Saturday, March 26, 2011

OMG, OED: More cluelessness on parade

My blog colleagues have already issued warnings to the ill-informed complainers -- like WaPo blogger Alexandra Petri -- who are dismayed by the OED’s inclusion of OMG, LOL, and the like in the latest revision. Said Brian White:  “PLEASE STOP WHINING.” Robert Lane Greene: “So the OED included some words people use. Nothing to see here.” John McIntyre: "You may be astonished that a newspaper would publish a humorous essay that is not funny, expressing opinion that is not informed, but I’m concerned with something broader than that feeble effort. Why is it that people do not understand what dictionaries are for?”

But not everyone is getting the message. Writing today at about Chris Brown’s apology for his “Good Morning America” antics, Charles Walsh delivers another dope slap to the OED -- but he kindly attaches a boomerang to it, ensuring the dope slap ends up where it belongs.

“Brown was disappointed that the GMA host did not adhere to the 'talking points sheet' he had his people send over that was all 'positivity,'" writes Walsh.
He did not apologize for inventing the word positivity, which no doubt will be included in the next edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. (Prediction: next spring the OED staff will publicly apologize for adding the hideous texting shorthand LOL and OMG to their august compendium of wordage this week.)
Well, you all know what comes next. The OED’s first cite for positivity (“The quality, character, or fact of being positive (in various senses); positiveness”) dates to 1659. Here’s Isaac Watts in 1741: “Courage and Positivity are never more necessary than on such an Occasion.” And Fraser’s Magazine in 1842: “The most positive man I ever met with … There is positivity in his dark face, large eyebrows, stern features.” And so on, till the present day. But who wants 350 years' worth of facts when there's a good rant just begging to be ranted?

Very small things considered

As I was researching tomorrow's Boston Globe column -- about the AP's switch from e-mail to email, hyphenation, and house style -- I ran across one of my favorite old pet peeves. (Dating from my days as an actual editor, when I allowed myself a larger collection of pet peeves.) There at AP's online "Ask the Editor" forum* was what I think of as some bad hyphenation advice:
Q. Which way should I hyphenate the following: "a three- to five-year repayment plan" or "a three-to-five-year replayment plan"? – from Eagan, Minn. on Mon, Mar 21, 2011
A. The first is correct.
The editor is thinking of the construction sometimes called suspensive hyphen, in which a phrase like "the two-part and three-part inventions" is reduced to "the two- and three-part inventions." Or "a four-night or five-night hotel stay" becomes "a four- or five-night hotel stay."

Those suspensive hyphens (with word spaces following them) work when the numbers are treated as units. You can have a two-part invention or a three-part invention, but not one in between. Same thing with the hotel stay (as billed by the hotel): There's no four-and-a-half night visit.

But when the numbers express a continuous, inclusive range, and they're joined by to rather than and or or, shouldn't the hyphenation show that continuous relationship? That is:

A trip of four to five days = a four-to-five-day trip (not necessarily in units of one day).

A repayment plan that lasts somewhere between three and five years (maybe four years, maybe 42 months) =  a three-to-five-year plan. 

Kids between 3 and 5 years old = 3-to-5-year-old kids. (So you can have a group of 3-to-5-year-olds, or a group of  3-, 4-, and 5-year-olds.)

The Chicago Manual (15th ed.-- haven't seen the 16th) is with AP on this, making no distinction between "Chicago- or Milwaukee-bound passengers" and "five- to 10-minute intervals" (which I think should be "5-to-10-minute intervals," that is, intervals anywhere between 5 and 10 minutes.)  In Chicago's online Q&A, there's a hint that the editors have (sort of) noticed the difference:
Q. I’m seeing this particular use of hyphens: low-to-moderate income families. I don’t think it’s correct, but it’s becoming so common that I’m beginning to wonder if I missed something. 
A. Chicago style would render this phrase as “low- to moderate-income families,” but this level of hyphen usage is subtle enough that it’s not surprising that you don’t find it consistently applied. 
The question of continuous vs. discrete amounts in these expressions reminds me of the finer points of less vs. fewer; though fewer is usual for count nouns ("fewer than 10 entries),  less is fine when the focus is on the overall quantity ("tell us, in 250 words or less," or "it will take three hours or less to finish"). This is hard for some people to see (especially if they've been taught that the fewer/less distinction is a firm one), and I can see that my hyphenation distinction might be "subtle enough" -- as Chicago says -- to elude notice. As an ex-editor, I can even say that it probably isn't worth the time it would take to enforce it. But it's probably too late for me to un-notice it.

