The wisdom of George Carlin

Have you ever noticed that anybody driving slower than you is an idiot, and anyone going faster than you is a maniac? — George Carlin (courtesy of Refdesk’s Thought of the Day).

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More pronunciation annoyances

I might as well get a few more off my chest:

  • Divisive is pronounced di-VISE-iv, not di-VISS-iv.
  • Formidable is best pronounced FOR-mid-a-bl, not for-MID-a-bl.
  • Applicable is best pronounced APP-li-ca-bl, not a-PLICK-a-bl.
  • Mischievous is pronounced MISS-cha-viss, not miss-CHEE-vee-us.

You may want to pick a fight with me over formidable or applicable, and I’m prepared to concede that regional differences may account for the proliferation of what I consider inferior pronunciations of those words. But I will yield no ground on divisive or mischievous, the mispronunciations of which I consider simply indefensible.

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Doctrinal

The preferred pronunciation is DOCK-truh-nl (with the accent on dock), not dock-TRY-nl (with the accent on try).

Yes, I know that dock-TRY-nl is the standard British pronunciation, that U.S. academics (especially law-school academics) like to emulate the Brits, and that the British pronunciation is included as an acceptable alternative in many American English dictionaries. But the Brits are notoriously weird (at least to American ears) in their pronunciation habits. Unless you’re willing to adopt their favored pronunciation of urinal as yer-EYE-nl, or of skeletal as skuh-LEE-tl, or of laboratory as la-BOR-a-tree, you should avoid taking their advice on how best to say doctrinal. And unless you want to sound like a pompous academic trying to impress an effete colleague, I recommend that you stick with the standard American pronunciation of words like doctrinal, urinal, skeletal, and laboratory.

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On the one hand

It is idiomatically preferable, in my view, to include the in both parts of the correlative expression On the one hand/on the other hand. I know that many competent writers omit the first the, so that the expression reads On one hand/on the other hand. And I understand the argument in favor of omitting it: after all, we do not normally insert the in comparable expressions. We would not typically say, in describing the contents of two grocery bags, In the one bag/in the other bag.(Or maybe we would; I certainly would not object to that expression.) I also acknowledge that On one hand may be at least as popular (in American English, though not in British English) as On the one hand.

But I nonetheless believe, for several reasons, that On the one hand is the better choice:

1. It has history on its side. On the one hand is the traditional idiom. It sounds familiar and natural. Why omit the when it is doing no harm?

2. Authoritative dictionaries treat On the one hand as the standard expression, meaning “from the first perspective” or “from one point of view.” Look it up (under the entry for hand).

3. There is a comforting balance and rhythm to the expression that is sacrificed when the is omitted.

4. The expression is figurative, not literal. We’re not talking about actual hands the way we might about actual grocery bags, so resort to comparable expressions does not carry much weight.

5. On the one hand is likely to be less noticeable, less jarring, than On one hand. Every time I see On one hand, I feel the need to insert the after on (just as I cannot keep myself from adding a missing of after couple in the expression couple of). Why risk calling needless negative attention to your writing?

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Long story short

I am not fond of the hackneyed phrase to make a long story short (or its many trite cousins, including to cut to the chase and to get down to business). But it does not bother me all that much if used sparingly. What does grate on me is the truncated, slangy version long story short, as in these annoying examples:

From Time — Long story short, he quit his job to become a musician.

From The AtlanticLong story short: our system of finance is irrational and disorganized and presents perverse incentives to doctors, hospitals, and communities.

Perhaps I’m being overly rigid: the shorthand version of the phrase, after years of irritating repetition, may have become idiomatically acceptable (like the even more irritating push the envelope). It certainly has the advantage of brevity. But I cannot help thinking less of writers who compound their banality with slovenliness.

My advice: avoid the phrase entirely, but, if you cannot help yourself, at least use the standard idiomatic expression and stay away from its bastard offspring.

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Not only . . . but also

I cannot figure out why so many otherwise sophisticated writers are so prone to treating the phrase not only as a license to compose a run-on sentence. The traditional rule is that the conjunction not only should be paired with its correlative but also. For example:

I am not only a grumpmeister but also a happily retired lawyer.

The but also phrase is necessary to link the two clauses together to form a single sentence. Alternatively, it is perfectly acceptable to omit the but also formulation so long as the result is not a run-on sentence. For example:

I am not only a grumpmeister; I am also a happily retired lawyer.

