Sunday, January 31, 2010

Me either, me neither

Today's Word column deals with the (rare-ish) belief that to speak of "cold temperatures" is redundant, improper, or both. But readers are querying another usage entirely. In the first paragraph, I ask, "Do your usage antennae quiver [at this idiom]? Mine either."

Why, ask Baroose and Beth and Clarence and Harold, did I use "Mine either" and not "Mine neither"?

My copy editor asked the same thing. My answer was that "mine neither" didn't sound right, with those colliding n sounds, even though it would be parallel to the usual casual response, "Me neither." And I didn't see why I couldn't construe the imaginary dialogue as "Do your antennae quiver?" "No." "Mine don't either" -- hence, "Mine either."

Even "me neither" is not the universal choice: Many people (especially in speech) use "me either" and "me neither" interchangeably. I compared the two versions on Google (using "no, me neither"/"no, me either" to avoid construction like "Give me either the red or the blue"), and turned up 424,000 raw ghits for "no, me neither" and 382,000 for "no, me either."

And in the "mine neither/either" comparison, my preferred version -- "no, mine either" -- trounced "mine neither," 36,600 hits to 13,700. Apparently even people whose usual choice is "me neither" switch, as I did, to "mine either." 

Paul Brians, I now see, thinks "me either" is a mistake: "By itself, meaning 'neither do I,' in reply to previous negative statement, it has to be 'me neither': 'I don’t like whole-wheat pie crust.' 'Me neither.'"

But "me neither" is so clearly a casualism -- we use it to mean either "Nor me" or "Nor I," and nobody bats an eye -- that most usagists ignore it, saving their ammunition for more worthy (and vulnerable) targets. 

Saturday, January 30, 2010

A pickle for the Times

I was delighted to see Ben Zimmer's "On Language" column in tomorrow's NYT,  bringing "crash blossoms" to a wider audience, but reading it reminded me that one of the simplest and funniest crash blossoms ever committed was missing. Before I could look it up, though, John McIntyre was there to remind us of it --  as he rightfully should, since it was originally a Baltimore Evening Sun headline, on a home-canning food story:

You can put pickles up yourself

John had mentioned the headline to Ben, he writes, but "sadly, he lacked the space for it." Yeah, that's a convenient and well-worn excuse from people who (like me) write for print. But given the Times's record, how likely is it that this vulgarity (however mild and amusing) would ever have been approved?  

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Misquoting Jesus (yet again)

Tonight it was Bob McDonnell, in the Republican rebuttal to the State of the Union, who mangled Jesus' words, claiming that "the Scriptures say 'To whom much is given, much will be required.'"

The Scriptures don't say that, actually. In the KJV, the quote is ""For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required" (Luke 12:48). In the NIV, it's "From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded." 

But it's a thoroughly bipartisan mistake: I noticed it first in 1997, when JFK Jr. rewrote the same quote in an appallingly written "editor's letter" in George magazine: His version was "To whom much is given, much is expected, right?" (I did an item on it for my Globe column, but it's now behind a paywall -- not worth linking.) 

In January 2007, after George Bush repeated the ungrammatical version in his SOTU, Mark Liberman took up the subject, and his two terrific posts at Language Log, here and here,  cover pretty much everything you might want to know. (The mangled quote was popular with generations of Kennedys, Mark reported, but he found an example in print as far back as 1848.)

Trimming and streamlining familiar quotations is standard procedure, of course. We collectively rewrite maxims, Bible verses, Shakespeare, and famous quotations all the time: "Gild the lily," "pride goeth before a fall," "blood, sweat, and tears." But usually the grammar remains intact. Not so in this case; apparently the ins and outs of the pronouns and prepositions are just too taxing for modern minds. 

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Annals of peevology: "Nightcap"

OK, it's not really a peeve, but this entry from John Russell Bartlett's "Dictionary of Americanisms" (1848) caught my eye:
NIGHTCAP. A glass of hot toddy or gin-sling taken before going to bed at night. When a second glass is taken, it is called "a string to tie it with."

"Come, now, Squire, before we turn in, let us tie the nightcap." -- "Sam Slick in England," ch. 3.
Could this be the origin of "tie one on"? I don't have time to check now, but I'll get back to it at nightcap time.

