Wednesday, December 29, 2010

More Ngram fun: carrots and sticks

Carrot and stick, or carrot on a stick? In my last go-round with this one -- when I found "turnips on a stick" in the 1840s -- I decided they might well be two independent creations, rather than an original and a variant. Michael Quinion also covers the issue pretty exhaustively at World Wide words. And here's the Google graph, showing that "carrot and stick," if no more respectable than its stablemate, is a lot more common.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The Ngram view of "another think/thing"

Mark Liberman has courageously returned to the nor'easter-northeaster debate, though he admits its futility: more evidence is needed, and in any case, "people are entitled to use phony dialect forms if they want." (He cites, among other evidence, some research I did on the topic in 2003, now behind a Globe paywall and outdated in any case.) I hoped he came bearing fresh results from Google's new book search toy, the Ngram Viewer, but it won't let us compare the histories of the two versions -- apparently it can't handle the internal apostrophe in nor'easter (though there are hits for noreaster).

I've been trying out the the Ngram Viewer, too, and it's easy to see its limitations. As Geoff Nunberg and other early commenters have said, it's a pretty blunt instrument, unable to handle many of the search refinements you'd need for real scholarship. But I'm having fun seeing what it says about various competing usages (not hindered by internal punctuation) that I've written about before.

For example, here's the graph for "another think coming" vs. "another thing coming," as in, "if you think you're wearing that, you've got another think coming":

Pretty scary for a traditionalist like me to see the rogue "another thing" rocketing toward respectability! But I was heartened to see that the OED entry has it as "another think," with the "thing" version labeled "arising from misapprehension of to have another think coming." Not that it will affect usage, but someday I can show it to my disbelieving grandchildren ...

Friday, December 24, 2010

Less invasive than what?

Even if I had celebrated Festivus on schedule, I'm not organized enough to have gathered up my grievances into a neat package the way Fritinancy did. But there was a complaint-worthy headline in yesterday's Times, on the holiday itself, and since I'm behind schedule on everything else, I might as well be a day late recording this too.

It came with the lead story in the Times's Styles section, which had a photo and headline borrowed from Nora Ephron -- "Can We Feel Good About Our Necks?" -- and then a very strange subhead:

Put Away the Turtlenecks:
Less-Invasive Options Exist
To Tackle That Area of Dread

Wouldn't that be nice -- a neck-firming treatment that's less invasive than putting on a turtleneck? But of course the headline writer didn't mean that: The procedures covered in the article are only "less invasive" than a full face- or neck-lift. (They're also expensive and as yet unproven, of course, like so many of the cosmetic remedies that get free advertising in the Skin Deep column.)

It's fine to call something "less filling" or "less expensive" and leave the comparison implied; less has always worked that way. But you can't stick a word like "turtlenecks" in there, in a spot where it insists on being read as the term of comparison, without confusing readers. (I'm not the only one who noticed the problem; the subhead doesn't appear on  the web version of the story.)

Thursday, December 9, 2010

A little "no problem" problem

The Ridger’s recent  post on the “no problem” curmudgeons reminds me that I finally had my own "no problem" revelation not long ago. After years of wondering (privately and publicly) why people get so cheesed off at the phrase, I finally heard it used in a way that sounded inappropriate even to me, the language libertine.

I was paying the receptionist after a massage, and when she handed me the receipt, I said "Thank you." She replied: "No problem."

Now, I don't even blink at "no problem" in other situations. I ask for a new fork and the waiter brings it; I say "thanks" and he says "no problem." I ask the mechanic, "Can I leave the car overnight?" and he says, "No problem." I’ve always assumed the complainers were objecting to this response, which seems completely normal (if casual) to me.

But these interactions were different from the one at the massage place. I asked the waiter or mechanic for something, got it, and thanked him. In those cases, “no problem” (as The Ridger notes) is no more rude, contentwise, than the time-honored “it was nothing” or “don’t mention it.”

In the transaction at the cash register, though, no service was requested or granted. My “thank you” for the receipt was just part of the minimum  ritual – you hand me a receipt, I acknowledge it. In response, either a return “thank you” or “you're welcome” or even a cheery “mmm-hmm” would have been normal, but "no problem" sounded distinctly odd. It seemed to say "yes, I did you a service," when that wasn't the case.

So maybe the “no problem” problem is more subtle than I’d thought. For me, it seems, some “thank you”s can be answered with "no problem" and some can't. Is this true for (some of) the people who object to "no problem," or is theirs a blanket condemnation? And does the distinction exist in other languages that use the equivalent of "no problem, it was nothing" as a response to "thank you"? 

Or have I just been thinking about this non-problem for too long?

Friday, November 26, 2010

Ruddy-complected (or not) at the New Yorker

I’ve been derelict in my blogging duties this month, but I did manage (amid the Thanksgiving prep) to dip into the current (11/29) New Yorker, where I found a couple of words of interest to editors.

 From “Are You the Messiah?” by Lauren Collins comes this: “Creme -- ruddy-complected, green eyed, and white-haired -- answered.” Complected for “complexioned” has been a disparaged usage for a century; my teachers treated it as hardly better than irregardless. But Merriam-Webster's online dictionary defends it:
Not an error, nor a dialectal term, nor nonstandard—all of which it has been labeled—complected still manages to raise hackles. It is an Americanism, apparently nonexistent in British English. Its currency in American English is attested as early as 1806 (by Meriwether Lewis) and it appears in the works of such notable American writers as Mark Twain, O. Henry, James Whitcomb Riley, and William Faulkner. Complexioned, recommended by handbooks, has less use than complected. Literary use, old and new, slightly favors complected.
The longer entry in M-W's usage dictionary adds: “There seems to be no very substantial objection to the term other than the considerable diffidence American usage writers feel about Americanisms."

Garner's Modern American Usage (2009) also cites usage -- not specifying "literary" -- and comes to a different conclusion: "Today, complexioned is almost three times as common in print sources." He rates complected Stage 3 on his language-change index, meaning it's widespread but still widely suspect. 

So did the New Yorker use complected (apparently for the first time) on purpose? Well, as of this writing, the word remains in the digital edition. But that's not much of a clue, because so does the wrong word in Paul Rudnick's "Nutty," in the same issue.
In this piece, a monologue by Mr. Peanut, the Planters legume recalls days of indulging in “wild sex” with other spokesproducts, including Cap’n Crunch and Snuggle, the fabric-softener bear, after which he wondered if he'd gone too far: “What’s next? The Kool-Aid pitcher? Count Chocula? The Geico gekko?” No, not the Geico gekko, Mr. P., because the Geico mascot is a gecko.

