OBJECTIVE MEANING are at stake here, we’re all calling it Y); it’s just that the sentence invites misreading because it’s poorly written. (Not that I didn’t enjoy your rant, though.)

  45. Yeah, what jamessal said. I always enjoy reading Eagleton, though.

  46. Crown, Arthur says:

    Jamessal:
    Well of course I can’t find what I thought Zwicky had said about ‘that’ and ‘which’ (outcast should take note, I didn’t cite Arnold to back up my view, I referred to him as a possible guide). I probably made it all up.
    Here’s a good one by Geoff Pullum saying there’s no difference:
    There is an old myth that which is not used in integrated relative clauses (e.g. something which I hate) and that has to be used instead something that I hate). It is completely untrue. The choice between the two is free and open. The people who repeat the old story about which being banned do not respect the prohibition in their own writing (Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage points out a book by Jacques Barzun which recommends against it on one page and then unthinkingly uses it on the next!). I don’t respect it either — re-read that last parenthesis. As a check on just how common it is in excellent writing, I searched electronic copies of a few classic novels to find the line on which they first use which to introduce an integrated relative, to tell us how much of the book you would need to read before you ran into an instance:
    A Christmas Carol (Dickens): 1,921 lines, first occurrence on line 217 = 11% of the way through;
    Alice in Wonderland (Carroll): 1,618 lines, line 143 = 8%;
    Dracula (Stoker): 9,824 lines, line 8 = less than 1%;
    Lord Jim (Conrad): 8,045 lines, line 15 = 1%;
    Moby Dick (Melville): 10,263 lines, line 103 = 1%;
    Wuthering Heights (Bronte): 7,599 lines, line 56 = 0.736%…
    Do I need to go on? No. The point is clear. On average, by the time you’ve read about 3% of a book by an author who knows how to write you will already have encountered an integrated relative clause beginning with which. They are fully grammatical for everyone. The copy editors are enforcing a rule which has no support at all in the literature that defines what counts as good use of the English language. Their which hunts are pointless time-wasting nonsense.
    Agreed that post-structuralism is irrelevant here. That was my point. The Eagleton was to preempt more of LH’s ‘valid readings’.

  47. Arthur: So you’re claiming that whatever the original author had in their head is the Only True Reading, even if none of the readers understands it? If not, what are you claiming?

  48. Nope, I’m not some kind of fundamentalist wacko, I’m certainly not claiming that. I’m agreeing with most everybody else that there is no ambiguity in the sentence once it has been understood. In a way the author could never have expected, or she wouldn’t have done it, the sentence is open to misunderstanding until you start concentrating. To sum up, you said: “my question is: is my initial reading a possible one, or simply a careless misreading? In other words, is the sentence ambiguous or not?” and the answer is no, your initial reading is not a possible one, because the sentence is unambiguous. That is all I am claiming.
    Now, if you have another reading of what she actually wrote, rather than what she didn’t write, I’d be happy to discuss that reading, although I’m not sure the sentence can bear multiple readings. My Terry quote was, I admit, tangential and I know you weren’t deconstructing, but he goes on to write that Derrida used deconstruction in order to find a new way to approach political thought and confront state power by subverting language, (‘an attempt to dismantle the logic by which a particular system of thought, and behind that a whole system of political structures and social institutions, maintains its power’). He says that certain American deconstructionists’ use of it on pretty much everything: ‘in which all meaning and identity dissolves, is a travesty of Derrida’s own work and of the most productive work which has followed from it’. None of which had anything to do with what you wrote, but as you said it’s fun to read Terry Eagleton (except on Richard Dawkins and religion, where I think he doesn’t really know what he’s talking about). If my wife comes home and sees that I’m doing this she’s going to kill me, so bye for now.

  49. Heh. Well, I guess we’ll just have to disagree about the sentence. You say there’s “no ambiguity in the sentence once it has been understood,” I say it’s an ambiguous sentence whose intended reading is clear once you examine it closely.

  50. Crown, Arthur says:

    Ok. But those two statements of ours don’t disagree, you know.

  51. I went through a process very like yours, Hat — misunderstanding at first but becoming aware that I’d gone wrong someplace, and going back to figure it out. I’m undecided about whether it’s a good or a bad sentence, though. Immediate clarity needn’t always what you’re aiming at. She’s talking about the way life muddles your plans, so it’s suitable to get a little lost in the sentence as well. Maybe.

  52. Don DeBenedictis says:

    I’m coming to this debate late. I haven’t read all the many comments, nor understood all those I have read. I suspect the problem is that the initially befuddled readers among you have somehow glided past the word “books” without letting it sink in. She has very clearly said she was “caught ten years between books” — verb (plus adverb phrase) plus adverbial prepositional phrase saying where or how caught. Only then does she go on to name the things that did the catching. If she had written that she was “caught red-handed between cops with contraband in her pockets and her shoes,” no one would misread her statement to mean she was entangled in the vicinity of her own knees.

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