Friday, January 22, 2010

A Latin lover's protest

William Zinsser (of "On Writing Well" fame) beats up on "Latinate" English in The American Scholar, blaming its "pompous" and "florid" vocabulary for all the modern sins of business bafflegab. Trevor Butterworth, responding in Forbes, calls BS on Zinsser, defending both Latin and Cicero against the clich├ęd calumny:
What constitutes "good" writing in the 20th and 21st centuries is more the result of ideology than a discovery of the innate purity of Anglo-Saxon thought and expression (so pure the Anglo-Saxons didn't sully themselves by writing much that is memorable beyond Beowulf).
I've written about Butterworth before -- he's also the author of a charming defense of the semicolon, "Pause Celebre," published in the Financial Times in 2005.

Hat tip: Chris Shea of Brainiac, my Globe Ideas colleague.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Overthought or underedited?

These three recent examples of English gave me pause -- perhaps a longer pause than warranted? You tell me.

"The body of the head of the UN mission has been found." ("All Things Considered," in a report on the Haiti earthquake.)*

"When the principal came on the P.A. to announce that the president had been shot, not one person in that room burst into applause." (Vanity Fair, December 2009, letter to the editor.)**

"Does sleeping well and long enough for you pay off sufficiently to invest in it?" (Anne Naylor's blog on HuffingtonPost, Jan. 13, 2010)***

*"The body of the head" had my head spinning like Linda Blair's till I sorted out the fact that the "body" was literally a corpse while the "head" was a figurative use.

**There's nothing actually taboo about "not one person … burst into applause" -- a single person can burst into tears or laughter, why not applause? But there aren't many Google hits for a person, singular, bursting into applause; usually, we treat a burst of applause as something a group produces. (The fact that this example is negative -- "not one person" -- may have heightened the oddity, if indeed it's the construction that's odd, not me.)

***It's the first sentence of the blog entry, so it must be intentional, but I want to move the "for you" so it reads: "Does sleeping well and long enough pay off sufficiently for you to invest in it?" It's possible, I guess, that she intends "long enough for you" as a unit -- meaning "sleeping as much as you need" -- but in that reading, the "for you" is redundant.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Annals of peevology: The meaningless "so"

Josephine Turck Baker's turn-of-the-century periodical, Correct English -- subtitled A Monthly Magazine Devoted to the Proper Use of English -- featured regular "conversations" in which "Mrs. B" instructed various (strangely docile) friends, acquaintances, and children in improving their speech. In the issue for January 1, 1900, poor Mrs. A. played the role of pupil:


Mrs. A. -- I am so pleased to find you at home. I feared you might be away as it is such a beautiful day. I want to ask you some questions in regard to the article on Words and Their Uses, which appeared in the last issue of Correct English.

Mrs. B. -- I am very glad you came to-day. You will always find me at home on Wednesday as I reserve that day for my friends. I notice that you say, "I am so pleased to find you at home." Did it ever occur to you that so does not express any meaning in that connection?

Mrs. A. -- I never thought anything about it. Is "I am so pleased" an incorrect expression?

Mrs. B. -- Yes; because it is a meaningless one. It is a colloquialism, and, in consequence, is permissible only in familiar conversation. I object to it because it is an incorrect use of so. Of course when one says, "I am so pleased," or "I am so delighted," or "I am so disappointed," one means I am extremely pleased, delighted, or disappointed, as the case may be. But that is a perversion of the use of so. It is better to substitute "very much," or "extremely."

Mrs. A. -- Is it incorrect to use "so" with an adjective, as, for example, "You are so kind," "We are so happy," "It is so nice of you to come?"

Mrs. B. -- All those expressions are colloquialisms; so being used in each case to mean extremely, or very. As I said before, strictly speaking, these are perversions of the use of so. As a rule so should be used only when the degree is specified, implied or understood. This requires a subsequent or explanatory statement, or the degree may be indicated by previous statements or by the circumstances of the case. Thus, we correctly say, "I was so delighted with the work that I paid the bill without any question as to its correctness," or we may say, "She sang so beautifully that every one was delighted with her voice."

Mrs. A. -- To say, "I am so delighted" does sound senseless and if it is only sanctioned in familiar conversation, I think I shall avoid it altogether.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Whipping boy?

