The Compulsive Copyeditor

January 10, 2021

The Mostest with the Leastest

Filed under: Uncategorized — amba12 @ 2:29 pm

This is the kind of use of “most” that I most object to. (I know I’m repeating myself.)

Dammit, 56 percent is not “most.” It is “more than half,” or “a slim majority.”

I’m not sure where the “most” line is, but it feels to me like at least 70 percent. You?

To me, this use of the word is an exaggeration or distortion that amounts to a media lie. It’s driven by a belief that everything has to be extreme to command and deserve attention. Every hurricane must be hyped as a Cat 5, every earthquake as 8.0 or higher. Narrow margins are the new landslide.

August 26, 2020

Wanna see what a dangler is?

Filed under: dangling slowly in the wind,grammar,language degenerating — amba12 @ 10:45 pm

“While writing these words a red-tailed hawk landed on a branch outside my window. Possibly a fugitive from the fire, I saw it first a few days ago.”

According to the grammar here, the hawk was writing the words while landing on a branch (neat trick!) and the writer was a fugitive from the fire.

March 15, 2020

Do You Like to Watch?

Filed under: grammar — amba12 @ 2:26 pm

Wanna see a copy editor at work?

That’s the last thing on your mind, I know. But you need a break from the virus and the primaries. And if you are a word and grammar nut like me, you can’t resist this stuff, any more than Roger Rabbit could resist the siren song of the “Shave and a haircut!” knock pattern, bursting through a wall to deliver “Two biiiiiits!”

So here’s today’s correspondence between me and a science magazine editor I work with.


Hi Annie,

There are two places in the sci-written feature (attached) where we used
“fewer than” a percentage of a discrete thing [“fewer than 1 percent of the injected nanovehicles actually reach the tumor site”; the other was similar, and I hadn’t commented]. We had asked about this in [another] feature, also attached [“fewer than one-third of metastatic melanoma patients treated with dabrafenib alone survive more than three years“], where you said:

I think it’s “less” because “fewer” goes with a number, not a proportion, which has a size.

Are you saying that for percentages, we will always use “less than”? I have always struggled with this one—please help me understand!



The short answer is: authorities back both choices, so go with your gut. (You can stop reading now, or accompany my curiosity to the end of this email.)
Researching this, Chicago Manual was not much help (which is why I went with my gut):

less; fewer. Reserve less for singular mass nouns or amounts {less salt} {less soil} {less water}. Reserve fewer for plural count nouns {fewer calories} {fewer people} {fewer suggestions}.

That leaves out the neither-fish-nor-fowl case of fractions and percentages.
Merriam-Webster Online, (which is basically Web 11 with trimmings), uses “fewer” with percentages. Oddly, they don’t have it with “fewer than,” only with “No fewer than,” and this is one of their examples:

No fewer than 80 percent of registered voters turned out for the primary.

According to this, I am wrong. But according to the site Grammarphobia (the authors of which “have written five books about the English language and have more than half a century of experience as writers and editors”), I am more right than wrong:

Q: I know “fewer” refers to something you can count and “less” to something uncountable. However, what do you say in a sentence like this: “Fewer [or “Less”] than half of the graduates are present today.” In this case, are you talking about the graduates or are you referring to the fraction?

A: Strictly speaking, as you know, “fewer” should refer to plural nouns (“fewer kittens”) and “less” to singular nouns (“less milk”). But a weakness of “fewer” can be seen with percentages and fractions.

Should we say “less than five percent of the people” or “fewer than five percent of the people”? “Less than half of the graduates” or “fewer than half of the graduates”?

The answer isn’t black and white. I think (and Garner’s Modern American Usage agrees) that in these cases “less” is better.

The phrase “half of the graduates” is closer to a collective mass noun than to a collection of individuals counted up. So I’d suggest “less than half of the graduates.”

There are intelligent arguments for “fewer,” but “less” would be my choice, since percentages and fractions suggest quantity rather than counted individuals.

So, do as you will!