(This is nitpicking, of course; but the New Yorker's legendary editing standards have always made its lapses and innovations interesting to copy editors and word watchers. If the magazine endorses complected, it could change the word's rep at a stroke. But there are far more interesting things to ponder in the 11/29 issue, including James Wood, literary critic and drummer (who knew?), on Keith Moon. And in the 11/22 issue, read my friend Laura Shapiro on Eleanor Roosevelt's management of the White House menus, and give thanks that your feasts are so much more festive than poor FDR's were.) 

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Anyone can punctuate; Austen wrote the pauses

Whenever I read one of Geoff Nunberg's "Fresh Air" language commentaries, I'm freshly amazed that so much can be said, lucidly and entertainingly, in a radio piece; reading the prose, you'd swear it was too complex for anything but print. So even if you heard  Nunberg's broadcast today -- rebutting, refuting, and refudiating the idiotic "Jane Austen couldn't write, her editor did it all" story of recent weeks -- you'll want to read it (uncut, with footnotes) at Language Log. A couple of highlights:
By the standards of the time, she wasn't a bad speller. She was inconsistent about possessives, and she sometimes put e before i in words like believe and friendship, but you can find the same thing in the manuscripts of Byron and Scott and Thomas Jefferson — the rules just weren't settled yet. In fact it's pure anachronism to describe any of those things as "wrong" or "incorrect"; it's like calling Elizabeth Bennet a bachelorette.
And if it turns out the semicolons were actually put there by someone else, is it right to say that the style is hers? ... it's an embarrassing question. It reveals a certain obtuseness — about writers and style, and not least, about the semicolon. People have the idea that mastering the semicolon is the acme of prose artistry, as if the mark itself could call a logical structure into being. ... But semicolons don't create a structure; they just point to one. It's nice to know where a semicolon is supposed to go, but it's nothing to swell your chest over. The artistry is in being able to write sentences that require one.
The Austen manuscripts are here, but they're not for the faint of heart or weak of eye.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Buncombe, bunkum, or both?

In a column last month on gubernatorial, I mentioned that John Russell Bartlett had included the word in his 1848 "Dictionary of Americanisms," calling it a coinage born of "our peculiar institutions," along with caucus and bunkum.

That last word prompted a comment from reader Jay Gold:
Interesting [that] Bartlett lists "bunkum" in his list of Americanisms.  I always thought the proper spelling was "buncombe", after the North Carolina county that inspired the word.  Mencken, who was no slouch in such matters, spelled it that way.
In fact, Mencken listed buncombe and bunkum as alternative spellings, like ketchup and catsup. "Buncombe (usually spelled bunkum) is in all the later English dictionaries," he wrote in the 1921 edition of "The American Language." Bartlett also gave both spellings, and a one-B buncome too, for good measure. 

On the origin of the word, Bartlett quoted another source:
A tedious speaker in Congress being interrupted and told it was no use to go on, for the members were all leaving the house, replied, "Never mind; I'm talking to Buncombe." Buncombe, in North Carolina, was the place he represented. 
And he left the analysis of its cultural context to "Judge Halliburton of Nova Scotia":
"All over America, every place likes to hear of its members of Congress, and see their speeches; and if they don't, they send a piece to the paper, enquirin' if their member died a natural death, or was skivered with a bowie knife, for they hante seen his speeches lately, and his friends are anxious to know his fate. Our free and enlightened citizens don't approbate silent members; it don't seem to them as if Squashville, or Punkinsville, or Lumbertown was right represented, unless Squashville, or Punkinsville, or Lumbertown makes itself heard and known, ay, and feared too. So every feller in bounden duty, talks, and talks big too, and the smaller the State, the louder, bigger, and fiercer its members talk.
"Well, when a critter talks for talk sake, jist to have a speech in the paper to send to home, and not for any other airthly puppus but electioneering, our folks call it Bunkum."

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Tea Party orthography: A Capital Idea?

In the latest "Good Word" column at Slate, Jon Lackman skips the "Teabonics" wisecracks and instead theorizes that the Tea Party members are capitalizing their nouns -- Freedom, Republic, etc. -- in imitation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.
What capital-ist Tea Partiers fail to realize, however, is that their orthography imitates not Thomas Jefferson and James Madison but the far less famous Timothy Matlack and Jacob Shallus—a couple of secretaries. No one played a larger role in crafting the Declaration and the Constitution than Jefferson and Madison, respectively, but it was Matlack and Shallus who hand wrote the official, signed versions of these documents and freely recapitalized them as they saw fit. By contrast, in Jefferson's drafts of the Declaration, there's a striking absence of caps—he writes "life, liberty, & the pursuit of happiness," for example. As H.L. Mencken noted, "nature and creator, and even god are in lower case."
Nice. And the author ID promises more language fun to come: "Jon Lackman is writing a doctoral dissertation on the use of invective in art criticism."

Friday, October 29, 2010

The uncorrections file: Gomer, meet Goober

In a Boston Globe column earlier this month, about why people dislike the word gubernatorial, I mentioned (among other reasons that goober might sound undignified) the existence of Goober Pyle, a character on "The Andy Griffith Show."

Five readers (so far) have taken the trouble to "correct" me on the point, explaining that I must mean Gomer Pyle. Well, no;  Gomer was a character, yes, but he had a cousin named Goober.

I was a little surprised that five people -- all of them with keyboards literally at their fingertips -- were confident enough to send (or post) this uncorrection. But I wasn't a lot surprised, because I've made incorrections myself, in my copy editing days -- and some of mine went into print, to my eternal mortification. Every copy editor has done it: confidently changed the right spelling to the wrong one, made an ambiguously named man into a woman, or otherwise fixed something that wasn't broken. And we were getting paid to be right! (I'm feeling a little better about these blunders now that I've read the book "Being Wrong," in which Kathryn Shulz explains that the same mental equipment that makes humans smart is what makes us so often -- so blindly -- wrong.)

So I replied to all five of my misinformants, cheerily* explaining that yes, there was a Gomer, and there was also a Goober. One replied with good humor, claiming the day's Golden Goober award (dondoll, you're a mensch); two ignored me. And two more -- well, like all of us, they really weren't happy about being wrong. So they answered this way:
Guess I didn't watch that show closely enough to notice Gomer had a cousin. 
I don't believe I ever watched an entire episode of Mayberry RFD or its Gomer Pyle spin-off, so I defer to your superior knowledge of the Pyle family.
In other words: "I defer to your superior knowledge of the Pyle family, you pathetic couch potato -- I was reading 'Crime and Punishment' that year." Well, folks, I never watched those shows either; I first met Goober Pyle earlier this month, when I was researching the column. I found Goober thanks to -- paraphrasing Holly from "Stone Soup" -- a widely used information system that allows us to check facts from the comfort of our own homes.  (If only it had existed back when I didn't know how to spell Thelonious!)

