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"The tale how" vs. "The tale of how"


My SO and I were discussing the following sentence in his writing:

This is the tale how once the Septemi helped King Nicodemus subdue walking firestorms, how we hunted cultists and mongrelfolk in the empire, how we built an imperial legacy, how we were betrayed and brought to ruin.

"The tale how" hurts my ear, but I can't say exactly what is wrong with it - it doesn't seem grammatically incorrect (though I'm no expert). Is "the tale of" simply idiomatic, or is something more fundamental going on here?

Why should this post be closed?


2 answers


"The tale how..." is wrong is because "tale" needs to be accompanied by a certain kind of preposition in that context.

A "tale" is a story. A story is about some topic. The noun "story" (or "tale") is related to its contents using prepositions like of or about:

  • This is the tale of <subject of tale>.

  • This story is about <subject of story>.

Using "story" or "tale" without that preposition means something different. What a story is is different to its contents. A story can be funny, lengthy, dark, boring...

  • That story is <adjective>.

In your example, <suject of tale> = <how the Septemi helped King Nicodemus...>. Therefore, it is the tale of how the Septemi helped King Nicodemus...



What is wrong with it is that it is not idiomatic, as you note. Writing idiomatically is the important thing here.

It really does not matter whether you can explain or justify an idiomatic expression grammatically. In fact, grammarians can really tie themselves in knots sometimes trying to fit some idiomatic expressions into their grammatical systems. Get down among the grammar weeds and you with find a thicket of tough roots and nasty thorns.

And none of it matters. Because all you actually need to do is to write idiomatically. Non-idiomatic writing hurts the ear, just as you say. If it hurts your ear, it will hurt the reader's ear. And idiomatic writing is generally writing that you do by ear, not by remembering rules, but by remembering the sound and feel of the language as you have lived and loved it all your life. If you can write idiomatically, it doesn't matter if you can't tell a gerund from a gridiron.

What is more, the failure to write idiomatically is, as often as not, the result of the attempt to apply grammar rules half remembered or half understood -- or ones that are just plain wrong.

Trust your ear. If it sounds wrong, it probably is wrong. And remember, the way to fix a sentence that sounds wrong, or that is awkward to punctuate, or leaves you puzzled about matters of agreement, is often to recast the whole sentence into another form.

And remember this too. Most of the grammar nazis you meet on the web are corporals, not generals. The don't know what they are talking about half the time.


This is helpful. I'm not sure how persuasive, "It's idiomatic, suck it up," will be to someone who doesn't consider the grammar a problem, but we shall see. Language is hard. Sigma 3 months ago

@Sigma, yes, language is hard. Or, to be more precise, language is organic, not mechanical, and therefore it is hard to understand it in mechanical terms, and hard to govern it using mechanical rules. Any system of prescriptive grammar has to be understood as at best an approximation of the organic working of a language. Mark Baker 3 months ago

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