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.

23 comments:

Stan said...

"Let's not go looking for trouble."

Think of all the inconvenience and irritation that could be avoided if this thought preceded more acts of pedantry.

Great article on apparent(ly). I've found the word to be ambiguous on occasion, but not in the context that's commonly criticised.

Marc Leavitt said...

Jan:
The story said that the man died of an apparent heart attack; it later turned out he was poisoned. Apparently, the reporter was on deadline and didn't have enough time to confirm the cause of death.
The paper had to run a clarification.
Ho-hum.

David said...

I thought the issue with "apparent" was that it has two meanings: "clear" and "seeming."

Clearly he died of a heart attack (a fact or at least information that can be considered factual).

Seemingly he died of a heart attack (supposition based on the available information).

Bryan M. White said...

@David: I've always taken "apparently" as rooted in "appearance", as in "It appears that way", which would be closer to "seemingly", although there's often also a sense in which it means "Clearly, it appears that way", as when someone says, "Well, apparently so." In any case, I think the emphasis is always on the appearance.

Of course, this is not to say that it always implies a false or misleading appearance, the idea that it is in appearance only, which I think is the mistake that the people picking this as a nit are making. They're apparently assuming that "apparent heart attack" means so kind of a mirage or a heart attack, while I take it just to mean "Given all the evidence, at this point it looks like a heart attack."

I can't see a problem with that.

Bryan M. White said...

That should be "..some kind of a mirage of a heart attack.."

And Blogger should have a comment-editing feature ;)

David said...

Bryan, the "New Oxford American Dictionary" defines it as:

adjective
clearly visible or understood; obvious: [with clause] : it became apparent that he was talented; for no apparent reason she laughed.

seeming real or true, but not necessarily so: his apparent lack of concern

Merriam Webster defines it as visible; clear or manifest; and lastly with the sense of seemingly.

The word "apparent" does have at least two meanings. The meanings do denote different senses and attitudes towards the information provided. One says it is clear, obvious; the other that the observations made are potentially accurate.

Bryan M. White said...

Right. Well, what I'm saying is that I think the problem is that these folks tend to take the word in its more negative sense. For instance, I used the phrase "looks like" in my example up there, and then it occurred to me that you end up running into that same ambiguity. Someone could say, "It looks like he died of a heart attack.", and mean it only looks like he died of a heart attack, that looks are deceiving us, that there is a veil of illusion that the actual truth hides behind. OR someone could say, "It looks like he died of a heart attack.", and mean that, considering everything we're seeing, it's fairly obvious that he died of a heart attack, but we don't have absolute confirmation yet.

So yes, in that sense there are two meanings of the term, but both meanings hinge on the idea of appearance, and whether that appearance is possibly deceptive or whether it counts as a sum of evidence.

In casual conversation, talking to someone face to face, this ambiguity wouldn't really be an issue. By tone and inflection we would get a pretty clear idea of the person's meaning. In the written form, however, it's a little stickier.

Bryan M. White said...

And of course, the more salient point explored by the post is that some people just don't like the way the words are arranged in "It looks like he died of a heart attack.", and they feel that it would be more proper to say, "He died of what looks like a heart attack." They feel like the former technically reads as "It looks like he died." with "...of a heart attack" thrown in almost as an after-thought. But really, no one in their right mind would read it that way, and as Jan says, "Let's not go looking for trouble."

David said...

Some of the example phrases offered in this post, "an apparent border dispute," "an apparent friendly fire episode," "an apparent reference to the border with Iraq," could, all depending on the context, have a meaning other than "seeming" or "presumed." The writer could be making affirmative comments and using apparent to mean "clear," "manifest," or "obvious."

Kay L. Davies said...

The phrase "an apparent friendly-fire episode," in your second-last paragraph is confusing, whether The Times allowed it or not. As an old-time editor and proofreader, I think "apparent" is modifying the word "friendly" and therefore should be "apparently friendly" but, of course, the hyphen makes identifying the modifier somewhat ambiguous.
Grammar, like beauty, is often in the eyes of the beholder these days.
K

Bryan M. White said...

Yes, David, that's what I'm saying. You don't seem to be listening, though. You CAN talk about appearances in an affirmative sense! "Apparently" CAN refer to appearances AND mean "Clear and obvious" at the same time. You seem to be making the same mistake as the people Jan is talking about, assuming that by "appearances" I mean an illusion or a misrepresentation or something less reliable than the facts. No "appearances" can also mean the evidence yielded by what you see of a thing or a situation. "Apparently" can mean "clean and obvious" in sense of "It's clear and obvious because you can see it right in front of you! It's clear and obvious BY THE APPEARANCE!"

You can throw dictionaries at me all day; I'm trying my damnedest to tell you WHY the dictionary says what it does. Dictionaries after all, were written by mortals like you and I. They weren't etched in stone on Mt. Sinai. There's a REASON that there are two definitions. They are connected by the different ways in which we can regard the concept of appearances.

For instance, if I say, "Apparently, he likes dogs", that means, "From what I can see he OBVIOUSLY likes dogs." That's how you get from A to B.

Is it clear yet?
Is it obvious?
Is it apparent?

Sheesh!!!

David said...

Bryan, I understand exactly what you're saying, but the word as you suggest cannot hold both meanings at once--that's where the ambiguity comes in. I thought the meaning was revealed in the context (this is half true), but apparently there are some rules regarding the use of "apparent." The American Heritage Book of English Usage says that when used before a noun, "'apparent' has the meaning of 'seeming.' Used after a verb of the form 'be'...'apparent' can mean either 'seeming'...or 'obvious'."