* OK, I admit it, I wasn't so cheery with the emailer whose correction was openly contemptuous.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

The definition of insanity

In today's Globe column, where I plead* for an end to the argument over "I could care less" after 50 years of fruitless repetition, I mention the popular Internet "definition," attributed to various sources: "Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result."

One commenter says "the definition of insanity was Einstein ... who else has it been attributed to???" Well, it is often attributed to Einstein, and also to Mark Twain and Ben Franklin, but so far there's no proof it existed before about 1980.

In the excellent Yale Book of Quotations (2006) -- a scholarly collection, not just a roundup of favorite alleged sayings -- editor Fred R. Shapiro found the earliest statement of the sentiment in Rita Mae Brown's "Sudden Death," published in 1983: "Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results."

And just last month, at the entry (which also cites Brown), commenter Davidt 9 offered a slight antedating:
The quote "Insanity is repeating the same mistakes and expecting different results" is contained in the Basic Text of Narcotics Anonymous which was published in 1982. The review form of the book was distributed to members in 1981 and work on the book began in 1979. All of this predates Rita Mae Brown's book.
He gave a link to the book, which does, as advertised, have the relevant quote on page 11 (25th page of the PDF). I also found a 1980 pamphlet from the Hazelden Foundation, "Step Two: The Promise of Hope," which quotes the same aphorism, so perhaps it got its start in the literature of addiction and recovery.

And of course there may not be an original author;  probably these three sources picked up a formulation that had been percolating in the spoken language, possibly in less eloquent variations, just as it was settling into the pithy form we now consider good enough for Einstein.                            

*Unsuccessfully, to judge from the comments and e-mail.

Friday, October 22, 2010

"Clean is not an option"

I don’t expect advertisers to hew to formal English, or even standard English, but the tagline for Tide's current ads has been bugging me for a while. It reads:


Surely that's not what Tide really wants to say? "X is not an option," in the language I speak, means X is not a possibility, X is totally unthinkable – as in the famous "Apollo 13" line, “Failure is not an option.” 

I think the copywriters were trying to say that "clean is not optional" – that fashion is a choice, but cleanliness is mandatory (an article of faith, surely, among detergent manufacturers). 

The “style” half of the tagline has its own problems. My first reading of “Style is an option” would be that you can choose to be stylish or unstylish; but that doesn’t make much sense in an ad focused on looking good. No, the writers seem to be using “style is an option” as shorthand for “your style is up to you." It isn’t exactly idiomatic English, but at least – unlike the second part of the tagline – it doesn’t say the opposite of what it means. 

I guess the intent is so clear (that's what pictures are for) that it doesn't really matter what the tagline says. Or is this usage really changing? Time and Tide wait for no man, they say, and it could be they've left me in the dust. 

Monday, October 11, 2010

What's so hard about "prosopagnosia"?

You may well disagree with me on this -- my friend Betsy already has, strenuously -- but I thought it was odd of the Times Book Review to make such a fuss over prosopagnosia, the medical term for face blindness.

In yesterday's review of  Heather Sellers's new memoir, Mary Roach told readers that
"You Don’t Look Like Anyone I Know" does not read like any memoir you know, largely because of a condition you may not know and certainly can’t say: prosopagnosia.
Now, I don't object to seeing a rough pronunciation key supplied, as Roach does a bit later: "It's  pro-so-pag-NO-see-uh," she confides. But is this really a difficult word? Yes, it's long, and I can imagine a momentary pause while the reader considers whether this is the -gn- of  lagniappe or the -gn- of agnostic. But I don't see anything else that's likely to slow down the typical Times reader.

Hyperbole like "a condition you ... certainly can't say" is generally frowned on in journalism, because -- like the classic bad example, "For anyone who's been living in a cave" -- it risks insulting readers. But I'm not a hard-liner; I think plenty of English words are tough to sound out, and plenty of others (like Zagat, which also rated a Times gloss yesterday) are hard to remember. I just don't see how you'd take prosopagnosia to be one of them.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Grammar-checking Shakespeare

I've written before about the shortcomings of grammar checkers. So has Geoff Nunberg, in a "Fresh Air" commentary called "The Software We Deserve," included in his 2001 collection "The Way We Talk Now." So have Patricia O'Conner and Stewart Kellerman, at their Grammarphobia blog.

But if that's not convincing enough, here's some recent testimony e-mailed by my friend Louise Kennedy:
So I'm running a spell check on my proposal right before sending it out, and of course I forget to uncheck "check grammar." Which is excellent, because it gives me this:
All the World's a Stage
The entire [World's a Stage]
"Poor Will," says Louise. Amen to that.

Monday, October 4, 2010

"Sleep tight," one more time

A few weeks ago, I lodged a complaint here about the return of the "sleep tight" etymythology in some media outlets that should know better.  But those were mere bedbug bites compared with what's on the way. According to the Wall Street Journal's review, best-selling author Bill Bryson repeats the legend in his new book,  "At Home." The Journal's paraphrase:
 When parents kiss their children good night and say, "Sleep tight," it's a fair bet that neither party realizes that the phrase originated in the era of straw-stuffed mattresses. Before the invention of spring mattresses in 1865, bedding would have been suspended by rope lattices that, when they sagged, could be tightened with a key.
Bryson, judging by the book excerpts viewable online, doesn't make nearly so big a deal of it; his reference to "sleep tight" is just a parenthesis ("hence the expression 'sleep tight'").  Still, it's too bad to see such a (justly) popular writer spreading misinformation. As my earlier post noted, the phrase "sleep tight" appeared in the 1860s -- just when the new spring mattresses (assuming that date is correct!) should have begun to make it obsolete. "Sleep tight" means "sleep soundly," and there's no evidence it has any connection at all to rope beds.

Friday, October 1, 2010

If an eggcorn falls in the backyard ...

Real estate, as we all know, has its own (often euphemistic) shorthand. But this odd term, from a Boston-area ad,  appears to be just a mishearing/misunderstanding -- in short, an eggcorn:
This is a solid mulit level house that is ready to move in and ready for your improvements. Roof seems good, older Anderson Windows, large lot (ingrained pool needs to be filled in ).
True, an eggcorn is typically inspired by a word that's somewhat opaque, and it's hard to imagine a more transparent term than "in-ground pool." Nor is in-ground a recent coinage. The OED dates it to 1973 -- "orig. U.S., of an outdoor swimming-pool: built into the ground (as distinct from one placed above ground), esp. at a private residence." And Google News turns up a 1962 ad in the Milwaukee Journal, seeking franchisees to sell a "low priced inground pool to reach mass market."