*This cite will disappear from the publicly viewable Q&A queue sometime soon.

Friday, March 4, 2011

It's (Inter)National Grammar Day

The highlight of National Grammar Day, John McIntyre’s “Grammarnoir” serial, goes international this year. The gripping finale is here; Parts 1, 2, and 3 are here, here, and here. A wider scope for the holiday is only fitting, says R.L.G., posting (from London) at Johnson: “After all, there are other countries with grammar, even ones that use English grammar.”

Other observances include Gabe Doyle’s annual mythbusting foray at Motivated Grammar, this year with defenses of anyways, center around, and dove (past tense of dive); Nancy Friedman's post, at Fritinancy, on companies that can’t tell lay from lie; and fev at Headsup: The Blog, advising you to ignore the whole thing, but at the very least, not to be “the goofbag who gives ‘grammar’ a bad name by conflating it with the sort of obsessive hyphenation that leads to [a headline like] ‘High-school graduation rates jump.’ Grammar wants you to be clear. It doesn't want you to be silly.’"

I wasn’t planning a party, but I couldn’t help joining one over at Visual Thesaurus, where a debate over inanimate whose -- as in “two diseases whose symptoms are nearly identical” -- has been bubbling since mid-February, when a pair of columnists declared this time-honored usage wrong, wrong, wrong. Well, they were wrong -- as they were in trying to limit that to nonhuman referents -- and fellow Visual Thesaurus contributors have been explaining why ever since. Linguist Neal Whitman is here, with tips on how to research such usage peeves, and Erin Brenner, editor of, has a two-part rebuttal, here and here. (If those links are dead to you, it's time to subscribe to Visual Thesaurus!)

Brenner shows conclusively that inanimate whose is good English, and ends with H. W. Fowler’s delightful comment on the usage: "In the starch that stiffens English style, one of the most effective ingredients is the rule that whose shall refer only to persons; to ask a man to write flexible English, but forbid him whose 'as a relative pronoun of the inanimate', is like sending a soldier on 'active' service & insisting that his tunic collar shall be tight & high."

But are her readers persuaded by evidence? Of course not. Brenner asks whether they use inanimate whose in their own writing, and most of the commenters willfully ignore the point -- that it's a matter of taste. “It seems wrong no matter what historical precedent exists,” says one. "Rewrite!" urge several other holdouts. Finally I had to chime in with my own little rant:
Erin is using those dusty old facts [a 1382 Bible quote] to show that inanimate whose has been standard English for more than six centuries -- surely evidence in its defense.

And she isn't asking us readers if it's wrong; she has shown that it ISN'T wrong. She asked if we cared to use it ourselves. We are free to avoid it, or any other usage, but there are simply no factual grounds for calling it an error.

As Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage notes, a few (by no means all) usage writers in the 18th and 19th centuries -- a peak time for inventing peeves -- decided to disapprove of it. This does not mean it was ever widely repudiated; I'm surprised Garner even rates it on his Language-Change Index, since its acceptability was never seriously in doubt.

Some more dusty old evidence from MWDEU:

"I could a tale unfold whose lightest word / Would harrow up thy soul" (Shakespeare)
"The fruit /Of that forbidden tree, whose mortal taste /Brought death into the world" (Milton)
I recommend reading actual literature instead of dodgy usage advice; you can't possibly hold onto the illusion that inanimate whose is wrong when you find it in all the books you love and respect. Can you?
That sounds crankier than I thought it would (as comments no doubt often do, once passions  have cooled), but I guess it counts as my contribution to National Grammar Day. I hope to be in a jollier mood next year, but if the winter of 2012 is anything like this one, weatherwise, I may not show much improvement, temperwise.