Wednesday, December 19, 2012

"Apparent" and reality

Is there any such thing as an “apparent heart attack”? In a post at Visual Thesaurus, Merrill Perlman takes on that journalistic bugaboo. She cites me as a defender of the usage (siding with the Associated Press, versus Bryan Garner and any number of grizzled editors), and so I am, but she doesn't really explain the arguments for the defense. (Her own recommendation is cautious: Use it when you must, if your editor allows it.)

So I thought I'd resurrect my 2008 piece here, before it disappears behind the Globe's paywall. (The Perlman article is already behind a paywall, but buy yourself a Visual Thesaurus subscription for $19.95. You won’t regret it.) 

And while I'm being argumentative, let me dissent from another of Perlman's rulings. "If you do use an adverb, be sure to put it in the right place," she says. That is, write "she died, apparently of a heart attack," not "she apparently died of a heart attack." This is a variation on the placement-of-only fetish, and it's just as misguided. In most contexts, "she apparently died of a heart attack" would be the normal word order, just as in "he probably died of fright" or "they reportedly survived by eating worms." And there's nothing wrong with "Apparently she died of a heart attack," either. Let's not go looking for trouble.

"The Word," Boston Globe, Jan. 6, 2008
"One of my pet peeves is 'he died of an apparent heart attack,' a reader and former newspaperman wrote recently. (His name, alas, has been lost to an e-mail mishap.) "Try as I might," he said, "I have been unable to find an 'apparent heart attack' on any list of maladies that might kill someone."

His peeve is not one of the best known, but it's familiar to many journalists. The New York Times style manual cautions writers not to report "apparent" heart attacks or robberies: "Only real heart attacks and robbery attempts are dangerous," it says. Instead, write "Apparently, he died of a heart attack."

Bryan Garner offers similar advice in Garner's Modern American Usage, along with an analysis of the problem: "The adverb apparently gets morphed into an adjective and paired with the wrong word (a noun) when logically it should modify a verb," he says. "A person may die 'apparently of a heart attack' but one doesn't die 'of an apparent heart attack."'

As usage issues go, the apparent argument is fairly new. The Times used the phrase "apparent heart attack" as early as the 1920s, but the earliest objection I've found comes only in 1965, in a book by Roy Copperud, a journalism professor and usage writer. Copperud called "apparent heart attack" ambiguous, arguing that it might imply that the ailment was merely psychosomatic. By 1980, though, he was backing off: "Critics say sentences like this are ambiguous, though no one misunderstands ... the intention," he admitted.

Others remained steadfast in opposition: Morton S. Freeman (no relation!), in a 1990 usage book, banned the expression outright, because "an apparent heart attack is not fatal."

Now, I'm not especially fond of the apparent heart attack construction. But the arguments against it have holes you could drive an ambulance through.

First, some critics are cheating on the definition: When they say "apparent" heart attacks aren't fatal, they want to imply that apparent is the opposite of actual -- that it means "unreal." Not so: it means possibly unreal, says the American Heritage: "Appearing as such but not necessarily so; seeming; an apparent advantage."

Yes, the apparent heart attack might turn out to be something else -- indigestion or a stage performance, say. But apparent doesn't mean "not genuine"; it only means "not verified."

Then there's the matter of syntax. Garner claims we must say "He apparently died of a heart attack" because apparent, an adjective, would have to modify a noun; we need apparently, the adverb, because we're modifying the verb, died.

But apparently isn't, in fact, modifying the verb in that approved sentence. The deceased didn't "apparently die" (unless he's missing and only presumed dead). If he's dead, then "he died"; apparently modifies the prepositional phrase, "of a heart attack."

As for the adverb getting "morphed" into an adjective, as Garner speculates -- well, apparent is already an adjective. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, it has been used in this sense - "Appearing to the senses or mind, as distinct from (though not necessarily opposed to) what really is; seeming" -- since the mid-17th century.

So if it's not the sense, and not the syntax, what's really wrong with "apparent heart attack"? Maybe it's the company it keeps. That apparent is journalistic shorthand, often used, like reportedly and allegedly, as a hedge against the uncertainties of breaking news.

I suspect that's the real reason usage writers dislike apparent; they lump it together with "fled on foot" and "slay suspect nabbed" and other condensed cliches of the trade.

Oddly, though, the apparent stigma applies only to crimes and fatalities. The Times bans "apparent" heart attacks, but in the past year it has allowed "an apparent trade dispute," "an apparent reference to the border with Iraq," "an apparent friendly-fire episode," "an apparent gaffe," and more. All these apparents mean "seeming" or "presumed," just like the banned apparent modifying "heart attack."

So it looks as if apparent heart attack is merely another random peeve, a usage plucked out for special abuse while similar constructions get a pass. If you think it's overused jargon, of course, it's fair to argue against it. But let's be clear: the debate is not about "ambiguity" or grammar; it's just a question of taste.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Taking the shine off "coruscate"

John McIntyre’s current word of the week is coruscating -- literally "flashing, sparkling, glittering," and metaphorically, per American Heritage, "exhibit[ing] sparkling virtuosity."

But do we have a consensus on that? I've had coruscating on my watch list for a while, and I think it may be shifting its sense in a way that the dictionaries haven't yet recognized, though they surely have active files on the case. 

The thing is, coruscating is supposed to be complimentary, but sometimes it's obvious the writer doesn't mean it that way. Instead, it's a negative,  apparently meaning "corrosive, harrowing, scathing, excoriating, castigating," or the like. For example:
The poem ... is a coruscating portrait of her father as a dead weight on her mother's psyche. (New York Times, Nov. 8, 2012,  in a review of a book called "brutal and sorrow-filled.")
In his concession speech, Romney showed he had heard the message. He called for renewed bipartisanship, an end to coruscating political divisions. But the Republican hard men still don't get it. (Guardian, Nov. 7, 2012)  
One of the peculiarities of modern conservatism is that the most coruscating examinations of its doctrines are often issued from dissidents within its own ranks. (NYT, March 2, 2012).
Entwistle's early lack of leadership and gravitas led to coruscating attacks from media commentators. (Independent, Oct. 29, 2012)  
And though coruscate is listed as an intransitive verb, a few writers have coined an adjectival coruscated, which might mean anything, but seems unlikely to mean "sparkling" here: 
He slathered the walls with coruscated layers of paint and clay. (Observer, Oct. 28, 2012)
You close ''Don Quixote'' and ''Tristram Shandy,'' ''Middlemarch'' and ''Augie March,'' and the cosmos takes on a coruscated import it rather lacked before. (NYT, Aug. 19, 2012)
I suspect, after poking around the newspaper archives, that the change is more advanced in the English press; they like to call critical official reports "coruscating," and you know they can't mean  sparkling. So what's going on in your linguistic neighborhood? Does coruscate still shine for you, or are the lights going dim?

Update 12/13/12: I see that Ruth Walker, whose language posts at the Christian Science Monitor are (sadly) not all that easy to find, wrote about coruscate last year, and mentioned the "corrosive" connection:
This writer [on a website of the University of Hull] goes on to say, however, that people often use the word to mean "very hostile" or "savage," and suggests that the word they are reaching for but not quite finding is excoriate … Corrosive may be another word writers have in mind when they use the nonsparkly coruscating.
She also sums up why it’s so easy to spread a new sense.
When a 50-cent adjective like coruscating appears in a sentence where it's not essential to meaning, readers are freer to draw their own inferences. In this case, the two meanings are very different, but in any given context, each is likely to be plausible. Readers then use the word themselves in the meaning they have inferred.
Sure, a dictionary would help -- but we don't learn most words from dictionaries, and until someone throws a warning flag, the person using the word has no reason to doubt his inference.  As Walker concludes: "This is how language changes. Alas." (I'm not sure if this one is going on my "Alas" list or not, but that's a personal decision.)

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The outage outrage

Nick Kristof, call your editor. The two of you committed a language gaffe -- by Times standards, at least -- in your Nov. 22 column. But I doubt that any ordinary New York Times readers saw the problem in your third paragraph:
A month ago, I would have written more snarkily about residential generators. But then we lost power for 12 days after Sandy -- and that was our third extended power outage in four years. Now I’m feeling less snarky than jealous!
I wouldn't have noticed it either, had I not learned of the issue two days earlier in the Times’s weekly After Deadline blog. Commenting on a reference to “storm damage and power outages,” Philip Corbett, the paper's standards editor, said, “The utilities prefer this euphemism, but we should call them what they are: blackouts or power failures.”

