March 18, 2004

One For the Textualists

by Chris Geidner

The Boston Globe ran a great piece last month about how Americans misuse language:

"If language is not correct, then what is said is not what is meant, and what ought to be done remains undone," Confucius observed 2,500 years ago. These days, when our communications are ever more hurried and cryptic and indirect, it's even more important that we not be misunderstood.

Such such advice is all the more important, obviously, for those of us seeking to join a profession seeking to apply, in large part, vague or even contradictory statutes resulting from legislative compromises to the precise specifics of real-world problems.

In a "circle of life" moment this afternoon, I saw the Curmudgeonly Clerk had noticed the article as well. The circle, however, became clear to me as I recalled the last time I had seen "curmudgeon" in print: when I read "Lapsing into a Comma: A Curmudgeon's Guide to the Many Things That Can Go Wrong in Print -- and How to Avoid Them," written by The Washington Post's National Desk copy chief, Bill Walsh, while working as a copy editor at the paper.

It still pains me when I read such prases as "children under 10 eat free" and "the meeting will begin around noon." It's "younger than 10" and "about noon" because both under and around refer to a directional or physical distinction, not a temporal one.

Other than lawyers, there are few who can be as curmudgeonly about language as copy editors.

A final note: Walsh has apparently written a new book, "The Elephants of Style," (think Strunk and White) which is sure to be a good read.

March 18, 2004 02:13 PM | TrackBack

That's why Justice Scalia uses the "plain meaning" rule.

Posted by: Brian at March 18, 2004 02:58 PM

I agree with you, Chris. Why not strive for improvement. I suppose, though, that the goal of the restaurant in your example is to inform potential customers that children younger than 10 eat free. Because all people will understand that "under" means "younger than," the restaurant achieves its goal. With that, it's satisfied.

Posted by: Sean S at March 18, 2004 03:00 PM


1. "My essay came in under 10 words" (or minutes or whatever); with

2. My essay came in in fewer than 10 words.

Also, cf. "That was right around my birthday."

I don't think effective English has to observe any hard and fast distinctions between temporal and spatial terms. The only relevant question is whether the usage in question creates unwanted ambiguity.

Posted by: Tadlow Windsor II at March 18, 2004 03:18 PM

The thing that gets me about the “around noon” example is: what is that supposed to mean? Whether “around noon” is a spatial or temporal issue, I think we all understand the meaning. But, when is the meeting? At noon? At 12:05 pm? At 11:50 am? I’m a busy person, if the meeting’s at noon, I’ll be there. If the best you can do is around noon, get back to me when you’ve figured it out.

Incidentally, I think more precision in written materials would indeed be a good thing. Hunting around the Internet, I have located the following examples (granted they provide for great humor, but the authors/editors should be mortified):

Tiger Woods plays with own balls, Nike says

Psychics predict world didn’t end yesterday

Statistics show that teen pregnancy drops off significantly after age 25

Jane Fonda to teens: Use head to avoid pregnancy

Grandmother of 8 makes hole in one

Dealers will hear car talk at noon [not around noon]

Never withhold herpes from a loved one

Posted by: Fool at March 18, 2004 03:44 PM

Obviously, Fool, I also would prefer the meeting be “at” noon. A similar, but naturally occurring, example is with crimes: The man was robbed around noon.

The “at” comes into play even here, though, when people improve the preceding to read: The man was robbed at about noon.

It either happened “at” noon or “about” noon. It didn't happen “at about” noon.

Posted by: Chris Geidner at March 18, 2004 04:36 PM

Of course, that should be "at approximately noon."

Posted by: PG at March 18, 2004 05:16 PM

Interesting distinctions-- too bad they haven't held for centuries. (See the trackback).

Posted by: Will Baude at March 18, 2004 06:20 PM

That is certainly true, Chris. The difference in the “man was robbed” example would, of course, be that it is a matter of recall, which is imperfect. Thus, “around noon” is [more] appropriate unless you know for a certainty it was exactly noon.

On the other hand, with the meeting example, if you are planning a meeting to take place in the future, using “about” or “around” should be unnecessary because you are not trying to remember a particular time; you are trying to bring people together at a set time.

For the record, I entirely agree with you.

Posted by: Fool at March 18, 2004 06:26 PM

Yes, Will, but remember that the point I was making was about clarity. I would bet that definition 22. (under) & 4. (around) from the OED are not nearly as primary a definition as are those for "younger" and "about."

Posted by: Chris Geidner at March 18, 2004 06:30 PM

Maybe it's just me; I can't remember the last time I was confused by the phrase "about noon".

Posted by: Will Baude at March 19, 2004 01:32 AM

The Globe got it wrong.
"Livid" is metaphoric. Angry people shout, and they can shout until they're blue in the face, at which point they'd be livid.

Posted by: Eimi at March 19, 2004 01:39 AM

Will, I said "about noon" was correct. :o) It was "around noon" -- unless Noon is a city in Arizona -- about which I complained.

Posted by: Chris Geidner at March 19, 2004 11:07 AM

Will seems entirely correct. Clarity? Huh. Precisely as Will put it, who is confused? In any event there are no absolute distinctions between the "spatial" and the "temporal." See, e.g., Einstein. So, as a matter of pure "clarity," either would do.


Posted by: Jarvis at March 21, 2004 09:07 PM
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