Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Yeah. What They Said.

The Wall Street Journal, too, is explaining to readers the world beyond Subject-Verb Agreement 101. I offer the following entry from that paper's Style & Substance newsletter, in case it clarifies something that I failed to drive home in all my exasperated entries on the "a bunch of us are going to the mall" topic. (One bit of dissent: I agree that the decision can be subjective, but this isn't among the subjects on which I advise avoiding the issue altogether.)

One article said a group of analysts were gathered. ... Another said the panel of physicians have met. ... A headline said A new wave of philanthropists are rushing to spend their money before they die.

Shouldn’t the verbs in these examples have been singular, reflecting the subjects of the clauses, a reader asks?

Group and panel in these cases are collective nouns, with intervening plural nouns before the verbs, and the general rule is to use a singular verb if the idea of oneness predominates and a plural verb if the idea of several or many predominates. As we have observed before, the decision is usually subjective, and the easiest solution often is to change the sentence: Physicians on a panel have met. ...

The stylebook’s entry on collective nouns advises that with words such as variety, number and total, a rule of thumb is to use a singular verb when the article the precedes the noun and a plural verb when the article a is used.

If one extends this standard to other nouns, the sentences in question should be: A group of analysts were gathered and the panel of physicians has met. ... Which seems like the logical solution.

The headline with new wave was clearly right in using the plural verb are and the plural pronouns their and they -- thus avoiding this sort of absurdity: A new wave of philanthropists is rushing to spend its money before it dies.

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?

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Stating the Obvious

Stories that mention price ranges often include superfluous marketing-speak:

Houses in the development are priced at $259,990 to $399,990, depending on the model, options and lot selected.

As opposed to depending on the spin of a "Wheel of Fortune"-style contraption or depending on the buyer's religion and skin color? Unless a "depending on" clause is going to tell readers something they don't already know, skip it.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Terms of Endearment

Call it precision or call it silly literalism, but I tend to change gay marriage to same-sex marriage when the subject is the legal status of such a union. After all, a law regarding the practice would apply to a couple of straight guys who decided to get hitched for whatever reason, but it wouldn't apply to a marriage between a gay guy and a lesbian. Still, it's gay people who are affected by bans on same-sex marriage, and so I don't lose sleep over gay marriage as a headline shortcut or a second-reference change-up.

At the Washington Times, where I worked for eight years, gay is tolerated for space reasons but homosexual is strongly preferred. Even more strangely, the Times still puts quotation marks around the word marriage whenever it involves same-sex couples. (That practice made sense, in a way, when it referred to commitment ceremonies that carried no legal standing. It's nonsensical, however, when the very issue is whether same-sex couples are granted legal standing. You can ban same-sex marriage, but how in the world do you ban same-sex "marriage"?)

I once derided the phrase "gays and lesbians" as being akin to "people and women," and indeed I still prefer to see it recast as "gay men and lesbians," but I don't see any point in changing a phrase such as "gay and lesbian couples." While gay certainly can refer to women (as it does in "gay marriage," and as, yep, Time magazine and Ellen DeGeneres made clear), "gay couples" risks being read as "gay male couples." Better to commit a tiny redundancy than to sacrifice clarity.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

And Don't Get Me Started on 'Forward Slash'

In "Lapsing Into a Comma," I mocked my neighborhood coffee bar for using the unnecessary retronym "country muffin" to distinguish a muffin from an English muffin. After all, I pointed out, referring to an English muffin as a muffin would be like referring to table tennis as "tennis."

The sad thing, half a decade later, is that hearing table tennis referred to as tennis would no longer surprise me:

  • I've heard people say "custard" when they mean the form of ice cream known as frozen custard. Custard is a very real and extant substance that still needs a name of its own, people. Do you refer to ice cream as "cream"?

  • I heard a radio host introduce a coach from "the Olympics -- the Special Olympics!" The second part was presented as an amplifier, not a correction.

    On a lighter retronym note, I recently caught the "Simpsons" episode in which Kent Brockman refers to "sky stars" to distinguish the luminous celestial objects from the likes of "Matthew Modine and Charlene Tilton."

    Hey, let's have a contest! If stars need to be called sky stars, what modifier do we need to insert before "custard" to make it clear we mean custard? And how about "the [blank] Olympics"?