Thursday, December 24, 2009

Crash blossoms: Christmas edition

Over at Headsup: The Blog a few days ago, fev found a headline from the Columbus Dispatch confusing:
Children's major player in tumor war
Having lived around Boston for decades, I had no trouble interpreting it; I'm sure there have been plenty of Globe headlines that referred to our Children's Hospital the same way. But it reminded me of a headline that did mystify me, several years ago, in one of the suburban weeklies:
Fate of Infant Jesus unclear
Wait, what? Isn't the fate of Infant Jesus one thing Christians of all stripes have pretty much agreed on, at least in its broad strokes?

But reading on, I found that Brookline had a Catholic church called Infant Jesus-St. Lawrence, one of the churches the archdiocese put on the list for closing in 2004, and one whose parishioners were putting up a fuss. If the church had been St. Paul's or St. Mary's, there wouldn't have been even a whisper of ambiguity. As it was, the paper produced one of my all-time favorite crash blossoms.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Moderating the (sometimes) immoderate

I liked Grant Barrett and Mark Leibovich's Buzzwords report in yesterday's Times -- especially the fact that they included the useful crash blossom on the list, and that they didn't suggest that salahi has any future as a verb meaning "crash a party." (A slippery word like salahied ousting the satisfyingly concrete and crunchy gatecrashed? Not gonna happen. And no, crash blossom is not an epithet for Mrs. Salahi.)

Even better, though, was Grant's online talkback to some of the commenters on the piece, who'd been invited to contribute buzzwords (but often chose peeves instead). One of them offered a complaint I'd also heard from readers, about "the word 'so' to begin a sentence."  He got a swift (but polite) reality check:
Sentence-initial "so" has had a long run as a discourse marker in English. I’ve had a number of people swear to me that it’s more common than it used to be, but the data show it isn’t. I think some folks are just paying more attention as they grow older and wiser, so it only seems like they’re hearing it more.
If only all comment threads could have monitors on duty to correct misconceptions and reel in the rogue theorizers. But there's a limit to what one author can do. At the end, Grant tried to point the gloomsters toward the sunny side:
If you took this as an opportunity to peeve about language rather than find something joyful and exciting in it, then, I fear, you have fallen out of love with the best tool you ever had.
Amen to that. But hostility is the default option in so many comment threads that people may now think a peeve (like a shower gift) is the expected contribution. And since any comment represents a reader (or at least a drive-by scanner), newspapers have no incentive to turn off the spigot; bilious readers, in these desperate days, are better than none.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Wish we knew 'may' from 'might'

A caption* on the Globe's front page last month read, "The median on Blue Hill Avenue where the Silver Line [transit route] may have been placed."

A couple of readers were puzzled by that "may have been." "I hadn't realized that the Silver Line was missing," e-mailed David Devore of Newton. William F. Bell of Lenox, Mass., agreed: "The meaning is unclear unless you realize that what is meant is 'might have been placed."

I'm with them. For me, the verb there can only be might, the past of may. ("May have been" means there's a chance the line was once placed there; we know that isn't true.)

But the distinction seems to be evaporating. Just two days earlier, I had spotted the construction on the New York Times op-ed page: "If dentists would just decide to withdraw the flossing directive, we may have enough additional spare time to learn Spanish." I could go with either "If dentists decide, we may," or "If dentists decided/would decide, we might," but as written it sounds wrong. This may/might choice is not about levels of likelihood, just about sequence of tenses; normal English uses "She said she was happy," not "she said she is happy" (unless, some say, you intend to emphasize the latter verb).

And today the Globe's op-ed page has, "I fought off the temptation to shoo the animal with a firm 'no!' or 'go to your bed!'’ -- commands that may have gotten results. " [But it never happened. So: "might have gotten results."]

