Monday, October 31, 2011

Odious comparisons

Yesterday's Times featured an op-ed piece* by Ezekiel Emanuel -- physician and brother of Rahm -- that included one of the silliest attempts at clarification ever seen (I hope) in those pages.  Emanuel wants to help readers grapple with the "$2.6 trillion on health care, over $8,000 per American," that the US spent last year. "This is such an enormous amount of money, it’s difficult to grasp," he writes. So
consider this: If we stacked single dollar bills on top of one another, $2.6 trillion would reach more than 170,000 miles — nearly three-quarters of the way to the moon.  
Uh, right. In the first place, I can't remember the last time I saw even 10 one-dollar bills in the same place. I can't even picture a stack of a measly million dollars, let alone $2.6 trillion.

And then ... the moon? It's a long way off, sure, but the distance isn't easy to visualize without better clues than dollar bills. How about "x trips back and forth across the US," or "x times around the world"? Comparisons like this are supposed to give readers a familiar concept against which they can measure the less familiar one. Instead we have $2.6 trillion translated into two equally unhelpful images.

Even if the comparison worked, it's not clear what it's for. Surely the question is not "how much is $2.6 trillion" -- a tall tower of dollars, as much as the entire French economy, whatever -- but when such spending is "too much" for an economy of a given size, and what to do about it.

This is allegedly the first in a series on the topic, so I hope the editors will scrutinize future submissions a bit more carefully. All I learned here is that if I want to shinny up to the moon on a stack of dollar bills, I'll need more than 2.6 trillion of them.

*The link is to the online Opinionator version; didn't want to give me the address of the print version. 

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Prerequisites for peeving

There oughta be a law, says Steven Pinker in Prospect Magazine, governing all the world's pundits:
No one may bemoan a decay, decline, or degeneration without providing (1) a measure of the way the world is today; (2) a measure of the way the world was at some point in the past; (3) a demonstration that (1) is worse than (2).
This decree would, first of all, eliminate tedious jeremiads about the decline of the language. The genre has been around for centuries, and if the doomsayers were correct we would now be grunting like Tarzan.
Unfortunately, it would take more than a global overlord to enforce this rule on the pundits' audience. I don't know if people complained less when times were tougher, but in our relatively comfortable society, there's plenty of energy for peeving. When I read Natalie Angier's piece on runaway altruism in the New York Times earlier this month, one bit seemed especially relevant to language scolds:
David Brin, a physicist and science fiction writer, argues in one chapter that sanctimony can be as physically addictive as any recreational drug, and as destabilizing. “A relentless addiction to indignation may be one of the chief drivers of obstinate dogmatism,” he writes. 
I don't know about you, but I have certainly enjoyed the sensation of knowing The Right Way in matters of editing. And though indignation can be a force for good, surely its power should be exercised on something more important than the comma?  As the linguist Dwight Bolinger memorably noted,* most language peeves are trivial both in linguistic and practical terms: "The same number of muggers would leap out of the dark if everyone conformed overnight to every prescriptive rule ever written."

*In "Language: The Loaded Weapon," Longman 1980, which I did not receive as a free review copy.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Noah's not the boss of me!

In the waning hours of Dictionary Day, I want to briefly advocate for the locution "advocate for." I was sorry to see Lucy Ferriss, over at Lingua Franca, conceding the point to a critic who told her advocate could only be a transitive verb -- that she could advocate the use of the Oxford comma, but not advocate for it. Says who? Says her dictionary, whichever it is.

Well, dictionary shmictionary. No lexicographer wants you to lie down and roll over just because the phrase you use is not recorded in his or her latest tome. If we say advocate for, the dictionaries will recognize, soon enough, that the intransitive form ("she advocates for abuse victims") is standard -- and in this case doing useful work, not just padding out the transitive verb.

And advocate for is not some bizarre new aberration; the OED calls it obsolete, but gives citations from the mid-17th to the late 19th century, the last from the language scholar Fitzedward Hall:  "I am not going to advocate for this sense of actual." And Google's Ngram viewer shows "advocated for" rising steadily since around 1840, so maybe the OED editors weren't as observant as they might have been.

