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?

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:


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”:


This usage peaks my interest

I spent some time on the phone recently talking to someone about the company where I work. The guy sent me an email the next day to tell me that my description of the place had “peaked” his interest. So he wanted to apply for a writing position there. Hmm. Well, at least he wasn’t applying to be an editor.

Confusing peak for pique is understandable, as these things go — better than confusing regretful for regrettable, or incredulous for incredible. You can make the case that peak is being used as a transitive verb, so the phrase means something like “created a peak in my interest.” Can’t you?

Here’s the Google Ngram of “pique my interest” vs. “peak my interest”:


We see nothing much happening until about 1980, when “pique my interest” takes off. But “peak my interest” starts gaining a foothold around 2000 and, if the statistics for the last few years are meaningful, “pique my interest” may be starting to lose a little ground to it. The guy who used the phrase is a millennial, so maybe he represents the future of the language. Is this regrettable or incredible? Should we be regretful or incredulous?

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.

We’re hearing a lot of denouncements of Donald Trump lately

But why aren’t they denunciations?

Here’s the sort of thing I’ve noticed, from the Times:

Representative Ben Ray Luján of New Mexico, the chairman of the House Democratic campaign arm, said his party was aiming to ensure that Republicans would be tarnished by Mr. Trump, even if they distanced themselves from him.

“A denouncement of Trump at this point is too little, too late,” Mr. Luján warned.

In another article, I spotted a Times writer using denouncements outside a quotation, but later the word was switched to denunciations in the online version.

Here’s a HuffPo article with denouncement in the headline and denunciation in the subhead.  “Trump’s Denouncements of KKK Leader Don’t Matter Anymore”:

“Anyone with two brain cells to rub together can see the denunciations are not sincere,” said a Southern Poverty Law Center fellow.

Maybe there’s just been a lot of denouncing going on lately.  Or maybe the language is changing, and denounce/denunciation is going the way of repel/repulsion, and the noun/verb pair is becoming similar.  In the case of repel/repulse, Google Ngram Viewer shows us a big uptick in the use of the verb repulse over the past twenty years, although repel is still more frequent.  Denouncement is used about ten times less than denunciation, Google says.  But maybe this campaign will change all that.