Officially, the Times is on my side, as Philip Corbett explained in a recent After Deadline post:

A verb that is present tense in a direct quotation shifts to past tense in an indirect quotation after a past-tense verb: I am going to the store becomes He said he was going to the store, not He said he is going to the store. In such constructions, the future-tense “will” becomes “would” after a past-tense verb. In these cases, “would” is not acting as a conditional (He would go to the store if he needed something) but simply as the past-tense form of “will.”

Corbett calls this the "formal rule," but I don't think I learned it it as a formal usage; it's just the way everyone said it. So why the shift? It's another of those language mysteries. As I mentioned in a September Word column, Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage can't explain it, and doesn’t approve: 'We advise you to use might in all contexts where the past tense is appropriate or where a hypothetical or highly unlikely situation is being referred to.'"

But a more recent discussion at Language Log quotes the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language on the futility of resistance: "Conservative usage manuals tend to disapprove of [this] usage, but it is becoming increasingly common, and should probably be recognised as a variant within Standard English."

*It turned out the caption was wrong; the rapid bus service it referred to was not officially part of the Silver Line. But that doesn't affect the grammar question.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Oh no, Mr. Phil!

Unbelievable. In the new After Deadline blog post, the Times's Philip Corbett makes this (retroactive) correction:
[Caption] Mike L. has remained a father to a daughter that wasn’t really “his.”

Use "who" for people, not "that."

No, no, no. You can debate the advisability of that in any given sentence, but there is not, and never has been, a rule against using that to refer to people, as I reiterated in the Globe Sept. 27. (No, I don't imagine that the Times's usage guru is looking to me for advice. But surely he would value Bryan Garner's opinion, quoted below?)

Here's my rant, one more time:

NOT THAT AGAIN! Yes, the zombie rule that it’s wrong to use that as a pronoun for a person is still undead. I’ve had several recent complaints from readers who think "the person that cuts the lawn" and "the woman that arrived before you," where that refers to a person, are improper English.

But no. This isn’t even a bona fide zombie rule, because it never was fully alive. That has been applied to people for at least 1,000 years, and usage books have never said it shouldn’t. But somehow, the notion that it’s bad English stays in circulation.

There was a time, in the later 17th century, when the relative pronoun that fell out of favor among the literati, according to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage. The dislike wasn’t aimed at that for people, but at all uses of the relative pronoun; as late as 1752, an anonymous grammarian was still urging writers to avoid that entirely. But they didn’t, and the fad was forgotten.

Of course, not every relative who or whom can be replaced with that. We no longer use that in nonrestrictive clauses, so we don’t say "my father, that I resemble" or "Jane Smith, that is in my biology class." But in the usual formulations -- "women that succeed," "friends that gather each week," "the boy that I was" -- that has always been standard English.

There is no real debate about this; in the new Garner’s Modern American Usage, Bryan Garner says, "It’s a silly fetish to insist that who is the only relative pronoun that can refer to humans." And that’s that -- or at least it ought to be.

Friday, November 27, 2009

He was mis-'informed'

"The gloomy side is perennially popular," writes Stan Carey in a comment on the previous post concerning concerning. So it is, and there's ample proof this month at the New York Times website, which has been diligently wooing the language gloomsters. Stanley Fish drew hundreds* of comments after he complained about some of his least favorite utterances. And Philip Corbett's After Deadline blog, which recaps the printed Times's infelicities, regularly prompts further language complaints.

It can be depressing to read these repetitive and familiar peeves, but often you're rewarded with a surprise -- a language bugaboo that you've never heard of. This month's prize, among the comments on the Nov. 10 After Deadline, was a demonstration of what Arnold Zwicky has labeled the Recency Illusion:

I may be a bit late with this complaint … but since when has it been acceptable to use the word "inform" as a substitute for what used to be "influenced"? As in, "Kandinsky’s early work is INFORMED by Fauvism …" It’s annoying as hell.

