I only wanted to explain this

This week is a bit of a double header for me: two articles published in different places at the same time. Yesterday I posted a link to my latest article on TheWeek.com; today I’m posting (in its entirely) my latest article on the Editors’ Association of Canada’s national blog, The Editors’ Weekly.

Adverbs are a problematic and much-maligned class of words. Linguists often have trouble explaining exactly why they go where they go. Some sorts of adverbs are baselessly despised (hopefully, people will eventually get over those hangups, but I’m not hopeful). Some people think adverbs should be excised from writing altogether.

I’d like to cover all the misconceptions relating to adverbs, but that would make for very long reading. So today, I’m only going to talk about the placement of one specific adverb.

Those of you who read that and thought, “That’s bad grammar — it should be ‘I’m going to talk only about’ or ‘I’m going to talk about only,’ ” raise your hands.

Hands raised? Keep them there. As long as they’re raised they won’t be causing any trouble.

Oh, there’s no mistake in thinking that careful placement of only has much to recommend it. The mistake is in thinking that putting it in the default position, right before the main verb, is an error unless it’s limiting the main verb specifically.

Let’s look at an example sentence:

I only wanted to bake three cakes.

Without context, all you know is that baking three cakes is the full scope of what I wanted. You don’t know if the thrust of it is “I was not happy about baking the fourth one” or “I didn’t want to have to decorate them” or “I had no desire to bake three pies too.”

But do you know what the supposed only correct interpretation of that is? It’s that I only wanted to bake the cakes — I didn’t actually do it.

Does that seem odd? It should. It’s a made-up rule with no correspondence to reality. As Matt Gordon recently said on Twitter, quoting a student paper he was marking, “If ‘this grammatical distinction has confused writers for centuries,’ maybe it’s those trying to impose the distinction who are confused.”

In truth, the only way you can make that only about wanted is to emphasize wanted, or to phrase it differently. That position is the default position for only regardless of what aspect of the action it is limiting. But the rule-thumpers insist that you must move the only right next to what it limits:

I wanted only to bake three cakes.

I wanted to bake only three cakes.

I wanted to bake three only cakes.

Ah, wait, the last one isn’t even usable. You have to do this:

I wanted to bake only three cakes.

But that blows the “rule” right away. If you can do that, you can do this:

I only wanted to bake three cakes.

You can do likewise for the other restrictions:

I only wanted to bake three cakes.

I only wanted to bake three cakes.

The fact that we can — and do — shift the emphasis like that without moving the only is proof that this is a standard feature of English grammar, and that the word feels natural in the default position and can work there quite well. Anyone who tells you that “I only wanted to bake three cakes” is wrong and must be “I wanted only to bake three cakes” has not correctly analyzed the syntax of the sentence. He or she also has a tin ear, and yet thinks himself or herself a better writer than the many respected authors throughout the history of English who have used only in the “wrong” way.

This is not to say that you can only put only before the main verb — or, if you prefer, it’s not to say that you can put only only before the main verb. Its mobility gives you a very good tool for clarifying the meaning. But the availability of the default position gives you a tool for adjusting the rhythm and the naturalness of the sentence when the meaning is clear anyway. Why limit your toolkit unnecessarily?

There’s a number of reasons to read this

My latest post for TheWeek.com looks at a point of grammar – or, actually, two points, and a fun sentence that sounds right to some very careless people and some very picky people and not to the rest in between:

There’s a number of reasons the grammar of this headline could infuriate you



skulk. verb. Lurk in the dark; slink in back alleys and murky walks; cloak your bulk; shirk your work or watch the clock.

OK, really, what is it about the liquid-plus-k ending? And even moreso with this word, which slides in with the /s/ before giving that choking dark click-liquid-click. It could be the sound of a guillotine, but more likely it’s a secret door sliding open – or closed. Whatever it is, it carries a skull-crossbones sign.

Skulk comes from some Scandinavian language or other – Norwegian or Danish, we would assume (they’re so similar; Danish sounds like Norwegian that was left in a pocket and run through the wash). The Oxford English Dictionary notes, “There is apparently a remarkable lack of evidence for the currency of the word in the 15th and 16th centuries, compared with its frequency in earlier and later use.” This is, of course, utterly apposite: it skulked for a couple of centuries. Why not?