Randall Stross has had it with "buggy whip" as shorthand for an obsolete technology, he announced in Sunday's New York Times. The comparison, according to a Wharton management professor Stross quotes, is "an obscurity sitting on an anachronism." And Stross knows who to blame for the idiom's ubiquity. "It's unlikely that we would even refer metaphorically to buggy whip makers if it weren't for Theodore Levitt," he wrote.


In 1960, Ted Levitt, a Harvard B-school professor and marketing guru (whom I knew slightly), published a famous essay, "Marketing Myopia," in the Harvard Business Review. He looked at three industries he thought were in danger of misjudging the future (not including buggy whip makers.) The essay was immensely influential, and HBS has surely sold a gazillion reprints. But is it really what kept the buggy-whip image trotting along for another 50 years?

My Googling has left me dubious. The buggy whip was already widely used as the exemplar of a suddenly obsolete product in the 1940s and '50s:
"Of course, low prices could not save the buggy-whip industry." (Harold Bright Maynard, ed., "Effective Foremanship," 1941)

"The silent movie has vanished now more completely than the buggy whip." (New York Times, Aug. 28, 1944)

"The harsh fate that befell the buggy-whip industry is apparently threatening the pajama industry, though for less obvious reasons." (The New Yorker, July 30, 1949)

"After all, buggy-whip towns couldn't hold back Henry Ford's Model T. " (Changing Times magazine, August 1950)

"The 50-50 basis of operation in the coin machine business is as out-dated as the buggy whip." (Billboard magazine, July 1, 1957)

"Be sure not to invest in a buggy whip factory just when a new automobile industry is being born." (Life magazine, Sept. 15, 1958. In the same issue, a mattress advertiser urged readers, "Don't settle for a 'Horse-&-Buggy' bed!")

Just a year before Levitt's essay, another business writer used the buggy whip to make the same point he did:
"If buggy-whip people had realized that they were not in the business of making high-quality buggy whips, but rather in the business, fundamentally, of stimulating further output from the prime mover on the family conveyance, their factories would not now be gaunt skeletons upon the American industrial scene." (Eugene K. Von Fange, "Professional Creativity," 1959)
And Levitt himself mentioned the buggy whip industry only in passing, calling it "the classic example" of a business that failed to evolve.

I don't know if Stross (a business professor) is really overestimating Levitt's influence on the language, or just employing a bit of hyperbole. But I strongly suspect that the buggy-whip image would have fared just as well (or badly) over the past half-century even if Levitt had never mentioned it.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Usage questions, Chicago style

The Chicago Manual of Style's monthly Q&A -- free to all, unlike the online stylebook itself -- can be pretty editor-geeky, all indexing minutiae, en dashes, and footnote options. But CMOS gets some everyday usage questions, too, and the bulletin's editor, Carol Fisher Saller, makes the most of them. A couple (excerpted) from the latest number:

Q.  I have been tutored that because is used for instances of cause/effect and that since is for time. However, one of my authors is a scholar who contends that "since denotes a state of being based on a relationship ... Because implies causality."
A. You and your author seem to be following variations on an old superstition ... Some writers erroneously believe that the word relates exclusively to time. But the causal since was a part of the English language before Chaucer wrote in the fourteenth century.
Q. Is it necessary to use a comma after words like next, then, after that, last, and finally when they are the beginning of a sentence? I am a lower-school teacher and need to clarify this.
A. Punctuation is not so simple that you can make a rule that a comma “always” follows a given word or phrase. Commas depend on syntax as well as pacing, tone, and personal preference ...Please don’t teach your students punctuation until you understand this.

Q. In a sentence, a colon should always be preceded by an independent clause. Why doesn’t the Chicago Manual state this explicitly?
A. Because we’re a bunch of spineless and ineffectual prevaricators -- or because there are times when a colon need not be preceded by an independent clause? A case in point: this one.

Read the January and December editions (and sign up for the e-mail) here.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Annals of peevology: the double negative

 "Some optimists may be disposed to ask, what is the good of this hair-splitting, and to say that English may safely be left to itself. But, if we examine the history of the language, we perceive, that, since the date of the authorized translation of the Bible, -- the finest example of English, -- the alterations that have taken place have been, generally, for the worse. The double negative has been abandoned, to the great injury of strength of expression ...

