Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Can "argue that" mean "argue against"?

As a fairly heavy user of the em dash, I was please to see Erin Brenner 's defense of it at Visual Thesaurus (responding to a rather heavy-handed Slate article that called for abolishing the punctuation mark entirely).

But Brenner herself used one construction I think is odd, and relatively new (decades old, that is, rather than centuries). Yes, that may be the Recency Illusion at work. But I suspect her usage is more acceptable to younger speakers of English. The construction in question:

I won't argue that writers sometimes overuse the em dash.

What Brenner means is (in my dialect), "I won't dispute that writers sometimes overuse the em dash." It's the Slate writer who "argues that writers [do] sometimes overuse the em dash"; Brenner is countering that argument. And for me, "to argue that" means only "to state the case for" something -- not to argue against it. The OED seems to agree, since there's no definition or example of "argue that" meaning "dispute that" or "argue against the notion that."

Judging from a quick look at Google News, it looks as if "argue that" for "dispute that" generally appears in the negative form -- "I certainly would not argue that providing the opportunity for someone to take time off if they're not feeling well is a good idea," for instance. So maybe the people who use it assume that the not is enough to reverse the sense of "argue that." Not for me! "She argues that the em dash is overused" means "she makes a case for its being overused"; but "she doesn't argue that the em dash is overused" means she doesn't make a case for its being overused  -- not that she doesn't dispute the claim of overuse.

The usage isn't all that common in edited prose, apparently, and I can't find any stylebook advice or commentary on the issue; anyone else?

Monday, June 13, 2011

That's what not to write

Back in January, fev at Headsup: The Blog had a funny post about the "that's what" ledes favored by a certain Detroit Free Press writer. Ledes like:
Heroin for grandma? 
That's what an international airline passenger told federal agents in Detroit this week after getting busted trying to sneak $50,000 worth of heroin into the country. 
He had a pretty funny collection, but today, reading the paper from my Ohio hometown,  I found one (on the front page, no less) that I think tops them all:
Severe diarrhea.
That's what Melissa Campbell's 15-month-old son, Mason Holden, had from Wednesday night until about 4 p.m. Saturday.* 
Yes, it really is a news story: The pharmacist mixed the toddler's antibiotic solution at twice the specified strength. The store realized its mistake, according to the report, and phoned the mother later that day, so no harm was done. (And diarrhea is a side effect of the medicine in any case.) 

But it's hard to think of a news story of any description (anywhere but The Onion) that would be well served by the lede "Severe diarrhea." 

*If that's not enough information for you, just keep reading. "I'm changing him every 30 minutes," the mother says later.