And what kind of a creature might skulk? A skunk or a skink? Perhaps a snake? As likely a sleuth or a sloth, but those are softer. I would stake my luck on a grimalkin. I will tell you this: the liquidity is crucial. When you skulk, you move like milk, or more likely sulky silk. You do not clunk.


Life is lived in the gap between the real and the unreal. Which is the gap between the unreel and the reel. The film of life unreels from the future – is it predetermined? how can you actually possibly know? – and flicks past your eyes, and by the time it is fully real for you, it is fully reeled up, spooled on the reel of experience. You know it has happened because it is already gone and stored; your eyes are glued to the flickering of the present, but your awareness is always a moment behind, and working with what has been spooled in memory.

Today at the Art Gallery of Ontario I watched a 20-minute film, made in 2011 by Francis Alÿs, called Reel-Unreel. In it, two boys run through Kabul. One rolls a red film reel along the street as he runs, unreeling film from it as he goes. The other one follows him at variable distance, never catching up, rolling a blue film reel and winding the same film back up on it as he goes. Through the dusty and muddy streets and walks and the crowded market, over bridges and around corners and up a hillside road they run, the one in front unreeling, the film dragging in dust and wrapping around things and under feet and tires, the one coming behind reeling it back up in whatever condition it is in.

The film had some clear and important political points about Afghanistan to make. But for me it was life. The unreeled film was meant to be seen, but it was not projected for an audience. Its countless frames, known only to itself, were muddied and scratched and twisted and at risk of being broken. Coming off the reel, all was perfect and pristine; going back on, nothing was quite as it was intended, and who in the end had seen it? The reality of life is the unreel, still not grasped but also not seen, and when it is finally the reel, it is too late and all that it has been – with all its mutations and wounds – is wound up and immutable.

What is a reel? A reel is a wheel with something real wound around it. This sense comes right from the Germanic origins of the word. Life is a wheel, a wheel of fortune, but it is a wheel with the thread of fate spooled on it – or the film of the moments of existence in infinite succession of frames.

And what is the reel? What is the unreel? Though we become enured to it, we are not neutral; in our neural circuitry we seek renewal, we seek to learn, but in order to realize that, we must subject the unreel to the damage and distortions of reality, so that when it becomes reel it can truly bear the marks of what we have been through.

And in the end? In the end of Reel-Unreel the film passes through a garbage-heap flame and is burnt so that it breaks, but the boy with the red reel continues unreeling oblivious as the boy with the blue reel chases on farther behind; the red reel escapes and goes off the road and down the mountainside cliff back into the busy tawny dusty town. The boy with the blue reel runs up, looks where it has gone, stunned for a moment. And then he smiles and, with a spin, finishes reeling up the film he has.


Pay attention.

Give attention.

Take attention?

I have just seen the movie Finding Vivian Maier. Vivian Maier was a nanny and housekeeper. She was a very guarded person who collected things and kept them. Trinkets, buttons, receipts, transfers. Newspapers, piles and piles of newspapers. And photographs.

Not other people’s photographs. Hers. Always, everywhere, she had her camera slung around her neck. Taking her young charges out for walks, or out on the street by herself, she would take pictures. People. People in places. People in moods. People with things, people doing things, people looking at her. She used – for her younger years, up to about age 50 – a twin-lens Rolleiflex, a nice camera and perfect for taking pictures of strangers on the street, because it hung low, and you looked down at the ground glass screen. It was not up at your eye level. It was not an obvious ocular prosthetic. Looking up, it gave majesty, and it looked at the lowly at their level. And the shutter was quiet. So she could walk up, stop, take, go.

Look at her photos. Look at them. Give them your attention. You can see many of them on the website John Maloof made for them.

John Maloof is the man who made the film. He is the man who bought her photos. Her negatives. Her hundred thousand negatives and transparencies. Her hundreds of rolls of undeveloped film. You must pay to develop, and she did not have a lot of money. It was all in boxes, boxes stored with all the other boxes of her things. No one had seen them. Almost no one: a few photo processors. This great photographic genius – I have thought so since I first saw her work a couple of years ago, and many others who have seen it agree – did not show her pictures. For many of them, she did not show them even to herself. She took.