 "The nineteenth century has witnessed the introduction of abundant Gallicisms, Germanisms, Americanisms, colonialisms, and provincialisms; nearly all needless, or easily to be supplied by more correct words or phrases. There is no nation, except our own easy-going one, that would tolerate such words as a propos or naive, the one a foreign phrase, the other the feminine of an adjective, applied indiscriminately to nouns of both genders; the Carlyleian before-unheard-of, phrase-binding-together, Aristophanes-wise; such vile compounds as starvation, a Saxon root with a Latin termination, in a misapplied sense; and the many provincial slang words, as to run down and put up with, both provincialisms."

-- From The London Review, 1864, quoted by Fitzedward Hall in "Modern English," 1873

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Twelfth Night (or, What You Will)

Way back in November, John McIntyre reminded us all that the "Twelve Days of Christmas" don't end with the big day, but only start there. John had a number of other Christmas crotchets, some of which I don't share -- you can use "'Tis the season" every day from Halloween to New Year's Day for all I care, as long as the apostrophe points the right way -- and some of which I do: What's with all these celebratory "poems" that don't even pretend to scan? There's good doggerel and bad doggerel, and too many writers (and editors) don't know the difference.

But never mind -- that's a year-round peeve, not a seasonal one. What I want to complain about today (as yesterday's "Cul de Sac" comic reminded me) is a journalistic cliche John somehow left off* his list: The annual calculation of the cost of those damn 12 days of gifts. Could anything be less meaningful to a consumer than the cost of a partridge, adjusted for inflation? (Well, yes -- the cost of six geese a-laying or 10 lords a-leaping.) 

This is a conceit you only need to hear played out once in a lifetime; repetition does not improve it. But this year, I was threatened with the annual partridge-in-pear-tree report three different times, on three separate radio shows, all on local NPR stations. Enough already: Put your heads together, producers, and agree to rotate this particular chestnut so it only gets one airing per season. I'd rather eat fruitcake with those green candied blobs than ever hear it again.

[*Correction: In a comment below, John McIntyre points out that he did address the 12-days economics story in a separate seasonal caution, and as usual, he handily out-ranted me. Sorry I missed it -- I'm surprised anyone dared even propose the story after that.]

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Build a building, house a housing?

In today's "Pickles," by Brian Crane, Nelson wonders why a building isn't called a "build."

But Nelson is many centuries too late with his peeve. The OED has the noun building dated to the 13th century:

1297 R. GLOUC. 271 And (th)er nas of olde house in (th)e lond non, (th)at he ne amendede mid som lond, o(th)er mid byldynge.
c1430 Syr Gener. 244 This belding we made here Is for you.  
1553 EDEN Treat. New Ind. (Arb.) 14 It ... hath in it very fayre byldinges.  
1611 BIBLE Eccles. x. 18 By much slouthfulnesse the building decayeth.

The dictionary also has two 14th-century cites for build meaning "building" (now obsolete), and of course it lists build meaning "form" ("he has a powerful build"), though it hasn't yet caught up with build = version of software.

Already in Old English, the OED says, words ending in -ing had moved on from being "nouns of action" to expressing "a completed action, a process, habit, or art," as in blessing, learning, wedding.

From this stage, some -ing nouns came to denote

a material thing in which the action or its result is concreted or embodied; as 'a writing was affixed to the wall'; so a covering, holding, landing, shaving, winding (of a river), etc. A peculiar instance is a being, one wherein the attribute of being or existence is exemplified, now usually a living being.

But this is only one of eight groups into which the OED sorts verbal nouns according to their sense. There are also nouns of "continuous action or existence" (crying), of "practice, habit, or art" (fencing, smoking),  of collective designation (clothing, carpeting), and so on. Poor Nelson wants a simple answer, but he hasn't asked a simple question.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Off with the old, on with the new ( blog)

It's not quite that neat; this is actually a continuation of/successor to The Word blog, the woefully neglected offspring of my Word column in the Boston Globe. And I've cross-posted some entries so as not to spring into existence here as naked as the New Year's baby.

Naturally, I've resolved to be more diligent in the coming year. (And now that my book is finished -- click on it to order -- and Erin McKean is sharing the burden of weekly columnizing, I have fewer excuses for negligence. But procrastination springs eternal.) A happy, hopeful 2010 to all!