The reason I am harping on this point, Bryan, is I have seen this argument presented somewhere before, I can't remember where, stressing the ambiguous use of "apparent." This post is arguing a different point. I agree that there is nothing wrong with "apparent heart attack." My question was how do you determine when it means "seeming" and not its near opposite "obvious." Now I know.

Bryan M. White said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bryan M. White said...

My question was how do you determine when it means "seeming" and not its near opposite "obvious."

Well, like I said above, voice tone and inflection can be a key as well. If I'm speaking to you, say as a medical examiner and you're a detective, and I say, "It looks like a heart attack." with that heavy emphasis on "looks like", then you'd know that there was foul play involved, that someone tried to make it appear to be a heart attack to fool the investigation. On the other hand, if I said, "It looks like a heart attack." nice and even like, then you'd know that I was concluding that it was a heart attack at this point in my investigation. Pretty much case closed.

The same, I suppose, would hold true for "apparent heart attack", although I don't here people speaking that way nearly as often, so I couldn't really say for sure.

David said...

It does appear that the use of "apparent" is idiomatic. In a phrase such as "apparent gaffe" the meaning is generally taken as a highly visible or obvious mistake--"Joe Biden's apparrent gaffe" would be a gaffe seen and recognized nation-wide. The same could be said of "apparent reason": The apparent reason for his dismissal was his poor work record, but his attitude was also a concern. "Apparent" in this instance would mean "manifest," not "seeming."

Bryan, the point being made in Ms. Freeman's post is the ambiguity in meaning between a real heart attack and a seeming heart attack. You can experience only a real heart attack not a supposed one. To me that argument does not make much sense, and I am with Ms. Freeman. My point is (and especially in news reporting) how do you know when the event is "seeming" or "obvious" if the context is ambiguous. The phrase "apparent reference to the border with Iraq" depending on the context could mean "obvious" if the reference were explicit and it could mean "seeming" if the reference was indirect.

Gregory Lee said...

I think there is probably an inexplicit theory in play here to the effect that the logical scope of a modifier is what it modifies, and in turn, what a modifier modifies is some preceding or following grammatical constituent. This is not a bad idea, if you want some starting point to guide your thinking about grammar and interpretation, but it's not an exactly correct idea, either. Jan thinks "apparently", at least in position after the subject and immediately before the main verb, modifies the verb. Well, I don't think so. "Apparently" would probably be classified as a sentence adverb by most English syntacticians, meaning that it modifies a sentence. Who is right?

Gregory Lee said...

Correction: I shouldn't have said that Jan thought "apparently" modifies the verb in the example she was discussing -- that was Garner. Jan said it modified a prepositional phrase (though I don't think that's right, either).

David said...

An "apparent gaffe" is more often than not meant as an "obvious" misstatement, not a "seeming" one. Do a brief online survey, and I am sure you will find this to be true.

Also "apparent" works better with some nouns than it does with others. An "apparent reference" does not have the same problems as does an "apparent heart attack."

To the point about Garner's criticism: Apparently would be best placed at the forefront of the sentence, as a sentence modifier. If you place it before the verb, it modifies the verb; if you place it between the verb and the prepositional phrase, it will "squint" modifing both the verb and the prepositional phrase. And placing it after the prepositional phrase, just sounds awkward.

Gregory Lee said...

I agree with the observation that "apparent reference" is easier to construe in the adverbial sense than "apparent heart attack", and that is probably so because "reference" is a nominalization from "refer". "Attack" can also sometimes be a nominalized form, but "apparently someone refers" is a much more straightforward interpretation than "apparently a heart attacks".

I don't think "apparently" ever modifies a verb. Notice that the "every" in the subject of "Apparently every parrot got sick" is in the scope of the "apparently", as you would expect if it modifies the entire sentence "Every parrot got sick", and this is still the interpretation when the "apparently" is moved to just before the verb: "Every student apparently got sick" (though there may also be a sense "Every student had the appearance of being sick.").

Some adverbs do modify either a verb or a sentence, depending on their position. Compare "Strangely, the students ate pineapple" with "The students ate pineapple strangely." But "apparently" is not such an adverb.

David said...

Gregory I'm not entirely convinced that each example sentence contains the same meaning. I think it is best to remove the "every" since it can also be modified by "apparently" and change "got" to "became."

Apparently, the student became sick.

The student apparently became sick.

The student became apparently sick.

To me each of these sentences appears to have a slightly different meaning.

Gregory Lee said...

The point to using an example with "every" in the subject was to display the sense in which the logical scope of "apparently" includes that of "every". The scopes of the corresponding universal quantifier and modal operators are well studied and well understood. Changing "every" to "the" as you propose seems to me to make it impossible to find an interpretation in which "apparently" has wide scope, so I don't see the point. It just fuzzes things up so you can't tell what the scopes are.

I should qualify this by saying "apparently" is not exactly the same as an operator studied in modal logic, but intuitively it seems to me to be similar to "possibly".

David said...

I'm just a grammar dilettante.

Writing and talking about language helps me understand it a bit better and think about in a way I wouldn't normally do.

I'm more of a language muddler.

Even with a sentence such as "Apparently every student got sick," "apparently" still can interact with anything that is an adverb, an adjective or a verb. In the above sentence, depending on its placement, "appparently" can modify "every," "got" and "sick." You still have the same variety of meanings, except for an emphasis on "every" in this case.

Bryan M. White said...
This comment has been removed by the author.