Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Carrie Fisher and the one-letter grammar fix

Wow. I didn't even know Blogger had a feature called "Blogs of Note," but I sure do now. Welcome, new readers, and let me address a couple of the issues you raised in the comments on my National Punctuation Day post.

I asked for a one-letter correction to this sentence in the AP version of Eddie Fisher's obituary: "Their daughter Carrie Fisher became a film star herself in the first three 'Star Wars' films as Princess Leia, and later as a best-selling author of 'Postcards From the Edge' and other books."

My problem was that the sentence says Carrie Fisher became "a film star ... as Princess Leia, and later as a best-selling author." But she didn't, in fact, "[become] a film star ... as a best-selling author." (Yes, she played herself, more or less, in the movie version of "Postcards," but her character was an actress, not an author.)* And my one-letter solution was to change as to was: She "became a film star ... and later was a best-selling author."

There were other solutions, of course: JeffScape preferred just to change "later as" to "later became" (though journalists hate to repeat verbs). TheWizard and ImNRtist both wanted to drop "as" entirely, making it "she became a film star ... and later a best-selling author of 'Postcards,'" etc. (But wouldn't that have to be "the best-selling author"?) We could edit forever, but no need; I was just interested to notice that the sentence's faulty grammar (if not its style) could be repaired with just one letter.

Some readers (naturally) found other nits to pick. David said (and Kat~: and Eleanor agreed) that my "was" could be misleading:
Carrie didn't die, her father did, and even if she did die, she still is the author of all her novels. Just as Mark Twain is the author of "Tom Sawyer," Carrie Fisher is the author of "Postcards From the Edge." If she "was" the author, who is the author now?
But our sentence doesn't say Fisher "was the author of x." The obit writer starts her aside about Carrie Fisher at a point in the past: She "became a star"  in "Star Wars," and she "later" became (or "was" -- but not "is") "a best-selling author of x." The writer says nothing of her current stardom or bestsellerdom, but I don't think many readers would conclude from that that she's dead. (Verb tense aside, this is her father's obit -- if Carrie had died before him, the writer would surely note it!)

And on a different punctuation point, Karen, who must be an editor, noted that because Carrie was Eddie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds's only daughter together, her name should be set off with commas: "Their daughter, Carrie Fisher, became a film star herself." She's right, but this is a convention that copy editors tend to follow over a cliff; in fact, I devoted a recent Boston Globe column to this very rule, noting how much editorial time is wasted researching the existence of irrelevant siblings. So I ignored this minor violation. (After all, I am -- as advertised -- a recovering nitpicker.)

* As David points out in the comments below, Carrie Fisher is not in the movie "Postcards From the Edge" -- which I knew perfectly well in some unaccountably dormant part of my brain. I saw the film, in which  Shirley MacLaine plays the mother and Meryl Streep the Carrie-ish daughter.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

What a difference a dash makes

I meant to nitpick a little yesterday, in observance of National Punctuation Day, and didn't get around to it. But since I have a perfect example, from yesterday's Globe, of the power of punctuation, I'm going to say "better late than never," and nitpick anyway. 

The nit showed up in the AP report of Eddie Fisher's death:
His fame was enhanced by his 1955 marriage to movie darling Debbie Reynolds. They were touted as “America’s favorite couple’’ -- and the birth of two children.
I tried to guess what was left out of that second sentence, but I wasn't even close. In fact, it was a tiny edit -- one sentence repunctuated as two --- that caused all the mischief. In other publications, the line reads this way:
His fame was enhanced by his 1955 marriage to movie darling Debbie Reynolds -- they were touted as "America's favorite couple" -- and the birth of two children.
So what happened? It's possible that an editor, somewhere along the line, looked skeptically at that sentence -- did the arrival of two children really enhance Fisher's fame? -- and started to improve the wording. Or maybe a reflexive dash-hater attacked, not noticing that the edit left those two children grammatically unmoored. Either way, this is probably an example of the "editor, interrupted" syndrome, which often leaves crumbs on the pages of newspapers.