So how does in-ground become ingrained? I think the connection must be the (relative) permanence of the hole-in-the-ground pool; ingrained originally meant "dyed,"  and it still means "deep-seated, worked deeply into the texture or fiber" (AHD, via Wordnik). An  above-ground pool is removable; not so the ingrained kind.

If I were one of those word watchers who can read minds, I suppose I would accuse the "ingrained pool" people -- Google turns up a couple dozen of them -- of "trying to sound elegant," or something like that. Alas, I seem to be missing the telepathy gene; all I can do is record this interesting substitution.

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.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Has the present perfect gone missing?

Guy Keleny, writing the Errors & Omissions column for the Independent, declares that those slovenly Americans are stealing the present perfect tense from the English language. He objects to a usage in his own paper: "Rather than meeting up and talking about what we want to post online, we just add to what someone – maybe on the other side of the world – already wrote."

From this slender evidence he generalizes sweepingly:
Any time up to about 10 years ago any British writer would have said "add to what someone has already written" [my italics].
Under the influence of American usage, the present perfect form of the verb ("has written") is losing ground to the past simple ("wrote"). In British English, the past simple merely signifies an action in the past, whereas the present perfect describes a state of affairs in the present brought about by an action in the past – we now are in a world where somebody "has written". American English, with only the past simple to call on, fails to mark that distinction.
Have you noticed the disappearance of the present perfect in American English? I have not – though of course I've seen "he wrote" in casual contexts where more formal prose would call for "he has written." Is the present perfect really "distinctively British," as Keleny's headline claims? Is its use diminishing in British English, and if so, is it Americans' fault? I'm not good enough at Zimmering* to test these assertions properly (and I'm about to be off the grid for a bit), but perhaps one of the adepts – Mark Liberman or Ben Zimmer himself – can show me how it's done.

Or maybe Keleny will reveal his evidence. But I suspect his lamentation is based on mere sentiment, seasoned with a dash of prejudice. 

*"Wait, I'm not ready to be an eponym!" Zimmer tweeted in response to this coinage. Too late, Ben!

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Fuhnetiks at the Wawl Street Jurnl

I almost hate* to give Geoff Pullum another reason to rant about the offhand contempt with which mainstream journalists treat the vocabulary of language and grammar (see: passive voice).
But how could I resist this? In today's Wall Street Journal, the designer/editor team decided to represent "black swan" as a dictionary entry, pronunciation and all, apparently without consulting an actual dictionary. This is the pitiful result.

I'm no phonetics whiz, and in most discussions of pronunciation, a rough approximation is good enough for me. But you don't need to master the IPA to see a few problems here. The ones that stick out for me:

-- Black swan isn't a closed or a hyphenated compound, so that hyphen in "blak-swan" has no excuse to be there.

-- Black swan (for me, anyway) has equal stress on both words, like black tie or black ops. So if that misbegotten apostrophe was drafted to play to role of a stress mark, it too is superfluous. 

-- And finally, the graphic simply ignores the difference that every dictionary would indicate with a special symbol (or two): the difference between the a of black and the a of swan.  Here, they're shown as the same sound -- as if "black swan" rhymed with "black man." (Or, given the stress on the second word, with "black-MAN."

Long ago, once of my favorite designers replied to a complaint about a similar problem  by telling me the unorthodox typography was "a design element." But I notice the WSJ doesn't treat the big red + signs and % signs in its graphic as "design elements" -- no, those  mean just the same thing they always do in business journalism. But lexicographic symbols -- pffft, whatever, who cares.

*Almost. But not quite.

Times readers talk back to usage czar

The Times's usage blog, After Deadline, mostly addresses the routine matters of house style and word choice -- though its author, Philip Corbett, did draw wider attention recently when it got about that he had recommended replacing tweet with  "post a Twitter update."

This week's edition didn't go that far, but it issued several tin-eared rulings, starting with Corbett's objection to the paper's increased use of hipster. "As a colleague pointed out, we’ve used it more than 250 times in the past year," he said -- you'll notice it wasn't a reader who complained -- and to him, that number implied an unseemly striving for hipness.

Apparently he didn't stop to consider the many shades of irony and self-consciousness with which such a word might be deployed. No, hipster had obviously "lost its freshness." (I suspect that, like many other language watchdogs, Corbett wants to be among the first to call a word "overused," for fear of being among the last.)

Next he condemned the punctuation in the sentence "WikiLeaks was more than just a source, it was a publisher." The problem? "Even in the conversational style of a blog post, this is a 'comma splice.' The two independent clauses need a dash, semicolon or period in between."

And then he invoked a Times usage rule that almost nobody observes, objecting to "the woman, who … had just been diagnosed with lymphoma." Because "as the stylebook notes, the disease is diagnosed, not the patient."

It was disheartening to see the paper of the late Theodore Bernstein so passionately embracing its inner Miss Thistlebottom. But when I went back a few days later to read comments, I got a pleasant surprise. Instead of the usual pile o' peeves, the comments section was a forum for debate on Corbett's actual topics, and a number of contributors begged to differ. For instance:
Usually, I find this column a delight, but today I disagree with Mr. Corbett. At least in its post-2005 "hipster" has a specific meaning that may have some disagreements around the margins but is generally understood. Yes, it's gained in frequency but that is because of its growing popularity (and the ensuing backlash.) Would we have wanted to give yuppie a "rest" in the 80s or look for "alternatives" to hippies in the 60s. I think the New York Times's goal should be to educate rather than obscure in code.
The "comma splice" also had defenders: 

I respectfully disagree on the comma splice example; it reads perfectly as is. Follett’s Modern American Usage gives the following example as "legitimate splicing by commas": "This was not only his first concerto, it was his best."
Most grammarians believe that some comma splices are justifiable, especially those connecting short, related (independent) clauses.
As for "diagnosed with":
As a physician who writes, for years I resisted “diagnosed with” as applied to a patient. At last, I’ve given it up. It has rooted itself deep in the lexicon, and it does serve the useful purpose of shortcutting an otherwise more convoluted locution (the patient was diagnosed as having, was told he/she had, &c). Garner’s Modern American Usage (2003) notes … "This idiomatic syntax is too common to be called erroneous."
Way to go, readers. I had just about sworn off reading newspaper comments, but if debate like this can prevail over peevology, I'll be happy to reconsider.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Poetess, authoress, walkeress, talkeress?

Like the folks who imagine that Ms. was coined by a feminist cabal, English journalist Robert Fisk believes that his editor's rejection of poetess is a modern, women's-libber prejudice, part of  the "grammar of feminism and political correctness."