Or:

I am not only a grumpmeister. I am also a happily retired lawyer.

In these examples, two independent clauses are linked together with a semicolon to form a single sentence or are written as two discrete sentences separated by a period. Either approach is permissible.

What is wholly impermissible is to link two independent clauses, each of which can stand alone as a separate sentence, using nothing but a comma, thereby forming precisely the sort of run-on sentence (or what some grammarians call a comma splice) that we learned to avoid in third or fourth grade. For example:

I am not only a grumpmeister, I am also a happily retired lawyer.

This is no more acceptable, in my view, than saying “I went to the store to buy milk, I also bought cereal.” Yet this gross error pervades contemporary writing. I see it everywhere, and it drives me nuts. My impression is that the use of not only is today more likely than not to trigger a run-on sentence. Here are just a few painful illustrations:

  • For two centuries, America’s free market has not only been the source of dazzling ideas and path-breaking products, it has also been the greatest force for prosperity the world has ever known. [This is the opening sentence of President Obama’s January 2011 Wall Street Journal op-ed.]
    • A possible rewrite: For two centuries, America’s free market has been not only the source of dazzling ideas and path-breaking products, but also the greatest force for prosperity the world has ever known.
  • Not only will sanctions do no such thing, they will unite all of Iran’s political factions under a pro-nuclear banner, making talks impossible. [From an article in the (usually) exceptionally well-edited journal Foreign Affairs, entitled Sanctions Won’t End Iran’s Nuclear Program.]
    • A possible rewrite: Not only will sanctions do no such thing; on the contrary, they will unite all of Iran’s political factions under a pro-nuclear banner, making talks impossible.
  • Not only was Ickes another friend of Douglas’s, he also disliked Wallace, with whom he had long fought turf battles inside the cabinet. [From Noah Feldman’s excellent book Scorpions, p. 192.]
    • A possible rewrite: Not only was Ickes another friend of Douglas’s; he also disliked Wallace, with whom he had long fought turf battles inside the cabinet.
  • Not only has the United States reduced oil imports from members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries by more than 20 percent in the last three years, it has become a net exporter of refined petroleum products like gasoline for the first time since the Truman presidency. [From a March 2012 New York Times article entitled U.S. Inches Toward Goal of Energy Independence.]
    • A possible rewrite: The United States has not only reduced oil imports from members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries by more than 20 percent in the last three years. It has also become a net exporter of refined petroleum products like gasoline for the first time since the Truman presidency.
  • Further, proceedings must not only be fair, they must appear fair to all who observe them. [From Justice Breyer’s opinion for the Court in Indiana v. Edwards, 554 US 164 (2008).]
    • A possible rewrite: Further, proceedings must not only be fair, but also appear fair to all who observe them.
  • [The majority] not only denies the D.C. Circuit the opportunity to assess the statute’s remedies, it refuses to do so itself. [From Chief Justice Roberts’s dissenting opinion in Boumediene v. Bush, 553 US 723 (2008).]
    • A possible rewrite: The majority not only denies the D.C. Circuit the opportunity to assess the statute’s remedies, but also refuses to conduct the assessment itself.
  • Not only did [the lower court] ignore the federal statute that establishes the procedures by which its rules may be amended, its express purpose was to broadcast a high-profile trial that would include witness testimony about a contentious issue. [From the Supreme Court’s per curiam opinion in Hollingsworth v. Perry, 130 S. Ct. 705 (2010), staying the televised broadcast of a federal trial involving a constitutional challenge to California’s prohibition of same-sex marriage.]
    • A possible rewrite: Not only did the lower court ignore the federal statute that establishes the procedures by which its rules may be amended. It also made clear that its purpose was to broadcast a high-profile trial that would include witness testimony about a contentious issue.

I have never seen a coherent defense — indeed, I have never seen any defense — of not only run-on sentences. One possible explanation is that not only has begun to take on the characteristics of a subordinating conjunction, either instead of or in addition to its traditional role as a correlative conjunction. A subordinating conjunction links a dependent clause (which may contain a subject and a verb but cannot operate as a separate sentence) to an independent clause (which contains both a subject and a verb and can operate as a separate sentence). Some common subordinating conjunctions are after, although, because, since, before, until, while, unless. In the sentence After I left work, I drove to the market to pick up some milk, the opening clause (After I left work) is dependent, introduced by the subordinating conjunction After. Unlike the second clause (I drove to the market to pick up some milk), it cannot stand as a separate sentence. Because only one of the two clauses can survive as a separate sentence, we can separate the clauses with a comma without thereby creating a run-on sentence.

