Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Not Quite a Damn Lie. More of a Darn Lie.

You may have read last night or this morning about the December statistic for U.S. job openings being near a three-year high. That's literally true, but it's, well, kind of a stupid thing to say. Because the actual three-year high was the statistic for September. In other words, the December number was the highest in three months. If you want to say the December number approached the three-year high set in September, fine. But "near a three-year high" is just misleading. Woo-hoo! Things haven't been this good since ... oh, I see, just the other day. It's also potentially ambiguous: Especially once it's run through the headline grinder, it's apt to lead some readers to believe you're talking about the number being the highest in nearly three years, which is a different thing altogether. (That headline grinder, you may notice, also led some outlets to just dispense with the "nearly" and proclaim this a three-year high. Now, that's a damn lie.)

I wrote some years back about a similar error in the [blank]est-since-[blank] department, one that resulted in understatement rather than overstatement. (After searching frantically for that blog entry I knew I wrote, I finally found my rant in "The Elephants of Style.") When Roy Jones Jr. won a version of the world heavyweight boxing title at 193 pounds in 2003, USA Today called him "the lightest heavyweight champion since 205-pound Michael Spinks in the mid-1980s." Of course, 193 is lighter than 205. It's also lighter than 199 3/4, which is what Spinks weighed when he beat Larry Holmes for the title. While it is interesting that there was another example of a not-so-heavy heavyweight champ in the interim, Jones's fake title (Lennox Lewis was the real champion, but that's another rant) made him the lightest champ since 180-something-pound Floyd Patterson way back in the late '50s and early '60s.

Before we start arguing about whether since can mean because (spoiler: it can), maybe we should all get on the same page about what since means when it means "since."