Over at Language Log, Mark Liberman (here) and Geoff Nunberg (here) have already set him straight. To their learned rebuttals I would like to add a commentary from Edward S. Gould, American language maven and author of "Good English" (1867).

Gould was not alone in his dislike of feminized nouns, but he devoted more space to the issue than most usage writers. He conceded that some such words (marchioness, princess) might be needed, and that others, like actress and patroness, were traditional, though "a good reason can hardly be given for their admission into our vocabulary." But many  coinages, he said, were absurd, including poetess and authoress.
Poet means, simply, a person who writes poetry; and author, in the sense under consideration, a person who writes poetry or prose: not a man who writes, but a person who writes. Nothing, in either word, indicates sex; and everybody knows that the functions of both poets and authors are common to both sexes. Hence, 'authoress' and 'poetess' are superfluous ...
If, however, those two words have, by long usage, become conventionally endurable; what shall be said of the superfine affectation, prettiness, and pedantry of conductress, directress, inspectress, waitress, and so on, which have become as plenty as blackberries?

Conductor is a person who conducts; director, a person who directs; inspector, a person who inspects; waiter, a person who waits. Yet if the ess is to be a permitted or an endured addition to those words, there is no reason in language or in logic for excluding it from any noun that indicates a person; and the next editions of our dictionaries may be made complete by the addition of writeress, officeress, manageress, superintendentess, secretaryess, treasureress, singeress, walkeress, talkeress, and so on, to the end of the vocabulary.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Is there a "bite" in "respite"?

Over at Language Log, Mark Liberman looks at the eggcorn of the week, from al-Jazeera's website -- rest bite instead of respite:
The skies over the capital have cleared, a welcome rest bite for thousands of people doomed to spend sweltering nights in overheated apartments.
One commenter suggests (plausibly, I think) that "rest bite" could be formed by analogy on "sound bite," to mean a brief period of relief from exertion or hardship. But what surprised me was that the pronunciation with second-syllable stress (res-PITE, ruh-SPITE, ruhs-BITE, whatever) was common enough to produce such an eggcorn.

Yes, I know the variant is out there -- Elster's "Big Book of Beastly Mispronunciations" says it has a "long and tarnished history" -- but I don't think I ever hear respite with second-syllable stress (in "respite care" and the like). Since y'all were so informative (not to mention impassioned) on the pronunciation of often, maybe you could enlighten me about the local renderings of respite you hear, and what you think of them? 

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Turning out the lights on conditional "might"

This week's Style Guide entry at Johnson, the Economist's new and prolific (multi-author) language blog, is on the distinctions between may and might. Naturally, I was happy to see that some of the civilized world still shares my belief -- rooted not in rules but in a lifetime of using my language -- that you don't write "If he caught the ball, we may have won," when, dammit, he didn't catch the ball. Or as Johnson puts it:
Conditional sentences stating something contrary to fact ... need might: If pigs had wings, birds might raise their eyebrows.
Cheered though I was by such conviction, however, I'm more certain than ever that this use of might is circling the drain. When I blogged about it (at the Globe's website) last December, I noted that the New York Times officially supports my position, but the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language thinks it's time to let it go.

And now comes The New Yorker, pounding another nail into the may/might coffin. In the Aug. 2 issue, Atul Gawande's article* on end-of-life treatments has this:
Almost nothing we’d done to Sara -- none of our chemotherapy and scans and tests and radiation -- had likely achieved anything except to make her worse. She may well have lived longer without any of it.
 Might well have, you mean. Oh, well.

*In the printed version of the piece, there was also a more obvious problem: A girl's name was given as both Ashlee and Ashley within the space of a few paragraphs. The web version has fixed that, but left "may well have lived longer" as is -- which must mean that even New Yorker readers don't mind it.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Peeve like a pirate?

Kevin Kline, according to this interview in yesterday's Globe, is a language stickler. Alas, the actor, funny and intelligent as he may be, is as conventional in his peeves as Miss Thistlebottom could have been:
He holds his nose at "transition" used as a verb. Ditto for "impact." "I can’t stand 'lay' and 'lie,'" said Kline. "No one lays down. They lie down. And then there are hyper-extensions like 'I' instead of 'me.'"
Wait, what's that again? "Hyper-extensions"? Surely Kline meant to say "hypercorrections" -- that's the usual label for constructions like "He gave my wife and I tickets to the game." (At least, it's the usual label among people who think such usage betrays a speaker's attempt to sound educated. There are other theories, and not every grammarian pretends to be a mind reader.)

I'm gonna go ahead and hope it's a transcription error. Even if he deserves it, I'd hate to see my favorite Pirate King brought low by McKean's/Skitt's/Hartman's Law of Prescriptivist Retaliation.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

A premature elegy for "eavestrough"?

I've been in Ohio for a while, enjoying family festivities and, as I always do, renewing my acquaintance with my native dialect. So it was an especially appropriate time to read the Newsweek piece by Joan Hall, chief editor of the Dictionary of American Regional English, on the progress of that wonderful (and almost complete) 45-year-old project.

DARE's research, wrote Hall, shows that despite popular belief, mass communication has not wiped out local varieties of English. However, she said, "Certain regional terms have been weakened by commercial influences, like Subway’s sub sandwich, which seems to be nibbling away at hero, hoagie, and grinder."

This reminded me of the "For Better or Worse" cartoon above, from June 13, in which John is given a honey-do list that includes "Clean eaves troughs." (I write it as one word, myself, but I see the spellchecker doesn't approve.) Eavestroughs was a common synonym for gutters when I was young, but like the regional names for submarine sandwiches, it seems to have been marginalized by national advertisers, who made gutters the generic term.

DARE's map shows eaves trough (also known as eave trough and eaves troth) widely disseminated across the Northern states and throughout California, though not in Eastern Massachusetts. The dictionary quotes a 1961 comment from the journal American Speech: "Eaves troughs and eaves … trail far behind the commercial term [=gutters]. Their markedly greater use by [older] informants suggests that both terms are on the way out."

Maybe, maybe not. Lynn Johnston, creator of  "For Better or Worse," is Canadian, and thus not on DARE's map, but apparently she's been living in dialect regions where eaves trough continues to thrive.

*Thanks to Visual Thesaurus and to Mr. Verb for the link.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

"But for the grace of God go I"

Writing in this morning's Times about Tony Robbins's new reality TV show, Alessandra Stanley summed up the appeal of such real-life rescues: "These shows tap into viewers' 'but for the grace of God go I' horror at heartbreaking stories."

