Of serial killers and grammar

I recently listened to the audio book Evil Has a Name about the Golden State Killer, the guy whose rapes and murders terrorized California in the 1970s and 1980s. The book is essentially an audio documentary, featuring interviews with investigators, victims, and others.

Here’s the grammar issue: Not one person in the book gets the lie/lay distinction correct. And this comes up a lot: The victim was laying in bed, She went to lay down next to her husband, etc. I’m beginning to think this is a lost cause.

OK, I’ve got that off my chest. Now, about the serial killer: the suspect’s name is Joseph James DeAngelo. They interviewed a few of the guy’s neighbors and co-workers. And none of them said anything like: “Oh yeah, I could totally see him being a serial killer.” He didn’t sound like the nicest guy in the world–just an old guy with a temper. So what’s going on? One would have expected the serial killer to be a loner, a drifter, in and out of jail, an obvious creep. Maybe his crime spree ended because he was murdered or committed suicide.

But no. He was married all through the crime spree. He had three kids. He paid for their education. He had a steady job as a mechanic for Save Mart supermarkets from 1990 until his retirement. He owned a home. He took care of his lawn. Apparently he had no criminal record. The book, alas, doesn’t get anywhere close to making sense of this particular set of facts. As far as I know, the ex-wife and children haven’t said anything publicly. Did they know anything? Suspect anything? If not, how did he manage to compartmentalize this aspect of his life?

We’ll know more eventually, I suppose. But right now it’s pretty darn puzzling.

Advertisements

Is it “the lesser of x or y” or “the lesser of x and y”?

Our executive VP and the VP of Sales couldn’t agree. They were trying to write a pricing letter where they wanted to specify two different payment options. So, should they say “The customer will pay the lesser of option A or option B,” or “The customer will pay the lesser of option A and option B”?

They brought the case to me for judgment.

Me: “I’m pretty sure it’s option A or option B.”

VP of Sales: “But that makes no sense: There are two options: A and B. You pick one on of them — so it’s A and B.”

Me: “But the logic is different here. You’re making a comparison. You don’t say: ‘Which do you like less: broccoli and spinach?’ It’s one or the other.”

Executive VP, with big grin: “Yay! I win!”

Just to be sure I checked afterwards with my cold-eyed editors. They all agreed with me, which was a huge relief. When I told the VP of Sales, he grumbled, “Maybe we need new editors.”

This site also agrees with me. Yay, I win!

One cannot underestimate Feynman’s contributions to physics

I was listening to a podcast about the physicist Richard Feynman and I heard some professor utter this sentence. He meant the exact opposite, of course. What he wants us to understand is that Feynman’s contributions to physics were immense — that is to say, even if you tried, you couldn’t overestimate them. Garner’s Modern American Usage notes similar similar sentences from the Post, the Times, and the Globe. He compares it to the phrase “could care less”, which in informal usage is understood to mean the oppose of what the words seem to imply — that is, we use it to mean “couldn’t care less”.  Garner rates “could care less” a 3, which means “Widespread but still considered incorrect”. He rates “impossible to underestimate” a 1 — that is, “Rejected”.

I have trouble with “impossible to underestimate” myself, so I have sympathy for the professor on the podcast. There’s some kind of double negative going on in the phrase that makes the logic hard to work out. If you just said, “Don’t underestimate Feynman’s contributions…” the usage would be correct, but “impossible to underestimate” just heads in the wrong direction.

One space or two?

Between the first draft of my novel and the second I went cold turkey and switched from two spaces after a sentence (which I’ve been doing for half a century or so) to one space. I did a global search-and-replace through my manuscript and changed all eleventy-billion occurrences of “period-space-space” to “period-space”.  I typed all my new sentences with one space between them. I switched over to single spaces in my emails as well. And I will never look back.

Yes, I know, this was an amazing achievement. Appreciate the congrats. I did it mainly because those extra spaces were going away when the document was prepared for publication. Also, at work I work on a lot of documents with multiple authors, and it is moderately important to be consistent. Also, I just wanted to show myself what I was capable of.

Anyway, here’s a study that purports to show a slight benefit to two spaces after a period. This gets the authors a feature article in the Washington Post, but the study has lots of issues, as this wonderful article in Lifehacker points out. The key issue is that the study uses a monospace font. But nobody nowadays uses a monospace font, except for showing computer code or the like!

