According to your crap or my gold?

Posted on Tue 24 Apr 2012 @ 7.46am UTC




Updated 15 Oct 2012

Stylebook of Invoiceable English

according to

WHENEVER you use the expression according to (especially in paid work), it needs to be followed by some kind of counter.

Otherwise according to on its own will make you sound sarcastic and possibly also defamatory.

Leaving according to dangling without a counter is plain (and plaintively) bad English — and you don’t get paid. Simple as that.

Jack and Jill went up the hill, according to Mary. (Avoid)

Jack and Jill went up the hill, according to Mary, but Richard said
they went down the valley instead.
(Preferred)

If you’re writing or speaking about factual matters, don’t spoil things by letting according to dangle in midair like that.

Even if you’re writing for special effect (as in novels), go easy on according to. Your reader is expecting something more whenever they see according to.

__________

RIGHTS AND WRONGS

Those of us schooled the old-fashioned way will no doubt remember (painfully) how we got punished (not merely penalised) for using according to without a counter.

QUESTION
When is it right to use according to without a counter?

ANSWER
When you’re being sarcastic and insolent.

Using according to on its own often imparts a sarcastic flavour.

According to who? You know, according to so-and-s0, who’s the authority on this-and-that because so-and-so is a big deal and you’d better accept it.

That’s not the attitude. You won’t win friends (or paying customers) if you speak or write that way. You just sound insolent.

If so-and-so is the only ‘authority’ you manage to find, then don’t kick it into us with according to. Say it differently. Don’t shove it down our throats because you and I know in any field there are loads of other authorities each fighting for reputational space.

You need to learn your English better, or find some other language to learn.

The Wrong Way:

Geldaland forms 20% of the entire European population, according to the latest WHO figures.

The Better Way:

The latest WHO figures show Geldaland forms 20% of the entire European population.

Geldaland forms 20% of the entire European population, the latest WHO figures show.

  • Which sentence sounds more sarcastic?
  • Which one sounds more factual and authoritative?
  • Which one do you think will be understood faster, better and longer by the most number of people?

* * *

FACT: As in speaking, human beings also read according to the number of syllables of the words read. Too many words and too syllables in one sentence and it becomes hard to absorb.

Protip: Learn to speak or write your sentences to 20 to 25 words each. Learn to use 75% of those 20-25 words using two-syllable words.

* * *

This is not dumbing down — it’s only sensible, traditional English-language practice. English is not Latin — it’s Anglo-Saxon, so you should mainly use Anglo-Saxon rules. It’s not always possible, but try. Please.

Take a leaf from the Japanese. They have long learnt the art of discussing the most complex things using the simplest phraseology. It’s no mistake that the Japanese invented the English phrase ‘muscle ranking’ for listing the gold vs. the crap.

__________

WHY IT IS WRONG

(Or why I’m putting money in your pocket, pal)

For those of us who took Latin as a school subject but was taught English the Anglo-Saxon way, it is exceedingly irritating to see or hear according to without a counter. You could actually see some of us wince.

The phrase according to comes from Middle English around 1350–1400.

It has five possible meanings:—

1. in agreement or accord with

e.g. according to his judgment

This is the primary meaning. Broadly speaking, use a counter.

It is possible to leave out a counter when used in this sense. Stylistically, it would be better to just recast your sentence. Speaking with just a bit too many according tos makes you sound like a bombastic idiot. Learn better speaking, or starve.

Here is a clever use of according to in this sense, split into two readable sentence with two meanings clearly close to one another:—

Hong Kong should stick to using only Cantonese and traditional script in all cases, according to Ray’s thinking. However, commercial pressures and social realities do not always make that wise perspective to follow.

2. consistent with / in conformity with

e.g. to be paid according to one’s experience; to be done according to regulations

No counter necessary in this sense. You are paid in line with your experience. You carry out some action in compliance with some rule. You are doing something in line with some condition or expectation. You have something done to you in keeping with some quality you have.

3. on the authority of / as stated or reported by

e.g. According to her, they have gone.

We highly recommend using a counter in this sense.

Here is an avoidable way of using according to that we see in typical academic writing:—

According to Bourdieu’s theory, the sociocultural dynamics of food preferences
and the ways of food consumption shed light on the social class of people.

It’s bad because it’s hazy: many academic writings just carry on to the next sentence and skip the counter. Result? We can’t tell if Mr B’s theory is gold or crap.

