Sunday, December 20, 2009

Ghosts of textbooks past

Sometimes you can almost guess which skeletal page from which shroud-wrapped edition of which greisly textbook is sending tremors through the writers downtown.

Does "or more appropriate, Secret Santa" sound a little strange? The workbook-standard concept ended up as question 14 (part 4) on the first-round version of the old J110 style exam, on which you're supposed to change a sentence-initial "more importantly" to "more important." Why? Because, erm, well ... it's short for "what is more important," so it can't be the perfectly logical sentence adverb "more importantly." I mean, why go to the trouble of figuring out why people do what they do when you can follow the textbook and get the point?

Another one from today's A section:

With fewer than two weeks left in the year, the U.S. Senate on Saturday passed legislation that extends until the end of February eligibility deadlines for some key unemployment benefits.

Why "fewer than" two weeks? Because the book says numbers get "more than" and "fewer than"! One problem with that, though, is that we're not counting time in weeks here. "Fewer than two weeks" is one week or no weeks, not the 13 days that were (was?) on the clock when the lede was written. "Less than" isn't just idiomatic, it makes better sense -- but why make sense when you have a rule to follow?

And this:

For Monday, a 60% chance of snow exists.

Ever wonder why there's so much existing in news language? Might be a relic of the j-academy's occasional flirtation with General Semantics -- specifically, the part in which "be" verbs turn people into some sort of Whorfian zombies. Any reason not to say "there is" a particular chance of snow? Just the shadow of a textbook.

None of which is to say there's no editing at all downtown. Here's one from a wire story on the health care debate:

He also noted he successful­ly had fended off attempts to provide for a government-run insurance option to compete with private insurers.

Want to know what the AP sent?

He also noted he had successfully fended off attempts to provide for a government-run insurance option to compete with private insurers.

That's not the sort of adverb I'd spend a lot of time defending (when you fend something off, you succeed at fending it off), but moving the poor thing is a waste of editorial time with no conceivable improvement in the sentence. If you want to show me you're working, bring me the head of an "it's official." Or go over to the sports desk and cudgel the person who kept 'em from having a "celebrate"-free cutline day.

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Blogger John Cowan said...

For that matter, to do anything at all is to do it successfully, so successfully is usually reserved for cases where there is something unexpected about the success, as a quick google for the word will plainly show. The OED gives the example His phlegmatic calm successfully concealed the fact [that he had at last obtained information that he had long sought] (I supply the bracketed words from the original source). Most people would fail to conceal their elation in such a case, so successfully carries some weight here. The OED's other examples are for more successfully, very successfully, and not successfully, which are not subject to this objection.

On split infinitives: see the comment I just posted at Motivated Grammar.

2:46 PM, December 20, 2009  
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