Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Halloween Hijinks

Here’s an appropriate typo from a recent story about an extreme case of hoarding. Authorities had received:

"…reports of foul spells, putrid odors…"

No word on whether the occupant was a practitioner of the dark arts or the writer was just having a bad English day...

Happy Halloween!

Monday, October 22, 2012

Playing the Blame Game

Here’s an odd juxtaposition of wording to attribute blame:

Lightning Blamed on Fire at Venezuela Refinery

That was a headline for a September AP story that opened with the line:

A fire that broke out at a Venezuelan oil refinery was apparently caused by a lightning strike…

Now, I’ve been taught a specific syntax for placing blame, and that syntax is dependent upon the pronoun used. For example:

(result) blamed on (cause)

(cause) blamed for (result)

As written, the AP headline says that the fire caused lightning, but the first sentence clearly states that lightning caused the fire. Thus, the headline should have been:

Fire at Venezuela Refinery Blamed on Lightning; or

Venezuela Refinery Fire Blamed on Lightning; or

Lightning Blamed for Fire at Venezuela Refinery

What’s curious to me is that I’ve run across this strange syntax several times in recent months. In one instance, a news radio announcer said something like:

“A moth is being blamed on a car crash…”

In fact, the moth was the cause of the crash, not the result of it. (Apparently some people freak out when a little bug starts flapping inside their windshield…) The announcer should have said the crash was blamed on the moth, or the moth was blamed for the crash.

I don’t know if there is a change to the English language in the making, or if people are just not paying attention to what they’re saying and writing. The latter would be my guess, but I find it curious that this particular oddity keeps appearing. 

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Several Definitions of “Several”

Ask someone how many “several” is, and you’ll get different responses depending on the person you ask and, quite likely, the region where he or she was raised.

When I was growing up, I was taught that “several” equals a vague estimated amount in the vicinity of three to five. It is more than one, because, well, one is just one. It’s more than two, because two can also be “a pair” or “a couple” of something.

One day, a friend from the Boston area declared to me that “several” equated to “seven,” which made no sense to me at all. If the word was that specific, why say “several” instead of simply saying “seven?”

My husband, who has spent most of his life in Colorado and the Southwest, thinks “several” means a quantity more than two, but probably fewer than ten.

On a recent episode of “Warehouse 13,” the character of Mrs. Fredric said a weapon might have to be used “several more times” in reference to the number of remaining bad guys. I counted six bad guys in the scene.

We recently received this notice at my place of employment:
“Over the past week, you will notice several benches in the classroom hallways. Approximately 125 benches were delivered...”
Never mind the present tense verb “will” in reference to events of the past week. Is the writer equating “several” to 125, or is he/she saying that “several” of the 125 new benches have been installed?

So what, exactly, constitutes “several” of something?

The dictionary on my computer says “more than two but not many,” defining “many” as “a large number” of something. Well, that was certainly helpful, wasn’t it?

The Free Dictionary defines it as “Being of a number more than two or three but not many.” (Another brain bender: Isn’t three more than two, and if so, shouldn’t that definition say “three or more?”)

Merriam-Webster online has not one, but three definitions (or should I say “several” definitions?):

a. more than one (which is rather obvious)
b. more than two but fewer than many (here we go again…)
c. chiefly dialect: being a great many (more than “a large number?”)

I suppose the lesson here is that if accuracy in numbers is important, use a specific count to avoid confusion. Otherwise, when you tell your co-worker to pick up several dozen cookies for a meeting, you could get anywhere from twelve to a hundred and twelve.