She took attention. She did not pay attention. For her, attention was something that took. She did not want other people’s attention; she did not like the idea that anyone might see into her room. She kept the door locked, kept her life guarded. Gave false names to stores she shopped at. She did think of having her pictures printed by a processer in the small town in France where she grew up, but she was in America and it didn’t happen. Perhaps she didn’t talk much to processers in Chicago or New York, the cities where she lived, because that would have come with a risk of its actually happening. Oh, she printed a few, but not a lot. She accumulated and did not let go. Stacks of hundreds of newspapers. Tchotchkes, receipts, transfers, hats, the little things of life. The thousand items and moments that pass our eyes. Most of us discard them, or file them into the far cabinets of our memories where they simply age unlooked at and inaccessible. Vivian Maier kept them. She kept them, all these moments of attention. She pressed the shutter release and she advanced the film. And she put them away. Not into the little corners of her mind, or not just there. Into boxes.

When you look at her work, it is attention, a soft flick of the shutter at a time. Every person in a photo is the centre of its attention. The world is a performance, every moment of it is people performing themselves, and Vivian Maier attended it. The attainments, the attempts, the attenuations. The photos find the human. There is a tenderness. And a tension, a tension of attention. Her camera so low-slung, looking but not looking like looking. Some subjects felt the pull, felt that when she was taking the picture she was taking from them. Others were glad to give, because her attention gave to them. She was paying them attention. Even if that was not her intention. She was there to take, and keep, and not let go.

John Maloof – the filmmaker, the man who bought her photographs – describes himself as the sort of person who can spot a thing of value at a distance. He has a history of buying at flea markets and auctions. Things cross his attention, and something sometimes attracts. He has bought unclaimed storage lockers and found things of value, and he has tossed out negatives by the boxfull. When he was working on a project for which he needed historical pictures, he went to an auction near where he lived, and for a few hundred dollars he got thousands of negatives taken by someone unknown to him. They turned out not to be what he needed for his project, but they caught his attention and held it. He had to find out who the artist was.

And he found out that she had died, only just. Leaving no family, no heirs. When a person dies, it is, as Laurie Anderson has said, like a whole library has burned down. All those moments, all the perfect things that pass the eyes, the crossings and stops of day-to-day existence, a myriad million perfect flowers of time and space and emotion, all like rain in the rain, now running to the gutter. But Vivian Maier’s moments, so many of them, so perfectly framed, so perfectly composed, were not running away. They were pressed flat in perfect flakes, ready to be flicked through again. Attention taken, attention kept, attention available for your attention, unattenuated.

Your attention is your attention, of course. Your eyes are not mirrors. They are hands of the mind that reach out and grab what the mind wants; they are fingers that stroke reality, and tongues that taste it. They stretch out towards what they want, they extend you towards it: ad+tendere, ‘stretch to’, source of attend, source of attention. The reaching eyes mould life as they grasp it, and they select what they will seize. You keep what you want. So did Vivian Maier. She didn’t keep every last sixtieth of a second of her life. Just the moments she wanted. Seen her way, judged her way, framed her way.

The people she knew knew little about her. They might know her for a decade and yet not know what family she had, if any, or where she was from. She had that slight French accent, Americanized but perceptible. I listened – she made recordings of herself, and occasional movies of her with the children she cared for – and I thought, perhaps near the German border. Alsace? Different people who had spoken to her had different opinions. One whom she had nannied was quite sure she was French: the intonation in particular was characteristic. Another, who met her when she was at a university language lab, was entirely sure she was not French, the accent was a put-on. He had a PhD in linguistics and had done a thesis on vowel length in French and her vowels were not French vowels. He knew. He was paying attention.

To one thing. Vowel length. And which kind of French did he study, I wondered? So many dialects. Not all the same. But he was paying – or taking – his kind of attention.

In fact, she was born in New York City.

And spent much of her childhood with her mother in a small village in the French alps near the border. The Italian border. Saint-Bonnet-en-Champsaur.

And moved back to the US as a young adult.