Yes, the complaint is a bit late. The usage is recorded since about 1400, says the OED (while the earliest citation for influence is dated 1658). This inform, it says, means "To give ‘form’, formative principle, or determinative character to; hence, to stamp, impress, imbue, or impregnate with some specific quality or attribute; esp. to impart some pervading, active, or vital quality to; … to inspire, animate. But since the earliest quotes are not absolutely clear examples, let's ignore them and start circa 1600:

1605 CHAPMAN Al Fooles I. i, Without loue...All vertues borne in men lye buried, For loue informes them as the Sunne dothe colours.
1607 SHAKES. Cor. V. iii. 71 The God of Souldiers...informe Thy thoughts with Noblenesse.
1758 BLACKSTONE Study of Law in Comm. (1765) I. 37 [To] inform them with a desire to be still better acquainted with the laws and constitution of their country.
1842 TENNYSON Day-Dream, Sleeping Beauty ii, Her constant beauty doth inform Stillness with love, and day with light.
1968 Listener 1 Aug. 153/2 Britten's exuberant cantata … is informed by a Stravinskian economy of gesture and dramatic style.

Is this informed by more common than it used to be? Perhaps, but so is influenced by, a Google News search suggests; inform is not replacing influence, which after all is not quite the same thing. So this is another non-peeve; do not add it to your hate list. We can hope (though we probably shouldn't expect) that the complainant, should someone inform him, will think that's good news.

*Fish refers to his 377 comments as "many hundreds of comments." In my idiolect, 377 would be "several hundred" or "nearly 400"; I'm not sure I would ever use "many hundreds," given that the groups of hundreds only go up to nine (at which point I'd say "nearly 1,000"). Anyone else have a figure in mind that would qualify as "many hundreds"?

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

A concerning usage

A few months ago, reader JF from Milford wrote to express her concern about concerning, the adjective -- as in, "The current unemployment situation is very concerning." She was noticing it more and more on TV news reports, she said, and "I really hate it ... 'concerning' sounds like a made-up word."

I replied that though this concerning did seem to be enjoying a vogue, it wasn't a new use: The earliest quote from the OED -- "I cannot bear anything that is the least concerning to you" -- is from Samuel Richardson's "Pamela," 1741. And I vaguely promised to look into the rise of concerning.

But now I don't have to: Mark Liberman at Language Log, having received a similar query from a reader, has done it for me. He finds that the usage is gradually increasing, but thinks we should remain calm:

Why not just give up, get over it, and look on the bright side? Concerning has plenty of standard precedents ("This is troubling/annoying/terrifying/grating") where a prepositional-phrase version would be odd (?"This is of trouble/annoyance/terror/gratingness"). In fact, of concern is a bit of an outlier, so you could see the change to concerning as a move in the direction of linguistic consistency.

Or maybe you'd rather look on the gloomy side? After all, "some people enjoy watching the decay (as they see it) of everyone else's language," says Liberman. "If you're one of them, then never mind, and many happy returns of the peeve."

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Who moved her 'only'?

One favorite language fetish, even among the more level-headed usage writers, is an obsession with placement of only -- often accompanied by an insistence that putting only in the wrong place can cause tragic misunderstandings.

My theory is that this nit persists because writers love to make up the horrible examples with which they buttress the rule. Language writer James Kilpatrick, for instance, has offered as evidence these unlikely utterances:
(1) Only John hit Peter in the nose, (2) John hit Peter only in the nose, (3) John only hit Peter in the nose, and (4) John hit only Peter in the nose.
Several times, over the years, I've challenged readers to show me an example of a truly misleading only in print, not in a made-up example, and nobody has yet responded. But over this morning's coffee, I stumbled onto one myself, in a Wall Street Journal story by Jennifer Corbett Dooren. The story, which discussed improvements in predicting which non-symptomatic people are about to get sick, noted:
Current tests can detect only what type of virus or bacteria people are infected with after they get sick.
OK, what this sentence wants to mean is that tests can detect the pathogens in people "only after they get sick." It's genuinely misleading, thanks to the long stretch between only and the clause it modifies; you have to revise your understanding of the sentence when you're well on the way down its garden path.