So, why didn’t it trigger my vigilance in the scientist-written feature (besides the fact that I had bigger fish to fry there)? Maybe because “fewer” is immediately followed by visualizable activity on the part of plural bacteriabots targeting a tumor. Survival of cancer patients is more of a classifying statistic (a chunk of a set) than an action by an agent. So if you don’t feel it’s too inconsistent, they could be different in the two pieces. If you feel it’s too inconsistent, obviously “fewer” is OK in both cases.


Got you.

“less” would also be ok in both cases, right? Or do you think that would read strangely in the sci-written piece?

I’m leaning toward allowing them to be different in the two stories but will put this to the group for a decision.


I guess “less” would also be OK in both places, but I was interested by the fact that “fewer” didn’t get my attention in the sci-written piece. (Maybe it wouldn’t have in the other piece, either, if you hadn’t asked about it there? Not sure!) I tend to be contextual and intuitive, which can make me inconsistent——in the case of the bacteriobots, I was seeing them, little individual specks struggling to reach the tumor, like sperm and an egg.
Whatever the group decides. 

It’s sort of like whether to use a singular or plural verb depending on whether components of a mass noun (“team of researchers,” e.g.) act separately or together, about which Chicago Manual says:

When the subject is a collective noun conveying the idea of unity or multitude, the verb is singular {the nation is powerful}. When the subject is a collective noun conveying the idea of plurality, the verb is plural {the faculty were divided in their sentiments}.


Oh, that’s interesting.

You, dear reader, may or may not agree, but at least you’ve had a soothing break from the pandemic and the primary.

February 29, 2020

“Couple” therapy

Filed under: language degenerating,language evolving,pedantry of the day — amba12 @ 10:46 am

From an article on the coronavirus in Italy:

there are only a couple cases in all of Tuscany.

As long as I live this will never sound right to me in print, though it is fast becoming default standard usage (William Safire famously cited Norma Loquendi as the ultimate authority on linguistic correctness—I imagine her as a statue like “Blind Justice”: her name means “the norms of speech”).

As a copy editor I am forever inserting “of” after “a couple,” which, alone, sounds like a sloppy colloquialism to me. It’s fine to say “See ya in a couple days” (though even there I would probably say “See ya in a coupla days”). It’s not fine to write it. (Besides, how many is “a couple”? Two? Then why not just say “two”? To me “a few” is three and “several” starts at four, but that’s another topic.)

I know this is just Round 1,254,997 in the endless cage match between Norma Loquendi and P. Dant. But people like me will have to die out before such barbarisms go amnesically unchallenged and slide frictionlessly into the canon.

February 26, 2020

Most delicious new malapropism

Filed under: Usage Find of the Day — amba12 @ 11:59 am

Laura Ingraham wrote on Twitter this morning:

The White House must air on the side of maximum transparency, so the spasmodic alarm Dems are trying to stoke, doesn’t escalate. Pragmatism, not panic.  Preparedness, not politicization.

Yes, fresh air is akin to sunshine as a metaphor for openness and transparency.

I must not be the only one who remarked on this in the comments to the post. Ingraham has since removed the tweet.

January 21, 2020

Getting the most out of “most”

new CNN poll shows that most Americans want the Senate to remove Trump from office (51 to 45 percent), most want to hear from the witnesses that Trump blocked from testifying in the House (69 percent), and most believe that he abused the power of the presidency (58 percent) and obstructed Congress (57 percent).

~ Teresa Hanafin, “Fast Forward” (Boston Globe newsletter)

I’m sorry, but no matter where you stand on Trump, the Senate, impeachment, or CNN, 51 percent is NOT “MOST” Americans. It is, for all practical purposes, half.

The 69 percent who want to hear from the witnesses can make a much better case to be “most Americans.” The 57 and 58 percent who agree with the substance of the two articles of impeachment cannot. They are, at best, “a majority.” Not even the Senate two-thirds “supermajority” required to convict an impeached president.

Here’s the dictionary:

The synonyms tell the tale. Most of them—four out of five, 80 percent—connote considerably more than a mere “majority.”

