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It's lazy writing, and it's a tic

You have probably seen one or more of the many postings of the letter Ann Patchett wrote to The New York Times about an infelicity in its review of her book:

"I was grateful to see my book 'This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage' mentioned in Paperback Row (Oct. 19). When highlighting a few of the essays in the collection, the review mentions topics ranging from 'her stabilizing second marriage to her beloved dog' without benefit of comma, thus giving the impression that Sparky and I are hitched. While my love for my dog is deep, he married a dog named Maggie at Parnassus Books last summer as part of a successful fund-raiser for the Nashville Humane Association. I am married to Karl VanDevender. We are all very happy in our respective unions."

Separating two items in a from … to construction is not standard practice, but one could. Some commas are merely discretionary. But the reviewer’s unfortunate implication rose not from failure to provide an uncommon comma, but from unthinkingly resorting to the ranging from construction.

A range, dammit, is a series of discrete bounded elements. From a to z and from soup to nuts describe the ranges of the alphabet and the dinner menu. When Dorothy Parker wrote of Katharine Hepburn that "she runs the gamut of emotions from A to B," she described a range.

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A collection of heterogeneous elements can be called many things, an agglomeration, a ragbag, a hodgepodge (or hotchpotch), a potpourri, a mishmash, a mélange, a miscellanea, an omnium-gatherum, a gallimaufry, a salmagundi, a farrago, or an olla podrida, but it is not a range.

Writing that Ms. Patchett’s topics are “as diverse as her stabilizing second marriage and her beloved dog”* would have spared The Times embarrassment 

The false-range tic is lazy and careless, and it infests American journalism.

*Or editing it to read thus. Lord knows I haven’t been able to extirpate every false range that lands on the desk, but I have dispatched a good many of them. 

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