Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The elusive 'misplaced only'

When I was writing my Boston Globe column, I heard regular complaints about the alleged misplacement of only in a sentence, as when I wrote "you could only murder your victim once." Reading up on the issue, I decided that this peeve is so popular because advice-givers enjoy ringing the changes on made-up sentences that supposedly show the pitfalls of only: "Only John hit Peter in the nose, John hit Peter only in the nose, John only hit Peter in the nose," and so on. (For a very recent example, see Merrill Perlman here.)

But anyone can make up evidence. Several times, I asked readers to give me an example of a truly misleading only that was not in a hypothetical example, but actually in print. In 10 years, no one ever did. Eventually, I spotted one myself, in the Wall Street Journal: "Current tests can detect only what type of virus or bacteria people are infected with after they get sick." (As I discovered at the time, this was apparently an editor's attempt to reword the writer's original "Current tests can only detect.")

Two years later, I've found another misplaced only. It was in Thomas Friedman's column in the New York Times Nov. 13, about making tablet computers cheap enough for the poorest Indians to buy. He wrote:
If Indians could only purchase tablets made in the West, the price points would be so high they'd never spread here.
This was a garden-path sentence for me; First time through, I read it with only modifying "purchase tablets made in the West." But no -- Friedman doesn't mean "if they could only buy (some tablets from the West)," he means "if they could buy tablets only (from the expensive West)."

So yes, occasionally the word only is confusingly misplaced. But two examples in 10 years -- one of them created by an editor needlessly moving the only -- hardly amounts to an epidemic.

Fowler, by the way, was scathing about the only fetishists -- "pedants" who meddled where no improvement was needed, "turning English into an exact science or an automatic machine." But he's not alone in his skepticism. My only enlightenment came from Bergen and Cornelia Evans's Dictionary of Contemporary American Usage (1957).

In most cases only is a sentence adverb and qualifies the entire statement. When used in this way its natural position is before the verb, as in but now I only hear its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar. This word order is standard literary English and should be followed unless there is a very good reason for placing only somewhere else. ... It is not true that when only stands between the subject and the verb it qualifies the verb alone. One might as well argue that never qualifies saw rather than the full statement in I never saw a purple cow. 

And for the 21st-century linguist's version, we have this excerpt from a Geoff Pullum post:
The word only is frequently positioned so that it attaches to the beginning of a larger constituent than its focus (and thus comes earlier), and that is often not just permissible but better. Ian Fleming's title You Only Live Twice was not copy-edited to You Live Only Twice. Why not? Because he knows how to write, and he didn't let an idiot copy-editor change his writing into mush, that's why.
Enough said? I hope so, because there are potatoes to peel and pecans to chop. Happy Thanksgiving!

Saturday, November 19, 2011

A kind word for the crossword

Like any recovering nitpicker, I still feel a certain allegiance to the shibboleths of my youth. (The earlier you learn them, the harder they are to ignore.) So a clue in Wednesday's New York Times crossword made me smile, once I had the answer.

The clue to 48-down was: "Muscle strengthened by curls, informally." The answer: BICEP. And the prescriptivist dog whistle in the clue is the word "informally."

As Miss Mossman explained years ago in Latin class, biceps is a singular, though it's long been used as the English plural too. (Fowler liked bicepses better than the Latin bicipites, but neither caught on.) So according to traditionalists, the word bicep shouldn't exist. Like pea and cherry and kudo, it was formed on the erroneous assumption that a final-s sound signaled a plural.

But the advance of singular bicep was so stealthy that few language mavens noticed it over the years. By the time Bryan Garner got into the usage trade, it was so well established that he simply accepted it. In the most recent (2009) edition of Garner's Modern American Usage, he says that "to refer to a person's right biceps ... seems pedantic." Despite etymology, "the standard terms are now bicep as the singular and biceps as the plural."