I doubt, though, that people who dislike the revival of advocate for give a damn whether it's "officially" transitive or intransitive; I think they connect it with social-worker jargon from the touchy-feely era, and despise it for class reasons. Yes, it's true (as I noted in a column* four years ago) that advocate for  sometimes shows up where advocate alone might be more appropriate (and elegant). But (as I wrote then)
advocate will hardly be the first switch-hitting verb. Do you baby-sit the twins, or baby-sit for them? Shop [Filene's] Basement, or shop at the Basement? Graduate college, or graduate from college? A century ago, when approve of was new, Ambrose Bierce tsk-tsked: "There is no sense in making approve an intransitive verb." [I wonder how he would have liked the British transitive agree: "Heineken UK have agreed a contract extension."] 
This isn't the first time advocate has attracted critics. The OED quotes a 1789 letter from Ben Franklin to Noah Webster (happy birthday, Noah!) complaining of several new verbs (as he thought) based on nouns, including advocate. Milton and Pepys and Burke had used the word, but Franklin wasn't having it. "If you should happen to be of my opinion with respect to these innovations," he wrote, "you will use your authority in reprobating them."

But Webster (whatever his private opinion) recorded the facts: advocate was a verb, like it or not. And any minute now, his heirs at Merriam-Webster -- hi, Peter! -- are going to notice that it's also an intransitive verb, and add that description to the record. Because we're the boss of dictionaries, not the other way around.

*Probably behind a paywall, but I can't tell for sure. 

Friday, October 7, 2011

Amazon hears the feedback feedback

Amazon has just changed its customer feedback link so that if everything goes perfectly, you're allowed to rate the transaction "Excellent" with just one click -- no need to add a comment.

Until recently, it didn't work that way. Even if you clicked the buttons rating the service and product as perfect, you couldn't submit the form till you also put some text in the comments box. This must have irritated thousands of people, and I was among them; eventually I wrote to Amazon pointing out that this was a real disincentive to rate sellers, and one that would disproportionately punish the best merchants -- the ones who rated just an unadorned "Excellent."

I'm sure I wasn't the only one making this point; for all I know, the campaign to revise the feedback form has been going on for years already. But it's always nice to see a huge company actually do something so small yet sensible; so often, it doesn't happen.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Help help bloggers

Today's e-mail brought an update from letting me know that the voting deadline for their grammar blog poll is fast approaching:

Today is the halfway of the contest finals!
The most active bloggers are about to outrun you in the Best Grammar Blog of 2011 contest. Their friends and readers are actively voting, so why don’t yours?
Your blog is worth to be number one,* you just need some help from people who already love your blog.
The final round ends October, 17th.

Now, this nitpicking doesn’t mean I scorn the poll; anything that helps spread the word about  language blogs is a Good Thing, and the master list has already prompted me to subscribe to a couple of blogs I had missed.

But the site has problems. Its own software says so: claims its grammar checker will spot your writing flaws, so I fed it the e-mail I quote from above. The analysis -- just a teaser, not the detailed report that paying customers get -- told me that the text had seven “critical writing issues”: one of sentence structure, two of punctuation, and four of “style.” Overall score: 50 percent. “Weak; needs revision.”

Some of the (free) usage advice also needs revision. The “12 Most Misunderstood Words” item, for example, has an outdated hostility to nauseous (meaning nauseated), claims that alternate can only be a verb, and includes a definition of less that made me laugh out loud:
You think it means: fewer
It means: a smaller amount of uncountable nouns 
So as long as we’re logrolling and backscratching, shouldn’t language bloggers help look more like a club we’d want to belong to? Maybe, when the shouting’s over, the top 10 bloggers should each thank the website with some volunteer help -- 10 corrections, say, or an hour’s worth of editing. The better they look, the better we look. And they can definitely look better.

