Friday, August 01, 2008

And Don't Call Me on My Cell


At left is a laptop. At right is a laptop computer. Go ahead and abbrev. away, go ahead and noun the darn adjective, go ahead and save your precious energy, in conversation, or in a Best Buy ad, or in a headline, or on second reference. All that is perfectly fine. Even I do it. But style and decorum dictate that you supply the actual noun at least once if you're writing anything even moderately formal for a general audience.

24 comments:

TootsNYC said...

And here is a desktop.

http://joshuaandamy.net/pictures/Cat-Sleeping-on-my-desk.jpg

Bill said...

Awww!

And thus begins my tradition of Friday Catblogging ...

Shaun G said...

To me, "I'm typing on my laptop computer" sounds almost as dated as "I'm talking on my cellular telephone."

David said...

Really? You lose sleep over this?

Poor thing--I bet "phone," "e-mail," "TV," "microwave," "fridge," "car," "photo," and all those other hi-tech (sorry, "highly technological") abbreviations the kids are using these days must drive you absolutely nuts! ;-)

Bill said...

"I'm typing on my laptop" would be conversation. Now, go back and read the item again.

Bill said...

It would be shoddy and amateurish to write an actual newspaper article or encyclopedia entry or scholarly work and refer to a "phone" without ever mentioning "tele-" or a "fridge" without ever mentioning "re-" or "-rator" or a "microwave" without ever mentioning "oven." Now, if we're talking conversation, see above ...

David said...

Aha! So true, so true. Apologies. I think it was your title that got me: who would ever say, "Please call me on my cellular telephone?" (And who would write it in a newspaper article, for that matter?)

Good humor, all around. :-)

Linda said...

You know...I totally get the difference between formal writing and conversation, but unlike "cell" and "desktop" and "microwave," the word "laptop" really has absolutely no meaning other than "laptop computer," so I think that's actually the one of these that I don't think requires "computer" after it. I think that would be sort of like writing "iPod music player." Contrary to the other situations, I really think the word "computer" there is genuinely unnecessary. This is one where I feel like you can fight it for some fixed period of time, but where there's no conceivable reason why the other word is needed (not the case with "microwave" or "cell"), you'll eventually lose.

Elly said...

From laptops to loltops in one fell swoop.

I'm curious to know what this "moderately formal" writing was that caused all the uproar.

Bill said...

Yes, there was a story in a newspaper close to me that, at least in the first edition, read like this:

Official-sounding officialdom in oh-so-proper newspaper-of-record style is more officlal than thou, sayest Official Officials, referring to LAPTOPS.

No biggie, but it's a tad discordant to read slangy abbrev-speak in the middle of otherwise carefully styled prose.

Sgt. Brad Thiss, a police spokesman, told reporters that the killer mutilated 17 bodies and excised the vital organs, which he then placed in the fridge.

Linda said...

Sure. I think it just depends on what you consider "slangy," which is kind of subjective. I certainly wouldn't agree that "laptop" is as slangy as "fridge." Products are often officially sold as "laptop cases," but you wouldn't see a product sold as a "fridge shelf" or something.

I think I agree with the point, just not this one example, meaning it probably doesn't matter.

Bill said...

Keep in mind that we're talking about writing and editing for publications in which you're not allowed to say "Columbus" without "Ohio" or "St. Paul" without "Minn." and perhaps my point about the reference being jarringly incomplete comes into focus.

fev said...

I can't see starting the revolution over this one. I'm happy to note that in a couple of comparable cases that come readily to hand, all sections of the Post seem to agree.

First, laptop isn't an abbreviation (like "Cpl.") or even a clipping, like "fridge." Agreed, "fridge" is a bit low-register for formal use, but it's from the same process that gives us "bus," and the Post doesn't seem to have used the formal "autobus" outside of quoted matter in the past 30 years. But that's clippings; they're unpredictable.

I'd count "laptop" as an attributive noun (as in "newspaper style"), rather than an adj, so I don't think it's a case of nouning an adjective. And attributive nouns standing alone also show up pretty much anywhere in the Post, any day. "Jet" is one:

"He was flown on a government jet to the Netherlands."

"His Atlanta-based company markets handmade watches, private jets and other luxury items to the affluent."

"Unveiling his company's concept for the car early this year, Chairman Ratan Tata placed the Nano in a narrative of technological endeavors that led from bicycle to jet."

"'He was a little nose-high,' he murmured as a Frontier Airlines jet landed."

Want to see two of them together without a real head noun?

"A shifting market for fighter jets caused revenue to fall 8 percent, to $2.88 billion."

Most of these are the only reference in the story; would you insist on saying Karadzic was flown to the Netherlands in a "government jet aircraft," or that the market for "fighter jet aircraft" was shifting? Or would you acknowledge that on the evidence, "jet" is perfectly normal upper-standard US newspaper usage?