But there may be a twist. My Spidey editing sense, honed by years of service on the copy desk, is tingling with suspicion that this is an editor's error, not the writer's.*

Consider the way many of us would naturally have written the sentence:
Current tests can only detect what type of virus or bacteria people are infected with after they get sick.
No problem, right? But say you're an only-sensitive editor: You want that only to "snuggle up" (in Kilpatrick's phrase) to the word or phrase it modifies. Usually, that involves moving it rightward: "I only want seltzer" becomes "I want only seltzer." And so the editor duly moves only to the right of the verb.

But in this case, that's not far enough. If the only isn't in its natural position ("can only detect"), where it alerts us to wait for the conclusion ("after they get sick"), then it has to come much later, like this:
Current tests can detect what type of virus or bacteria people are infected with only after they get sick.
This doesn't really work either, though. It sounds as if it's making a positive statement about what tests can do, then it pulls a 180 on the reader four-fifths of the way through the sentence.

So let me implore, once more: Let's stop worrying about only. Usually, it's fine just where it is. As a linguist would say -- in this case, Geoff Pullum, on Language Log -- "The word only is frequently positioned so that it attaches to the beginning of a larger constituent than its focus (and thus comes earlier), and that is often not just permissible but better."

Not just permissible but better. Or, as we sometimes remember to say on the copy desk: If it ain't broke, don't fix it.

*I've e-mailed the author to ask whether this is the case.
[Update: Jennifer Corbett Dooren confirms that her original read "Current tests can only detect," and that the change came somewhere during the editing process.]

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Spooky fruit

Just in time for Halloween, a New Yorker story alerted me to the existence of an apple variety I'd never heard of. "Half-eaten apples lay on the ground, left by the Columbus Day pick-your-own crowds," wrote Lizzie Widdicombe. "Wickham pointed out new apple varieties -- Empire, Razor, Jonagold."

Paging Nancy Friedman! I like a tart, crisp apple myself, but who would name one the Razor, given the decades-old worries (justified and not) about treat-tampering evildoers?

A bit of Googling suggests that the apple is actually the Razor Russet, "discovered by the late W. Armstrong of the University of Kentucky as a limb mutation of Golden Delicious. Fruit is large, round, conical, and uniformly fawn-brown. Flavor is more intense than Golden, yet still sweet."

And oddly enough, it was introduced in 1970, around the dawn of the great Halloween poison-and-sabotage scares. Surely there's no connection, but in the absence of any other explanation, the name sounds a bit like a bad joke.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Nettle to the mettle

Like Michael Quinion in today's World Wide Words, I'm surprised to learn that some people think the idiom grasp the nettle is a corruption of grasp the mettle. I suppose mettle isn't utterly fantastic here; if being on one's mettle means "ready for any challenge," I can see how grasp the mettle might be understood as something like "gird your loins" or "cowboy up." Still, it sounds odd if you've always been familiar with grasp the nettle.

The phrase is based on the folk wisdom that firmly seizing hold of a stinging nettle (or a nettlesome problem) is like yanking off a Band-Aid; doing it decisively lessens the pain. Quinion quotes an 18th-century verse that states the maxim (and even rhymes it with mettle):

Tender-handed stroke a nettle,
And it stings you, for your pains:
Grasp it like a man of mettle,
And it soft as silk remains.

Nice rhyme, and total hogwash, as I can painfully testify. Once upon a time, weeding along a backyard fence, I innocently grasped a nettle and pulled hard. It stung like crazy. According to the US Forest Service, the plant's poison is formic acid, and "contact with needle-like, stinging hairs on the twigs and lower surface of leaves of this plant can cause SEVERE SKIN IRRITATION AND MILD SKIN RASH." The all-caps emphasis is entirely appropriate.

Quinion wonders if the plant lore was a prankster's invention. I always figured the metaphor was coined by someone who had never been near a nettle -- possibly the same guy who thought "like taking candy from a baby" was a good way of saying "easy."