Outage is a euphemism? In decades of editing and peeve-watching, I've never seen that nit picked. But Corbett is just enforcing the Times style guide, which (in the book version, published 1999) calls outage “jargon and a euphemism for failure, shutdown or cutoff.”

I couldn’t find much support for this notion in the usage archives, but one source went into it deeply enough that I suspect it of starting the anti-outage movement. That source is the Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins, by William and Mary Morris. In the second edition, published in 1977, the authors go into the outage question in detail:
One winter our town was hit by a particularly damaging sleet storm, with the result that we were without light and heat for five days. Partly out of understandable vexation at the hardships resulting, we expressed our displeasure at the term used by the electric light company to cover the situation. It was, they said, a ‘power outage.’ We thought ‘power failure’ would be more expressive – and said so.
The authors don’t say where they expressed their displeasure -- perhaps in the first edition of their Dictionary, 10 years earlier -- but in response, they say, “a knowledgeable reader wrote,” and they print his comment:
An outage is not a synonym for “power failure.” In the electrical generating industry, the term covers any situation in which equipment is not functioning; it means simply “The equipment is out.” It might be out for maintenance, improvement or replacement, as well as for breakdowns in service due to malfunction, accidents or acts of nature …
Knowledgeable Reader has a very plausible analysis of the situation:
I’m of the opinion that this bit of industrial jargon has moved from power plant usage to application throughout the industry and only recently into the vocabulary of the information media. Of course, the mass media’s uses would be during times when the public was inconvenienced and doubtless irritated by unplanned, accidental outages. Perhaps that more restrictive application has resulted in the unfavorable connotation and impression, as you seem to have implied, that outage is a euphemism.
KR points out that this use of outage was newish in general usage and associated with a special lexicon, both traits that can arouse word rage. Indeed, in 1977, not long after the Morrises encountered their outage, the Times heard from a reader not enchanted with the novel usage:
Re: “Outage” -- a new word.  In the “age” of lawlessness there should be no shortage of courage in dealing with an “outage” spawning “lootage” by “loutage.” The system demands “stoppage” or there may be no system to salvage. 
And the Morrises, as I read them, accept the Knowlegeable Reader's point of view. They don't press their case against outage; they give KR the last word. And they don't mention outage at all in the second edition of their Harper Dictionary of Contemporary Usage (1985).

But it's harder to kill a peeve than to invent it. Some editor apparently took the Morrises' initial rant to heart, and kept the animus alive long enough to infect a contributor to the Times style manual -- and now it's online, trolling for new fans. Here's hoping it fails; this misbegotten peeve has earned its current obscurity.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Keeping the "suck" in "successful"

I’ve heard accessories called “assessories,” and succinct pronounced “sussinct” (not so often, but then it’s not so common a word), and flaccid started down the road to flassidity so long ago that the wrong pronunciation is now right. (That is, all our dictionaries list it, some as the majority usage.) Still, most English words with this Latin-derived double-c -- originally pronounced kk, as John Wells explains at his phonetics blog – continue to sound the cc as ks: accident, success, vaccinate.

But just as there’s no apparent reason for succinct to change its sound, there’s no way to know when another new pronunciation may appear. A couple of weeks ago, I had my first encounter with the nouveau successful, pronounced “sussessful.” The speaker was a caller to “On Point,” WBUR-FM’s talk show, who hailed from White House, Tenn., and who predicted an electoral victory for Mitt Romney. Why? “He’s a sussessful governor and a sussessful businessman as well.”

Yes, he had a Southern accent, but my Southern-speaking friend doesn’t recognize this as a regional thing, and of course it could be idiosyncratic. Anyone else out there hearing – or saying – “sussessful”?

Friday, November 9, 2012

Fighting off the 'were'-wolves

It's a good day, with the sun shining again and, over at Lingua Franca, a post by Geoff Pullum addressing Philip Corbett’s unnecessary anxiety about the was vs. were choice in the New York Times's columns.

As Pullum notes, many of us waffle on the choice of was or were in the subjunctive, or irrealis, construction. Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage quotes Swift, Byron, Thackeray, Frost, and other worthies opting for was where a purist would use were. (Byron: "I wish H. was not so fat.") 

Like these august writers, and like many educated users of English, I go back and forth in actual usage. I learned early on that it was OK to be blasé about was vs. were, thanks to Bergen and Cornelia Evans’s Dictionary of Contemporary American Usage (1957). Back in the mid-20th century, a lot of language authorities thought the subjunctive were was dying, and the Evanses were among them: "Was has been used as a past subjunctive in literary English for more than three hundred years and is the preferred form today." 

It's unlikely the Evanses had statistical proof for that "preferred form" judgment, and I doubt that it's even true. But given the number of subjunctive wases they saw in educated writing, they were confident in saying there were only two constructions in which were was clearly preferred: "If I were you," more or less a fixed phrase, and the literary "were I in a desert." 

We haven't abandoned subjunctive were as quickly as the midcentury mavens predicted. But if it disappeared overnight, as Pullum points out, there would be no loss of clarity; for other English verbs, the irrealis form is already the same as the simple past, or preterite: "If he had the money, he'd buy a generator." Is there any example in print of a failure to use the irrealis were causing genuine ambiguity? I don't think I've ever seen even a made-up example.*

By contrast, the recent blending of may and might – saying “if he had a raft, he may have survived” when you know that he didn’t survive -- can cause actual misunderstanding. (Way back in 2002 and 2003, Language Hat was bemoaning the development: "One of the changes going on in English that distresses me the most ... is the obsolescence of the contrary-to-fact past 'might have.'") Yet the takeover by may continues, and few notice the ambiguity. 

Why, then, should the meaningless was/were distinction persist, where no ambiguity ensues? I guess it's just one of those quirks of peevology.

*The myth of the "misplaced" only, on the other hand, has inspired dozens of made-up examples of alleged ambiguity, of the "I ate only the almonds/I ate the only almonds" genre. Yet I''m still waiting for a reader to show me an edited, printed example of an ambiguously placed only.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Microsoft founder repurposes the semicolon

I was leafing through the November issue of WSJ. Magazine, wondering at the whimsies of the 1 percent, when I came upon some of the oddest semicolon usage I’ve ever seen. In a one-page feature called Still Life,* a photo of several possessions (detail below) is annotated by the objects’ proud owner -- in this case, Paul G. Allen, cofounder of Microsoft. A chunk of the text:
In 1999, I acquired Les Poseuses by Georges Seurat. I feel lucky to own a museum-quality masterpiece; I discovered Tomorrow, the Stars by Robert A. Heinlein in the basement as a boy -- it used to belong to my father. It's one of the many books that fueled my curiosity about the future of technology; a DEC tape containing the program files created by me and Bill Gates in Boston in 1975 while writing the BASIC code for the MITS Altair 8800. It was sent to Albuquerque, where we founded Microsoft; this Etruscan head was the first antiquity I've ever bought. People often don't realize that many early sculptures, like this one, were painted. The 2,500-year-old piece depicts a man with red hair; my biggest musical inspiration, Jimi Hendrix, used this Fender Stratocaster to play his iconic rendition of The Star Spangled Banner at Woodstock. ...
Yes, the clauses on the same topic are separated with periods, while the unrelated clauses are connected by semicolons -- the opposite of the usual practice. Maybe you don't find this disconcerting, but as one brought up on the standard semicolon -- the one that joins related clauses -- I was reeling. Once I caught on, I could see the potential: There's a certain weird poetry to "The 2,500-year-old piece depicts a man with red hair; my biggest musical inspiration, Jimi Hendrix, used this Fender Stratocaster." But is weird poetry what you use semicolons for?

Since the WSJ is generally a well-edited paper, I’m guessing this is Paul Allen’s own tic. And I can see his editor thinking, what the hell, it’s only 200 words, why annoy him? (I sometimes wish I’d said that to myself, as an editor, more often.) But those semicolons make it 200 words of extremely odd prose.

*It's STILL LIFE on the web version, but in print it's STILL/LIFE; I don't know how you'd parse that, but I'm sure someone thought it looked classy. 

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Muphry's Law across the pond

Earlier this month, the Financial Times ran a letter complaining about a couple of "grammatical" offenses, and once again the rule known as Muphry's/McKean's/Hartman's Law, or the Iron Law of Nitpicking, was in force: Any criticism of another's spelling or usage will itself contain at least one error.

