or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Editorial Cartoons

Sometimes all it takes is one wrong word.

My eagle-eyed friend Ralph pointed out a Toronto Star piece about a movie called Nuremberg: Its Lesson For Today, which contains the following sentence:

The 1948 documentary revealed in the starkest of terms the extent of Nazi complicity in the war and Hitler’s genocidal policy against the Jews and others.

Ralph had this to say:

"Complicity" seems absurd here. How can you describe the perpetrator as being complicit in his own crime? Either Howell doesn't know anything about the English language or he knows nothing of 20th century history.

And I would have to agree. "Complicit" seems like an inadequate word, to say the least: You can't be complicit in a crime which you have masterminded, engineered, and brought to fruition. Complicity is for accomplices--the two words are even the same word, for heaven's sake.

An editor should have fixed this.


Another newpaper, another continent, another kind of mistake: here's are a couple of sentences from an interview with tenor Marcelo Alvarez from The Times Online:

Alvarez almost walked out of Christof Loy’s staging of Lucia di Lammermoor seven years ago. Booed by the audience, it updated Verdi to the 1920s, with an orgy to boot.

It is hard to see how a staging of Lucia could considered an update of Verdi, since the opera was written by Donizetti. (The two composers weren't even writing in the same period or the same style: Donizetti's last opera premiered only four years after Verdi's first.)

An editor should have fixed this.


From the invariably thought-provoking Harper's Index in the May 2010 issue:

Number of grammatical errors found by a retired high school teacher in a single issue of The Miami Herald in January: 133.

Safe to say there's no editor on duty at the Herald, then.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Particle Physics

"Is 'practices' some kind of synonym for 'particles'?" Jim just asked me.

"No. Why?"

"Because that's how it's used in this news story."

The first three paragraphs of the Times Online story (for context):

Families have been told by to stay indoors if ash from the Icelandic volcano begins to settle on the ground.

The World Health Organisation warned that ash, which has already reached the ground in northern Scotland, is potentially dangerous and if inhaled could cause respiratory problems.

The minute practices, which have the odour of rotten eggs, are expected settle further south during the day.

I think I can tell you with some certainty what happened in that last sentence. The writer made the perfectly usual mistake of transposing a pair of letters in the word "particles", and wrote "praticles" by accident. We all do it. Then the writer presumably sent the story through the spell-checker, which perhaps offered a list of corrections to the nonexistent word, the first of which was "practices", and the writer simply clicked some sort of assent instead of looking at what was being done. Add a complete lack of editorial oversight, and voila: a sentence which makes no sense unless you stop and think about it for longer than ought to be necessary.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Time Travel

Sloppy writing wherever you encounter it is bad enough, but sloppy professional writing is shameful.

Here is the lead sentence from an Associated Press piece about a new production of an old opera which premiered last night:

It takes six tenors and one phenomenal soprano to perform Gioachino Rossini's "Armida," which helps explain why the Metropolitan Opera didn't get around to mounting this glorious work for 193 years.

Well, no. The reason the Metropolitan Opera didn't get around to staging the work in 1817 (which is to say 2010 - 193) is that the Met didn't exist then. It was established in 1880.

The writer, Mike Silverman, was just looking for an interesting lead, a hook, but it didn't work, as even the most cursory job of editing would have shown. There really is no excuse for that kind of clunkiness.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Come Again?

From the ever-reliable, ever-hilarious Failblog:


In a completely unrelated development, I was in an electronics store today and there were a bunch of Nintendo DS games prominently displayed: one of them, I surmised, was called "Brain Quest", but it had a large red price sticker on it which covered part of the title, turning it into something which I think would be of at least as much interest to your average 12-year-old boy:

Friday, April 09, 2010

Wake-up Call

Here's a particularly confusing example of headline-speak from a story in this morning's local paper:

Accused in stabbing heads to trial

Since "accused" is usually a verb but is here a noun, and "heads" is often a noun but is here a verb (and since "stabbing heads" looks like a dreadful phrase of some sort, possibly an idiom), the whole headline is just a recipe for bleary-eyed early-edition confusion.

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Aspirate Overdose

Yesterday (or maybe it was the day before) I got an email from Amazon.ca suggesting a book I might like to own based on another book I had ordered from them. The proffered title was "A Little Blacklist of Literary Faults" by Ambrose Bierce. While it did seem like the kind of thing I would like, it occurred to me that Bierce was out of copyright, and the chances were that I would find the book for free online, which turned out to be the case.

I started to read it, and what do you know? I disagreed with his very first blacklisted fault!

A for An. "A hotel." "A heroic man." Before an unaccented aspirate use an. The contrary usage in this country comes of too strongly stressing our aspirates.

That might--might--have been the case in 1909, when the book was published, but not even a generation later, Henry Fowler, in his revolutionary 1926 Dictionary of Modern English Usage, called this position "pedantic", and it's clear from Bierce's tone that the aspirated "h-", and the corresponding "a" rather than "an", was already common in his time, and that he didn't like it. A true prescriptive grammarian!

It hardly needs noting than in English, a vowel sound is preceded by the indefinite article "an", while a consonantal sound takes "a". There are no exceptions to this rule.

Words with an unaspirated "h-" in English are from French, and there aren't that many of them left: "hour", "herb" (in North American English), "honest", and "heir" (along with "heiress" and "heirloom") come to mind, and there are probably a few more, but only a few. In contrast, there are a great many words beginning with "h-" in English that are and invariably aspirated, mostly from German: "house", "home", "hot" and "heat", "hail", "holy", and "hack", for starters.

And then there is a third category: words that used to be pronounced with an unaspirated "h-", but now, through a process called "hypercorrection", are aspirated. These are also French borrowings, of course, and include Bierce's maligned "hotel" and "heroic", along with "herb" (in British English), "humble", "historic", and "human". It is possible to precede these words with "an", but only if you drop the aitch. If you hear someone say "an 'istoric event", then you may criticize the lack of an aspirate, but you can't fault their indefinite article. However if they say "an historic event", then you know that they are mistaken, or pretentious, or both.

Only tangentially related, but amusing: "oboe" is the Italian word for the musical instrument that in French was called the "hautbois", literally "high wood", because it was the highest-voiced of the woodwinds. "Haut" has, of course, an unaspirated "h-", and "hautbois" was absorbed into English as "hautboy", pronounced "oh boy", before the Italian term took over in the early 18th century.