Thursday, August 6, 2015

You may be a who, or you may be a that

(Originally published in the Boston Sunday Globe, August 24, 2003.) 
THE WORD / Jan Freeman: Who that?

"The man that is failing the people more than anyone is Gray Davis," said fledgling candidate Arnold Schwarzenegger of the governor he hopes to supplant. Reader Dave Furlong, a California voter himself, would have changed that sentence: He liked our recent treatment of which vs. that, he e-mailed, "but I wish you had addressed that/who also, as in 'Everyone that wants to go, line up here.' In editing, I find it's a very common error."

Very common, yes; an error, only sometimes. Arnold may not be a native speaker, but here his English is traditional, if debatable. The insistence on who for people, on the grounds that calling a man (or woman or child) that is somehow insulting, is a fairly modern prejudice.

"A woman that deliberates is lost," Joseph Addison wrote in 1713. The Oxford English Dictionary also coughs up O. Henry's "I'm no traitor to a man that's been my friend" (1910) and Ring Lardner's "Imagine being married to a woman that plays five hundred like she does" (1924).

Some stylebooks, including the Globe's, do tell writers to avoid that in referring to people. But throughout the English millennium -- from before the Wycliffe Bible's "the people that dwelt in darkness" (1382) to "The girl that I marry" (Irving Berlin, 1946), that has been a people pronoun.

That had a brief fall from grace in the 16th century, when a fad for using who or whom instead swept the English literati (including Addison, who revised his writings to reflect his new faith). But by the 20th century, that was back in favor, as the usage-edict record attests.*

In a 1906 American grammar textbook, John Wisely tells pupils that who "expresses persons or personified things," while that is for "inanimate objects, lower animals, persons." Fowler, in the 1926 edition of Modern English Usage, confesses that he'd like to see even more use of that in constructions like "the distinguished visitors that the Crawfords had."

Bergen and Cornelia Evans, in A Dictionary of Contemporary American Usage (1957), note mildly that some writers prefer who where persons are concerned: After centuries of "Our Father that art in heaven" (or "Our Father which art"), the Lord's Prayer now usually says who. But even Miss Thistlebottom, Theodore Bernstein's personification of grammar-school dogma, didn't draw a clear line on that: She would have told you, Bernstein says, that "which normally refers to things, who to persons, and that to either."

In his 1996 updating of Fowler, Robert Burchfield tries to make it simple: "Normally use who . . . following a human antecedent and that (or which) following an inanimate antecedent. Either who or that may be used when the antecedent is animate but not human, or when the antecedent is human but representative of a class."

Those guidelines (which would call Schwarzenegger's usage wrong) set forth a conceptual rationale, making the choice of who or that dependent on the abstractness of the pronoun's referent. So the barking dog that keeps you awake, two streets over, is different from the dog who goes out for a romp with you every day, an individual with a name. A cyborg that's on the assembly line becomes a who when it's programmed as a hunk. But unless it's banned by your local authority, that is a pronoun for people too -- some of the people, at least, some of the time.

*There's a detailed discussion of personal that in the indispensable Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage. I can't imagine why I didn't mention it here. 

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

"Shimmy" makes its move

In last week’s After Deadline column, Philip Corbett's list of recent goofs in the New York Times included this:
Carrying their passports, a loaf of bread and a plastic bag filled with orange juice, the men shimmied across the ship’s mooring rope that night ... 
Tsk-tsk, said Corbett: "'Shimmy' is a dance move involving a whole lot of shaking. To climb using hands and legs is to 'shinny' or just 'shin.'"

I learned this distinction too, as a young editor. But recently, I've begun to wonder whether it will -- or should -- survive.

My doubts began as I read coverage of the New York prisoners David Sweat and Richard Matt, whose daring escape involved "balancing on catwalks and shimmying down pipes" (in the New York Times) and shimmying "down an underground pipe" (in the Wall Street Journal). At first I took this as an example of the meaning's migration -- shimmy being used for shinny -- but I was enlightened when I read more detailed accounts. The two escapees actually exited inside the pipes, wiggling along like Little Egypt ("she crawls on her belly like a reptile!”). It was no dance move, but it wasn't "shinning," either. 

In many news examples, it's true, people who "shimmy" up flagpoles and down drainpipes are really shinning or shinnying. But is shimmy really "a grave mistake," as Baltimore Sun blogger John McIntyre once decreed, in such cases? Shinning up a pole requires a fair amount of hip-waggling, even if it's not done to music. As descriptions of bodily movement, the verbs overlap quite a bit; maybe it's not worth the effort to keep them separated.

Whatever the reason, shimmy has moved in on shin(ny) in a big way. I compared them on Google's Ngram Viewer in several different conjugations, and all the results were variations on this pattern: Shimmy rising in the '60s, then more steeply in the '80s, to challenge shin and shinny

And the usage mavens have been looking the other way. Shimmy vs. shin(ny) does appear in Paul Brians's list of Common Errors in English Usage, but it's not in the NYT stylebook, or the AP, or in Garner's Modern American Usage. I checked five or six of my other go-to usage references without finding it.

So maybe it's time to add shimmy and shin(ny) to McIntyre's excellent list of "dog whistle edits" -- the distinctions only copy editors know and love -- and admit that for increasing numbers of readers, shimmy is a perfectly good verb to describe wiggling one's way up (or down) a rope or pole. 

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.”