This criticism came from faithful FT reader Brian Langdon-Pratt, who was in a state:
I'm shocked! Yes, really shocked! Reading the Financial Times last Friday -- as I’ve done for the past 40 years -- I came across two howlers. In the summary review by Nigel Andrews of The Perks of Being a Wallflower, he writes: “The hero Charlie wants to be ... even medalled as a social soldier”, and then later he compounds the grammatical offence by writing: "... half-brother Patrick is crash-coursed in literature". At least he put in a hyphen!
I know that standards of English grammar have slipped, but from Mr Andrews’ photo insert he looks old enough to know -- and hopefully to have been taught -- better.
The verb to medal has been around in the current sense since the 1960s, and Americans have complained about it for decades already. But as Graham at Linguism recently pointed out, medal is somewhat less familiar to the Brits, so if they want to smack it around a bit before they (inevitably) accept it, that's OK. The nonce coinage "crash-coursed," on the other hand, needs no defense -- the author isn't trying to impose it on the English-speaking world, he's just having a bit of fun.

But what about that "hopefully"? Does Langdon-Pratt not know that sentence-adverbial hopefully is (in Bryan Garner's terminology) a "skunked term" for true peevologists? I thought that perhaps hopefully aversion -- like our American which-that fetishism -- might have simply bypassed Britain. But according to Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage, "the ranks of hopefully haters grew steadily" in America from the mid-'60s to 1975, the year that "the issue seems to have crossed the Atlantic." British objectors, says MWDEU, "would repeat all the things American viewers with alarm had said, and add the charge of  'Americanism' to them."

You'd think a 40-year FT reader and language watcher would have encountered his culture's hopefully hostility at an impressionable age. But none of us can observe every language peeve, however attentive we may be -- hence the ubiquity, and inexorability, of Muphry's (etc.) Law.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

A canoedling detour, an eggcorn update

I've been neglecting this blog, it's true, but I haven't been utterly idle. I wrote a piece on the word canoodle for Cognoscenti, the new ideas-and-opinions blog at the website of my favorite public radio station, WBUR. And because canoodling has been linked (speculatively) with canoes, the (brief) history of boating romance is part of the background. It's a delightful story even without the language angle: Check out the essay "Love Boats" for more on "canoedling."

In other business: If your memory is good, you may recall that we debated, back in September, whether "wager the pros and cons" (instead of "weigh") qualified as an eggcorn. Arnold Zwicky, eggcorn eggspert, has replied to my request for a judgment on the matter:
Not an easy one. But you do make a semantic case for the eggcorn. [I.e., I argued that a speaker might think of "wagering" as betting on the likelihood of alternative outcomes.]
My guess is that this is a mixed case, with some occurrences being ordinary (classical) malaprops and some being eggcorns. (The phonology is a bit distant in either case.)
 It does seem unlikely that it's going to catch on.
So I guess Eugenia Last, the astrologer who's responsible for most examples of "wager the pros and cons," will get the last (sorry) word; if she means "wager" in some plausible way, she's got herself an eggcorn.

Illustration: A couple on the Charles River in Newton, Mass. (Vintage postcard courtesy of Benson Gray.)

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

I'll wager it's an eggcorn

Saw this line today in Eugenia Last's syndicated Astrological Forecast:
Wager the pros and cons of any situation before you decide to take part. 
I've only heard that expression as "weigh the pros and cons," "weigh your options," and so forth. But practically every day I learn that half the English-speaking world accepts a usage I've never heard, so I went to look for Google hits. There were only 104 (real) hits, many of them duplicates, and many from Eugenia Last forecasts (not always credited). Here's a recent one, from Sept. 15, 2012:
Don't jump at the first offer that comes your way. Wager the pros and cons of any decision you must make.
And the earliest one I found from Last, on Google News, from Sept. 2, 1997:
You will wager the pros and cons of any situation before you decide to jump in.
A sampling from the non-astrological cites:
One must wager the pros and cons of this feature. If this feature is of no importance then weight will be an issue.*
Thanks, I am getting more used to it as time goes by I guess I will have to wager the pros and cons.
"Wager the pros and cons" is a plausible enough eggcorn, it seems to me; instead of weighing the options, the metaphor involves making a mental bet on one's choice. But the usage doesn't seem to be spreading, even after 15 years of national exposure. ("Wager the options," which would be a natural extension of the idiom, gets only three Google hits.)  I don't know what the stars predict, but I doubt there's a bright future for this language innovation.

*Maybe this commenter used "wager the pros and cons" to avoid the echo of weigh/weight?

Update 10/20/12: Arnold Zwicky replies to my question about whether "wager the pros and cons" qualifies as an eggcorn.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Don't "quote" me

Michael Lewis's disclosure that he gave the White House "quote approval" for his new book on Obama has reignited the debate about the ethics of the practice. At Language Log, Mark Liberman weighs in, reminding us of the central fact that ought to be driving the discussion (but isn't): 
Most direct quotes in newspaper or magazine articles are approximate at best, representing a writer's reconstruction from fragmentary notes and from memory of what he or she thinks the source meant to say, as excerpted and adapted to the needs of the story. There's a spectrum of approximation, from accurate paraphrase though muddled and confused paraphrase to outright fabrication; but accurate quotation is the exception, not the rule. [Emphasis mine.] 
Mark has amply documented this sorry fact in earlier posts at Language Log (which he links to). But of course, many of us know it from experience. Here's Ann Blackerby, commenting on a post at the New York Times in which the new public editor addresses the question:
30 years ago, as a pediatric resident, I was called by a reporter from a respected daily paper to add to a story on ... a near-drowning case in which I'd been involved. The quotations published were made up out of whole cloth, but I was still rebuked by the director of the residency program. I wish I'd had veto power over my quotations then! 
Even David Carr, the Times journalist whose column yesterday denounced the granting of quote approval, seems concerned mainly with political and business sources -- those most likely to be in adversarial relationships with reporters. When that's not the case -- in science reporting, say -- is quote approval a problem, or just free expert advice?

I'm wondering, too, how Carr handles quotes in the real world. In an interview today on NPR's "Morning Edition," he described the traditional rules of journalistic engagement this way:
You ask them a question, they answer it, you write it down as carefully as you can, and should it be useful, you stick it in the newspaper.
"As carefully as you can," as Mark Liberman's work reveals, is often nowhere near carefully enough.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Damned if I could stop negating ...

Ben Yagoda has a post at Lingua Franca responding to a reader who bristles at the phrase “one of the only.” He defends it as an idiom that we don't parse logically, like "can't help but think" and "could care less," but have no trouble understanding.

That's not good enough for truly devoted nitpickers, who continue to patiently explain that "I could care less" is a monstrous inversion of meaning. But the fact is, we accept flaws in logic much larger than this when we're engaged in reading or listening, rather than proofreading or peeving.

I was reminded of this by a story last month in the New York Times Magazine, in which Sarah Hepola described her struggles as an editor of confessional writing. Hepola wrote that she found herself "excising the grimmest parts of personal essays, torn between my desire to protect the human being and my knowledge that such unforgettable detail would boost a story’s click-through rate." Then came a paragraph with a couple of little speed bumps:
"This feels a little unprocessed," I told writers who shared their tales of date rape and eating disorders, but it was hard to deny that the internal chaos, that fog of confusion, could make for compelling reading, like dispatches from inside a siege. Yet "unprocessed" was exactly what [Cat] Marnell’s pieces were, and damned if I couldn’t stop devouring them.
That last clause is where I paused: "damned if I couldn’t stop devouring them.” The usual way to say what she means is "damned if I could stop,” which translates as “I couldn’t.” The idiom involves swearing to the truth of your report: In full, it's something like  “I’ll be damned (as a liar) if I (say I) could stop.” That is: "I couldn’t stop."

And that's not the only misnegation. Both sentences in Hepola's paragraph say the same thing, in essence: Personal train wreck tales are both repellent and riveting. But for some reason the word that connects them is "Yet," as if the second sentence somehow qualified or contradicted the first, when it actually supports it; taking out the "yet" is a clear improvement. (Did an editor insert it, I wonder?) 