If not only were a subordinating conjunction, we might be able to justify omitting but also and using a mere comma to separate the first and second clauses in a sentence like I am not only a grumpmeister, I am also a happily retired lawyer. On that theory, the sentence would be the grammatical equivalent of Although I am a grumpmeister, I am also a happily retired lawyer, with not only serving the same subordinating role as although.

Though this may be a plausible explanation, I do not consider it an acceptable justification for the use of not only in a single sentence without its correlative but also and with only a comma separating the clauses. First, including not only in a clause does not make it dependent. Unlike Although I am a grumpmeister, the clause I am not only a grumpmeister can function as an independent sentence; it is not dependent on I am also a happily retired lawyer. The two clauses therefore require a linking conjunction and cannot be separated merely with a comma. Second, I have found no dictionary or usage guide that even hints at the possibility that not only may properly serve as a subordinating conjunction. If popular usage is heading in that direction, perhaps we will someday see authoritative style and usage manuals endorsing the practice. Until then, we should insist on the correlative but also as a linking device, and we should unapologetically enforce the rule against run-on sentences, condemning as a violation of that rule any not only sentence that uses a bare comma to separate two independent clauses.

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Despite this long-winded entry, I am not done with not only. I will come back to the phrase in a future posting to complain about the apparent inability of many writers to use correlative conjunctions correctly to frame structurally identical sentence parts.

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Will the Supreme Court invalidate Obamacare?

I don’t think so. As we approach three days of oral argument before the Supreme Court beginning tomorrow morning (Monday, March 26), I’m ready to record my fearless predictions:

1. The first question for the Court is whether the constitutional challenges to the Affordable Care Act are barred by the Tax Anti-Injunction Act (which generally precludes challenges to a tax law until someone actually pays the tax). Although both the challengers and the U.S. Government take the position that the Anti-Injunction Act is not a barrier to the litigation, the Court, at the suggestion of the Solicitor General, appointed a private lawyer to brief and argue the case as amicus curiae in support of the proposition that the challenges are premature. This is the issue on which the Court will hear oral argument on Monday. If the Court rules that the Anti-Injunction Act applies, the challenges to the so-called individual-mandate provision of the Act (which requires most individuals either to purchase health insurance or to pay a tax penalty if they fail to do so) will be dismissed, and the constitutionality of that provision will not be resolved until 2015.

This is a significant issue. The Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit held that the Anti-Injunction Act barred the litigation, and a well-respected conservative judge on the D.C. Circuit, dissenting from that court’s decision upholding the statute’s validity, likewise took the position that the pre-enforcement constitutional challenges are premature.

Even so, I put the odds at about 60-40 that the Court will hold that the Anti-Injunction Act does not apply.

2. On the constitutional issue, I believe that the Court will uphold the statute by a lopsided vote, possibly 7-2 or even 8-1. The four Democratic appointees (Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan) will almost certainly conclude that the individual mandate is constitutionally valid. I think that Roberts, Kennedy, and Alito are also likely to vote that way. And, contrary to what most observers assume, I believe that Scalia is at least as likely to uphold the statute as to strike it down. Thomas is the only Justice who I think will definitely vote to invalidate the individual mandate. I further predict that Chief Justice Roberts will write the opinion for the Court and that several other Justices will write separate concurring opinions to emphasize the limits or implications of the ruling.

Predicting how the Supreme Court will rule is always a hazardous enterprise, and I may well turn out to be dead wrong. If so, I will promptly return to this blog to confess error. I may also revise and extend my remarks after I have had a chance to listen to the audio recordings of the coming week’s oral arguments. If you would like to listen to the recordings or read the argument transcripts yourself, you will be able to find links to them on the Supreme Court’s website by the afternoon of the day of the argument.

By the way, if you think that the term Obamacare is in some way pejorative, you should know that the Obama reelection campaign has itself proudly embraced the term.

Finally, for a simple but useful primer on the upcoming oral arguments — including the legal issues and why they matter — take a look at this Wonkblog guide.

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