John McIntyre

From clear to uncertainty

I keep recommending Stan Carey's Sentence First blog to you. He's a lovely man, curious, even-tempered, and fair-minded, with an enviably clear prose as he writes about language. He makes sensible judgments. He's also generous with other writers, recently applauding some discoveries in blogging about language.

One of his discoveries is Diane Nicholls, who has launched Lexico Loco with a post, "You lost me at knickers!" Ms. Nicholls is also a fair-minded and temperate writer, evidently not given to shouting and breaking things, even as she explores one of the cheapest cliches to which journalistic hacks are devoted, the false range.


The distinctive thing about the false range is that it appears to set out a clear set of points on a continuum, but the more you examine it, the more uncertainty you have about what is meant to be included.

She quotes:


He reads anything and everything from Alexander Solzhenitzyn to Sue Townsend and Ian Banks.

And comments:

"Is there some value judgment implied here? For example, suggesting a trajectory of literariness that has Solzhenitzyn at one extreme and Sue Townsend and Ian Banks (together?) at the other? Which authors lie outside of these extremes and which authors lie between? Did literature begin with Solzhenitzyn and end with Ian Banks? Or is the message that he reads all genres of literature of which grim realism and science fiction are the extremes, and the gaps I need to fill in are all the others? In which case, wouldn't the strangely tautologous anything and everything have sufficed? It bothers me. But, ultimately, does it matter? Well, sometimes. It matters in contexts where I actually want or need to know what a range of things includes. Then my goat is well and truly got!"

But even when that goat is got, her tone remains even.

I've addressed the subject myself, here and  here, not that anyone, including my colleagues at The Baltimore Sun, seems to have been paying attention. Hell, nobody has been paying any damn attention. Nothing discourages them from wrapping some meaningless gimcrackery in alliteration and pop references.

So: one more chance. Have a look at Ms. Nicholls's post. She makes good sense, and she's cheerful about it. Pay attention, and I won't have to start yelling at you again.