I also had a problem (though not a punctuation problem) with the next sentence in the obit, but I'll leave you to find it (or ignore it, as all the editors seem to have done). Me, I would add one little letter and make it all OK. You? 
Their daughter Carrie Fisher became a film star herself in the first three "Star Wars" films as Princess Leia, and later as a best-selling author of "Postcards From the Edge" and other books.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Bugged by the "sleep tight" story

It was a minor irritation, I admit. But I wasn't happy to hear, along with the latest news on the bedbug resurgence, the return of the etymological legend about the origins of "sleep tight" -- and in respectable news outlets, too. First it showed up in the New York Times, in a letter printed in the Sept. 7 Science Times:
The expression “Sleep tight, don’t let the bedbugs bite” is often said to refer to colonial times, when children slept on rope beds underneath their parents’ beds. The ropes would be tightened for support — thus “sleep tight.” Too bad the bugs haven’t gone the way of the rope bed. 
The next day I heard it on "Fresh Air," where Terry Gross was interviewing a "professor of urban entomology" named Michael Potter. The rhyme, he solemnly told listeners, dated to the 1500s or 1600s, referring to the rope lattice that supported mattresses back in the day.

Not very likely. The OED says "sleep tight" just means "sleep soundly," and the skeptical view of the faux etymology has been available for some time at Michael Quinion's World Wide Words and at The Phrase Finder, which note that "sleep tight" is not really very old.  Their earliest citation comes from Susan Bradford Eppes, 1866: "Goodbye little Diary. 'Sleep tight and wake bright,' for I will need you when I return." And no bedbugs appeared till the 20th century, they said.

But there was newer news, it turned out, on "don't let the bedbugs bite." The day after the "Fresh Air" broadcast, New York word sleuth Barry Popik weighed in at his blog with a wealth of additional "sleep tight" citations.  He found the pests (called bugs, buggers, skeeters, and mosquitoes) infesting the bedtime sentiment as early as 1881, just 15 years after the earliest "straight" version: "'Good-night, sleep tight; And don’t let the buggers bite,' said Fred."

In any case, there's no reason a bedbug discussion should divagate into the origins of "sleep tight," since the phrase has nothing to do with repelling insects. It seems pretty clear from Popik's list of Google cites that the buggy versions were earthy variations on a sweet Victorian sentiment, coined for no better (or worse) reason than shock value and a snappy rhyme.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

The mystery of Edwin Newman

Edwin Newman, popular NBC newsman and language crank, died last month at 91, his family has announced. The New York Times obituary recaps some of his peeves:
Among the sins that set Mr. Newman’s teeth articulately on edge were these: all jargon; idiosyncratic spellings like “Amtrak”; the non-adverbial use of “hopefully” (he was said to have had a sign in his office reading, "Abandon 'Hopefully' All Ye Who Enter Here" ... and using a preposition to end a sentence with.
This "Abandon 'Hopefully'" tidbit was new to me; the anti-hopefully sign I've always heard about is  the one that the writer Jean Stafford boasted about as a member of the language panel for Harper's Dictionary of Contemporary Usage (1975), which duly quoted her:
On my back door there is a sign with large lettering which reads: THE WORD "HOPEFULLY" MUST NOT BE MISUSED ON THESE PREMISES. VIOLATORS WILL BE HUMILIATED.
Did Newman also post a ban on hopefully? In his 1974 book, "Strictly Speaking: Will America be the Death of English?" there's a paragraph bemoaning the new fad for "hopefully," but no mention of the "Abandon hopefully" slogan -- which Newman, an unrepentant punster, would surely have used if he'd thought of it. There are many online references to the existence of such a sign above his office door, but so far I haven't found any firsthand testimony -- which seems odd, given that his office was at NBC, not at some small-town English department.