But I'm not surprised that the wording passed unnoticed. By this point, a reader knows what Hepola's intending to say, and the "literal" reading would make no sense. As Mark Liberman and other Language Loggers have shown repeatedly, "our poor old monkey brains are not quite evolved enough" to handle such complexity; most of the time, we just take in the message we were meant to receive and ignore the logical glitches.
I’m not arguing that "getting the meaning across" is all that matters; if I thought that, I wouldn’t have become an editor. But monkey minds or not, we're smart enough to understand "one of the only people to have played in the NBA and for a major-league baseball team." Anyone interested in improving the language could easily find bigger fish to fry.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

It's gherkin vs. diphthong

Arnold Zwicky recently sent readers to Ted McCagg’s blog, where a "Best Word Ever" competition has been unspooling for months, with words facing off in tournament-style showdowns. Today came the final pairing:

I had already been pondering the Final Four, posted yesterday, and was hoping that kerfuffle and hornswoggle would be kicked to the curb in this round. They're both fun words, as far as they go, but they're also invented words, intended (in some sense of the word) to be amusing. Hornswoggle is 20th-century American; kerfuffle is Scottish, a 20th-century variant of the 19th-century curfuffle, itself from a 16th-century verb, apparently onomatopoeic, meaning "to disorder, ruffle." And that's all there is. 

Both gherkin and diphthong have better stories, etymologically and otherwise. John Ayto's Dictionary of Word Origins gives this summary of gherkin's roots: 
Etymologically, a gherkin may be a 'little unripe one.' The word was borrowed from an assumed early Dutch *gurkkijn, a diminutive form of gurk, which probably came from Lithuanian agurkas. This in turn goes back via Polish ogurek to medieval Greek angourion, which has been linked with classical Greek agouros 'youth.' 
Diphthong, the term for two vowel sounds combined in one syllable, is also descended from Greek. And wouldn't it be nice to have a language word end up as Best Word Ever? But I think diphthong is only in the race because of its recent adoption as a slang insult, a development Neal Whitman explored a while back in a Visual Thesaurus piece. And that usage requires pronouncing the first syllable dip (as in dipstick, etc.), not as diff.

I don't mind that in theory; as Neal points out, "the spelling and pronunciation do have historical precedent: The word was borrowed from French, where it was originally spelled dyptongue, and the 'dip' pronunciation is recognized in several dictionaries." And it's pretty funny to see diphthong turned into a naughty word by kids who have no idea what it means. But if it wins the laurel,  which word is being honored? Is the insult dip(h)thong even the same word anymore, or just another funny coinage based on sound associations?

Gherkin has also had a small sideline as a rude word (what can you expect? It's a pickle and it  rhymes with jerkin'). But that use isn't widespread enough (at least in my world) to compete with the memory of gherkin as the sweet miniature pickles of childhood, the ones we liked when we couldn't yet stomach the dill spears. And gherkin is charming just as it is -- no variant pronunciation or nutty reinterpretation needed.

So I've got my fingers crossed for gherkin. But if diphthong carries the day, I'll be prepared. In a tournament where fuck was upset, a couple of rounds ago, by hornswoggle, we know anything can happen.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Frozen yogurt with adjectives on top

Imagine you’re writing a description -- for a menu, say, or a shopping list -- specifying a certain sort of yogurt. The product is
Made from Greek-style yogurt
Vanilla flavored
Fat free
How do you list those attributes?

Since I think of “frozen yogurt” as a permanent compound, like “ice cream,” I would probably start there. “Greek yogurt” is a common compound too, but if I say “frozen Greek yogurt” I could be talking about plain old Greek yogurt stuck in the freezer, and “frozen yogurt” is not the same thing as “yogurt, frozen.” So I go with “Greek frozen yogurt.” (Or maybe “Greek-style”?)

As I pondered the next step, I went back and reread Neal Whitman’s post on the ordering of adjectives, which was entertaining and smart, but didn’t do anything so mundane as tell me what to do with my remaining adjectives. It seemed like a toss-up: “Vanilla” and “fat-free” are just about equally relevant and weighty, though I guess you could argue that “fat-free” is a more fundamental property of the foodstuff in question. So: “Vanilla fat-free Greek frozen yogurt.”

And why am puzzling over this? Because a headline in the latest flyer from Trader Joe’s advertises “Frozen Vanilla Greek Fat Free Yogurt” -- a sequence I would never come up with.

And on another page, there’s “Greek Strawberry Vanilla Yogurt” -- this time with the “Greek” before the flavor -- which I would render as “Strawberry Vanilla Greek Yogurt.”

For non-TJ customers, I should note that the store flyers are quite well written and edited; these labeling oddities (if such they are) don’t reflect any lack of skill with the language, just a choice that sounds foreign to me.

And you, dear readers? Where did you put those adjectives?

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Two good books

When I heard that Geoff Nunberg was writing a book about the word asshole, I thought it was a joke. But no -- days later, the mailman delivered a review copy of “Ascent of the A-Word,” subtitled “Assholism, the First Sixty Years.”

And yes, there is a book’s worth to say about this rude word, all of it entertaining. But since my annotated copy flew off in an airplane seat pocket the other day (there were extenuating circumstances -- children, diapers, seat swaps) I can’t share all the juicy quotes I marked. Luckily, others have liked the book as much as I did: See James Parker at the Barnes & Noble site, for instance, and John McIntyre’s blog post yesterday.

The finished copy has now arrived, so I can at least quote a couple of my favorite bits from the final chapter, on assholism in public life, where Nunberg zeroes in on one of the assholiest features of political discourse: fake outrage.
You’re acting like an asshole … if you accuse someone of incivility knowing full well that no neutral observer would interpret his behavior that way. Nobody for a moment hears any “violent rhetoric” when Obama says he’s itching for a fight with the Republicans or when Michele Bachmann describes Washington as “enemy lines.” The only purpose of a charge like that is to give your own partisans the enjoyment of imagining the irritation it will engender, all the more because it’s so transparently phony.
And then there's the fake outrageousness meant as bait for (real or fake) outrage. When journalist Westbrook Pegler maligned Jews as geese (“fouling everything in their wake”), says Nunberg, he was expressing genuine anti-Semitism. But "when [Ann] Coulter makes an analogous remark about Muslims, she’s only trying to sound offensive ... We know that she doesn’t lie awake seething about Muslims the way Pegler did about Jews.”

Fake offenses, fake responses -- what would Kant have said? That we should try to restrain ourselves, says Nunberg, out of respect for the dignity of the topic. But where's the fun in that?

While I'm in book-review mode, I also want to recommend a title published several months ago, on writing and the teaching of writing: "Vernacular Eloquence: What Speech Can Bring to Writing," by Peter Elbow. I haven't finished it, but like Language Hat, I don't to wait any longer to mention it, because whenever I dip into it there's something thought-provoking. On punctuation, say:
Punctuation is fascinating because it's where a certain kind of rubber hits a certain kind of road. It appeals to something deep in our relationship with language because it's the only visual cue that takes us from silent, timeless visual symbols on the page to audible, in-time, mouth-moving, performance in our bodies. It's where the mind meets the body, where the eyes meet the mouth, where space meets time.
Amazon offers a generous sampling of the book; see for yourself.

(FTC notice: The publishers of these books provided free review copies.) 

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Wedge issue

An item of pure language trivia, gleaned as I was catching up on my reading: The August 6 issue of The New Yorker uses the word wedge (in one form or another) six times, in five different stories.

Gallery listings, p. 11: “oddball arrangements of tomatoes, cheese wedges, and melons and balloons.”

Shouts & Murmurs, p. 33: “R.S.V.P. using the tiny card that is wedged somewhere between the fourth and seventh layers of tissue paper.”

Letter from Rangoon, p. 53: “Wedged like an arrowhead between India and China, Burma has been ruled by dictators …”

Ibid., p. 61: “all comically wedged into school chairs with plastic desks on the arms.”

The Theatre, p. 77: “Alcibiades … gets his wedge from Timon to pay for the soldiers.”

The Current Cinema, p. 78: “At an age when many men consider it a trial of strength to carry their own pitching wedge, [William Friedkin] still devotes himself to finding the optimum angle …”

That’s three uses of the past participle wedged and three of wedge the noun, in three different senses. Two of them -- the hunk of cheese and the golf club -- are familiar; the third, as I learned a couple of years ago, is British slang for money. The OED tells me it’s based on a “wad of bank notes” (a wedge, sort of, when folded in half) but no longer necessarily implies folding money.

This sense dates only to the 1970s, but wedge had two earlier careers in the financial field, one as "cant" for "silver, whether money or plate," in the 18th and 19th centuries, and another, much earlier, meaning "silver ingot," stretching back to the Venerable Bede. “The Old English wecg is in translations of Matt. xvii. 27 used for ‘piece of money, rendering Latin stater’” notes the OED.

How unlikely are the six wedges in one issue? It’s not worth going deep on the question of comparative frequency, but wedge has recently come up only once or twice a month in TNY. So it’s surely coincidental, just as a newspaper section will end up with five present-participle headlines, or toasters will pop up in several comics on the same day. (In fact, in yesterday’s Boston Globe three of the 30 comics used superhero jokes.)

