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Sentence of the Week, 4

March 16, 2011 Leave a comment

The winners in my recent Sentence of the Week posts (here, here, and here) have been loser sentences. This latest entry is a true winner. (Can Roger Angell write anything but winners?)

The current issue of The New Yorker has an article by Ian Frazier on the return of seals to New York harbor. I haven’t read it yet. I’d rather wait until our print copy arrives. However, I did read Roger Angell’s reflection on the article yesterday at The New Yorker’s blog. It’s just three paragraphs, which I’m tempted to quote in full, but I’ll stick to the mandated single sentence.

If they proliferate down here, as I expect, commuters on the Staten Island ferry some morning will get close enough to a seal to notice water dripping off his whiskers, and—if he makes his alternative head-last drop-down into deeper water, as against a dive—watch the seal’s nostrils, the final part of him, magically squeeze shut a quarter-second before he’s gone.

One more sentence? Okay, here is Angell a paragraph earlier, commenting on his time on the water during summers in Maine.

Up there, aboard my ancient day-sailer or even while rowing a smaller dinghy or paddling a kayak, I sometimes find myself in sudden close company with a harbor seal: a damp and pleasing, Lab-sized presence who has silently broken the surface fifteen or twenty yards away and now looks me over with unblinking interest.

At top is a photo I took on our 25th anniversary last June as we rode the ferry from Seattle to Bremerton. The seals are just off the southwest corner of Bainbridge Island, where Puget Sound narrows into a channel between the island and the Kitsap Peninsula.

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Categories: Language

Sentence of the Week

February 27, 2011 Leave a comment

I realize it’s a bit lame to choose my sentence of the week from the NYT’s weekly Vows column from the Sunday Weddings/Celebrations section. I mean, the column has a top ten or top five candidate every week. Easy pickings. But still, how could I resist when I read this gem from today’s Vows?

The life Ms. Klein was leading, teaching English at a Jewish school by day and dating and taking in the city’s cultural wealth by night, was a mix of artistic and traditional.

I shouldn’t comment, should I? It speaks for itself. But I’m so tempted.

The piece is longer than the usual Vows column. And it does tell a good story, of the romance between Ms. Klein and a Jewish artist from Strasbourg, which leads to another wonderful passage:

Until then, the blond, buoyant Ms. Klein was primarily dating bankers and lawyers. But she had come to recognize, she said, that “my heart is always with the artist.”

Indeed. Mine too.

Categories: Language, Life

Sentence of the Week

February 21, 2011 Leave a comment

[Laura Morton for The New York Times]

I’m still catching up from a large backlog, so this is really last week’s sentence of the week. I reserve the right to write about the sentence of this week. And the winning sentence is actually a perfectly fine sentence. Its failing is a matter of context.

On to the winner. NYT sportswriter Pete Thamel had a piece in the Sunday sports section a week ago about Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck. Luck, as you may know, was the runner-up for the Heisman Trophy in the fall. It was widely expected that if Luck chose to leave Stanford early, he would be the #1 pick in the NFL draft, well ahead of the Heisman winner, Cam Newton. But Luck chose to stay at Stanford for another year, both to play one more year of college ball and to continue enjoying student life at Stanford.

Thamel’s article is a good one. In a short amount of space, he lays out the issues well and you leave liking Luck. (A little alliteration there!) But there’s this puzzling passage, maybe the result of some combination of re-writing and careless editing:

Although Luck’s mind was essentially made up [regarding staying in school], he turned to someone outside the family. With his feet shaking nervously, he called Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning, who stayed at Tennessee for his senior year instead of entering the 1997 N.F.L. draft.

Luck recalled that Manning told him, “If you’re not ready to move on with life, it’s the best choice.”

Manning advised him to never second-guess his decision or worry about injuries. He added that his senior year had helped him be better prepared to turn the corner in his second N.F.L. season, when Indianapolis improved to 13 victories from 3 the previous season.

Luck also received texts of support from a former N.F.L. teammate of his father’s, Archie Manning, whose sons Peyton and Eli faced the same decision.

That last sentence is the winner. Um, given the three paragraphs that preceded it, don’t we know already that Archie’s son faced the same decision? Or did we need a reminder?

Well, as I say, maybe it’s just a slip in the editing process. But it made me stop and re-read the passage to make sure I was following the logic of the article.

Alas, further down the article, there’s what now seems to be the obligatory mention of that notorious war criminal, Condoleezza Rice. Is it no longer possible to write a piece about Stanford without mentioning her, or to televise a Stanford sporting event without panning over to her in the stands? Had anyone ever heard of Stanford before she left to join the Bush administration? It would seem not.