(My earliest cite for the Newman connection comes from the Canadian magazine Saturday Night, allegedly volume 92, dated 1977: "Edwin Newman, the curator of words for NBC, has a sign over his door: "Abandon 'hopefully' all ye who enter here." The year/volume numbers seem plausible, but I have only Google's iffy metadata to go on.)

Meanwhile, the Canadian journal Archivaria, in a piece published in 2000, commemorated the magazine's founding with a similar anecdote set in 1975:
Twenty-five years! How much has changed since that sweet and pleasant summer day almost a generation ago when a dozen or more archivists and friends gathered at a cottage at Lac McGregor in Quebec to discuss what Archivaria could be. Above the door to the cottage was a stenciled, hand-coloured, nearly two-metre-long banner that read: ABANDON HOPEFULLY ALL YE WHO ENTER HERE.
That paragraph itself gets a footnote explaining that one of Stafford's fellow Harper panelists inspired the banner:
The word “hopefully,” employed as “it is to be hoped,” became something of a trope for the journal’s staff reflecting the intellectual commitment and editorial rigour they wanted to bring to Archivaria. We accepted F.G. Fowler’s* disdain for the usage and the words of a panelist** for the 1975 Harper Dictionary of Contemporary Usage: “I have fought this for some years, will fight it till I die. It is barbaric, illiterate, offensive, damnable, and inexcusable” (p. 311). As a morale booster for what became a very demanding avocation, it was invaluable.
"Abandon hopefully" is of course just the sort of witticism that could have been coined and re-coined in that heyday of hopefully resistance, and nobody's attributing it to Newman. But his or not, did he ever post the admonition in or near his office? Or is this another story that's just too good to check?

*F.G. Fowler is H.W.'s younger brother, who died before the publication of Modern English Usage in 1926. Nobody else seems to know anything about either Fowler's opinion of hopefully; the OED's first example of the modern hopefully usage is from 1932.

**Hal Borland, once a well-known journalist and author. Sic transit ...

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Is that a discreet bulge, or ...

I'm generally forgiving of homophone misspellings -- in fact, one of my pet peeves is the way language scolds like to label such misspellings "confusions," suggesting that people don't know the difference between then and than or loose and lose when the misstep is plainly (in context) a matter of spelling. The right word is intended -- nobody confuses the meanings of then and than -- but the letters are wrong.

The tougher cases come with words whose meanings can overlap significantly. Disperse for disburse is fairly common, and often can't be ruled absolutely wrong; party hearty and party hardy are both plausible; even reign in for rein in often makes a sort of sense. (As in the campaign literature of a just-defeated candidate for Mass. State Auditor who promised to "reign in wasteful political spending.")

And here's one from today's Wall Street Journal article on new FDA-approved technologies to zap body fat. Mitchell Levinson, chief scientific officer of Zeltiq (which freezes away fat cells), is quoted as saying "This is for patients who have a discreet bulge they want to get rid of." But wait: If the bulge is a "discreet" one, why pay thousands to reduce it?

I think Levinson, man of science, said discrete. But in stories about liposuction, plastic surgery, and the like, the word discreet is much more common -- roughly twice as likely in raw ghits. And it was that context, I suspect, that made discreet look OK to the writer or editor or both. (That's my theory, at least. Now I'll go ask Melinda Beck, author of the otherwise excellent article, whether I've guessed right.)

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Reality collides with what Simon says

In my recent column on "Un-rules," I mentioned (though not by name) a usage adviser who was getting paid to enforce nonexistent rules:
The usage czar of the Telegraph in London recently chastised a reporter for using the construction "spelled it wrong." But the reporter had it right: He spelled it wrong, it’s tied too tight, she drives too slow — all these adverbial forms are fine. 
That misguided yet dogmatic peevologist was Simon Heffer, who has now published a book full of similar baseless prejudices, and who today gets a well-deserved thrashing for it over at Language Log.