*Yes, this is a comma fault, but not a bad one, and I’m not a comma-fault fetishist.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Reaching out: The "NYPD Blue" connection

Nancy Friedman has a terrific treatment of the buzz phrase "reach out" at Visual Thesaurus, to which you should subscribe instantly if not sooner. But in her search for sources of the phrase, she overlooked one that loomed very large in pop culture back when I wrote about "reach out," just a couple of months into my authorship of "The Word" for the Boston Globe.

As I've been through hours of broken-link hell trying to retrieve a copy -- the ProQuest link not only isn't letting subscribers log in, it wouldn't even let me pay five bucks for my own damn column! -- I'm not going to take time to annotate it; there are surely things I would do differently now, but here's what I knew about "reach out" 14 years ago, when I and the Internet were both much greener.

When a cop's reach exceeds his grasp

If they're tuned to our wavelength, the citizens of the universe must picture English-speaking Earthlings as many-armed creatures like the Hindu goddess Kali, or maybe as ambulatory, air-breathing octopuses. What else could explain the amount of reaching out we do these days? Churches reach out to potential members, Newt Gingrich to minority voters, La Leche League members to new mothers.

And while the phrase has been stealthily spreading for decades, it seems likely that it owes its current ubiquity to actor David Caruso -- or, rather, to the TV writers who created his "NYPD Blue" character, Detective John Kelly, back in 1993.

There's nothing wrong with reach, of course, or with out. Both words have been in the language, alone and together, since it was Old English, letting us reach out for the brass ring, the highest apples on the tree, the life preserver thrown from a boat.

But reach out seems to have softened and spread like margarine during the touchy-feely '60s and '70s. The Four Tops had a hit with "Reach Out (I'll Be There)," the Carter administration envisioned a Department of Agriculture that would reach out to consumers, and sex educators were reaching out to adolescents.

AT&T trumped them all, in 1979, with "Reach Out and Touch Someone," one of the most memorable advertising slogans ever written. But the phone company's jingle still hewed to the old-fashioned meaning of the phrase -- it assumed a specific person at the other end of that long distance phone line. The New Age version of reaching out that was growing on us had fuzzier boundaries and less specific goals.

This extended reach out is the verb form of the noun outreach, a coinage (in this sense) of 20th-century bureaucratic minds. The Book of Jargon defines outreach as "digging up end-users when nobody seems to want the 'benefits' of a government enough to apply for them" -- a jaundiced view, maybe, but it captures the newer sense of outreach as an overture made to an amorphous mass of people, not to real, touchable individuals. Barnhart's Dictionary of New English dates this outreach to 1968, and it seems safe to assume that where there was outreach, there was reaching out. But most of us didn't notice how fast it had proliferated till "NYPD Blue" began rubbing our noses in reach out.

For some fans of the TV show, the stock phrase (and the series' other mannerisms and catchphrases) were irritating almost from the start. When Caruso threatened to leave, one reviewer said he would be happy not to hear him "telling people he's going to reach out," as if he were angling for a phone company job. And when his departure was announced, one of the speculative scenarios for the farewell episode had him saying "reach out" once too often and being murdered by partner Andy Sipowicz.

Caruso did leave, but his buzzwords linger on; the boys in "Blue" reach out more than ever, sometimes stretching the phrase to implausible lengths. In an episode last season, Sipowicz rebuked a prostitute offering evidence by saying, more or less, "It's a week already, and you don't reach out till now?"

This is going too far. Surely "turning over evidence" is not a synonym for reaching out, if reaching out means anything at all. "It's become so ubiquitous, you expect them to 'reach out' to the doughnut counter, 'reach out' to swat a bug" complained a reviewer last month.

But if all the reaching out gets you down, there's a quick remedy, prescribed in the "NYPD Blue Drinking Game" devised by Alan Sepinwall and his collaborators (for details, see his "NYPD Blue" site). It's simple: Every time someone says "reach out," you reach for a double Scotch. Soon enough, when they try to reach out to you, you'll be feeling no pain.

(Boston Sunday Globe, September 28, 1997)