Categories: Journalism, Language

Sentence of the Week

January 22, 2011 Leave a comment

On turning to the Seattle Times’ sports section Wednesday morning, I saw a piece about Seattle Mariner outfielder Milton Bradley that opened with the following astonishing sentence:

A former major-league general manager said Tuesday night there would have to be specific language in Milton Bradley’s contract for his arrest on suspicion of making a felony threat to alter his deal.

Have you read it? Can you make sense of it? Do you have the impression that Bradley was arrested for threatening to alter his deal, and that such a threat is apparently felonious? Is there any other way to interpret this sentence without additional information?

On reading further into the article, I was eventually able to figure out what the writer, Geoff Baker, was trying to convey. Here are the issues:

1. Bradley allegedly made a criminal threat the day before against a woman and was arrested.

2. The Mariners owe Bradley $12 million for the coming season.

3. The Mariners wouldn’t comment on the situation, following club policy.

4. Baker, in need of some further insight about how the team might handle Bradley’s contract, contacted a former GM, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

5. The issue arose in their conversation of whether the Mariners would be able to forgo paying Bradley salary that was guaranteed under his contract: “The former GM . . . said the language needed to convert contracts from ‘guaranteed’ to ‘non-guaranteed’ is very specific. ‘It depends on the guarantee language,’ he said. ‘If the guarantee language includes a felony conviction, it allows the contract to be converted to a non-guaranteed form if that player is convicted of a felony.'”

It’s now possible to return to the opening sentence and see that Baker was, perhaps prematurely, explaining that Bradley’s deal with the Mariners might be alterable in light of the alleged felony, if language in the contract addressed such a scenario. Of course, the location within the sentence of the phrase “to alter his deal” is awkward at best, but one can parse it once one has enough information. The sentence needs re-writing, but more, it needs re-locating within the article. Even the fact that it opens with mention of a former GM is utterly mysterious until later.

I am relieved, in any case, to know that threatening to alter one’s contract is not a felony.

Categories: Baseball, Journalism, Language

Law & Order: UK

January 17, 2011 Leave a comment

I’ve never been a Law & Order fan. I’ve watched it. How can one avoid it? But it was never part of my regular TV viewing repertoire, never a show I would think over the course of a day that I was looking forward to watching that evening. And the same goes for its offspring.

Earlier this month, Gail discovered one of its younger children, Law & Order: UK. We don’t get BBC America as part of our cable package. We are, however, able to catch up on the episodes after the fact using On Demand, and we’re quite enjoying them. Looking over the website just now, I see that what we’ve managed to see are the last few episodes of season one and, just two nights ago, the first episode of season two.

I’m still trying to make sense of a line we heard in one of the episodes. It would be the episode called Sacrifice, #11 of season 1. Like the original Law & Order, the UK version features two police officers and their boss on the Order side, with a parallel pair of prosecutors (or whatever they’re called) and their boss on the Law side. In this episode, the chief prosecutor decides to take a temporary leave in order to serve as defense attorney for an old friend. As befits someone of his talent and stature (it’s not by chance that he got where he is today), he is extremely effective in court. And as he muses on his experience at the end of a day in court, he comments, “I didn’t remember how much I missed this.”

Now, I know they use the language a little differently over there. But could this really be what the writers intended? And did no one — actor, director, whoever — think to question it? Surely what has happened is that two more plausible sentences got blended to produce this. Wouldn’t one say “I didn’t remember how much I enjoyed this” or “I didn’t realize how much I missed this”? Or am I missing something?

Categories: Language, Television

Big Ten Silliness

December 13, 2010 Leave a comment

The Big Ten conference announced names for its new divisions, two of the most meaningless names one can imagine. But maybe I should back up. The Big Ten is the oldest and, I suppose, most famous university sporting conference in the country, dating back to 1896. It became the Big Ten only in 1917, with Ohio State joining in 1916 and Michigan re-joining in 1917 after an absence, the other eight being founding members Chicago, Illinois, Minnesota, Northwestern, Purdue, and Wisconsin (along with Michigan), plus Indiana and Iowa, who joined in 1899. The arithmetic got a little complicated when Chicago left after 1946, but Michigan State joined in 1950, restoring order. When Penn State joined in 1990, there was no changing the name, as will be the case after Nebraska joins next year. The Big Ten is a brand now, not a count.