In my opinion, the rhetorical inflation of any majority into “nearly all / almost all / the bulk of Americans” is a propaganda weapon in our Uncivil War. It’s a purely verbal tug-of-war for domination that seeks to belittle the other side and magnify one’s own, just as Trump exaggerates the size of his inauguration and rally crowds. Talking this way turns you into a liar like all the other liars. It degrades language and thought, both serving and obscuring the critical problem that the country is being very calculatedly driven into two large, irreconcilable camps. It is because neither of these camps comprises “most” Americans, and neither of them accepts the very existence of the other, that we can have neither consensus nor clear majority rule with a confident, and therefore perhaps magnanimous, winner. It’s because no one can have actual victory that each side strives for total victory.

Where do you think “most” begins? This is a matter of connotation (judgment, feeling, consensus) rather than denotation (bare meaning), so there’s some wiggle room. To me it’s not less than two-thirds, but better yet, three-fourths.

January 15, 2020

What does this writer think “trenchant” means?

Filed under: etymology,language degenerating,Usage Find of the Day — amba12 @ 8:49 am

The writer is talking about political polarization:

Gerber tries to use his sermons to steer congregants to a less trenchant view of politics by urging them to accept that others may disagree with them.

Answer: “entrenched.” Dug in. What it actually means:

If you’re trenchant, it means you think or say smart, sharply worded things that cut right to the heart of the matter.

Consulting the trusty Online Etymology Dictionary, the two meanings spring from one root:

trenchant (adj.)

early 14c., “cutting, sharp,” from Old French trenchant “cutting, sharp” (literal and figurative), present participle of trenchier “to cut” (see trench). Figurative sense in English is from c. 1600.

Interesting! It implies (unintentionally, but aptly) that the sharper the opinions used as a trenching tool, the deeper the trench in which one becomes entrenched.

January 14, 2020

What does this person think “raucous” means?

Filed under: language degenerating,Usage Find of the Day — amba12 @ 2:19 am

In a tweet:

January 7, 2020

“The agony of being in a limbic state”

Filed under: ambiguity,etymology,puns,typography,Usage Find of the Day — amba12 @ 11:18 pm

Being at war for so long has left a considerable number of Americans unable to reconcile their global dominance with the agony of being in a limbic state of neither peace nor victory.

Is the author of this Daily Beast piece, Spencer Ackerman, referring to the limbic system, the network of subcortical brain areas that is the axis of emotion? Or does he think that “limbic” is the adjectival form of “limbo”? (Does “limbo” even have an adjectival form?)

Either—or both—would fit. His point actually is that being unable to achieve the consummation and catharsis of victory in the Middle East has left the U.S. and its citizens in a state of limbic limbo.

Here’s the marvelous Online Etymological Dictionary (the “free OED”—you should know it and use it! ) tracing the roots of the words limbic and limbo:

limbic (adj.)

“pertaining to or characteristic of a border,” 1879, in anatomy, in reference to the brain, from French limbique (1878, Broca), from limbe (14c.), from Latin limbus “edge” (see limb (n.2)). Limbic system is attested from 1950.

limbo (n.1)

region supposed to exist on the border of Hell, reserved for pre-Christian saints (Limbus patrum) and unbaptized infants (Limbus infantum);” c. 1300, from Latin limbo, ablative singular of limbus “edge, border” (see limb (n.2)). In frequent use in Latin phrases such as in limbo (patrum), which is entirely Latin, but the in was taken as English and hence the Latin ablative became the English noun. Figurative sense of “condition of neglect or oblivion, place of confinement” is from 1640s.
So the words ARE related—but only in the positional sense of both being at the edge of something (Hell, in the case of Catholic doctrine; the cerebral cortex—its own kind of hell, if you will—in the case of the limbic system). The emotional sense, of being lost in a place where nothing is happening, and therefore in a dully frustrated, affectless state, is this writer’s probably inadvertent inspiration. 
To add yet another etymological curlicue—it’s also left us on edge.
(For those on a roll, liminal (pertaining to a threshold) and limit are also related.)

January 5, 2020

Remain silent harshly

Filed under: Usage Find of the Day — amba12 @ 10:02 am


Shame on every Republican who enables this tyrant. History will judge every one of you who continues to remain silent harshly.
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