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.


Faldone said...

On the first example I'd say that "the head of the UN mission" is a common enough phrase that some extensive work would have to have been done to change it. I'd put it at about 80/20 on the overthought/underedited scale. I don't think I would have noticed anything funny about it if you hadn't pointed it out.

Bursting into applause is not normally something that a single person in a group does. Usually it's either the whole crowd or nobody. If one person did start applauding without any backup the applause would usually tend to die out before it qualified as a burst. However it might well be that someone of national importance was hated enough for one person to burst into applause. I'd have to call this one 10/70/20, where the 70 is just the rarity of the phrase.

I'm not saying anything about the third beyond saying that to me the idea of investing in the quality and quantity of sleep seems a little weird.

Jan said...

Yeah, I don't think I would have noticed "the body of the head" in print -- I would have taken in the entire phrase too quickly. But at radio speed, I had just enough time to wonder ...

J.G. said...

The first one is definitely weird. (I've noticed that NPR's grammar has become less correct recently. Are they trying to be more colloquial? Or am I just getting old?)

I would never have noticed the "applause" one, although it is a bit odd.

The sleep one is difficult, too. It makes "you" sound like a slot machine.

Ø said...

What is the sound of one person bursting into applause?

Ruth L.~ said...

The first one was a stumbler for me, too.

As for the second, I believe one person can burst into applause--enthusiastic clapping of the hands like a mother might do when watching her child perform a play in the living room.

But the last one... I'd have edited it exactly as you suggest; both of your suggestions improve the flow of words, I think.

Unknown said...

One person can burst into applause if the room was quiet enough to begin with, it's not the volume of applause that makes it a burst, it's the suddenness of it. One person clapping with no warning is certainly a burst.

A scattered applause on the other hand requires either a group of people or a ventriloquist.

In reading the quote myself I saw nothing out of sorts with the grammar, but did find myself thinking, "who would applaud an assassination?". I suppose I must be naive.