[R]eading a proportional font and a monospace font are two completely different scenarios. The study even acknowledges this: “It is possible that the effects of punctuation spacing seen in the current experiment may differ when presented in other font conditions.” Of course it’s possible—that’s what the whole debate is about! Why would you use Courier New!

So the study is pretty bogus, but I suppose the money from the two-space lobby will continue to roll in, and the researchers will go on speaking tours, write best-selling books, appear on major talk shows, etc. Good for them. But I will have the quiet satisfaction of having done the right thing by switching to one space, even at enormous personal cost. Not all heroes wear capes.

“Analysts poured over satellite images…”

That’s the sentence I read in this morning’s Boston Globe, reprinting this Washington Post article. Oddly, the online Post article spells the word correctly: pored. Here we can read about the difference.

Did the Post article originally have the same error, and someone subsequently corrected the article on its web site? Or was the article at the Post correct all along? That meant someone at the Globe must have read the phrase, decided that “pored over” couldn’t possibly be correct, and made the change to show that folks in Boston know how to spell.

Either way, sheesh.

Every day Twitter shows us that famous people, including writers, don’t know how to spell. That’s fine. Everyone needs an editor. Where are they at the Globe?

Silly grammar jokes

For silly grammar people, of whom I am definitely one.

A dangling participle walks into a bar. Enjoying a cocktail and chatting with the bartender, the evening passes pleasantly.

A bar was walked into by the passive voice.

An oxymoron walked into a bar, and the silence was deafening.

Two quotation marks walk into a “bar.”

A malapropism walks into a bar, looking for all intensive purposes like a wolf in cheap clothing, muttering epitaphs and casting dispersions on his magnificent other, who takes him for granite.

Hyperbole totally rips into this insane bar and absolutely destroys everything.

A question mark walks into a bar?

A non sequitur walks into a bar. In a strong wind, even turkeys can fly.

Papyrus and Comic Sans walk into a bar. The bartender says, “Get out — we don’t serve your type.”

A mixed metaphor walks into a bar, seeing the handwriting on the wall but hoping to nip it in the bud.

A comma splice walks into a bar, it has a drink and then leaves.

Three intransitive verbs walk into a bar. They sit. They converse. They depart.

A synonym strolls into a tavern.

At the end of the day, a cliché walks into a bar — fresh as a daisy, cute as a button, and sharp as a tack.

A run-on sentence walks into a bar it starts flirting. With a cute little sentence fragment.

Falling slowly, softly falling, the chiasmus collapses to the bar floor.

A figure of speech literally walks into a bar and ends up getting figuratively hammered.

An allusion walks into a bar, despite the fact that alcohol is its Achilles heel.

The subjunctive would have walked into a bar, had it only known.

A misplaced modifier walks into a bar owned by a man with a glass eye named Ralph.

The past, present, and future walked into a bar. It was tense.

A dyslexic walks into a bra.

A verb walks into a bar, sees a beautiful noun, and suggests they conjugate. The noun declines.

An Oxford comma walks into a bar, where it spends the evening watching the television getting drunk and smoking cigars.

A simile walks into a bar, as parched as a desert.

A gerund and an infinitive walk into a bar, drinking to forget.

A hyphenated word and a non-hyphenated word walk into a bar and the bartender nearly chokes on the irony.

Sex clams and other editorial problems

Sometimes the lack of copy-editing is pretty obvious, as in the soon-to-be-legendary “sex clams” headline:

doxd9ekwsaa-sbq

Here’s a subtler problem, buried in the Boston Globe sport section:

The compensation committee comprises of Robert Kraft, John Mara, Art Rooney, Clark Hunt, Bob McNair, and Blank.

“Comprises of”? The writer seems to be aware that the correct usage of comprise is tricky, but doesn’t have a clue how to get it right. (Ditch the “of” and the sentence is fine.) Following journalists on Twitter is a good way to just how much they need editors; yesterday I saw one of them use the word dependant, which even WordPress tells me isn’t spelled correctly.

Of course, none of these are as funny as this headline’s missing hyphen in “first hand”:

first-hand-job-experience-article