Monday, February 15, 2010

How many is that in real money?

Ohio's Greatest Home Newspaper heard something over its shoulder and overcorrected just a little too much in the lede hed here. Somebody's thinking numbers need to get a "many," not a "much," but forgetting that not all numbers are alike. We're interested in the amount of snow you get -- how "much" snow -- not in whether the weather gods parcel it out to you an inch at a time.

That's why you ask "how much" something costs, not "how many dollars" it costs, even though you're going to pay the bill in dollars. It's one of those Sam Spade rules of editing: Five hundred dollars is a lot of money. Nine inches is a lot of snow. It's one unit, not a bunch of units. The right hed would have been the instinctive one: As much as 9 inches.

What's the second hed doing here? I'm still looking for a term for that. It's letting two things get grammared together when they shouldn't be.* "12" isn't modifying "Afghan civilian deaths" in any meaningful way; it's not like 12 is a tipping point, or like it's these 12 deaths (and not those others) that are causing complications. The hed's providing two separate bits of information: 12 Afghan civilians were killed, and civilian deaths are complicating the military push. It's not trying to make the these-not-those connection, but it's doing so anyway. Easy answer: "Civilian deaths/complicating/military push/in Afghanistan."

Is it less information? Not really; it's just information that goes together.

* You linguistics people can help out any time, you know.

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2 Comments:

Blogger Eli said...

Not sure what you're referring to when you say that "two things [are] get[ting] grammared together when they shouldn't be". All I see is some useless and possibly misleading information in that hed, but nothing ungrammatical.

On the subject of the first hed, though, the distinction you articulate is that between count nouns and mass nouns. Mass nouns have to be measured in units and have no semantically transparent plural form; count nouns are the nouns that everyone thinks of when (and if) they thing of nouns. I think this hed is extremely marginal (grammatically speaking) and could be made better with "How much more snow? Try as many as 9 inches", but that's still marginal to me. Switching "much" for "many" is the better fix to be sure.

-A Linguist

5:37 PM, February 16, 2010  
Blogger The Ridger, FCD said...

I think what Fred means is that there are two distinct notions here, but they're being packaged as one, grammatically correct, unit, not that there's a grammar error. "12 Afghan civilian deaths have occurred" and "civilian deaths are complicating things" is not the same as "12 Afghan civilian deaths are complicating things": the two "civilian death" phrases aren't the same thing. They are the same words but they have different referents.

It's a bit like the classic "this man is disappearing" resulting from "American Indians are disappearing/this man is an American Indian". You can't ALWAYS merge "identical" elements.

10:43 AM, February 17, 2010  

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