The repetition would be hard for an editor to spot, and hard for most readers too, unless they  were reading several stories in succession. I wouldn't be surprised if someone else noticed the (mild) rash of wedges -- but I guess I wouldn't be surprised if nobody did, either. 

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Whisperer campaign

My friend Vicki Croke, who writes about animals, was frustrated to find that online dictionaries weren’t giving her a relevant definition for whisperer. "M-W tells me it means rumormonger," she e-mailed, and indeed, Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary (like several others I consulted) gives only the literal sense (“one that whispers”) and the 16th-century sense “rumormonger.”

What about horse whisperer -- widely known since the 1995 novel “The Horse Whisperer” and the 1998 movie based on it? Lexicographers are naturally cautious about admitting senses that may be fleeting fashions, but horse whisperer has not only stuck with us, it has generated dozens of variations: Dog whisperer, baby whisperer, wood whisperer, and so on.

And Vicki isn’t the only reader looking for this general sense in the dictionary. M-W’s site asks readers to say where they heard a term or why they’re looking it up. The responses under whisperer: "TV show called dog whisperer."  "I was looking for a definition that could make horse whisperer make sense." "The true story of the American man who became known as the Horse Whisperer."

So I asked Peter Sokolowski, editor at large at Merriam-Webster in Springfield, Mass., when we could expect the new whisperer to show up in that dictionary. It's already in the Unabridged online, he replied: Sense 2 is "a horse trainer who soothes unmanageable mounts by whispering to them."

My old Webster’s 2nd Unabridged (1959 printing) has it too, with a slightly more skeptical gloss: "One supposed to manage horses by whispering." But here's the kicker: horse whisperer is actually two centuries old. The Oxford English Dictionary calls it "an appellation for certain celebrated horse-breakers, said to have obtained obedience by whispering to the horses," and provides an 1810 quote from the Statistical Survey of the County of Cork:
He was an awkward, ignorant rustic ..., his name James Sullivan, but better known by the appellation of the whisperer, … from a vulgar notion of his being able to communicate to the animal what he wished, by means of a whisper.
And yes, Merriam-Webster is on the case, says Sokolowski. Their citation file -- showing whisperer "preceded by cow, (fashion) model, ghost, fish, beast, wolf -- pretty much confirms that anything can modify whisperer to have the meaning 'one who is able to calm, coach, or control.' The culture absorbed horse whisperer and then began to apply the concept more broadly -- a very typical pattern."

These non-horse whisperer examples, however, come mostly from the past decade, he says -- too recently to make it into the 11th Collegiate Dictionary. But "we may well see this new sense in the next Collegiate." And, presumably, in other abridged dictionaries, wherever you like to consult them.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Getting over the "more than" peeve

How to debunk a peeve so it stays debunked? You might have thought the more sophisticated publications had long since gotten the word that there's nothing wrong with writing "over 500 votes," despite a journalistic superstition that only "more than 500" is correct.

But last Sunday's Times Magazine would have proved you wrong. A sentence in the cover story was clunky evidence that the myth persists. "Today," it read, "there are well more than 2500 juveniles serving time in adult prisons in the United States."

Is "well more than" really a phrase that leaps to your lips (or fingertips)? "It's well more than a year since I flew anywhere." "He's well more than 50." "There was well more than $1,000 in the bag." I don't think so: "Well over" is what we say in English. And over meaning more than was uncontroversial till the mid-19th century, when the language busybodies were at their busiest inventing new infractions. 

The earliest known objection to this over, as I've mentioned before, comes in Walton Burgess's 1856 compilation of "Five Hundred Mistakes" in English. But his "rule" was not adopted (or followed) by most usage writers. And the Times has called it bogus since at least 1971, when the paper's language maven Theodore Bernstein included it in "Miss Thistlebottom's Hobgoblins," his handbook of wrongheaded rules.

More recently, Philip Corbett cautioned Times editors in his After Deadline blog:
In most cases, changing “over” to “more than” might be harmless enough — a copy editor’s quirk, annoying to the writer but invisible to the reader, since “more than” is also perfectly acceptable. But I’m occasionally jarred to see the phrase “just more than,” which strikes me as awkward and completely unidiomatic.
Yep. Just like "well more than 2500 juveniles."

Friday, July 13, 2012

Sunscreening the kids

Until this week, I would have read "to sunscreen" as meaning "to shield someone/something from the sun's rays." But in Wednesday's "Pajama Diaries," the verb is used in a different sense. "Strapping the kids down to sunscreen them" means not to put them under an umbrella, but to apply sunscreen cream to their skin.

Logical enough: We can already soap, oil, perfume, shampoo, and towel our bodies, so why would anyone object to sunscreening them? It's just one more bit of shorthand from the time-crunched parenting subculture. To diaper is old hat, of course, and to parent, says the OED, has been around for 350 years. (It's the intransitive use, only 50 or so, that still raises a few hackles.)

My favorite parenting verbs, though, are the new transitive forms: "We can stroller the kids to the Joneses' and nap them there." Or "We generally pee her at 11" -- that is, carry a sleepy, not-yet-trained toddler to the toilet.  (Toilet itself, meaning to assist someone, old or young, at the toilet,  has been a verb since the '50s. But it sounds somewhat clinical, and besides, who needs the extra syllable?)

 I haven't yet heard of babies being Bjorned, bottled, cribbed, or toothbrushed, but I'll bet those verbs are just a mommy blog away.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Before the grace of God

In today's Times -- on the website, and still in print as of 12:30 -- guest columnist Ta-Nehisi Coates writes, "'There before the grace of hard parents go I' was the lesson of my life."

The usual formula is "There but for the grace of God go I," but Coates's "before the grace" is a not uncommon variant on the Web. And though I couldn't find it in the Eggcorn Database, it's easy enough to see the alternative reading, with "before" meaning "without, until the bestowal of." (Not a reading that bears too much scrutiny, but then, we don't tend to scrutinize these phrases.)

It's not the first time I've been taken aback by a variation on this saying. Two years ago, I blogged about a truncated form that also appeared in the Times (among other places, including a Keith Urban song): "But for the grace of God go I" all by itself, with no there there. Just further evidence that we don't need all the words -- or even notice all the words -- once a fixed expression is sufficiently familiar.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Fashions, manners, and language mavens

Back in May, when we were all marveling at The New Yorker’s cluelessness about “prescriptivism,” a commenter at Language Log argued that prescriptivism is not a counterpart of descriptivism but a matter of manners. It’s “a branch of etiquette columnry -- prescriptivists advise us of what the more embarrassing solecisms are.”

 Now John McWhorter, writing at the NYT’s Opinionator blog, makes a similar point, this time calling the usage rules a matter of fashion. 
The well-spoken person, [William] Cobbett instructed [in 1818], swimmed yesterday and builded a house last year ... Builded only started falling out of disuse* around 1920. Not for any reason; no one discovered that builded was somehow elementally deficient. Fashion changed.
Call it fashion or etiquette -- there’s plenty of overlap -- but the fact that usage customs change over time is easy for anyone to see, with the works of the great peevologists all online at Google Books. So even if “etiquette columnry” was meant to sound dismissive, we don't have to take it that way. As I said in a comment at John McIntyre’s blog, teaching "the rules" as mutable, adaptable customs is a useful strategy:  
It takes them down from the Eternal Verities pedestal and puts them in the realm of everyday choice; we remove our shoes at home, our friends don't. Bridesmaids must never wear black; until they do, and look tres chic (to everyone but their swooning mothers). Geoff Pullum argued persuasively (at Language Log) that dangling modifiers were not mortal sins, but existed on an etiquette continuum, from offensively baffling to barely noticeable. 
If we keep reminding everyone that "good English" varies according to the circumstances, and that any usage is subject to change (yes, over our dead bodies), maybe we'll eventually reduce the amount of self-righteous dudgeon and ritual complaint about language decline. 

And we might even improve our prose. In a follow-up post on editing and etiquette, McIntyre shows how useful the analogy can be. A perfectly grammatical published sentence, he notes, can amount to “a breach of manners, because etiquette requires consideration of the other party, and this sentence shows no such consideration to the reader.”  That’s a criterion that will always be relevant, however fashions in usage may change.  

*Update: Commenter Vance Maverick points out that McWhorter means "falling out of use," not disuse.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Will you rate your transaction at

No. No, Amazon, I will not. I would like to give your sellers full credit -- and generally, the shipping/billing process goes exactly as it ought to -- but you are asking too much.