I'm not so sure singular biceps has been relegated to nonstandard (or even "pedantic") status, and neither is Google Books, despite that ominous post-2000 drop on the Ngram chart. But "right bicep" is obviously acceptable to many, even if some of us still think of it as "informal." Sorry, Miss Mossman!

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Stuff and nonsense

John McIntyre, scourge of the holiday cliché, recently published this season’s installment of editorial don’ts: No 'tising, no 'twasing, no white stuff, no “yes, Virginia,” and so on. Though I have mildly dissented from a few of his peeves, they all merit journalists' attention. And though John doesn’t mention it, I see there are two additions to his list this year, both items I’m interested in. The first:
Stocking stuffer: Stuff it.
"Stocking stuffer" has indeed earned a place on the watch list: In a search of selected newspapers, it showed up almost as often as "'Tis the season" over the past year (672 hits to 754). I think of it as an advertising word (and use "stocking present" myself), but I don't feel much hostility toward it, except when the suggested "stuffer" is a diamond bracelet or a $7,000 watch.

But a decade ago, I found myself wondering when the “stocking stuffer” concept had emerged. As a child, I had read about the Bad Old Days when a kid's entire Christmas haul would fit into that lone stocking tied to the bedpost – if the child had proved worthy of treats rather than lumps of coal. When had stocking presents been demoted from the main course to mere appetizers, trinkets to distract the kids while their parents sucked down some caffeine? 

Not surprisingly, I found that “stocking stuffer” seems to be a byproduct of postwar prosperity. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary dates the term to 1948, and that’s when Filene’s begins using it in Boston Globe ads. (In England it's "stocking filler," also first recorded in the '40s.)

Usage is still sparse through the '50s, though; Google’s Ngram (charting books, not newspapers, but probably just lagging a bit behind) shows the real “stuffer” boom beginning in the '70s. (And what's that dip in the mid-2000s? Maybe there's a nascent anti-"stuffer" movement just waiting for the call!)

The second new item on John's warning list:
On no account are you to publish that execrable article on the estimated cost of the gifts in "The Twelve Days of Christmas." Whoever gets assigned to write it every year patently did something very, very bad in a previous life. If you have been guilty of publishing that thing in the past, do not compound your sin.
Hear, hear! This is a time-wasting stunt promoted by PNC Bank, which has the chutzpah to label it “financial education.” Nothing in the whole exercise demonstrates anything worth knowing about inflation, the economy, or the price of gifts your true love may be sending you.   

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Doonesbury does it -- do you?

Several weeks ago, when "Doonesbury" showed Grandma Joanie proposing to move in with Alex, faithful correspondent JHM wrote to comment on a usage in the strip's dialogue. Joanie offers to help Alex pay her rent. "Wait, is there a hitch?" asks Alex. And there is: "I'd have to move in," says Joanie.

For JHM, hitch wasn't quite the right word. "I would've used 'catch,' as in a deal with strings attached," he said, adding a definition from Oxford Dictionaries online: "a hidden problem or disadvantage in an apparently ideal situation: there's a catch in it somewhere."

I would like to say that yes, I too would use catch, not hitch, in this context, and I'm pretty sure I would:  I think of a catch as a preset trap, a hitch as just a random snag in the proceedings. On the other hand, I read right past the hitch in the Doonesbury cartoon, speeding onward to the punch line. So it's obviously not a red-flag distinction for me.

After a quick and unscientific glance at Google News sources, I'd venture to say that the catch-hitch distinction -- as JHM and I make it -- is widely observed: I found catch almost always used to imply a hidden clause or condition, hitch used mostly for "unexpected problem," usually in variations on "it went off without a hitch." But I wonder -- if hitch did start migrating into catch territory, would we notice? Did you?