Wait, said my husband -- "but for the grace of God go I where?" The standard formulation is "There but for the grace of God go I" (add commas if you like) or, elliptically, "There but for the grace of God …" But we had never seen the saying without a "there" tucked in somewhere.

In this case but for means "if not for," "were it not for," and it needs a conclusion. But for seems to be considered a conjunction, but here it has the force of a protasis, the "if" clause in a conditional. Maybe a real grammarian can give me a better description, but this much I know: "If not for the grace of God, I go," period, doesn't make sense.

After a little research, I'm inclined to blame Keith Urban and his co-songwriters:

But for the grace of God go I
I must've been born a lucky guy

he sings, and not until the end of the song does he use but for in the standard way, completing the thought:

I'd be lost
But for the grace of God.

The original saying looks to be about 200 years old, though its authorship is uncertain. "There, but for the grace of God, go I" is often attributed to John Bradford, the Protestant divine martyred in 1555, I learned from The Phrase Finder: "The earliest example of it that I have found is in 'A treatise on prayer,' by Edward Bickersteth, 1822, in which the author repeats the Bradford story."

But there's no hard evidence that Bradford said it, and the sentiment was widely repeated throughout the 19th century, with and without attribution. Some Google Books cites:

"Had he truly possessed gratitude, he … would have said in his heart, 'I should have been as that publican, but for the grace of God.'" (The Missionary Magazine, 1802)

"The best amongst you may look upon the vilest of the human race and say, 'Such an one might I have been, but for the grace of God!'" ("Horae homilecticae," 1832)

"The author of Pilgrim's Progress [said], on seeing a condemned malefactor passing on his way to Tyburn, — 'Ah, me! but for the grace of God, there goes John Bunyan.'" (Annual Report of the Massachusetts Dept. of Education, 1848)

"Said Wesley once when he saw a murderer led out to execution, 'but for the grace of God there goes John Wesley.'" ("Itinerating Libraries and Their Founder," 1856)

This seems to be yet another case of modern usage losing its grip on a semi-archaic construction. It's happening with the subjunctive "suffice it to say." It was evident in Ray Charles's misinterpretation of the subjunctive in his embellishments of "America," which Geoff Pullum and I noticed at almost the same moment. It's revealed in the many manglings of the Biblical "unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required," and, of course, in all those ungrammatical jokes about cups (plural) that "runneth" over. But picky editors have to remember that the adage applies to everyone:  There but for the grace of God go we, too.

Friday, July 23, 2010

The hazards of stealth corrections

Chris Shea, my Globe Ideas colleague, points to a Slate story about Politico's sloppy corrections policy that is itself fascinatingly riddled with updates, clarifications, and corrections. I'm not a hard-liner on minor blog corrections -- and as a part-time print journalist, I'm grateful that the online version of a piece can be corrected -- but it interests me that even among serious journalists, the issue of courtesy to one's fellow scribblers rarely comes up.

It arose for me way back in 2003, when I quoted Mickey Kaus's blog at Slate, Kausfiles, in a Globe language column. Commenting on reports of Arnold Schwartzenegger's sexual misconduct, Kaus had written, "He's not a groper the way Clinton was a groper -- Schwarzenegger seems to actually have a cruel streak."

Luckily, I went back to verify the quote before publication -- because Kaus had silently changed it to read, "He's not a groper the way Clinton was a masher." And luckily the change was made before my column went to press; I would have looked and felt incompetent (although I imagine Kaus would have copped to the change, if asked).

When I was new to blogging, I allowed myself a few minutes to fiddle with a just-published post, because it was hard to proofread (punctuation especially) in the preview version. (It  doesn't help that my dying computer screen has a one-and-a-half-inch white stripe down its center.) Occasionally I changed a word to eliminate a repetition. But now that Blogger's preview shows the published format, I manage to catch most typos before clicking on Publish.

Obviously, Mickey Kaus was far more likely than I to see his words picked up and reprinted. But if I changed a loaded word hours or days later -- groper to masher, say -- I think I'd feel obliged to note the change somewhere, in fairness to readers and especially to potential quoters.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

On my honor, I did my best ...

... but this headline from today's Globe West section had me baffled on the first two tries: 

At 100, Scouts honor code
and spread the word

The two-deck hed probably made it harder; at any rate, I kept reading "Scouts honor code" as a noun phrase and expecting something like:

At 100, Scouts honor code
still offers guidance

As crash blossoms go, this one is fairly mild; in a language where words like honor (and code and spread and word) can look the same as nouns and verbs, headline writers (and readers) have to tolerate some of this ambiguity. I wondered if maybe I was developing hypervigilance -- turning into a crash blossom peever, the way people nurture their sensitivity to misplaced apostrophes. But my husband, no nitpicker, had the same difficulty, so at least I know I'm not just being cranky.

Monday, July 19, 2010

The kids are all right, but the sing-a-long's wrong

"Is the use of alright  or allright all right?" asked Whitton Norris in a recent e-mail. Well, it's not all right with me, thanks to my early training, but Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage -- you could Google it, but you really should buy it -- points out that many educated and admired writers have used alright.

And since we have already and altogether and always, all originally spelled with all, it's reasonable to assume that alright will one day be all right. Still, I was pleased to see that the new movie "The Kids Are All Right" had chosen that rendering, rather than directly copying the Who's 1965 "The Kids Are Alright" (widely blamed, in editing circles, for giving alright a huge boost).

That pleasure lasted only a few days, until I noticed that the "Grease: Sing-A-Long" movie has been issued under that moronic title. I can see how all right morphs into alright, but does anyone who can read think the audience for this movie will be singing "a long," or nine longs, or a dozen longs? No, they'll be singing ALONG, all one word.

Like "The 40-Year Old Virgin," with its half-hyphenated compound, this sort of title goof makes editors crazy, since they have to choose between the illiterate version and the inaccurate (but correct) version. So today's Globe story on "Grease: Sing-A-Long" ping-pongs between the correct (generic) sing-along and the incorrect (actual) movie title.

Luckily, the story had language news to distract me from my "sing-a-long" annoyance.  Paramount, it seems, has revised some of the dirty lyrics from the original movie (not to more modern dirty lyrics, as reporter Joe Keohane would like, but to less raunchy terms). I remember how shocked I was to finally realize (after several viewings, some with children, over the years) that in the car number the guys were singing (IIRC) "The chicks'll all cream/ For Greased Lightning." Now I've gotta go see what else has been bowdlerized.

Update: Apparently "Grease" has been worked over many times since its first staging in 1971, and the 1978 movie itself has been called "bowdlerized." So someone with a deeper interest (and an original cast recording, maybe) will have to do the investigative journalism on this one.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Return to the gates to let any passengers off ...

