Monday, July 24, 2006

One of the Litmus Tests

A reader complained of a "glaring" error in this sentence from my newspaper:

One of the few commanders who were successful in Iraq in that first year of the occupation, Lt. Gen. David Petraeus, made studying counterinsurgency a requirement at the Army's Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, where mid-career officers are trained.

"One commander 'was' successful, not one commander 'were' successful," the reader observes, and it's hard to argue with that. But the sentence wasn't saying that only one commander was successful; it was saying that few commanders were successful and that this commander was one of them. To put it another way, the sentence wasn't saying that he (a) was one of the few commanders and (b) was successful; it was saying that he was one of the few commanders-who-were-successful. One of the few successful commanders, not one of the few successful commander.

This sort of construction would be my top choice for bait to dangle in the hope of fishing dilettantes out of a pool of sticklers. Any others come to mind?

18 comments:

MuPu said...

I don't recommend the following variation for actual use, but it may help your critic understand where he or she went wrong. Moving the word one is all it takes to prove your case.

Of the few commanders who were successful in Iraq in that first year of the occupation, one, Lt. Gen. David Petraeus, made studying counterinsurgency a requirement at the Army's Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, where mid-career officers are trained.

Maggie T. said...

Shouldn't it be "midcareer"?

rfs1962 said...

I might lean toward the ever-popular dangling modifier, as in this item about Miguel Cabrera from mlb.com:

"Making $472,000, a strong case can be made that the slugger is the best bargain in baseball. Just 23, it is extremely unlikely that the Marlins will even entertain serious offers for Cabrera, one of the top talents in the game."

Third Reading said...

Yuck, rfs

Aaron said...

Holy double-danglers, Batman! Two, count 'em TWO, danglers in the same graf. Wowsa!

(It could be argued just as vociferously that Frank Thomas of the Oakland A's represents the better value, at $500K. Though his numbers are not quite as flashy as Cabrera's, the Big Hurt brings incalculable intangibles and leadership to the clubhouse.)

But back to hooking dilettantes. The Big Pharma firm I work for abbreviates hemoglobin as Hb but assigns the article a, as if it were spelled out. So it's not uncommon to see the patient achieved a Hb response.

This style nuance might not be fair on a test, but once you're hired by Big Pharma, you'd better get this right. Stet "an Hb" and we'll know you haven't read the house style guide.

Bill said...

The dangler is often missed, but what I mean about the "one of the" situation is that, when you handle it the right way, you're likely to get "corrected" by the legions who showed up for the first day of subject-verb class and spent the rest of the semester smoking in the boys' room.

Bill said...

But the house style guide is just wrong if it calls for "a Hb" ...

E.K. Hornbeck said...

One "mistake" that amateur grammarians (a group that certainly includes the author of this comment) frequently point out is use of the passive voice. Strunk & White may be to blame for what is apparently the general perception that passive voice is always wrong, but certainly this notion has been reinforced in an almost Pavlovian fashion (courtesy of Microsoft Word's grammar tips) to the great disadvantage of high-school and college students everywhere.

As the guys at Language Log point out, confusion about the passive voice extends beyond merely thinking that a passive construction should always be replaced with an active one.

As such, a few passive-voice questions in which (1) the passive voice is in fact preferable to the active voice in a particular case, or (2) the construction appeared to be passive but was in fact active, would likely reveal at least a few of the sciolists in the group.

Bill said...

Yep. I have spoken out on behalf of the passive voice.

Jason said...

Use you and me correctly as an object phrase and see how many wannabe sticklers insist on making it you and I.

(And I'll take the Mets' David Wright at $374K as the best bargain in baseball today.)

Aaron said...

Bill, yes, of course, "a Hb" is wrong, ugly, ridiculous. I have urged a switch to "an Hb," but was swatted down by one of the medical marketing whiz kids, who insisted that the intended audience "all pronounce it like it was spelled out anyway."

Well then, comes the reply from this editor, why don't we just spell it out all the time so it reads the way everyone pronounces it?

Mupu, nice way to sum it up for anyone who still doesn't get Bill's point.

Len said...

Strunk and White (and we're really talking about Strunk here--it's his rule) say that "[t]he active voice is usually more direct and vigorous than the passive[.]" Further on, Strunk says, "This rule does not...mean that the writer should entirely discard the passive voice, which is frequently convenient and sometimes necessary."

E.K. Hornbeck is correct in pointing a querulous digit at Microsoft Word and its programmers who have made fetishes of misunderstandings of the ideas presented in The Elements of Style.

And just to show that I'm not getting too far off the thread, please note my noun-verb agreement in "Strunk and White...say[.]" that there's some of that fancy writin'.

I think that mupu shows through example that the best recourse in these matters is to recast the sentence. So many problems with writing come from poor construction. Even in the active voice.

Dana said...

I get a kick out of those dilettante sticklers who explain the proper use of the subjunctive voice but refer to it as a tense. (If I were a stickler, I would never do that.)

Dana said...

Crap, it was late. I meant "mood."

blancura said...

Two good litmus tests are correct use of the subjunctive mood (e.g., If Jones were left-handed, he'd be a better pitching prospect.) and using "had" correctly as an auxiliary verb (e.g., Jones said the shooting occurred after he had left the bar.)

For that matter, another good litmus test is the proper placement of the period in sentences that end in parentheses.

Bill said...

I like "one of the" as a litmus test because the faux sticklers actively attack the correct usage. Sure, they'll get a lot of the other stuff wrong if asked, but they actively attack people for doing the subject-verb thing right.

downtable said...

whom. That'll git 'em.

gellchom said...

This seems like a good illustration for the importance of learning to diagram sentences. Either "was" or "were" can be correct in the original sentence, depending on the writer's intent, as Bill pointed out. I would find it difficult to explain that to, shall we say, one of the many young people who weren't taught how to diagram a sentence.