Tuesday, May 26, 2015

"Near miss" as Orwellian euphemism

(The Word column first published in The Boston Globe, February 8, 1998)

Tom Devaney of Lynnfield, speaking for many others, writes to beg, "Please tell me: What is a near miss? A far hit?"

It's one of the most nitpicked idioms of recent decades, poor old near miss, condemned both by ordinary readers and by professional literalists like Richard Lederer, whose idea of fun is dissecting expressions like head over heels, under water, and nonstop flight to expose their logical flaws.

But for the most part, usage commentators give their blessing to near miss. Though it's a relatively new coinage -- it appeared during World War II, to describe a bombing attempt that missed its target but landed near enough to do damage -- it follows naturally from the older near thing (1751), which also means, roughly, a close call. (Near thing, though perhaps more common in Britain, is still current in the United States; just weeks ago, a Spokane reporter wrote of a moose encounter, "It was a near thing.")

Indeed, the enemies of near miss seem to be misconstruing near, reading "it was a near miss" as if it meant (nonsensically) "we nearly missed colliding." But near here doesn't mean "almost," but simply "close," as in a (figurative) close shave.

That hasn't stopped critics from campaigning against near miss. During the air controllers' strike, a claim that near miss was the industry's way of downplaying the danger of collision made the rounds, appearing in William Safire's New York Times Magazine column in 1981.

In 1987, a Globe editorial writer took the conspiracy theory further, concluding that near miss was not only bad usage but "a classic euphemism, consciously used to play a trick on the mind" -- perhaps even to divert attention from the need for air safety improvements.

The Globe's use of near collision soared that year -- partly because of the number of near misses by aircraft, and partly, no doubt, because editors and writers were striving to practice what we had preached. But near miss was never beaten back, even in stories about aviation. (Sportswriters seem never to have noticed the debate -- and anyway, near collision would rarely be an appropriate alternative for them.)

Today, near miss is used interchangeably with near collision in most reports of air traffic incidents, though the Federal Aviation Administration seems to be leaning toward near collision in its formal statements.

So unless you write for a publication that bans near miss, you can ignore the word worriers and go with it. It's good English, it's standard English, it earns its keep. And besides, if you never use an English phrase that doesn't make stone-cold literal sense, you'll be very dull company indeed.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Lie vs. lay: It's so over

People who've mastered the use of the verbs lie and lay like to claim there's nothing to it, but the evidence suggests otherwise. In a post last year, John McIntyre said he had considered dropping the attempt to teach lie vs. lay to undergraduate editing students: “They do not hear the distinction."

And Geoff Pullum recently pointed out that lain – past participle of lie, as in I lie (down), I lay, I have lain – had become, in the words of his colleague, “the whom of verb morphology.” That is, like whom, the form lain confuses even educated writers and editors, and thus shows up as a hypercorrection. (Here’s one from P.D. James’s “A Taste for Death": "She had drawn off her black gloves and had lain them on her knee.” Yes, that should be laid.)

I made a similar point about lay vs. laid in a post last year, giving examples in which lay was subbed for laid:  “She lay it down on the counter,"  "he lay her down on the bed," and so on.

My latest example of the distinction's obsolescence comes from “Between You and Me,” Mary Norris's new book, wherein she explores the minutiae of copy editing as practiced at the New Yorker. Norris, I hasten to note, would not fumble lie and lay in real life. That's why I was fascinated to see her repeat, without comment, an example of Herman Melville getting it wrong, in “White-Jacket” (1850):
Often I have lain thus, when the fact, that if I laid much longer I would actually freeze to death, would come over me with such overpowering force as to break the icy spell, and starting to my feet, I would endeavour to go through the combined manual and pedal exercise to restore the circulation.”
“There are plenty of funky things going on in this sentence,” writes Norris, and I thought that use of laid would be at the top of her list. But no -- the subject is punctuation, not conjugation. As she explores the options, she quotes the opening of the sentence seven times (in four pages) without once noting that Melville should have written “if I lay much longer.”

Did Norris ignore it as off topic? (Me, I wouldn’t have been able to resist a parenthetical remark, if only from the ignoble motive of showing I hadn’t read past it.) Did she think readers wouldn’t notice? Did “laid” just sound OK in that particular narrator’s voice?

I’ll have to ask her. But whatever the answer, this looks like further evidence that conjugating lie and lay is more work than most English speakers are willing to do.  I have to agree with Pullum’s conclusion: When we tangle with intransitive lay and lain, “the wonder is that anybody ever gets any of it right. That’s what you should be surprised at.”

Friday, March 20, 2015

Stephen King scores a grammar win

Stephen King, novelist and resident of Maine and (sensible man!) Florida, has refuted the Maine governor’s claim that King had left the state to escape oppressive taxes.
"Governor LePage is full of the stuff that makes the grass grow green," the best-selling author told a local radio station. "Tabby and I pay every cent of our Maine state income taxes, and are glad to do it. We feel, as Governor LePage apparently does not, that much is owed from those to whom much has been given."
For me, that boldface sentiment is the news here: In its long quotation history, it has rarely been rendered grammatically. “From whom much is given, much is expected” – from John F. Kennedy Jr. -- is just one mangled example. You'd think a Bible quotation would get some respect, but it turns out the human mind has a hard time supplying the right number of prepositions and pronouns to say what this maxim intends.

