Archive for the ‘significant insignificancies’ Category

Happy New Year’s (and Beyond)

In significant insignificancies, thoughtless patterns on January 1, 2016 at 1:31 am

It’s an annual grumble of mine, mostly in places where I’ve sworn not to pick at people’s grammar, that well-meaning writers, with little more than an apostrophe, limit their good wishes to a single day. It’s clear to me that they don’t know they’re doing that when they leave off the designation “Day” that should follow the -’s. But it’s clearly a matter of carelessness.

Maybe it’s that we’ve forgotten what this “wishing” thing is about. It’s not just something you say, but an expression of hope for another’s well-being, or literally for that other’s happiness. It’s all too easily tossed off, in fact easier in currently fraught contexts than “Happy Holidays” or “Merry Christmas.”

Everyone gets a new year, whether we like it or not, whether or not we make resolutions and see it as a fresh start. But I’m always for mindfulness, for paying as much attention to what I say as to what I do. To say it without thought devalues it, and maybe that’s what makes me question the sincerity of an Internet conversant — or even a grocery clerk — who tosses it to me with the -’s and without the Day. I really would like to have all the wishes for happiness in 2016 that I can get. I do think it matters.

Thus, I wish you happiness in 2016, heartfelt wishes even if I don’t have an opportunity to say it more directly and warmly than in this post. The whole year. Happiness and joy.

While we’re at it, that’s not “well wishes.” Where you get your water is your business.


“Obama Tells Putin: Reign in Troops in Ukraine” MSNBC Headline 4/14/14

In media laziness, significant insignificancies on April 21, 2014 at 8:14 pm

I’d promised myself that cable-news tickers and headliners were just too easy prey for this blog. I’ve tried for a whole week to let this one go. But I see it happen too much, and I haven’t published anything else here for far too long. Besides, it so deliciously turns the meaning on its head.

You can buy t-shirts, mugs, and posters to display you at least recognize that there are three different theres. I don’t actually see the contraction, they’re, misapplied all that often. That could be because, well, it does take that apostrophe, which may give pause to think a moment. Or maybe so many apostrophes have been used in inappropriate places that people are becoming sensitized to them. No, I don’t think so.

There’s no apostrophe to help rule out one of the three rains. I must say the one about precipitation, perhaps because it’s such a simple and familiar word, probably the first use most of us ever made of the word and needed to spell, doesn’t get confused with the others all that often, at least in public. I have seen an occasional “rain of terror” or “rein pelting down from the sky.” The former could be an attempt to understand a cliche as metaphorical, the latter a simple typo. But what can forgive the confusion of the forms of power with and without the silent g?

Maybe they’re both just too familiar, too similar, and too far from the origins that distinguish them. I’m ready to blame it on the French, the source of so many mysterious silent letters. The difference is clear in the Latin verb roots, regnare (from regnum and rex) and retinare, to hold back. The g was still there in the Old French reigne, though silenced, but the clarifying t had slipped to a silent s in the other. By the time they got to Middle English, even the s was gone from the restraint, and both of the silent middles were replaced with is, at least sometimes. In fact, a Middle English reine is shown for both in the online source based on the Random House Dictionary.

So President Putin seeks to extend his reign into eastern Ukraine, and President Obama calls him on it. NBC’s main news says Putin initiated the “frank” telephone conversation. Who can say what words the translators used, or whether rein ever came up at all? Context would have helped all participants, but I can be pretty sure that Obama never suggested that Putin reign in Ukraine. I would suggest that MSNBC put an editor on those interns or whoever types out the headlines. Some of us are paying attention.


He Didn’t “Announce.” He Didn’t “Come Out.” He Simply Confirmed.

In dog bites man, sensation, significant insignificancies on November 5, 2013 at 3:40 am

It’s still big news when another state begins issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples, but it’s happening often enough, and enough of us know enough gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people well enough that it’s hardly shocking to learn of another individual.  There aren’t even very many firsts left in this category. The press doesn’t seem to know, though.