I will pass on providing a primer on the economics of college football and the motivation for conferences to have 12 teams. The short version — and remember, this is about football only, not other sports that conference teams participate in — is that once a conference has 12 teams, it is allowed to split into two 6-team divisions and conclude the regular season with a conference championship game between the two division champions. This means big money. Millions. Many millions. And it’s why both the Big 10 and the Pac 10 chose earlier this year to expand. Losing out in this is the Big 12, which will lose not just Nebraska to the Big 10, but also Colorado to the Pac 10. (Yes, that’s right, this means the Big 10 will have 12 teams and the Big 12 will have 10. Get used to it.)

The Big 10 expansion and concomitant addition of a conference championship game necessitate a split into divisions. Those conferences that already split divisionally generally did it geographically. The SEC (Southeast Conference), the model for this, has east and west divisions. The east is perhaps more east and north, but the west is a geographically compact region, one that makes sense, and so the divisional alignment as a whole makes sense as well. The west schools (going roughly from west to east) are LSU, Arkansas, Mississippi, Mississippi State, Alabama, and Auburn. The east schools (going from south or southeast to northwest) are Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee, Vanderbilt, and Kentucky.

The Pac 10 has a plan for post-expansion divisions that has some logic as well. To the north are Washington and Washington State, Oregon and Oregon State, Cal and Stanford. The six in the other division come in handy pairs as well: USC and UCLA, Arizona and Arizona State, and the two newcomers, Colorado and Utah.

Take a moment now to think about how you would split the twelve Big 10 teams into two divisions. Remember, they are Penn State, Ohio State, Indiana, Purdue, Michigan, Michigan State, Illinois, Northwestern, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Nebraska.

Seems kind of obvious, doesn’t it? In fact, I’ve just done it, and handy pairs are staring you in the face. In the east we put Penn State and Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State, Indiana and Purdue. In the west we put Illinois and Northwestern, Wisconsin and Minnesota, Iowa and Nebraska. Done, with natural rivalries built in, rivalries that may not respect past history but are ready made for new history.

The problem is that past history, with the mother of all rivalries, Ohio State and Michigan, the primacy of which has to be preserved somehow. And then, well, let’s see what the Big Ten had to say in its announcement a few months ago:

The Big Ten football division alignments will include a division featuring Illinois, Indiana, Ohio State, Penn State, Purdue and Wisconsin, and a division featuring Iowa, Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota, Nebraska and Northwestern. Each school will play the other five schools within its division and will also face three teams from the other division, including one cross-division matchup guaranteed on an annual basis. The guaranteed cross-division matchups are Illinois-Northwestern, Indiana-Michigan State, Ohio State-Michigan, Penn State-Nebraska, Purdue-Iowa and Wisconsin-Minnesota. Names for each Big Ten football division will be announced at a later date.

This isn’t how I would have done it. In particular, there’s no geographical logic to it at all.

But about those division names, which were announced today along with the logo pictured at the top, they are: Leaders and Legends. League commissioner Jim Delany explained to the AP that “The Legends, not too hard in that we have 215 College Football Hall of Fame members, we have 15 Heisman Trophy winners. We thought it made perfect sense to recognize the iconic and the legendary through the naming of the division in that regard. … We’ve had plenty of leaders in the conference, that’s for sure, but the emphasis here is to recognize the mission of using intercollegiate athletics and higher education to build future leaders.”

I think he lost me. And which is which? The division with Ohio State is the Leaders; the division with Michigan is the Legends.

Sigh.

Categories: Football, Language, Stupidity

Less, Fewer, Euphony

December 4, 2010 2 comments

While I was eating breakfast Tuesday morning, I turned to the Wall Street Journal sports page, which featured an article about the college football conference championship games that would be played this weekend. The theme of the article was that these end-of-season games have not been all that good. They’re just a money grab by the leagues and the networks. By way of evidence, it was pointed out that

Quite often, these games don’t even turn out to be good: Fewer than half of them have been decided by 10 points or fewer.

Gulp! I almost choked on my milk. There’s a story to be told here. So let’s tell it.

Some people believe language use should be based on rules, and that these rules should be followed consistently. Not that long ago, I tended to fall into this camp, the prescriptivist camp. The alternative view might be described as “anything goes”. The underlying view of this camp is that the study of language is empirical. Language usage evolves, people do what they do, with variation arising naturally. We can study this variation, and indeed we may well take pleasure in the study, but dictating how people should speak is not only misguided, it’s pointless, like trying to tell water to roll down the hill one way rather than another.

