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.)