The first verb I heard headlining the story of Maine Congressman and gubernatorial candidate Mike Michaud was “announced”; it may even have been a noun form modified by “big.” By the time I saw it in print, it was definitely the verb, and in an Associated Press story. As I watched for it among my fairly numerous GLBT and ally friends on Facebook, it popped up in a Raw Story headline, actually a little toned down at “comes out.” Fortunately, though, that story contained a link to Rep. Michaud’s own words. In an Op-Ed in the Bangor Daily News, right where it belongs, he says simply “Yes, I am. But why should it matter?”

Indeed. His whole point was to lay to rest a “whisper campaign” that implied it might ruin his political career. Clearly he didn’t think so, and neither did the editors of the paper, who posted an accompanying editorial subtitled “Welcome this truth and move on.” This is good news for supporters of marriage equality and civil rights that don’t depend on secrets. And every simple confirmation, every non-news story makes it that much better for the teens and others who may still feel vulnerable to being “outed.”

The folks who don’t get it yet are the writers of the sensational headlines. They need to be trained that it’s now what they know as a ‘Dog bites man’ story: no news at all, important only to the people directly involved, and not to their employers, or voters, or sports fans. Hallelujuah. Yawn.


In compound expressions, significant insignificancies, thoughtless patterns on February 8, 2013 at 5:13 pm

A couple of weeks ago, when I grumbled about compounds that get denied the chance to go out separately, I somehow forgot to include the very significant mess made when throughout is used but through is what is really meant. This morning I was reminded by Stephanie Abrams of The Weather Channel, doing her anticipatory live standup on tonight’s possible blizzard in New York City. She referred to the difficulty of predicting how conditions might develop “throughout the next 48 hours” of storm-watching. The operative words that clash with the intensity of throughout are anticipatorypossible, and all the conditionals that come with the business of prediction.

I wouldn’t have objected if Abrams had been content to keep viewers posted throughout the weather event, but she was clearly predicting that conditions would change across her reporting period. That is, through the period. Weather forecasting happens to be one of the fields in which this distinction is more than a matter of linguistic elegance: If there is to be heavy snow throughout the night, there will be more accumulation than if blizzard conditions obtain for only some hours through the night.

It looks as though Boston is in for that kind of night, which is why the more senior TWC correspondent is set up there, on the Commons, though I’m hardly surprised to hear Jim Cantore get carried away and intensify his language without good reason. I wish they’d all calm down and just tell us what’s going on, so we can figure out how to get through

Too Definite an Article?

In legal lingo, significant insignificancies on January 25, 2013 at 9:11 pm

I can’t say that it’s an error, and I’m afraid I don’t even have a direct quote to include. But I’m afraid that from the first moment I heard about the ruling of a federal appeals court on President Obama’s recess appointments last year to the National Labor Relations Board, I was intrigued by the report that part of their ruling of unconstitutional action hinged on the presence of “the” rather than “a” or any less definite word in Article II, Section 2 (Powers and Duties of the President), Clause 3, which empowers the president to fill executive-branch vacancies “during the Recess of the Senate.”

I guess, among other things, we will find out exactly how much care we think the Framers of the Constitution took with the very smallest words. Or maybe we’ll find out how willing we are in the 21st century to be bound by the conditions of early-19th-century America.

It may well be that the definite article appears in II.2.3 only because, at the time it was written, there was only one Recess in the Senate’s work year. The Senators could not fly back and forth between D.C. and their states to hear their constituents one day, vote on an executive appointment the next. Neither could they, as in 2012, send in one or two of their number every day or so during the (same) idle period to bang a gavel and declare that the Senate was not recessed, but in session. But let’s not go further here into the possibly political motivations of the 2012 Senators, individually or collectively. Let’s likewise leave to the politicians and the Supreme Court the questions of the implications of this ruling for President Obama’s other appointment during this particular recess — which he repeated for Senate confirmation yesterday — or for the work done by the five appointees during their possibly unconstitutional tenure.

There are more linguistic nits to be picked in this case, too: Does “Vacancies that may happen during the Recess” mean only vacancies that begin during the recess, or any vacancy that takes the executive out of action? But then, none of the five 2012 appointments was to a post mentioned in the Constitution or remotely contemplated by the Framers.

One of the talked-about expressions from President Obama’s inaugural address a couple of days earlier is his differentiation of “absolutism” and “principle.” I suspect we’ll hear more of those differences as this ruling is mulled, dealt with, and probably appealed. It’s definitely worthy of our consideration.

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