If "laptop" isn't in the same category yet, it isn't far behind. I think we can let it in without any damage to usage or grammar.

Bill said...

That's a sound analysis, though no two examples are truly parallel (even when I say they are) -- and "laptop" is nowhere near "jet."

But, yeah, it'll get there. See "The Elephants of Style": These choices are all about where we are at this second.

In other news, one tiny factor nudging "laptop" toward the slang category is the fact that even the computer industry doesn't use the term. They're "notebooks," right?

Linda said...

I don't think so...

http://www.dell.com/content/products/category.aspx/notebooks?c=us&cs=19&l=en&s=dhs&~ck=mn

http://www.toshibadirect.com/td/b2c/home.to

http://welcome.hp.com/country/us/en/prodserv/notebooks_tabletpcs.html

Bill said...

Oh, you "people" with your "facts" ...

I swear, I went shopping for a Dell laptop [yes, this is not formal writing] a month ago -- it didn't arrive till today -- and I was allowed to buy only a "notebook."

David said...

Word, in my circles at least, is that "notebook" is replacing "laptop" to avoid litigation regarding scorched laps from folks using the devices as described. Those new processors run pretty hot, after all.... ;-)

fev said...

Well... "where we are at this second" is one important thing those choices are about. (You probably had discussions on your desk a decade ago over when and whether "SUV" could stand in heds or as a first reference in text.) Another, as Linda noted, is what else the word means. Even if rocket-propelled aircraft had caught on, I doubt we'd call them "rockets," because "rocket" has too many other highly available meanings.

It's true that "laptop" is nowhere near "jet" in duration of use, but it might be more useful to look at how far from the starting line a word that meets the other tests has to be before it becomes unremarkable in standard English. Let's use the NYT archive (the Times isn't really representative of news language; if anything, it's more conservative than "standard" news, but it's available, it's amenable to a quick search, and what the heck).

"Jet fighter" appears alone in texts as early as May 1948, and in text and accompanying hed by that November. "Jet" shows up standing alone in heds (with "jet planes" in text) in July 1948. So five or six years after fighter jet planes were first tested, they'd apparently outrun their head nouns.

Here's the fully spelled-out phrase from January 1945, if you're wondering:

"The jet-propelled fighter plane, now constituting a rapidly growing segment of the aircraft production in this country, will displace 'to a great degree' the standard type of fighter-escort craft in the war against Japan ..."

"Jet plane," "fighter-escort craft," "jet airliner" and the like don't go away for a long time (though judging from usage, "jet" and "airliner" were still different things in the 1950s). It's entirely possible for short and complete forms to coexist happily. But a short form can become legitimate really fast. I think "laptop" is there.

Ads and catalogs do call laptops "notebooks." I don't think very many people do -- again, partly because (e.g.) "Remove notebooks from bag before reaching checkpoint" would mean too many different things. I'm rather pleased that industries don't get to set too many standards about correctness in common-noun usage. That'd be even worse than a National Bureau of American English.

Bill said...

[Ducking] And it should be "gasoline," not "gas," on first reference in an actual publication.

Bill said...

And now I'm seeing references out of nowhere to how we should be "building more hybrids." I'm not asking for "hybrid gasoline-and-electric-powered vehicles," mind you, but "hybrid vehicles" would be nice.

Linda said...

"Gas," I don't know, but I'm with you on "hybrid."

Bill said...

Again, it's not so much a matter of ambiguity as it is style, decorum, levels of formality. Over the fence it's gas; in my newspaper of record I want to see
-oline first.

"Hybrid," in my world, refers to using two types of string in the same tennis racket.

clevelandheights said...

I just discovered your blog, and I'm very excited. The destruction of the English language has bothered me for a long time. I recently started a blog geared toward small business owners and entrepreneurs (www.dianedipiero.com/blog), and I plan to have several posts dedicated to words that are continually abused or misused. Thanks for your blog.

Michael said...

Gas, laptop, jet, notebook, cell and the like are words that have a particular meaning in a particular setting.
An article, book or section on batteries will mention that a laptop has an 8-cell battery for long use with a cell modem, and we know what laptop and cell and cell mean. Context can be important.
Being a technical person, laptop is more specific than notebook, and neither require the word computer.

Gas bothers me the most. I'm starting to prefer petrol. Gasoline is such a long word to say, and gas is too ambiguous.

I cook in a microwave. Even in Electrical Engineering we use the phrase microwave frequency to describe how a microwave cooks. No useage of oven.

Mobile phone vs. cell? Anyone's thoughts?

The american language is full of issues, and these issues change, often seemingly randomly to those of us who aren't professional writers.

PS. What's the diference between a picture and a photograph? Is it that a photograph is a picture, but a picture isn't always a photograph. Is a painting a picture? What if it is an edited photograph?

My verification word is a combination of oven and orgasm - ovelasm. Strange.