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.


The gig is up

I was intrigued by the Clinton camp’s response to the Times bombshell about Trump’s taxes. One phrase stuck out:

Clinton’s campaign said the report “reveals the colossal nature of Donald Trump’s past business failures” and declared “the gig is up.”

What does that mean: “the gig is up”?  Shouldn’t it be “the jig is up”?  Was the Clinton press team so excited that they misspelled “jig”? (Okay, shouldn’t I be more interested in the future of our nation?)  Google Ngram Viewer shows that “the jig is up” is way more popular, and always has been, although “the gig is up” also shows up occasionally.  But maybe the 2016 campaign will change usage, as with the word denouncement.

Here is a hilariously detailed discussion about jig vs. gig from the CBC.  Just a taste:

Replacing the “j” with a hard “g” (as in “guffaw”) suddenly makes the expression far less familiar, if not actually strange, to the ear and eye.

Musicians have called short-term jobs “gigs” since the early 20th century – especially one-night engagements. But do jobs ever become up? Certainly contracts can be up, which means they’ve expired on a specific date. But gigs?

Although there is no reason we couldn’t start saying “the gig is up” to mean “the gig is over,” the phrase isn’t well established.

“The jig is up,” on the other hand, is cited by lexicographers all over the western hemisphere. Indeed, in his Dictionary of Historical Slang, Eric Partridge points out that “the jig is up” was actually “standard English” until 1850, when it slid down a few notches to colloquial status.

Now that I have that off my chest, I can go back to worrying about our future.

In which Cam Newton demures from the truth

The Boston Globe sports page this morning contained this sentence:

He can’t demure from the truth: that race is a factor in how he is perceived because the expectations for comportment at the position he plays have been shaped largely by quarterbacks who didn’t look, play, or act like him.

By this evening the sentence had been corrected to say “demur from the truth”.  Well, “demur from” is certainly better than “demure from”, although “demur from the truth” sure sounds awkward to me. “Demur” basically means “object” — how do you object from something?

The confusion between “demur” and “demure” is deep enough to require explication from grammar sites. Sports writers probably don’t need to know the difference between the two words, but newspaper copy editors really ought to.

Is your solution in the cloud or on-premise?

Part of my day job involves answering questions from potential customers about my company’s products and solutions.  Here’s one that comes up all the time:

Is your solution in the cloud or on-premise?

This new meaning of the word cloud is ubiquitous now, and I think it’s great.  I don’t need to know where exactly WordPress saves my blog content — it’s just somewhere out there.  “Cloud” captures this perfectly.

Inventing a singular version of the word premises is also ubiquitous in tech-speak, but that usage is like fingernails scraping down the chalkboard of my mind — at least partially because premise is a totally different word.  Here’s a web page from IBM that leads with a customer who is supposed to be saying: “I want self-service access to on-premise services and data from the cloud.”  But the page also manages to use “on-premises” a paragraph later; apparently IBM hasn’t gone totally over to the dark side.

And here’s an entertaining rant about this usage in technical documents and press releases. Its title is “So apparently we lost the grammar war”:

Seriously I don’t know why this is. The two terms do not mean the same thing and are not interchangeable. Are we all just that lazy that we can’t stumble through the three entire syllables of premises? And if we’re too careless to notice that, what chance do we have of actually paying attention to the technical documents to install these products? (Again, I don’t fault individual usage of IT pros, but vendors’ press releases? Seriously??)

Or maybe this is the evolution of language. It’s shortened, perverted, and flexed to evolve with the times. Fine, let’s call it linguistic evolution.

bt i srsly dont lik it. do u?

The thing is, that extra syllable does make “on-premises” harder to say, especially when it leads into a word like “services” that repeats the sibilant. I predict complete victory for “on-premise”, although saying that gives me a pit in my stomach.

A short post in regards to language peevery

It’s National Grammar Day!  In honor of the day, Poynter listed some of their pet peeves..Here’s one of mine.

In my very important day job I read the weekly status reports of a number of highly experienced professional writers.  This week one writer used the phrase “in regards to”. Two reports later, another writer offered up “with regards to”.

Where did I go wrong?

Some people don’t like split infinitives (I don’t know why).  Some people are annoyed by due to.  “With regards to” and “in regards to” are like fingernails on a blackboard to me. This guy tells me I’m wrong to be annoyed.  Google Ngram Viewer tells me their use has exploded since 1960 or so.  I don’t care.  They sound awful.  And people who use them should get off my lawn.

“Service is suspended due to a medical emergency”

Did you notice the grammatical atrocity in the title of this post?

Neither did our local transit authority, the MBTA, when it sent out a tweet like that after a person was struck and killed by a train.  Some people were worried about the victim, I suppose, but others were outraged about that “due to” in the tweet.

Huh?  I know the issue here, but I’d never heard the one about fiduciary responsibility.

I decided to find out what my cold-eyed editors at work have to say about “due to,” so I checked out our Writer’s Guide.  Here’s what they say:

“Due to” should only be used as an adjective, not a preposition.

Well, that certainly clears everything up.  Here’s how I understand this persnickety rule: Use “due to” when you can substitute “caused by” or “attributable to,” and not when you can substitute “because of.”  Which means, in effect, that it should only be used after a copulative verb like “is.”

At work we are responsible for an online help system containing well over two million words.  Apparently having nothing better to do, I did an online search to find out how many uses of “due to” we’ve got.  The result: 140.  Then I did a random check to see whether our highly experienced writers were following the editors’ persnickety rule.  The answer?  We’re a lot closer to the MBTA than to Mr. Stephen Wojnar.  Almost every “due to” in our Help system is a “because of,” not an “attributable to.”  What’s up with that?

My interpretation is that, even though our cold-eyed editors may know the rule, the “incorrect’ usage is so common that even they don’t spot it.

Bryan Garner in his Dictionary of Modern American Usage includes “due to” among his “skunked terms” — words so fraught with controversy that you’re better off just not using them, at least until the traditionalists die off.  Hopefully used to be the standard bearer for skunked terms, although by now the odor around that word has mostly disappeared.  I bet that, in a hundred years, “due to” will also smell just fine, and the MBTA will have won.

I am loathe to criticize anyone but . . .

I have a somewhat respectable day job in which I’m supposed to oversee a couple dozen highly experienced writers.  In the past week, two different writers have sent me emails containing a sentence like the following:

I am loathe to make any changes to the content at this late date.

I generally don’t like pointing out mistakes in emails.  We’re always writing fast; we don’t don’t have time to go back and edit what we’ve written.  But for some reason I decided to point out to one of the writers that the word she should have used was loath.  She responded:

I’m so sorry!  I thought both words were one in the same.

One in the same!  I started to get a pit in my stomach.  Was the language changing without my even noticing?  Or should I start getting more persnickety about emails?