First Geoffrey Pullum takes on Heffer's claim (uncritically repeated by the BBC) that we mustn't say "The Prime Minister has warned that spending cuts are necessary," because warn needs a direct object: "has warned the nation."

Then Mark Liberman debunks Heffer's notion (still current in certain journalistic circles) that a collision must involve two moving bodies, not, say, a car and a tree.

And Ben Zimmer follows up with a look at the history of transitive warn, explaining that Heffer's opposition is not based on pure fantasy (as with wrong/wrongly and collide) but was shared by other British usagists of the earlier 20th century, who considered this warn an American corruption.

Heffer's death-grip embrace of old rules and non-rules seems perverse and mischievous, but I suppose the reality-based usage community should be grateful for the abundant fodder he provides us.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Present perfect: The British-American difference

A couple of weeks ago, I was wondering if there was any truth to a British journalist's lament that the present perfect tense, which he claimed as "distinctively British," was disappearing under the pernicious influence of American English. Lynne Murphy, who's both a linguist and "Lynneguist" at her blog, Separated by a Common Language, promised a post on the  question, and now it's here.

You'll want to read it all, naturally, but here's a bit of her summing-up:
There is nothing unAmerican about the present perfect. We can and do use it in the ways that the British do. We just aren't restricted to it. There is something unBritish about using the preterit with certain temporal adverbs in particular and perhaps also more generally to refer to recent-and-still-relevant events. The difference between Did you eat yet? and Have you eaten already? is, in AmE, mostly a difference of formality, possibly also of emphasis.
Imagine that. Once again, the language has failed (present perfect!) to go to hell in a handbasket. Thanks, Lynne!

A dose of hand-applied distress

In a post a week ago I puzzled over the fact that Restoration Hardware couldn't tell me what substance was used to produce the "hand applied patina" on a wooden table in its catalog. Well, the answer finally came, and it seems to be ... nothing. Patient correspondent Angela wrote for the third time:
We were able to locate the information that you requested regarding finishes. I can confirm that this item is unfinished. The hand applied patina refers to a hand applied aging or distressing. Due to the nature of the finish, stains are inevitable and will add to the vintage appeal of the table over time.
This was in fact useful information, as one of my questions was how well this coffee table would hold up to a drooling, cruising baby's fond ministrations. (Some stains add more to a table's "vintage appeal" than others.) But it wasn't what I'd expected, given RH's term "hand applied" (yes, it needs a hyphen). In my dialect, you "apply" varnish or paint, but when you beat up wood (or anything else), you don't say you're "applying" dents and scratches. Why not just call it "unfinished hand-distressed elmwood," if that's what it is?

Friday, September 3, 2010

If we tell you that, we have to kill you

 Restoration Hardware has long since abandoned its whimsical side (toys, tools, sock monkeys)  to concentrate on Belgian linen bedding and sofas the size of minivans; the fat new catalog actually says, on its cover, "BEHOLD OUR FALL COLLECTION." I should have put it straight into the recycle bin. But no -- I had to skim, and there amid the beige was -- behold indeed! -- a table that interested me. But what was the finish on the (almost-nude-looking) wood?

Reluctant to face a phone menu, I e-mailed to ask. And soon the answer came back:
Thank you for contacting Restoration Hardware. My name is Angela, and I will be happy to assist you with your inquiry regarding our [semi-affordable line of furniture]. I can confirm that these items have a hand applied patina.
Well, thank you, Angela, or "Angela," but ... a patina of what? Varnish, polyurethane, shellac, earwax, olive oil, Love Potion No. 9? I tried again, and today another reply arrived:
Thank you for contacting [blah blah etc.] … I can confirm that we do not have the information regarding the finish readily available.
I have submitted Product Information Request #156221 on your behalf. Please allow me 1-2 business days to update you on the status of this request.
Yeah, I should just phone the local store (surely they're trusted with this information?), but now I'm hooked; I want to know how many more layers of bureaucracy are defending the Secret of the Invisible Wood Finish from the scrutiny of potential customers.