It’s bad because it’s mazy. A string of according to‘s one after another (a usual occurrence in academic writing) just makes the whole text sound like a piss-stream of who’s who to name-drop.

According to A, it’s this. According to B, it’s that. According to C, it’s the other.

According to you and me, it smells like name-dropping. We’re lost in a maze trying to figure out if any of them mean anything meaningful in a meaningful sort of way.

It’s not grammar — it’s lousy thinking and lousier writing technique.

It could have been simply turned into a first-class sentence like this:—

Bourdieu’s theory states that sociocultural dynamics of food preferences
and ways of food consumption are an indicator of the social class of people.

At the most basic level, a professional writer or editor would draft like this:—

Bourdieu’s theory states that … and that has been shown
to be correct by subsequent studies.

Note: The counter need not always be a negative one. It can be a positive counter.

On a purely technique-wise level, your job as a writer is to pack as much facts or meaning into a sentence or paragraph. You need to say more, better, faster and stronger with the fewest number of shortest words manageable. Dick around with words in front of others, and others will dick around with you. Understand?

*

According to her. Yeah, riiight. It’s just according to her. Big deal…

This is how the average person (averagely educated, averagely brought up, averagely nutritioned, averagely sexed, averagely alive) would react whenever they see or hear the words according to. And this reaction is especially true in under-educated people.

Most ‘educated’ people often forget this because of their educational conditioning, particularly if that conditioning is in a rather academic discipline.

This is why many successful political speechwriters and movie screenwriters stay the hell away from according to. There’s just too much at stake to jeopardise their presidents or $100 million movies with the wrong words. They avoid it, and so should you.

*

It is true that we see many instances of counter-less according to. This is unavoidable sometimes (usually in law and other technical matters), but that usage has a long tradition, is acceptable and accepted by long usage, and not to be objected to.

Generally, though, it’s much cleverer to stay away from the counter-less according to in literary or non-technical usage. (That means 90% of the time in speaking and writing.) Recast your sentence. Or you won’t get paid.

*

The problem here is with news stories. Time and time again we see lots of newspapers and TV news using according to on its own.

Lazy newspeople are rather fond of according to because then they can get away with a shoddy piece of reporting.

Good, solid newspeople avoid according to unless they have some counterbalancing information available.

There is a reason for news stories using according to with no counters. Unless you’ve been in the news business (as I have), not many of us know or realise that it’s an age-old newsroom trick to make a weak news story sound authoritative or to bump up the wordcount. At least that was the ‘old skool’ way of writing news. Nowadays, newspeople mostly have forgotten why and just use according to in blissful ignorance.

But news is news, and if according to is used counter-less in a news setting, then just accept it as regular newspaperspeak and move on.

4. in proportion to

e.g. He’ll be charged according to his ability to pay.

Don’t use a counter in this sense.

This fourth sense is closely related to sense 2 above (i.e. consistent with/in conformity with). Both mean in line with something. The main differences between sense 2 and this sense 4 are:—

  • Sense 2 is about compliance with a requirement, rule or condition
  • Sense 4 here is about matching or fitting in with some capability that you have.

5. contingent on

e.g. According to the number of winners, the judges award duplicate prizes.

Don’t use a counter in this sense.

Again, this sense is closely related to senses 2 and 4 (i.e. consistent with/in conformity with + in proportion to).  The difference here is that the ‘action’ depends upon some foregoing condition or situation that has yet to materialise.

__________

The World According to You, Me
and a Goldfish Named Joe

What if according to is used in a headline or title? Do we still need a counter?

No counter necessary. Headlines and titles are nearly always special cases — exceptions to the rule.

Used in such a way, the meaning of according to straddles senses 1, 2 and 3.

In fact, the general rule in writing headlines, titles and notice signs is to hell with grammar (well, almost anyway).

It’s okay in a title, but don’t try to make sentences like that.
(Otherwise you’ll be forcibly relocated to places where people eat each other)

__________

According to Learn English or Starve,
all of the foregoing is good advice and money in your pocket,
but you might just take an alternative opinion.

Geddit?

__________

© Learn English or Starve, 2012.

Updated 15 Oct 2012 (typo fixes).
Updated 03 Feb 2013 (formatting fixes).

Images: Insolent via apina | Life is too awesome via talk-of-faith | Dead-end sign via Superscholar | Writing via Lewiston Public Library | Never confuse education with intelligence via lolvirgin | Newspaper quick takes via Franklin Avenue | The World according to America via c4c.

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