In your e-mail requesting feedback, you tell me I can click on five stars, meaning "Excellent -- Item delivered on time, was as described, great customer service (if contacted)" and so on. Or I can click on "My experience was different" and enumerate my complaints. But you won't let me just click on "excellent" and leave it at that. No, you demand that I enter a comment, or at least a couple of typed characters, into a text box. I can't just bestow an A+ -- no, I have to add some inane attempt at amplification.

I thought you had seen the error of your ways, Amazon. Last fall, I reported that you had abandoned this silly practice, but apparently I was wrong. I don't get it: How can it be good for sellers if you annoy the most satisfied buyers by telling them they can only award five stars if they consent to waste their time adding superfluous  compliments?

For a smart organization, this is a very stupid policy. Customers should be able to give good sellers the best rating -- "Excellent -- five stars" -- without being forced to put a cherry on top.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Painful contractions

When I started this post, weeks ago, I thought I knew where it was going. I wanted to point out a couple of English constructions that sound weird -- close to unacceptable -- to me, and (with luck) to find out what they're called and why they don't work. But it turns out there may be no there there -- just my idiolect insisting (as an idiolect will) that its way is the right and reasonable one.

The first example comes in the caption of the comic "Cornered," where the mom is saying to the kid(?): "Kindergarten is supposed to be fun. You mustn't be doing it right." I would have said* "You must not be doing it right"; I hear "you mustn't" as meaning "you are forbidden to," not "you probably are." (I wondered if the "mustn't" form might be OK in British English, but I thought Americans would be on my side here.)

The tagline in a Slim-Fast ad bugged me in a slightly different way. "Your swimsuit is ready. You'll be too" trips me up; I'd prefer either "You'll be ready too" or "You will be too."

I hoped these contractions would prove to be forbidden forms of auxiliary reduction, but just coming up with that term stretched my expertise to its limits. So I asked Arnold Zwicky, who knows all the linguistic labels and is a wizard at coining new ones when they're called for. And he poured cold water all over my quest.

Are these contractions off limits, or even suboptimal? He didn't think so. "For me, the Cornered example is perfectly fine," he wrote.
 "Mustn't" (like "must not") is in principle capable of either a root interpretation -- subject is obliged not to V -- or an epistemic interpretation -- it must not / mustn't be the case that subject Vs. Compare: You mustn't touch the hot stove (or you'll get burned). You mustn't like ice cream (if you make a face like that). 
As for my theory that the "epistemic mustn't" is a British thing, well, that's just an example of the "foreigners are weird" default assumption. Americans, Brits, and Australians all use it, said Zwicky. It's true that "some speakers judge such examples to be unacceptable, but what they say about them is all over the map. In particular, some find the examples to be unacceptably American, some find them to be way formal and British-sounding."

The swimsuit issue was also not a question of auxiliary reduction, he thought. 
I think that the problem here is that the example is somewhat zeugmatic: in "Your swimsuit is ready", the subject of "be ready" is interpreted as the object of the understood verb "wear", but in "You'll be ready", the subject of "be ready" is interpreted as the subject of "wear". These are non-parallel interpretations. (Things are fine in "I'll be ready, and you'll be too.") 
Well, maybe. But I don't interpret the elliptical sentence as "Your swimsuit is ready  [to wear], and you'll be [ready to wear it] too."  My (mental) expansion was "Your swimsuit is ready [for summer, for the beach], and you'll be [ready for summer] too" -- which is grammatically parallel. It's the truncation itself that doesn't work: For me, things are not fine in "I'll be ready, and you'll be too," any more than they're fine in "I'm happy, and you're too." (You're too what?)

That's as far as I can go without professional help. And if you want to avoid this whole mess, I understand. But if you've been patient enough to read this far, please let me know how these constructions strike your ear -- intolerable, unremarkable, or somewhere in between?

*At least I think I would -- we're all unreliable witnesses to our own linguistic behavior.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

In defense of sudden death

At You Don't Say, John McIntyre notes the death of the Queen's English Society, "suddenly, in Britain, of attenuated interest." Commenter James Callahan objects to his language: "When I was a cubbie, I was chewed on pretty good by an editor for using the word 'suddenly' with 'died' in an obituary. I've been waiting 38 years to return the favor."

I've always thought it was a dumb idea, this ban on "died suddenly," and looking back at the archives, I see that I said so in a short item four years ago. I could say more, but I don't think I need to.

SUDDEN SILLINESS (From the Boston Globe, Feb. 2, 2008):
I was talking with a former journalist about Stupid Newsroom Rules the other day, and he reminded me of one I hadn't heard in years: the ban on "he died suddenly."

In their 1999 book "The Trust," Susan Tifft and Alex Jones recount how Arthur O. Sulzberger, former publisher of The New York Times, learned from an editor at the Milwaukee Journal that suddenly was (supposedly) redundant: "'Everyone dies suddenly,' he said. 'One minute you're here, the next you're dead.' Years later ... Punch said the main lesson he took away was that 'in Milwaukee, you died unexpectedly."'

But this "rule" is totally bogus. Suddenly has always meant both "without preparation, all at once" and "unexpectedly," according to the OED. Trying to limit its sense to "instantaneously" is sheer crankiness.

Suddenly might have once been problematic, back when it was a journalistic euphemism. In the old days, "No one ever committed suicide," observes John McIntyre on his Baltimore Sun blog, but "people sometimes 'died suddenly."'

That usage, however, is no longer current, judging by the paid death notices in newspapers. Journalists may ration their references to dying "suddenly," but bereaved families use it routinely -- surely not as a euphemism for suicide.

Sometimes, it's true, the adverb is superfluous. In a report of death from an accidental overdose, a car crash, or a bomb, suddenly should go without saying.

Otherwise, it's perfectly appropriate to say someone "died suddenly." The adverb was never meant to imply scientific precision; it has always been about perception, not biology.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Nunberg on "hopefully"

If you won’t be hearing it on “Fresh Air” today, you’ll want to catch up with Geoff Nunberg’s commentary on hopefully when the audio link goes up – or read it here.

Some highlights:
[Hopefully’s] detractors were operatic in their vilifications. ... The historian T. Harry Williams went so far as to pronounce it "the most horrible usage of our times" -- a singular distinction in the age that gave us expressions like "final solution" and "ethnic cleansing," not to mention "I'm Ken and I'll be your waitperson for tonight."
The critics also complained that hopefully "doesn't specifically indicate who's doing the hoping."
But neither does "It is to be hoped that," which is the phrase that critics like Wilson Follett offer as a "natural" substitute. That's what usage fetishism can drive you to -- you cross out an adverb and replace it with a six-word impersonal passive construction, and you tell yourself you've improved your writing.
The oddest thing about hopefully may be the persistence of its opponents. During Nunberg’s time as chair of the American Heritage Usage Panel, he reports,
panelists generally become less sticklerish about traditional bugaboos like using "aggravated" for "irritated" or "nauseous" for "nauseated." The only exception is that floating "hopefully." In 1969, only about half the panelists agreed with it; by 1999 it was unacceptable to 80 percent of them.
But there's a surprisingly hopeful conclusion:
People will always have their crotchets, those scraps of grammatical lore they learned at the end of Sister Petra's ruler. But there's no one around now who could anoint a brand-new litmus test for grammatical purity.
I suspect this is true, and what good news it is. Because -- as I realized a few years ago, while researching peeves of the past – if we all accept one another’s peeves as valid, the list of don’ts can only keep growing, and it already taxes the abilities of the dwindling band of copy editors. Maybe we've already begun to do what John McIntyre wisely suggests: Ignore the usage fetishes that don’t really matter.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

The enormity! The enormity!

