Wednesday, September 28, 2005

There's a 'The' in Your Future

On a visit last week to Michigan, my home state from 1962 to 1979, I found a new wrinkle in the trend of silly names and vanity capitalization. The Detroit-area tourist attraction that was known in my field-trip days as "Greenfield Village and the Henry Ford Museum" now calls itself "the Henry Ford," with a pointedly lowercased the. (Greenfield Village and the Henry Ford Museum still exist, but now the proprietors have tacked on a couple of minor attractions and put them all under the "the Henry Ford" umbrella.)

It's a ridiculous name, of course. Henry Ford was a person, and even an uppercased the would do little to alert the reader that such a minimalist reference to the person's name could mean anything but the person himself. But they went and made the moniker even sillier and more inscrutable by lowercasing the the, as though every printed reference would be rendered in the typefaces and colors of the logo.

Those of us who make style decisions are used to slapping down capitalized thes and even eliminating the word altogether (a lot of us lowercase the the even in references to newspaper names in which it is uppercased, and The Ohio State University, to any sensible editor, is Ohio State University). For many publications, then, the people of "the Henry Ford" have made things easy. For publications that honor the Thes, however, there is an intriguing conundrum. When you cap the The in The New York Times, you're really doing so not because the word is capped in the flag, but because the word is present in the flag. We capitalize names, and if we are recognizing The as an integral part of the name, there you go. (We would write "Los Angeles Times" even if the flag said "los angeles Times.")

So, if you humor the NYT people, does it follow that you should ignore the wishes of the Henry Ford people and write The Henry Ford? I say yes.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

When 'Might' Makes Wrong

I blame all those moms and grade-school teachers who correct "Can I go to the bathroom?" to "May I go to the bathroom?" -- not for being wrong (it's a legitimate distinction), but for making us so vigilant about the "permission" connotation of may that we sometimes steer around the word in non-permission usages and crash into a misuse of might.

A minor problem is that might, according to some, expresses a lesser degree of probability than may. The big problem is "might have." "I may have left the keys in the car" leaves open the possibility that the keys are in the car. "I might have left the keys in the car" suggests that the catastrophe was averted, as in "I might have left the keys in the car . . . if you hadn't alerted me."

There are cases, as Bryan Garner points out, in which the issue of permission does present ambiguity. He points to "You may not come with me" as a case in which might would solve the problem. In general, however, use might, and especially might have, with caution.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

From 'Between' to 'And'

As I said in "Lapsing Into a Comma," it's silly to insist that the "between ... and" construction is inherently non-inclusive -- if you write about something happening between 1972 and 1974, I'm not one of those people who will sniff, "So it was 1973?"

Still, I keep those sniffers in mind when I'm editing, and I routinely do change "between ... and" to "from ... to" or simply "to." (I maintain that "from" should be left out when it results in something like "a sentence of from 10 to 20 years." I don't of-from.)

Bolstering my case against the sniffers is a construction I recently came across, one that demands "between ... and":

He said the seller acquired the coin between 1856 and 1858.
You can't very well say he acquired it from 1856 to 1858, and you can't very well insist that the phrase equals "in 1857."

While I'm on the topic, a few hyphen notes:

  • A "from" requires a "to." None of this "from 1972-1974" stuff.
  • Even worse is a mixing of the "from" and "between" constructions, as in "between 1972 to 1974" or "between 1972-1974."
  • The hyphen is fine when no such external force is present. You can have a 1980-1984 tenure or even a situation "in 1980-1984."
  • Strictly a style point, but I like "1980-1984" rather than "1980-84" now that we're in the 2000s.

  • Wednesday, September 14, 2005

    Foresee This

    If I ever write the Dictionary of Stupid Expressions, it will define "the foreseeable future" as a time when I will sure as hell have a Powerball ticket in my hand.

    Friday, September 09, 2005


    Paraphrasing to protect the guilty, I present you with a fascinatingly bad Moebius strip of a sentence:

    John Smith, a former firefighter, said he believes that was not true.
    OK, so he believes it, and . . . d'oh! How about he thinks that was not true?

    A lot of us, it seems, have had a lot of nonsense, sometimes contradictory, drummed into our heads about supposed distinctions between "thinking" and "believing" and "feeling." I'm not a big fan of "feeling," I admit, but I'll save the discussion of those nuances for another time.

    My point here is that "believe" has an unfortunate transitive property that can result in the kind of rhetorical roller-coaster ride you see above, and that search-and-replace editors need to keep that property in mind before they go mindlessly replacing every "think" with a "believe."

    The Smith example is especially interesting because it is immune to the fix that usually renders "believe" usable. "They believe Bush lied" does the Moebius/roller-coaster/insert-your-own-analogy thing, but "They believe that Bush lied" is just as good as "They think Bush lied."

    With Firefighter Smith, however, such a fix would result in an unfortunate "that that." In that case especially, there's nothing wrong with thinking.