27 August 2007

Harry Potter and the Deathly Phrasing

I'm making this Deathly Hallows Week at Oz and Ends. For the next few days, or as long as my interest holds out, I'll focus on the now-complete Harry Potter series. After all, I usually write about fantasy literature of the past, and it's been over a month since volume 7 was published.

To start off, here's a link to linguist Mark Liberman's Language Log analysis of this sentence from page 655 of the US edition of HP7:

"My wand of yew did everything of which I asked it, Severus, except to kill Harry Potter."
As Liberman notes, most people would say something like "did everything I asked of it." Liberman diagnoses anxiety about the old shibboleth against ending a sentence with a preposition, which might have been particularly acute if J. K. Rowling's first-draft phrasing was "did everything I asked it to."

The story behind this long-disregarded and lately discarded "rule" of English grammar involves a rivalry between poets Ben Jonson and John Dryden, even though the former was long dead. Liberman and his colleagues tracked down Dryden's original complaint, in which he confessed to having made the very same "mistake" himself. All in all, the prohibition seems to have more to do with Dryden's ego than Jonson's or anyone else's style.

But Dryden was tremendously influential as a poet and critic, and some people still believe that they'll be judged by his rule and therefore overcompensate against it. A similar example of grammatical overcompensation appears in Alberto Gonzales's resignation letter: "I believe this is the right time for my family and I to begin a new chapter in our lives." (Us think so, too.)

We could even argue that the tortuous speech pattern above is part of Rowling's characterization of the man speaking those words: Voldemort, that insecure, social-climbing pseudo-aristocrat. In that case, it wasn't she or her many editors who were too concerned about "asked of it," but He Who Must Not Be Named himself.

Liberman calls that the "more charitable interpretation."

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