Number and Amount


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I just remembered something else that copy-editors do at newspapers:  they write cutlines, that is, the captions to pictures.  (In newspaper jargon, a picture is a cut.)  Here’s one from the New York Times:

Two images of the same cuttlefish, taken fewer than two seconds apart, showing how quickly it can change color.

The copy-editor (or whoever wrote that cutline) is to be commended for trying to get the distinction between less and fewer right, but this time she or he failed.

We use less to express amount and fewer to express number.  The important concept in this cutline is not the number of seconds involved, but the amount of time.


Writing and Thinking


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Dear Reader, maybe you think I’m too hard on our paid praters, the people who make their living by generating verbiage for mass-consumption.  Maybe I am.  After all, they have a twenty-four-hour news cycle to contend with.  They must churn out the words in a constant stream, and they don’t have time to worry about things like grammar and style.

Well, in my opinion, if they don’t have time to write well, they shouldn’t be writing.  Bad writing is a product of sloppy thinking, and it spreads sloppy thinking.  People who read or hear bad writing naturally pick it up and imitate it when they speak or write.  They quit thinking about what they’re saying or writing, and content themselves with saying approximately what they mean to say.

An easy example, which we encounter almost every day, is misplaced number agreement:

The trouble with these airplanes are that they’re too noisy.

(I’m not quoting anybody here, but I’m sure you can find any number of real examples.)  I have the impression that people nowadays get this kind of thing wrong at least as often as they get it right.  The verb is given the number of the nearest noun (“airplanes are”), even if that noun isn’t the agent of the verb (“the trouble . . . are”).

Here’s a more elaborate example by a paid prater:

According to the magazine, McDougal, a Republican, was at first reluctant to speak about her alleged affair during the presidential campaign, fearing that Trump supporters might accuse her of fabricating her account or harming her or her family.

Veronica Stracqualursi, CNN,

As written, the sentence declares that

  1. McDougal was afraid
  2. McDougal was afraid that Trump supporters might accuse her
  3. McDougal was afraid that Trump supporters might accuse her of fabricating her account
  4. McDougal was afraid that Trump supporters might accuse her of harming her
  5. McDougal was afraid that Trump supporters might accuse her of harming her family.

I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that that is not what the reporter meant to declare.  I think that what she meant to declare was

  1. McDougal was afraid
  2. McDougal was afraid that Trump supporters might accuse her of fabricating her account
  3. McDougal was afraid that Trump supporters might harm her
  4. McDougal was afraid that Trump supporters might harm her family.

Does it matter that that’s not what she wrote?  You tell me, Dear Reader—but if your answer is “No,” please make an argument to support it.

Miss, Mrs., Ms.


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In an article “provided by Ohio University” on, appears the following:

The field team included several of his [Dr. Hesham Sallam’s] students, many of whom—Ms. Iman El-Dawoudi, Ms. Sanaa El-Sayed, and Mrs. Sara Saber—also participated in the study of the new dinosaur.

I’m all for the use of honorifics in public writing, but, please, let’s get them right.

Miss, Mrs., and Ms. are all abbreviations of Mistress, which, of course, applies equally to married and unmarried women. For some reason, in the Seventeenth Century (so Wikipedia tells us), we began to use Miss for unmarried women, while preserving Mistress (usually pronounced “missus” or “mizziz”, and written “Mrs.”) for married women.

In some English-speaking cultures, Miss is also used in addressing women, regardless of marital status, particularly in combination with the given name, and especially when the woman is much younger or much older than the speaker. In the American South, for example, it was once quite common for social inferiors (including all men, except family members) to address a lady with whom they were familiar as, e.g., “Miss Ann” or “Miss Connie”.  This often had to do with marital status, but not always: if one would have been on a first-name basis with the lady, except that her social rank required an honorific, one might call her “Miss Ann”, rather than “Mrs. Jones”.  (Never “Mrs. Ann”, as far as I’m aware, though back when one pronounced Mistress as “Mistress”, one might have said, “Mistress Ann”.  Mrs. Page in The Merry Wives of Windsor is many times called “Mistress Ann”, but never “Miss Ann”—I don’t think Miss had been invented yet—and often “Mistress Page”.  Mistress Ford and Mistress Quickly are never called by their given names, as far as I can recall.)

Of course, these days, we’re all on a first-name basis with everybody, just as in kindergarten, and we’re required to pretend that even our bosses, whom we must obey, and who can punish or fire us, are our pals. But I digress.

Anyway, in the modern business world (and there’s very little left in our lives that isn’t part of the business world) it should make absolutely no difference whether a woman is married or not. (One could argue that, for business purposes, it should make no difference whether a person is a woman or not, but I don’t believe our broader society is ready for that step yet. It’ll come, though.)

It seems to me that we should call all women Mistress (that is, “Missus”), and write “Mrs.” whenever we want an honorific for a woman. They’re doing the equivalent in Holland (Vrouw for all women, instead of Vrouw for the married and Juffrouw for the unmarried); and it’s what a lady judge I used to know in Norfolk always did. On the other hand, Ms. has long been available, and by many people preferred, as an alternative. I use it myself, mainly because Mrs. still implies marriage to most people.

I have the impression, however, that Ms. is increasingly regarded as an abbreviation for Miss (as if that abbreviation needed a further abbreviation), and applied exclusively to unmarried women, as seems to be the case in the extract quoted above. That rather defeats the purpose of Ms., and one wonders what is stimulating the trend—if that’s what it is.

Let me add, as a post-script (because I can’t figure out how to fit it into the foregoing), that in the South, in informal speech at least, “Miss”, “Mistress”, and “Ms.” are all frequently pronounced the same. Ms. Eudora Welty indicates that some people in Mississippi pronounce (or used to pronounce) Mistress as “Miz-riz”, at least some of the time; but I never heard that in Virginia.