Descriptivists don’t reject the notion of incorrect usage. They do reject the creation out of thin air of usage rules that bear little relation to the actual work of people judged to be good writers, and even to the writings of the rule makers themselves.

Exhibit number one is Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, which has been oft and well criticized by linguist Geoffrey K. Pullum, co-author of The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language and co-founder of one of my favorite blogs, Language Log. You can take a look, for instance, at his article 50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice, or at many of his Language Log posts.

I was introduced to Language Log four years ago when colleague and linguist Ellen Kaisse gave me Far from the Madding Gerund and Other Dispatches from Language Log, a compilation of many early Language Log posts by Pullum and blog co-founder Mark Liberman. What they said made sense, was funny, and changed my life. Really. Enough so that I had the aforementioned trouble swallowing when I read the quoted sentence from the Wall Street Journal.

Let’s turn to the ultimate rulebook itself, Strunk and White. We learn there, under the entry for Less, that it

Should not be misused for fewer. . . . Less refers to quantity, fewer to number. “His troubles are less than mine” means “His troubles are not so great as mine.” “His troubles are fewer than mine” means “His troubles are not so numerous as mine.”

Not one of their best explanations, but the point is simple. I like to think of it in terms of quantities we measure that are liquid-like versus quantities we measure that we count one by one. Thus, if we each fill buckets with water, I might have less water than you, but I wouldn’t have fewer water. If instead we fill the buckets with apples, I might have fewer apples than you. Can I have less apples than you? Well, maybe, but it sounds a bit awkward. Or does it?. Maybe a better example would be fingers. If I lost one through an accident, I would say I have fewer fingers than you do. Saying I have less fingers is just odd (though I may well have an odd number of fingers).

It’s not a bad rule as far as such rules go, but it shouldn’t be followed slavishly. And when we get to points rather than fingers or apples or water, we get into uncertain territory. If I came home from a basketball game and someone asked how I did, I might say not so good [or not so well, but that’s a whole nother issue], I didn’t even score my usual 20 points. The person might respond, in shock, “You had less than 20 points?” That sounds right, doesn’t it? Or do you prefer “You had fewer than 20 points?” I wouldn’t. Points are indeed discretely measured. I can score only a finite number of points, and I can count them one by one. But “fewer” isn’t necessarily the more natural word here.

We can argue this. Argue what, exactly? I would suggest that we should be arguing which word sounds better. It comes down to euphony, as judged by native (or long-term) speakers/listeners/readers/writers of the language, not adherence to a rule.

Once we let euphony be our guide, the situation facing the WSJ writer is no contest. Let’s look again. “Fewer than half of them have been decided by 10 points or fewer.” Even if using less rather than fewer with points is a close call, it’s not at all close in this context, with fewer occurring already at the start of the sentence. The double use of the word is unconscionably grating. Why would anyone do that, other than to honor an absurd rule?

I decided Tuesday that I would need to write a post about this. It has taken four days. What didn’t take four days was my email to Professor Pullum. He would share my shock, wouldn’t he? And so, without delay, I wrote him the following note:

Maybe this is such a tiresome issue that you would just as soon not get an email about it. Stop reading if you see fit. But I just wanted to pass on an example in the sports section of today’s Wall Street Journal that brought my reading to a halt. It was in an article about college football conference championships, with URL

http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704584804575644840639073672.html

Here’s the sentence that tripped me up:

“Quite often, these games don’t even turn out to be good: Fewer than half of them have been decided by 10 points or fewer.”

Even though the rules of football allow only 11 options for point differences in the interval [0, 10], I would probably always prefer “10 points or less” to “10 points or fewer”. But given the nearby “Fewer than half”, I don’t really see much of a choice here. It’s just an awful-sounding sentence.

Oh well.

I know that Professor Pullum is a busy guy. I really did imagine he might not finish the email. I surely didn’t expect a reply. So when I didn’t get one Tuesday, or Wednesday, or Thursday, I thought nothing of it. But then, late Thursday afternoon, a Language Log post popped up on my RSS feed with the title, Stupid less/fewer automatism at the WSJ. That got my attention. It was by Professor Pullum, and it turned out to be the post I should have written myself, if only I had his knowledge and his merciless wit. (Rather than quote from it, I suggest that you click through and have a look.)

Am I mentioned? What academic wouldn’t want to know? See for yourself, but you may have to read to the end. Don’t worry. Doing so will take fewer time than reading this post has.

Categories: Language