A Wall Street Journal story last Thursday -- on the state of the airways this summer, under the new cancellation rules -- included a phrase that was not at all ambiguous, but still managed to stop me cold.
Instead [of canceling flights], airlines have adapted with new procedures, flagging long-delayed flights, sending in help and returning planes to gates before the three-hour limit to let any passengers off and then continuing without canceling the flight.
"To let any passengers off" -- I can see that it's supposed to mean "to let off any passengers who want to get off." But that isn't the normal reading of "any passengers," is it? Ordinarily, it would mean "any remaining passengers," as in this reminiscence about a bus route: "It would stop at the top [of the street] to let off any passengers and then drive to the bottom, where it would wait until it was the scheduled time to leave." Same thing in the negative: "They would not let any passengers off the ferry" (all had to stay on).


He inverted the pot to shake out any water (all remaining water).
She said the spray would repel any insects (all bugs within range).
They returned to the gate to let off any passengers (?).

There's no question that completing the thought explicitly -- "any passengers who want to get off -- seems wordy, and of course we allow shortcuts like this all the time in conversation. But they're far less common in print, and still a little jarring -- if only for editors and proofreaders like me, too well indoctrinated for our own reading pleasure.  

Monday, July 12, 2010

"Often" with a t?

John McIntyre has started a list of broadcasting language peeves, among them "Sounding the t in often." I've been interested in this one since my daughter, brought up as an OFF-en speaker, went to college at the University of Michigan and came back saying OFF-ten. I don't think it's a regional thing -- I grew up two hours south of Ann Arbor, and I don't remember OFF-ten even as a variant. It must have been something she picked up from friends.

That's why I was primed to notice when Ben Zimmer, in a public radio interview after he was named Safire's successor, said OFF-ten. Of all people, wouldn't he have a clue about the pronunciation shift? Well, no. "Funny, if you had asked me, I would've guessed I say OFF-en," he e-mailed. "Just goes to show how unreliable self-reflection is when it comes to phonetic matters." (And, of course, he might well say OFF-en 98 percent of the time; we all have variant pronunciations -- depending on circumstance, audience, whim -- for some words.)

He pointed me to a discussion at ADS-L, where posters had not been able to establish that OFF-ten was either a generational shift or a regional variant, though one noted that it was an old pronunciation:
The variation seems to go quite far back in history. The American Heritage Book of English Usage (1996) suggests that the /t/ was lost in the 15th century, but that "Because of the influence of spelling," often "is now commonly pronounced with the t." That would, as Robert suggests, make the t-full version a spelling pronunciation.
Naturally, the t version has been scorned as both an ignorant goof and a pretentious mannerism. "The bad odor of class-conscious affectation still clings to it," says Charles Harrington Elster in "The Big Book of Beastly Pronunciations." And it's true that OFF-ten deviates from the usual pattern of soften, listen, fasten, christen, etc.

But ever since I started reading similar criticisms of my native Ohio speech oddities, I've been wary of ascribing motives to people's pronunciations. I grew up with "mirror" pronounced MERE and grocery as GROSHERY. But my parents didn't use those pronunciations because they were uneducated; they used them because everyone did. And my Eastern friends who said VAHZ for vase and AHNT for aunt weren't being pretentious; they too were speaking the language they'd grown up with.

Pretentious pronunciation surely exists -- I sympathize with McIntyre's aversion to "Bach uttered as if the announcer suffered from catarrh, or a Spanish name pronounced as if the studio were in the foothills of Andaluthia." But I think that in general, we're much too eager to label people dimwits or social climbers on the basis of pronunciations they probably acquired in the usual way -- by imitating the people they talk to.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Well, before? Or well before?

From the Washington Post website, a headline:

U.S. weighed spy swap well before 'sleeper' agents were arrested

I wouldn't call this a crash blossom -- its ambiguity is too discreet for "crash," and either reading of it makes sense. Still, I parsed it wrong (I think) before I parsed it right. Did the US weigh the spy swap "well" -- thoroughly -- before making the arrests? No, I think the WaPo means that the US weighed the swap "well before" the arrests.

Since this sort of thing is both work and play for me, I don't mind having to think twice. But headline writers are supposed to make it easy for readers; so why the vagueness (and syntactical ambiguity) of  "well before"?

Well, on the jump we learn that the administration began considering a swap "as early as June 11" -- two weeks and two days before the arrests. So "weeks before" would have been technically accurate, but (having just made it into plural territory) would read as overstatement. "Well before" avoids that pitfall because (like the incredibly elastic journalistic "recently") it's a flexible term. To me, in the context of spies you've been watching for years, "well before" suggests months, perhaps years; but there's no rule that says "well before" can't mean "a couple of weeks before." And so it does, in this case. I think.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Foil fail: A hidden eggcorn?

I opened the new issue of New England Home magazine today and found a plug for some outdoor dining items:

"These ocean-smoothed-stone napkin rings are the perfect foil to that sudden gust of wind that can uproot an outdoor party. $42/SET OF FOUR"

Bravely hyphenated, unknown copy editor! But what does the word foil mean in this sentence? In fashion- and decor-speak, a foil is a complement. It's "one that by contrast underscores or enhances the distinctive characteristics of another," in AHD4's definition, via Wordnik. That foil, descended from Latin folium, leaf, has several senses related to contrast and reflection, including "a thin leaf of some metal placed under a precious stone to increase its brilliancy" (OED).

But "the perfect foil to that sudden gust of wind" suggests a different foil, the verb meaning "To prevent from being successful; thwart." This foil has a complicated history, but it is not related to the leafy foil; its noun form means "a defeat."

The shelter mag's "perfect foil" looks like a combination of the two senses -- it has the phrasing of the fashion cliche, but the meaning of the (obsolete?) noun foil. Is it a hidden eggcorn, like "stagger off this mortal coil" and similar variants that interpret "mortal coil" as the surface we tread? Or did an editor shorten an earlier version -- "these napkin rings are perfect for foiling that sudden gust of wind" -- to a more familiar phrase? (I've been an editor. It happens.)

I've never before seen "a perfect foil" meaning "a perfect foiler," but that doesn't mean it's not out there. Anyone have another example?

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Obviating the need for usage anxiety

"I used the phrase obviate the need to," e-mailed Jacques W., and "my anal friends said that the phrase was redundant. I said that if a significant number of literate people use a construction, that makes it acceptable. And what say you?"

 Ordinarily I would endorse Jacques' reasoning, but in the case of obviate, there's no need to rely on the brute fact that usage makes the rule, not the other way around. The ban on "obviate the need" was wrongheaded and shortlived, usage history reveals.