She took many pictures in France, especially when she returned there as an adult for visits. It was unusual. Normal people would take pictures at first communion and at weddings. She was taking pictures of all sorts of people all the time. It was taking something. They were not sure what to make of her. But they tolerated her attention.

And now John Maloof has brought back her photos of them, and hung them on the wall, and they can see again how their village was, how they were if they’re old enough; they have those moments of attention back. It was taken, but it is paying back. Or forwards.

And this is what Vivan Maier has left. Myriads of flakes of attention, a sixtieth of a second each more or less, pressed flat, taken from their subjects and now waiting to catch your attention and give attention back.


In Aberdeen, where I once had been, there was the prettiest tureen you ever had seen. It was green and had a picture of the queen. Its owner had once used it to hold poteen, but now, as parent of a tween, preferred to use it to hold mangosteens. Alas, what its owner had not foreseen was the effect that pre-teen could have on the tureen. She was preening in some velveteen when she bumped into a screen and careened into the tureen – and, surely as a ball-peen hammer, smashed the tureen to smithereens. And its poor owner was left to keen and vent his spleen on what might have been.

English can be like that tureen sometimes, entropic, shattering into shards and sherds. But sometimes things converge rather than diverge. Imagine as many smithereens as you’ve ever seen all gathering together and, if not merging to make a never-before-existing pot, at least all pointing the same way. Some words converge in form, such as cleave and cleave (opposites in sense, formerly spelled differently and from different sources), and sometimes part of a word does: we see this in English names ending in -ell and -ett, and we see it in word endings such as -een.

In smithereens, which is pretty much always in the plural – imagine reading “He held in his hand a smithereen of the pot”: conceivable, but funny, no? – the -een is the same as in Colleen, poteen, shebeen, and a few other words borrowed from Irish Gaelic: it represents the -ín diminutive suffix. The smither has nothing to do with smiths; it’s from smiodar, ‘fragment’. So smithereens are small fragments. You are unlikely to break a tureen into just seventeen smithereens; more like it will be umpteen, or perhaps hundreds. And you will probably smash it rather than just break it if the result is smithereens. (And now, tell me, doesn’t the sound of “een” suggest the pieces scattering at high speed? It has the high pitch of [i], with the associations of smallness and speed, and the sustain of the final nasal [n].)

The various other -eens are from all sorts of sources: seen and been use an -n-based past tense (see > seen; be > been); tureen comes from terrine with its derivative -ine suffix coming from Latin -inus; all the -teen words relate to ten (well, velveteen doesn’t, it traces to -ine again); the various one-syllable words (queen, green, preen, spleen) come from their own individual etymologies – and keen has two sources and meanings converging on one form, the ‘sharp’ one coming from Germanic and the ‘weep’ one coming from Irish Gaelic again (but not related to the diminutive – indeed, the modern spelling is caoin, still sounding like English “keen”). What we have in the end is a rhyme with just a bit of reason. Or multiple reasons coming together, little bit by little bit.

So language comes together, e’en as it breaks apart. Perhaps we should call this convergence of smithereens eentropy.


Does it seem to you that shard and sherd have something shared? Their shape, of course, but more: they name shreds of things that don’t shred – they smash or shatter as they are dashed against something hard.

In fact, according to Oxford, the two are the same old Germanic word, just different spellings. But is that still true? Have they not by this time diverged somewhat, as person and parson or perilous and parlous or vermin and varmint or any of a fair few other pairs that have grown apart to some degree? Would you use them in exactly the same way?

They have a difference of sound, to be sure. Shard is wider open but also sharper, and indeed has echoes of sharp and shatter and hard. When you think of shards, what material do you think of? I suspect broken glass comes to mind first. Glass is certainly the most common noun to go with shard.

When you think of sherds, on the other hand, can you think of broken glass? Perhaps some can; I cannot. It has to be ceramic. The most common nouns that go with sherd are pottery and ceramic, and there is also the word potsherd that shows up quite often.

So think of these two words not as the same word, not as twins that have grown apart, but as fragments of some frangible thing – a pot, perhaps, with a repeating pattern on it. One of them has most of the pattern, but is stronger on one side of it; the other one has less of the pattern and is limited to the other side of it. There will be no mending or replacement, either; the pot wasn’t insured, and now it’s in sherds.