Paul Fussell, who died yesterday at 88, may have written (and done) some great stuff, but he’s on my shelf not because of his war writing or lit crit but because of his language snobbery. In the 1983 book “Class: A Guide Through the American Status System,” he devoted a chapter to disparaging the (supposed) motives of people whose usages he disliked and ruling on (supposedly) eternal language verities:*
There may be some passing intimacy between those who think momentarily means in a moment (airline captain over loudspeaker: "We'll be taking off momentarily, folks") and those who know it means for a moment, but it won’t survive much strain.
So it’s amusing to find the New York Times praising his book "The Great War and Modern Memory" by quoting a source -- a published, edited source -- that includes at least two usage problems.
"It is difficult to underestimate Fussell’s influence," Vincent B. Sherry wrote in "The Cambridge Companion to the Literature of the First World War." … "His claims for the meaning of the war are profound and far-reaching; indeed, some have found them hyperbolic. Yet, whether in spite of or because of the enormity of his assertions, Fussell has set the agenda for most of the criticism that has followed him."
First there’s “underestimate” used for "overestimate" – a common enough confusion, but one that Fussell (so far as Google Books can tell) never fell into. Then there’s the use of  "enormity" to mean hugeness instead of awfulness -- no longer a sin in the eyes of most Americans,** but a usage that Fussell mocked in “Class” as ignorant pretension:
Class unfortunates who want to emphasize the largeness of something are frequently betrayed by enormity, as in "The whale was of such an enormity that they could hardly get it in the tank." (Prole version: "The whale was so big they couldn’t hardly get it in the tank.") Elegance is the fatal temptation of the middle class.
I suppose it’s possible that Bruce Weber, who wrote the obit, deliberately chose the Cambridge Companion's encomium so as to administer a posthumous tweak to his subject. If so, I salute him. If not, it’s still a delicious bit of cosmic payback.

* Yes, some of the book is (intentionally) funny; but the language commentary is mostly wild speculation and hostile declamation.  
** In Garner’s Modern American Usage, enormity used (or “misused”) for "immensity" is rated 4 out of 5 on Garner’s language-change index: “Ubiquitous but …”. That is, everyone’s doing it, but a resistant minority still holds its (dwindling) ground.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Descriptivists as hypocrites (again)

In this week's New Yorker, Joan Acocella parachutes into the usage trenches (ostensibly to review Henry Hitchings's latest book, "The Language Wars"), and discovers that Hitchings is only pretending to be a descriptivist: He uses who and whom in the traditional way, the hypocrite! And AHD is cowardly for including Steven Pinker's descriptivist essay in its latest edition (and presumably for naming him chief of its usage panel in the first place). I haven't read the piece yet, but here is Pinker in "The Language Instinct": "The aspect of language use that is most worth changing is the clarity and style of written prose."

Yes, it is possible to teach standard written English and also to question the peeves and shibboleths of the grammar Nazis; I would have expected the New Yorker to grasp that fact, but apparently I would have been wrong.

Now I'm going to re-read Geoff Nunberg's (nearly 30-year-old) classic take on the subject, to revive my spirits -- though there's always the risk it will just convince me our discourse really is in decline.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

A different 'issue' issue

Language Hat's post yesterday about the odd word cotoneaster, which made an appearance in Ian McEwan's recent New Yorker story, reminded me that I too was curious about a word (or two) that McEwan used. As the story begins, the narrator, a student about to graduate from Cambridge in 1972, describes her boyfriend:
He was unkempt, clever in an understated way, and extremely polite. I’d noticed quite a few of his sort around. They all seemed to have descended from a single family and to have come from private schools in the North of England where they were issued with the same clothes.
What stopped me was "issued with the same clothes." For me, or at least for the editor in me,  that with is, if not outright wrong, at least inelegant and unnecessary -- like saying someone was elected as president. But for McEwan, his educated narrator, and his New Yorker editor, "issued with" was apparently just fine.

I soon found out why: This is a British-American difference, with the Brits on the tolerant side of the scale. The usage appeared in the early 20th century, says Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage. "Its common occurrence has led to its acceptance by British commentators (such as Partridge 1942 and Gowers in Fowler 1965). Speakers of American English would say 'provided with' or 'supplied with' instead." (Or maybe just "issued the same clothes," as I would.)

If I ever learned this nit formally, it was probably from Bergen and Cornelia Evans, whose Dictionary of Contemporary American Usage (1957) was one of my early references. The Evanses are (uncharacteristically) dogmatic on this point, saying that "the 
use of with following this use of issue (as in The new arrivals were issued with regulation uniforms) is redundant and erroneous."

But British usage watchers had already concluded that resistance was vain. The OED has a 1953 quote from the BBC publication The Listener objecting to "the idiom 'issued with': 'He was issued with' a rifle, and a packet of cigarettes, or what not. I suppose this horror has come to stay.'"

And Ernest Gowers sounded resigned in his 1965 edition of Fowler:
The modern construction, which speaks of issuing [someone] with the article, on the analogy of supply or provide ... has been deservedly criticized for  its absurdity. But it has been much popularized by two wars, is recognized without comment by the OED Supp., and has evidently come to stay, whether we like it or not.
Later usage books treat the choice as a matter of national preference: Roy Copperud (1970) and the Columbia Guide (1993) simply note that the Brits like "issued with" while Americans prefer just "issued" or "supplied with."

By the time Bryan Garner published the first version of his big American usage guide, in 1998, the verb issue was no longer an issue. (The noun issue, as in "we have issues," had begun its still flourishing career as a popular peeve -- but that's a different story.) 

Thursday, April 26, 2012

No harm, no foul?

"Hoo boy, did I goof," Ben Yagoda writes in his post about mistakes at Lingua Franca. His gaffe was so horrible that he won't disclose it, he says, or even link to it. Of course, it's easy enough to find, and it's not nearly as embarrassing as he seems to think. It appeared in a recent essay on commas for the New York Times's online edition, where Yagoda wrote:
The New Yorker has always been scrupulous, bordering on fetishistic, about commas, in large part because of its founder Harold Ross’s mania for precision and clarity. E.B. White, who was subject to the magazine’s editing for more than five centuries, remarked in a Paris Review interview, “Commas in The New Yorker fall with the precision of knives in a circus act, outlining the victim.”
Of course he meant five decades, not centuries. But as I see it, this is the most benign kind of mistake a writer can make. Nobody can be misled by it; nobody is insulted by it; it's immediately clear that it's just a slip of the brain, a momentary processing error.

Now, it could be that I'm soft on Yagoda's error because I've done the same thing. In a 2005 column for the Boston Globe, on when we call a dead person "the late," I wrote this: 
Those are exceptions to the general practice; the late, most of the time, means "recently deceased," as it has for 500 years. The problem is that in all those millennia, nobody has managed to fix the limits of "recently."
Millennia? Uh-uh. A reader alerted me to the problem, two days after the  piece appeared; I ran a correction the following week, and that was that. Yagoda's goof -- which, unlike mine, was online only and thus entirely correctable -- also seems to have gone unnoticed for two days, until it was fixed and a correction was appended to the story. At that point, some Twitterer nominated it (implausibly) for "funniest newspaper correction ever," and a couple of desperate bloggers piled on. Meanwhile, not one of the many commenters on Yagoda's piece had mentioned the problem.

(And let me note, speaking as an editor, that in both our cases editors also read right past the errors. Yagoda's "centuries" and my "millennia" weren't the right words, but they were close enough to the expected nouns that they faked out the professionals.)

My conclusion: If you make a mistake like this, be glad it's a huge, glaring mistake -- not a subtle error that will sit like an unexploded shell in the archives, and not one of the common little transgressions that will rouse the peeving hordes. Keep your stupid simple, and the only possible comment will be "Oops." 

Monday, April 16, 2012

The desk whom he was selling

Recently I was proofreading a friend's manuscript -- one in which elephants loom large -- when I noticed that Microsoft Word didn't like her habit of using who and whom to refer to the animals. These were elephants with names, though, and lots of publications allow who and whom for individual named animals. I wondered what the Word rule was, so I clicked on the wavy line.

Of course, I wasn't surprised to find the oft-misinformed Word telling us to restrict the use of that to nonhuman referents. (It's a myth that people can't be that, but it's one that many have embraced in our psychobabbling era, claiming that that is "dehumanizing.")

The usage examples, on the other hand, were a hilarious surprise. Here's the grammar checker's entry:
"Who", "That" or "Which"
Generally, use "who" or "whom" to refer to people. Use "that" or "which" to refer to anything non-human.
Instead of: She bought the desk, whom he was selling.
Consider: She bought the desk, which he was selling.
Instead of: They saw the play who got good reviews.
Consider: They saw the play that got good reviews.
Could this be the honest effort of a non-native speaker, or is it evidence of a sly sense of humor lurking behind the grammar checker's sober exterior? And are there other entries with equally subversive usage "explanations"? That would be the best surprise of all.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

They f--- you up, those stylebook rules

Michiko Kakutani has a review of Philip Larkin’s “Complete Poems” in the New York Times today, and she tries to quote one of the funniest and most famous of them. But it's the Times, so of course she can't print the bad word in the poem. She can't even use the first letter -- such hints are "offensive or coy." The rule is that "an article should not seem to be saying, 'Look, I want to use this word, but they won't let me.' Generally that principle rules out telltale strings of hyphens or dashes." 