Monday, November 7, 2011

Over and over again

“I agree with your objections to the unhelpful comparisons using the stack of money and distance to the moon,” wrote T. Roger Thomas in a comment on my criticism of a New York Times op-ed. Then he went on:
I would also add an objection to the use of "over" in the original piece. To my way of thinking, one can climb over a fence. I would prefer to see the term "more than" used to denote a greater amount of things, which, in this instance, happen to be dollars.
He’s talking (I assume) about Ezekiel Emanuel’s “$2.6 trillion on health care, over $8,000 per American.” But this is a nit that I didn’t pick even when I was a professional nitpicker, despite the temptation to go along with my fellow journalists. "Disapproval of over ‘more than’ is a hoary American newspaper tradition,” says MWDEU, but the usage was standard for many centuries before some 19th-century crank decided he didn't like it.

We haven't identified that crank; as I said in an April 2010 post on "over" and "more than," the earliest mention of the  issue I’ve found is in an 1856 usage book by Walton Burgess, son of a New York City printer/publisher, grandly titled “Five Hundred Mistakes in Speaking, Pronouncing, and Writing the English Language, Corrected.” At No. 130 we get: "'There were not over twenty persons present:' say, more than. Such a use of this word is not frequent among writers of reputation."

William Cullen Bryant followed Burgess's lead in 1870, and Ambrose Bierce piled on in 1909. But even in its heyday, the “rule” was far from universal. Scott and Denney's "Elementary English Composition" (1900) said that “over a million dollars” was correct usage. And in 1856 -- the very same year that Walton Burgess declared war on this "over" -- a rival usage book, with an anonymous author, defied his ruling in the boast above its title: “Over 1000 Mistakes Corrected.”

For more on “over/more than,” see John McIntyre (at his non-paywalled former blog) on the AP Stylebook as a "repository of extinct rules"; Mark Liberman at Language Log; and Paul Brians's Non-Errors Page: "This absurd distinction ignores the role metaphor plays in language. If I write 1 on the blackboard and 10 beside it, 10 is still the 'higher' number."

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Its not that big a deal

In this week’s After Deadline blog, Philip Corbett led with recent homophone misspellings in the New York Times – one the common eggcorn reign in for rein in, and several others that are just slips of the brain (then for than, palette for palate, gate for gait). But Corbett avoided the alarmist hyperbole that so often accompanies lists of such blunders: He did not refer to the non-eggcorn errors as “confusions,” as if the spelling-challenged writer truly didn't know a then from a than.

Same day, different blog: At Grammarphobia, Patricia O’Conner and Stewart Kellerman wandered into the "confusion" quagmire and couldn't get unstuck. A reader asked whether using its for it’s was a grammatical error or a spelling error; here's their answer,* with my objections:
A: On a superficial level, this qualifies as both a punctuation error and a spelling error.
But on a deeper level, it’s a grammatical error, because it represents a failure to distinguish between (1) the possessive pronoun and (2) the contraction.
What “deeper level”? You're saying the writer doesn’t know the difference between the actual words its and it’s? That he mistakenly writes “it’s tires are flat” because he thinks it's OK to say “it is tires are flat”? Of course you don’t think that. Sometimes a mixup -- reign in for rein in -- could be either a simple spelling goof or a genuine confusion (resulting in an eggcornish reinterpretation of the metaphor). Not so with its and it’s. We could drop the apostrophe entirely and we’d still know which was which, because in fact we don't confuse them grammatically.
It also represents a failure to recognize that possessive pronouns don’t sport apostrophes.
Yes, but this is that same “superficial” spelling or punctuation error  you noted already.
So the problem is more than just a spelling goof in our opinion. That probably puts us into the grammar-error camp.
Except that there is no “grammar-error camp.” It’s just not a possible interpretation of this spelling mistake. But usage mavens have been calling these errors “confusions” for so long that a lot of people have trouble distinguishing true misunderstandings from misspellings. Not that I endorse misspellings; but they don’t, by themselves, imply weakness of intellect or failure to grasp the sense of a word. We shouldn't go around scaring one another by implying that they do.

*I actually first wrote "here's there answer," though I caught it immediately. And no, I am not confused about the difference between their and there.