Thursday, December 24, 2009

Crash blossoms: Christmas edition

Over at Headsup: The Blog a few days ago, fev found a headline from the Columbus Dispatch confusing:
Children's major player in tumor war
Having lived around Boston for decades, I had no trouble interpreting it; I'm sure there have been plenty of Globe headlines that referred to our Children's Hospital the same way. But it reminded me of a headline that did mystify me, several years ago, in one of the suburban weeklies:
Fate of Infant Jesus unclear
Wait, what? Isn't the fate of Infant Jesus one thing Christians of all stripes have pretty much agreed on, at least in its broad strokes?

But reading on, I found that Brookline had a Catholic church called Infant Jesus-St. Lawrence, one of the churches the archdiocese put on the list for closing in 2004, and one whose parishioners were putting up a fuss. If the church had been St. Paul's or St. Mary's, there wouldn't have been even a whisper of ambiguity. As it was, the paper produced one of my all-time favorite crash blossoms.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Moderating the (sometimes) immoderate

I liked Grant Barrett and Mark Leibovich's Buzzwords report in yesterday's Times -- especially the fact that they included the useful crash blossom on the list, and that they didn't suggest that salahi has any future as a verb meaning "crash a party." (A slippery word like salahied ousting the satisfyingly concrete and crunchy gatecrashed? Not gonna happen. And no, crash blossom is not an epithet for Mrs. Salahi.)

Even better, though, was Grant's online talkback to some of the commenters on the piece, who'd been invited to contribute buzzwords (but often chose peeves instead). One of them offered a complaint I'd also heard from readers, about "the word 'so' to begin a sentence."  He got a swift (but polite) reality check:
Sentence-initial "so" has had a long run as a discourse marker in English. I’ve had a number of people swear to me that it’s more common than it used to be, but the data show it isn’t. I think some folks are just paying more attention as they grow older and wiser, so it only seems like they’re hearing it more.
If only all comment threads could have monitors on duty to correct misconceptions and reel in the rogue theorizers. But there's a limit to what one author can do. At the end, Grant tried to point the gloomsters toward the sunny side:
If you took this as an opportunity to peeve about language rather than find something joyful and exciting in it, then, I fear, you have fallen out of love with the best tool you ever had.
Amen to that. But hostility is the default option in so many comment threads that people may now think a peeve (like a shower gift) is the expected contribution. And since any comment represents a reader (or at least a drive-by scanner), newspapers have no incentive to turn off the spigot; bilious readers, in these desperate days, are better than none.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Wish we knew 'may' from 'might'

A caption* on the Globe's front page last month read, "The median on Blue Hill Avenue where the Silver Line [transit route] may have been placed."

A couple of readers were puzzled by that "may have been." "I hadn't realized that the Silver Line was missing," e-mailed David Devore of Newton. William F. Bell of Lenox, Mass., agreed: "The meaning is unclear unless you realize that what is meant is 'might have been placed."

I'm with them. For me, the verb there can only be might, the past of may. ("May have been" means there's a chance the line was once placed there; we know that isn't true.)

But the distinction seems to be evaporating. Just two days earlier, I had spotted the construction on the New York Times op-ed page: "If dentists would just decide to withdraw the flossing directive, we may have enough additional spare time to learn Spanish." I could go with either "If dentists decide, we may," or "If dentists decided/would decide, we might," but as written it sounds wrong. This may/might choice is not about levels of likelihood, just about sequence of tenses; normal English uses "She said she was happy," not "she said she is happy" (unless, some say, you intend to emphasize the latter verb).

And today the Globe's op-ed page has, "I fought off the temptation to shoo the animal with a firm 'no!' or 'go to your bed!'’ -- commands that may have gotten results. " [But it never happened. So: "might have gotten results."]

Officially, the Times is on my side, as Philip Corbett explained in a recent After Deadline post:

A verb that is present tense in a direct quotation shifts to past tense in an indirect quotation after a past-tense verb: I am going to the store becomes He said he was going to the store, not He said he is going to the store. In such constructions, the future-tense “will” becomes “would” after a past-tense verb. In these cases, “would” is not acting as a conditional (He would go to the store if he needed something) but simply as the past-tense form of “will.”

Corbett calls this the "formal rule," but I don't think I learned it it as a formal usage; it's just the way everyone said it. So why the shift? It's another of those language mysteries. As I mentioned in a September Word column, Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage can't explain it, and doesn’t approve: 'We advise you to use might in all contexts where the past tense is appropriate or where a hypothetical or highly unlikely situation is being referred to.'"

But a more recent discussion at Language Log quotes the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language on the futility of resistance: "Conservative usage manuals tend to disapprove of [this] usage, but it is becoming increasingly common, and should probably be recognised as a variant within Standard English."

*It turned out the caption was wrong; the rapid bus service it referred to was not officially part of the Silver Line. But that doesn't affect the grammar question.