Friday, 26 August 2011

On being persuaded about convince

A correspondent sends in the following passage from the Times (30 July): 'In Adam Sage’s article about Dominique Strauss-Kahn (July 23) he says that Triston Banon’s mother "convinced her not to make a formal complaint". No, she didn’t: she persuaded her. You convince someone of the truth of something, but you persuade them to take a course of action. ... It is a classic example of a new construction that is acceptable or at least unexceptionable to some and repugnant to others.' And he adds, a mite confused: Can I tell my students it's OK to use convince to do something?

This is purely a grammatical issue. There's no problem when these verbs are used with a following that construction. There is a difference in meaning, but that is a different point. Compare:

(1) I persuaded John that he should go to the cinema.
(2) I convinced John that he should go to the cinema.

In (1), the focus is on the process of argument; it's a step anticipating a successful conclusion. In (2) the focus is on the result; the conclusion has been successfully achieved. In this pair of examples, the nuance is inconsequential; but in (3) and (4) a contrast is drawn:

(3) I persuaded him to go, but he wasn't convinced it was the right thing to do.
(4) I found his argument persuasive but not convincing.

The lack of synonymy is illustrated by the impossibility of reversing the verbs:

(5) I convinced him to go, but he wasn't persuaded it was the right thing to do.
(6) I found his argument convincing but not persuasive.

In some cases, the context motivates the stronger interpretation, as in (7):

(7) He convinced (?persuaded) the police that he was innocent.

However, these examples are few compared with the many contexts in which either verb could substitute for the other without anyone noticing, as in (8):

(8) I persuaded/convinced John that it would be wise to leave early.

Persuade has long (since the Middle Ages) been used with the nonfinite construction:

(9) I persuaded John to go to the cinema.

The infinitive brings a different semantic implication: the focus is on the action rather than on the mental state. And given the overlap in meaning, it was only a matter of time for this construction to be extended to convince. The surprising thing is that this didn't happen until the 1950s. First recorded usages are in the USA:

(10) I convinced John to go to the cinema.

This brought the usual complaints from the prophets of linguistic doom, but the rapid growth in popularity of the usage quickly led to it being recognized in dictionaries and grammars in both British and American English. The OED, for example, notes it without comment. The that construction is still the more frequent one, especially in British English, but the greater succinctness of the to construction - one word instead of three - has probably been a factor in its growth.

So, in short, I would certainly let students use both constructions with convince, but warn them that some people still find the to form uncomfortable. In such circumstances, when one never knows who will be reading what one writes, it is always wise to be conservative. One doesn't want one's application for a job to be rejected by a potential employer who is still living in the linguistic past, and who finds this usage - as the Times writer says - repugnant.

Monday, 1 August 2011

On 'Marley and me/I'

A correspondent writes with a query about the title of the book and film Marley And Me. He notes that some people think it should be Marley and I, and wonders which is correct. Is it something to do with the fact that it is in a title, he asks?

Titles, like newspaper headlines, often have a grammar of their own - but not in this case. Both forms are used. Along with Marley and Me in the world of titles we find Monkey and Me, My Bump and Me, Stieg and Me, Ann Boleyn and Me, and more. On the other hand we find Withnail and I, The Egg and I, Gillespie and I, The Duke and I, and others. There is even a minimal pair. In 2009 there was an exhibition of Murray Close's photographs from the set of Withnail: it was called Withnail and Me.

Plainly there's a choice, and that will depend on the general feelings one has about the use of me and I in everyday use. The point has been well discussed in the English linguistics literature, so I won't go into it in detail here. But most people sense a formality difference, with I more formal than me. There's also a pragmatic issue arising out of the way I has been privileged in prescriptive teaching over the past 200 years, so that some people are scared of using me - notwithstanding the fact that the and me or me and constructions have a history of usage dating from the 14th century (see OED under me, pron.1, n. and adj., sense 5), and are found in Shakespeare, Austen, Dickens and many other authors. The linguistics literature also has some interesting observations about the way the grammar of pronouns in a coordinate construction differs from that of pronouns used in isolation (for example, see §2.2 of the Cambridge grammar).

If it had been left to itself, I'm sure me would have been the normal usage in the short texts that constitute titles. Compare them with other self-contained pieces of 'block language' (as Quirk, et al would call it) or elliptical sentences. It's interesting that me seems to be privileged in these minimalist sentences, especially those that are exclamatory in character. Consider such examples as the following, none of which allow I:

Dear me! Goodness me!

Silly me! Funny me!
Me go by train? Never!
Me and my big mouth!
Me in Blackpool. [photograph caption]
I got told off - and me only trying to be helpful.
Me? [do you mean me?)
Me too. Me neither.

But of course it wasn't left to itself.

Prescriptive grammarians have a lot to answer for. Their insistence that I usage was correct (as in It is I) and me was incorrect, introducing a Latin rule which went against the natural idiom of English, produced generation after generation of conflicting intuitions and a sensitivity to their use which is still with us. The uncertainty that people feel is a direct result of the attempt to implement that artifcial rule. They don't like to use I in everyday speech because it's felt to be too formal. On the other hand they find me uncomfortable because they've heard that it's wrong. It's not surprising, then, to see the rise of alternatives - especially myself. Usages such as Jane and myself went to the cinema and They saw John and myself in the street are on the increase - an ancient usage, which remained alive only in a few regional varieties, notably Irish English, but which is widespread in British English now. (And outside of Britain? Comments, please.) So expect to see more examples of this in the next generation of book and film titles. We've already had Oscar Wilde and Myself, My Father and Myself, and a few others. If they ever remake the cult film, and feel the need to retitle, it could be Withnail and Myself.