Copy-Editing at the Times



Once, long ago, I was briefly a copy-editor at the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot. I wasn’t doing very well as a lawyer, and a friend who worked at the paper persuaded the managing editor to let me try the copy desk. I did rather well at it, as I recall, but after a month or so there was a regime change, or something, and my informal arrangement was quietly terminated. I probably could have pushed to keep the job, but I didn’t really want to be a copy-editor, even though I enjoyed the work and was good at it.

The job of a copy-editor, at least at the Pilot, at least in the early 1990s, was twofold: to correct errors of grammar, spelling, etc., in articles, and to write headlines. If I remember right, I was pretty good at both, though I haven’t preserved any memorable examples. At any rate, I learned the job.

Which is part of why I so often find reading the New York Times so annoying. You’d think that the self-appointed Newspaper of Record would devote a little more of its budget to making sure that the Record is kept in good English.

Several years ago, the Times‘s web site had a “meet the editors” feature, in which readers were invited to submit questions for an editor to answer. One day, the chief copy-editor had her turn. Here’s the question I sent in:

What do you do all day?

My question was not selected for an answer.

Today, I discovered that the Times actually offers a quiz called “Copy Edit This!” on its web site. It’s presented in the name of the Times’s standards editor, Philip B. Corbett, who invites readers “to correct grammatical errors in recent New York Times articles.” I don’t know whether that means that “standards editor” is what they now call the chief copy-editor at the Times, or that there are no more copy-editors there; but I incline towards the second possibility. Why else would there be errors in recent articles for readers to correct in quiz after quiz?  (Today’s is number ten.)

I took today’s quiz, and here are my results:

Copy Editing Score

I really don’t mean to brag:  it was a pretty easy quiz.  What kind of worries me is that 95% of Times readers who took the quiz—people who thought they knew something about grammar—did worse.

I made two errors. Here’s the first:

Copy Editing Error 1

I have to admit, I didn’t know the difference between premiere and premier. Here’s the second:

Copy Editing Error 2

I overlooked “laying” the first time I read the quotation, which is a bit embarrassing, because I’m usually pretty sensitive to that error (although I think it’s not always an error—but that’s a topic for another day).  I will maintain, however, that my first choice was also an error, which the authors of the quiz missed: the writer should have used attended, not tended. One can tend one’s sheep, or one (or at least one’s sympathies or one’s politics) can tend to Communism, or one can tend to drive too fast, but one cannot tend to Mr. Small.

At the end of the quiz we find this invitation:

Spot an error in The Times? Write us at

I will just note that that is not Mr. Corbett’s direct e-mail address.



Scientific American is a serious magazine, so it should pay close attention to its writers’ use of language.  Here’s a quotation from an article posted on its web site this morning:

According to new research posted on the preprint server, the visitor is tumbling willy-nilly rather than smoothly rotating on its axis.

Nola Taylor Redd, Scientific American, 13 December 2017.

Willy-nilly is a survival from archaic English, “will I, nill I” (or “will he, nill he”), meaning, “Whether I want to (or he wants to) or not.”

The writer seems to have meant something like “helter-skelter”, or “higgledy-piggledy”  (or, in the words of the researchers, “in an excited rotational state undergoing Non-Principal Axis (NPA) rotation . . . .”).

In the same article:

The researchers . . . state in their paper “1I/‘Oumuamua was likely set tumbling within its parent planetary system, and will remain tumbling well after it has left ours.”

That is arguably correct, but at best it’s bad style. Remain means to stay in one place or state, not to persist in an action. The researchers mean that it will keep tumbling, or continue tumbling.  Remain just sounds more sciency than keep, I guess.



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The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary web-site is currently featuring an article on “8 Truly Untranslatable German Words“.  We note the ugly and improper use of a numeral to begin the title of the article, but move quickly on to word No. 6, “Foosball“.

First, Foosball is not a German word.  It’s an English word, though probably first devised by Germans as a brand name, to be used in English-speaking countries, for their table-soccer game.  Second, as the article even acknowledges, Foosball—or, rather, the actual German word, Fußball—is eminently translatable.  In fact, Fußball is itself a direct translation of the English word, football.  See the Digitale Wörterbuch der deutschen Sprache (if you can read German).

Foosball appears to be an attempt to render the German word, Fußball, into English spelling.  (The vowel in German Fuß is similar to that in English “foot” or “puss”, not that in “fuss” or “bus”.)   It presumably was thought necessary because the German spelling contains ß (a letter representing a double-S, but unknown to most English-speakers, and liable to be mistaken for a B); or else to prevent the English pronunciation, “fuss ball”, using the existing English word, “fuss”, and perhaps suggesting fussbudget or some other association other than with association football.   Unfortunately (for whoever wanted to get English-speakers to use the German pronunciation), “Foosball” has almost universally been pronounced by English-speakers (at least in the United States) as “fooze-ball”.

Who writes these things?


Here in New York City, the phrases next-to-last and second-to-last appear to be used synonymously.  That is, I seem to hear “second-to-lastinstead of “next-to-last“.  That’s not what I learned, growing up in Virginia.  To my understanding, next-to-last and second-to-last mean different things:  in the sequence, “A, B, C, D”, the last item is D, the next-to-last is C, and the second-to-last (or second-from-last) is B.  In other words, C is one item away from the last, and B is two items away (i.e., the second item) from last.

I can see a certain logic in the other usage:  Counting from the last item, D is first, and C is second.  But that doesn’t seem idiomatic to me.  Obviously, however, it is in New York City.  Does it vary regionally?  A quick search of the Internet shows both usages, but doesn’t indicate any basis for the variation.  What do you think, Dear Reader?