Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Confessions of St. Gilbert

In Edgar Allan Poe's chilling story, The Imp of the Perverse, the deranged protagonist commits the perfect murder.  That no one knows about his perfect crime drives him crazy.  Wait a second.  He already is crazy.  Let's just say it drives him crazier.  He craves that everyone know that he has committed the perfect murder.  But that would mean revealing his identity as the murderer.  Sounds crazy, doesn't it?  The compulsion to reveal the secret of his identity wells up in him beyond his ability to control it.  While he is walking down the street, the dam bursts, and with "distinct enunciation," he confesses in detail how he committed the perfect undetectable murder. 

         I have a lot in common with this guy.  No, I'm not a killer.  Notice I did not say "deranged killer."  If I had, some smart ass reader would have remarked about the "negative pregnant."  The protestation "not a deranged killer" implies a run-of-the-mill killer.  If deranged, I am not a killer.  I do not kill errant spiders or other small creatures that scuttle across the floors of our home.  I catch them in a glass under which I carefully slide a thin piece of sturdy paper.  I carry them outside where I free them in the garden to roam, forage, kill or die.  This I believe is why my wife buys into the deranged appellation.   

No, I am not a killer, but like Poe's murderer, I am a compulsive confessor.  I should have been Catholic.  In my last few columns, I publicly confessed to the commission of grammatical errors.  (If I had written "I publicly confessed to my readership," the phrase "to my readership" would have elicited howls of exclamatory protests:  "redundant," "superfluous.") 

         In view of my confessions, it is not surprising I am a tad prickly.  I was heartened that so many of you took an interest in our written language—even if it was at my expense.  To promote literacy, I deliberately placed a grammatical error in last month's column.  I promised to send an inscribed copy of my book Under Submission (2008, The Rutter Group) to the first five readers who found the error.

         The response was overwhelming.  I now have 320 new pen pals.  I had to take a few vacation days to respond to all the e-mails I received.  Court of Appeal Judicial Assistant Carolyn Kornoff urged consistency:  "e-mails" or "emails."  I used both.  Dashes get short shrift.  I thought they deserved some recognition.

         Only seven people caught the intentional error, and because they responded so quickly, they all received a book.  The intentional error is one thing, but what about the plethora of unintentional errors that so many of you detected?  I was touched by the gentle tone in which you noted the errors.  But at the time you did not know whether they were intentional or not.  Thanks anyway.

         Before I announce the intentional error and the winners, let us review some of the more provocative comments about the unintentional mistakes in my previous column.  I wrote about "Vice President Dan Quayle" and his misspelling potatoe, I mean potato.  A savvy reader up on his politics pointed out that Joe Biden is the Vice President.  Good point.  My Judicial Assistant Bonnie Edwards notes that titles outlast the office.  My Research Attorney Lauren Nelson suggests "former" could have preceded "Vice President."

         Attorney Matthew Zawol nailed me with a logical conundrum.  He acknowledged that I could "intentionally insert a grammatical error into a sentence," but that "it is impossible for me to intentionally place a mistake into a sentence."  I was on solid ground when I deliberately placed "a grammatical gaffe" in the column, and "gaffe" is a synonym for "error" or "mistake."  But in the penultimate paragraph, I wrote of my "intentionally placed mistake."  Matthew, how about giving me a break on this one. 
         Justice Peter Siggins wondered "where" was I "when" (not "where") I was reversed by the Supreme Court.  I was hiding under the bed, humming Rodgers and Hart's "Where or When."

         Many of you poured salt in the wounds for my "pouring" rather than "poring" over columns.  I made the same error years ago and vowed to correct it.  So much for my vows (wedding vows still count).  I had not yet poured my morning coffee when I was rapidly proofreading.  Attorney Richard Marks appropriately entitled his e-mail "Poring, Pouring, Boring."  He wrote, "[T]o pour is a verb that means to transfer liquid or some other stuff from a container.  It must come from a Latin verb, purare, 'to purify.'  In ritual practice, objects are purified by pouring water over them. The English word is 'pure.'…  [In a] football game, … one pours a beer and pores over statistics and other boring information."  Justice Nora Manella gave me a grammatical pass on this error.  She characterized it as a spelling error.  I was always a lousy speller.  (See McDonald v. John P. Scripps Newspaper (1989) 210 Cal.App.3d 100.)
         Attorney Jim Marks disapproved "Can he partially be correct?"  He opted for "Can he be partially correct?"  Appellate Specialist Benjamin Shatz preferred my version, arguing that the other version is "archaic and stilted."  And speaking of fine appellate lawyers, Ed Horowitz wrote, "None is [not "are"] shy about pointing them out to me."  Fowler defends me on this one.  "It is a mistake to suppose that the pronoun is singular only and must at all costs be followed by singular verbs etc.; the OED explicitly states that plural construction is commoner."  (Fowler, A Dictionary of Modern English Usage (2d ed. 1988) p. 394.)

            Attorney Eric Munson landed a direct hit with his comment that my deliberate gaffe must have been in these words I wrote:  "I cannot help but compare this ritual …."  Munson goes on to say, "In the late 70's I read a William Safire article about that phrase -- it is OK to say 'I cannot but compare' or 'I cannot help comparing,' but it is grammatically incorrect to use cannot, help, and but, all together, in that manner."  Oh how I wish that gaffe would have been deliberate. 

         And some pointed out a sentence fragment here and there.  You bet.  I call it style.

         And some asked about The Daily Journal's editorial review.  Suffice it to include here a portion of the indemnity agreement I signed relieving staff and editors "from any and all responsibility, accountability, liability, wrongdoing, out of or growing out of either directly, indirectly, or by implication, any and all errors, including, but not limited to, grammatical, typo, spelling, … etc., in columns authored by Arthur Gilbert and submitted at the very last moment, precluding careful if any significant editorial review."

         And now at last the deliberate error.  It occurred in this sentence:  "The arbitrary decision of the judge, that's me, is final .…"   Yes, Fowler allows for the colloquial "It is me."  But as Justice Manella pointed out, a person is a "who" not a "that."  "Who is I?"  I'm sorry, but "Who is I" or "Who is me" does not pass my ear test.  Thanks, Jim Davis, for recommending Patricia O'Conner's book on grammar, Woe Is I.

         But certainty about the law or language can elicit a refutation.  I said (wrote) that no one says "It is I."  My friend Sacramento Superior Court Judge Jim Mize reminded me that in Camelot Robert Goulet sang:

C'est moi! C'est moi, I'm forced to admit.
'Tis I, I humbly reply.
That mortal who
These marvels can do,
C'est moi, c'est moi, 'tis I.

         The winners are Jim Davis, Esq.; Michael J. Faber, Esq.; James P. Fox, Esq.; David M. Luboff, Esq.; Bruce Monroe, Esq.; Hon. Charles G. Rogers; and Ms. Melissa Scribner.

         To all winners:  Please note an additional contest rule:  Without exception, you are prohibited from communicating to me any and all errors, including, but not limited to, grammatical, spelling and punctuation, you may divine in your copy of my book.  Violation will result in forfeiture of the book.

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