But paraphrases are "sparingly" allowed, and one is allowed here:
They mess you up, "your mum and dad./They may not mean to, but they do./They fill you with the faults they had/And add some extra, just for you."
I'm not sure this actually passes the no-coy-hints test; it's pretty clear that the first half-line must include a taboo word, and the verb is the obvious candidate. If I were the writer, I think I'd have pleaded to use the rarely permitted [expletive] instead -- or, more likely, just skipped the attempt entirely, given that butchery was a foregone conclusion.

(Update: Edited 4/17 to correct the third line of the quote, where I had typed "fill you up." Thanks, Nancy F.)

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Data points

A few language tidbits from the past week’s peregrinations:

1. H.W. Fowler demonstrates that he’s OK with using the pronoun that (rather than who/whom) to refer to a person:
It is the second-rate writers, those intent on expressing themselves prettily rather than on conveying their meaning clearly, & still more those whose notions of style are based on a few misleading rules of thumb, that are chiefly open to the allurement of elegant variation.
(From Modern English Usage, 1926; thanks to Ben Yagoda, who quotes the passage in today's post on elegant variation. Fowler doesn’t have a separate entry on the who/that question; the peeve hadn’t yet been invented.)

2. Audiences at a broadcast of the National Theatre's "She Stoops to Conquer" last week were reminded that locutions like “to Janie and I” are not the innovations of a grammar-challenged new generation. We all know Shakespeare wrote "betweeen you and I," but I hadn't heard this one, from the first scene of Oliver Goldsmith’s 1773 play. Mrs. Hardcastle says to her son, as he heads off to the pub:
Tony, where are you going, my charmer? Won't you give papa and I a little of your company, lovey? 
(For much more on the history and behavior of "nominative coordinate objects," see Arnold Zwicky’s comments and bibliographies at his blog. Also, the video of  “She Stoops” will be repeated April 18 at the Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline, Mass.)

3. Etymology -- it's child's play! Anyone can invent an etymological story that someone will believe. I was reminded of this when, in researching hoodlum, I learned that some people still subscribe to the fanciful tale that  
hoodlum was the accidental coinage of a newspaper reporter. In a story about a gang of ruffians led by a fellow named Muldoon, the reporter spelled the name as Noodlum to avoid reprisals. The newspaper's compositor misinterpreted the name as Hoodlum.
But I had even better proof at hand. Last weekend, my preschooler grandson asked why strawberries were called "straw" berries, and we told him nobody knew for sure. A bit later, when the aforementioned berries were served, he was ready with his own theory. "I know why they’re called strawberries,” he told us. “I think straw is the way you say 'seeds' in French."

(No, he doesn’t know French. You don’t need knowledge to invent etymologies, just a lively imagination.)

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Hoodies, hoods, and 'hoods

In last Monday's Boston Globe, arts critic Mark Feeney had an eloquent explication of the imagery in that photo (above) of hooded Miami Heat team members honoring Trayvon Martin. Looking at the history of the garment, Feeney noted that the hood has long been associated with both spirituality (St. Francis, medieval monks) and criminality:
Hoods conceal or obscure. They can disguise or seem menacing. Such terms as "hoodlum" and "hood" bespeak this tradition. In a different way, the 'hood can be a dangerous urban area, as in the 1991 film "Boyz n the Hood."
I vaguely remember looking up these various hood-words, but the results, like so many other things I once knew, had evaporated. Well, maybe not the -hood of neighborhood, which is familiar from childhood, priesthood, and falsehood, and cousin to German -heit as in Freiheit, "freedom." According to the Oxford English Dictionary, this -heit was once itself a noun meaning "person, condition, quality," but was demoted to suffix status centuries ago. Still thriving, though, it "can be affixed at will to almost any word denoting a person or concrete thing, and to many adjectives, to express condition or state."

The hood on your head (or on your hoodie), on the other hand, is "ultimately the same word" as hat, says John Ayto's Dictionary of Word Origins. "Both go back to Indo-European *kadh- 'cover, protect.'" Hood comes to us via "a West Germanic derivative, *khodaz. From it are descended German hut 'hat,' Dutch hoed 'hat,' and English hood."
Hoodlum (hood for short) is the mysterious one of the trio. "The name originated in San Francisco about 1870-72,* and began to excite attention elsewhere in the U.S. about 1877, by which time its origin was lost, and many fictitious stories, concocted to account for it, were current in the newspapers," says the OED.  One such story derived hoodlum from a slightly mangled reversal of the name "Muldoon"; a less far-fetched one suggests it's "perhaps from German dialect (Swabia) hudelum disorderly," as Merriam-Webster Online says.

So why do these three different hoods sometimes hang out together in a tough part of town? Etymologically speaking, it seems to be pure coincidence.

*Since antedated to (at least) 1866. 

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

You kids get off my tree lawn!

At his Blogspot site, where anyone can visit (for free), John McIntyre has posted a tale of a tree he has nurtured through thick and thin. It's not about language -- and yet, there's a language mystery in the very first sentence: "In 2008, at our request, the city planted a redbud tree in the tree lawn in front of our house. It was a little taller than I was."

Now, as I was browsing through the new final volume of the Dictionary of American Regional English, I had bookmarked the page with tree lawn. It's a very regional term, and my home region is the hottest hot spot on the DARE map.

(The tree lawn, for those of you not familiar with it, is the strip of grass between sidewalk and street, generally considered as city property rather than part of a private lot.  It's thus an excellent place to stand while you argue with a neighbor kid about whether he can keep you off the sidewalk or not.)  It's not the oddest such term; over by Akron there's a devil strip usage pocket, and DARE reports that it's also called a parkway, boulevard, terrace, and swale, among other things.

But John is a native Kentuckian; how does he come to call it a tree lawn? Simple, he tells me: "A colleague on the copy desk when I was at The Cincinnati Enquirer had grown up in the Bronx. I had never heard of the term 'tree lawn' before."

That's doesn't quite solve the mystery, since the Bronx is farther from tree lawn country than Kentucky (which, after all, borders Ohio). I suppose the northern Ohio usage might easily enough have migrated with some journalist southward to Cincinnati, there to wiggle its way into even a New Yorker's vocabulary, and thence, perhaps, to everyone else's.

And here's a late-breaking update: While I was scanning that DARE map, with its funny-shaped population-adjusted states, John posted about tree lawn at his Baltimore Sun blog. Spread the word!

Photo of a littleleaf lindens in a Cleveland tree lawn from State of Ohio Forestry Division website.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Baseball and jazz, soda and tonic

Yesterday was Sunday, so I assume you stopped by my former home, the Boston Globe Ideas section, and read Ben Zimmer on the baseball origin of the word jazz. The earliest print citation for the word comes from the Los Angeles Times interview with minor league pitcher Ben Henderson: 
“I got a new curve this year,” he explained, “and I’m goin’ to pitch one or two of them tomorrow. I call it the Jazz ball because it wobbles and you simply can’t do anything with it.” The headline for the item, from April 2, 1912, was simply “Ben’s Jazz Curve.”
How did the word jump from sports to music? "One likely conduit was the orchestra at Boyes Springs [Calif.] brought in to entertain the [S.F. Seals] players in 1913, led by the drummer Art Hickman and featuring Bert Kelly on banjo," Zimmer writes. Kelly soon formed a jazz band in Chicago, and claimed to be the first to use the term musically, but the exact route of transmission is still mysterious.

If you haven't yet caught up with The Word, you'll find another language story worth a click in yesterday's Globe: Billy Baker's report on the status of a Boston-specific term for soda pop, the fast-dwindling tonic. Inspired by the word's history in the just-published final volume of the Dictionary of American Regional English, Baker went to Mendon, Mass. -- on the dividing line, as far as he can tell, between the tonic-loving city folks and the soda speakers of the greater Northeast -- to do a language survey for  himself. He found just one tonic user there -- a 78-year-old shop owner. That was no surprise to the language expert he consulted:
John McCarthy, a distinguished professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and a scholar on the subject of Boston language, said that when he first started polling students in the early 1990s about “tonic,’’ other than a few from urban Boston, the students said it was their parents who used the word. Now, he said, it was their grandparents. 
“It has become stigmatized, like ‘dungarees’ and the broad-A sound, as markers of a dialect that people don’t want to be associated with,’’ McCarthy said.
Not for me, of course; I hail from deep in pop land, from a county colored navy blue on the map at Tonic, in my dialect, is what you mix with gin and sip on a summer evening; that's an association it's hard to stigmatize.