The OED online defines the verb as "To meet and dispose of; to circumvent, do away with, remove (a difficulty, need, etc.); to prevent or avoid by anticipatory measures." The grammarian Alexander Bain used the disputed phrase in "A Higher English Grammar" (1891): "Certain pronouns also, as will presently be seen, obviate the necessity of repeating the great substitutes of the Noun in composition."
But in the 1950s and '60s, says MWDEU, usage gurus Theodore Bernstein and Wilson Follett "seem to have invented the notion that obviate can mean only 'make unnecessary,' not 'anticipate and prevent.' They may have arrived at this conclusion by focusing too narrowly on the second part of the definition in Webster's Second [Unabridged Dictionary]."

I haven't (yet) found these authors specifically banning "obviate the need"; the accusation of redundancy must have been made explicit by later, lesser authorities. As recently as 2001, it is explained (and dismissed) in a usage note in Microsoft's Encarta College Dictionary:

Because one of the meanings of obviate is "to make unnecessary," it is sometimes argued that obviate the need (or necessity) for is redundant. An older but still current meaning, however, is "to avoid an anticipated difficulty." In a sentence like Addressing these issues early can obviate any need for a joint resolution, the need can be perceived as a difficulty -- or early consideration can make the resolution unnecessary, in which case any need for is indeed redundant. There is little reason to prefer either interpretation to the other.

And Garner's Modern American Usage (2009) demolishes the objection: "In the sense 'to make unnecessary,' obviate often appears correctly in the phrase obviate the necessity of or need for. These phrases are not redundancies, for the true sense of obviate the necessity is 'to prevent the necessity (from arising),' hence to make unnecessary."

One more peeve you can cross off your list, assuming you've ever had the misfortune to encounter it. 

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Pavlovian peeving

While researching my next Word column, I ran across a two-year-old Language Log posting by Arnold Zwicky on the assertion (made by a Canadian newspaper)  that we cannot correctly say "standards of living increased," but only "standards of living rose." 

Not true, of course, but a surprising number of commenters were willing to defend the idea, or at least to chew over the ways it might be defended. This response inspired a comment from Language Hat that said what I too have thought (but ne'er so well expressed). I didn't have room to quote it in the column, so here it is: 
I don't know why this has never occurred to me before, but this discussion has made me realize that a mischievous person could pick any construction at random and denounce it just for the fun of watching the opprobrium spread across the prescriptivist world, or take two perfectly good English sentences and state authoritatively that one was correct and the other not and watch people fall all over themselves to provide justifications for the judgment. If you say one person or idea is better than another most people will form their own judgment and either argue or agree with you, but when it comes to grammar (or "grammar"), it seems there's a vast public eager to appropriate any proscription that comes within their ken, whether it makes sense or not. To err is human, to want to feel superior to other people's supposed errors is even more so.
Of course, if you take "mischievous" in its not-funny sense, you could argue that Dryden did just this when he disparaged the stranded preposition. It's hard to imagine him doing it out of pure cussedness, but considering how much needless trouble he caused, he might just as well have.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Word: Flat-trap

Some Tea Party spam recently came my way, bringing with it a curious neologism. "You really believe that?" scoffed the author. "Oh Ya, and Obama is a conservative! Hahahaha! What flat-trap nonsense!"

I guessed that flat-trap might be an eggcorn for claptrap,though I couldn't immediately come up with another relevant citation for flat-trap. (Google offered up a Melbourne band, some glue traps for mice, and several physics papers with titles like "Superfluidity of two-dimensional excitons in flat and harmonic traps.") But you could get from claptrap to flap-trap quite easily, I thought, if you took "clap one's trap" to be a variant of "flap one's trap (or one's gums)," meaning "talk nonsense."

But was that in fact the root sense of claptrap? Not even close. Claptrap, says the OED, is a theater term from the early 1700s, meaning "a trick or device to catch applause; an expression designed to elicit applause." ­ The first citation is a dictionary definition dated 1727-31: "A Clap Trap … a trap to catch a clap by way of applause from the spectators at a play."

That rather literal meaning fits nicely into the latter part of the English theatrical era that gave us characters named Marplot, Aimwell, and Lady Wishfort. But the evolution of claptrap into its modern meaning is also pretty seamless: by the early 19th century it means "language designed to catch applause; cheap showy sentiment" (OED), and that sense generalizes easily over time to "nonsense, rubbish."

Meanwhile, shut one's trap had been used since the 1770s; flapping one's mouth came along in the early 20th century, giving rise to flapping one's trap or gums. So flap-trap, though coined by a different method from claptrap, is just as plausible. But flat-trap? I still can't figure out a way to make that "flat" fit the idiom.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

This little piggy went to market

I'm glad Arnold Zwicky decided to post about the "Figures in Speech" sculptures by Marsha Tosk, because I've been watching them for months (several have been advertised in the NYT Magazine) and wondering if I had anything to say about them. Not really, I decided -- the literal renderings of phrases like "Pig in a Blanket" and "Hot Dog" (the dog is in front of a fan) are kind of cute, but basically they're fourth-grade wit; I couldn't imagine spending $1,000 (plus or minus, depending on the item) for a permanent embodiment of a fairly obvious witticism. (My imagination is clearly deficient; apparently plenty of customers believe the joke will never get old.)

Zwicky, however, was more appreciative than I, and in fact he has launched a solstice orgy of visual puns, with follow-up postings here and here. As I savored this bounty (the "chillin' wif ma peeps" cartoon is priceless), it dawned on me that my very own home boasts a pun-art installation, an assemblage my husband created from (once) easily available materials for a total of less than $20.

What's his homemade sculptural pun? It starts with this lineup:

These are "talking" mugs with the likeness and voice of Bill Goldberg, erstwhile pro wrestling champ. Push a button on the cup, and Goldberg emits one of his signature battle cries. So when the Goldbergs are properly primed,* you can push their buttons in succession and hear three different bellows: "THIS IS GOLDBERG," a threatening "BAHHH ...," and Goldberg's victory roar, "WHO'S NEXT?" These are, of course -- ta da! -- the Goldberg Variations.

True, Paul's little showpiece is harder to dust than a plastic pig, and it does require AAA batteries. But then, the Scottish wool blanket on the high-priced porker is surely not maintenance-free either. I'd been hoping we might get rid of the Goldbergs, but what did I know? Turns out they're not tacky souvenirs at all, they're witty pop art.  

*As I wrote this, I realized that in fact, any one of the Goldbergs can run through the entire repertoire of Goldberg Variations; the three make a formidable array, but they're not strictly necessary to the joke artwork. So if a Goldberg (variations included) would make your life complete, do make an offer; I'll be sure to pass it on.