My Globe column on the construction, from 1997, is paywalled, but never mind -- it’s quoted in Language Log’s extensive treatment of this Kennedy family favorite in all its crazy permutations. Check it out, and you’ll see why I say King deserves a grammar medal.

Monday, February 2, 2015

The problem with your "no problem" problem

NPR has been annoying and depressing me, lately, with its lowest-common-denominator approach to language watching. The new standards editor, Mark Memmott, kicked off the peevefest -- NPR's "Grammar Hall of Shame" -- a month ago, with a post about mixing up I and me (and, yes, an invitation to share your well-worn peeves once again). Now comes a post on the NPR blog, under "culture," that repeats the same old complaints about responding to "Thanks" with "No problem." 

Hoping to detour NPR off this well-trodden low road, I've been tweeting them earlier articles on "no problem," including mine from 2007 and Ben Zimmer's (which quotes and links to Erin McKean's). In case those aren't enough to demonstrate that this horse is, if not yet dead, at least thoroughly beaten, I'm also posting my first effort on the subject. (It appeared in the Boston Globe way back in October 1997, and is thus behind the paywall.) 

I know: Peevers gonna peeve, as long as they can get a few amens from the flock. But here's the truth: You don't like "no problem" because it's newish (only 40 or 50 years old). So you roll it around your brain thinking up ways to construe it as dismissive, inadequate, brusque. Pretty soon you're accusing some (probably) young person -- one who did something deserving of your thanks -- of being insufficiently appreciative of your gratitude. I don't think "no problem" is usually rude, but recasting it as an insult? Definitely rude.

The Word 
Different strokes for different primates
(October 26, 1997)

When it comes to everyday pleasantries, it doesn't take much to turn us unpleasant.

"That's not what I asked him!" complains the hostess whose offer of a drink is refused with, "I'm fine."

"Who is she to tell me to have a nice day?" grumbles the shopper irritated by a cashier's sendoff.

And "No problem," to some thankers, sounds like a grudging substitute for "You're welcome," even though such deprecating responses -- de rien, de nada, nichevo, it's nothing -- are common around the world.

The real problem with no problem and other linguistic innovations is not what they say, though. After all, nobody minds being bidden good morning, no matter how bad the day's news or weather (though the occasional joker will play on the gap between convention and reality by responding, "What's good about it?"). No, it's the very novelty of the wording that irritates. It forces our attention on phrases that should be seamless conventions, slipping by unnoticed as they oil the hinges of daily discourse.

One reason may be that such ritual words are not quite language, but something more like a verbal gesture. In his new book, "Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language," British psychologist Robin Dunbar proposes that speech evolved as a substitute for contact: Its purpose is not conveying facts -- "there's a herd of bison down by the lake" -- but extending the reach of the grooming behavior that cements relationships in other primate societies.

By using conversation, instead of stroking and louse-picking, to demonstrate friendship and seal alliances, says Dunbar, humans gained a survival advantage. We don't have to spend hours of each day in physical contact with other members of our tribes, but can "groom at a distance," nurturing relationships via conversation while we travel, hunt (or shop) for food, lay bricks, nurse babies.

Dunbar's hypothesis offers comfort to anyone who has ever felt guilty for gossiping instead of turning the talk to global warming or transportation policy. Some two-thirds of all conversations, he says, are about other people, not abstract issues -- a reflection of the basic biological purpose of speech. His theory also suggests why an unexpected response to a conventional greeting might upset you: Like a sudden pinch from a grooming partner, it startles instead of soothes -- just rubs you the wrong way, so to speak.

There's evidence for this view in contemporary advice columns, too, which are filled with tales of relationships wrecked by untimely displays of verbal originality. In stressful situations -- bereavement, pregnancy, divorce -- the human animal seems especially prone to misunderstandings, which is why Miss Manners and her allies urge us to rely on standard-issue comments, the verbal equivalent of "there, there," at such times.

In other eras and places, of course, the rules were far more explicit. The discussion of "U" (for upper-class) and "non-U" language habits in the book "Noblesse Oblige," edited by Nancy Mitford, created a sensation in the '50s, as readers on both sides of the Atlantic studied the subtle clues (say house, not home; vegetables, not greens) by which class would tell.

Pleased to meet you, the only greeting addressed in the essay that inspired the book, "is a very frequent non-U response to the greeting How d'you do?" Professor Alan S. C. Ross declares. "U-speakers normally just repeat the greeting; to reply to the greeting (e.g. with Quite well, thank you) is non-U."

In our big, babbling democracy, it's not so simple. That kid who says "No problem!" may be contentedly non-U -- or just hipper than thou. (In any case, we should be getting over our no problem problem by now. William Safire, the New York Times' word maven, reported in 1974 that no problem was already being bandied about in the USSR.)

As for those other irritating phrases, patience is recommended. They will either fade away, or become as natural as 'Morning and 'Night. In the meantime, take care, and have a nice day.