Editor at Large

Mixing Metaphors on American Idol

Did Idol executive producer Nigel Lythgoe flub a common English saying in his comment to USA Today?

Speaking on Carly Smithson, Kristy Lee Cook and other seeming show-biz veterans who have made it into this year’s show, the English-born Lythgoe dismisses concern over their experience as “a storm in a teacup.

Sound odd to you? Then you’re probably American, as I am. In U.S. English, the expression is usually “a tempest in a teapot.” Both sayings describe a lot of fuss over a small and inconsequential thing: the Oxford English Dictionary defines the teacup version as “a great commotion in a circumscribed circle,” an image I particularly enjoy.

Is one preferable to the other? Not really: the OED dates the first incidence of both phrases to 1854, and both of them continue to recur. The British version is widely unknown in the United States, just as few British English speakers have heard of the more alliterative U.S. version. Word connoisseur Michael Quinion claims that “tempest in a teapot” may have come first, since he finds the phrase in a U.S. journal published in 1838.

The British Quinion, asked by a reader about the origins of the phrase, is initially nonplused by the American version. Michael, I can relate.

Economy Policy Subject-Specific

Economic Mobility: So Much For Horatio Alger

The Brookings Institution has just released a new book-length study on economic mobility in the United States, and the findings are pretty depressing. Even Stuart Butler, a Heritage Institute scholar I worked with as editor of the Atlantic Community, has difficulty putting a positive spin on the situation when asked to comment on the Brookings study:

“It does seem in America now that for people at very bottom it’s more difficult to move up than we might have thought or might have been true in the past.”

No kidding. I wrote about this subject back in November:

A seemingly high level of income mobility supports the argument that America is still the land of opportunity, to the exclusion of all others: that there is something unique about this country that rewards entrepreneurship and risk-taking. But is that mythical America still around, if it ever was? …If the U.S. economy is so excitingly dynamic, why do children in Canada and Europe have a better chance of surpassing their parents’ incomes?

At the time of writing, there was still resistance to the idea that the U.S. was entering a recession. Now that the economy is looking bleaker, major media outlets are pulling fewer punches, and covering more bad news. The New York Times headline for the Brookings news, “Higher Education Gap May Slow Economic Mobility,” is shown next to a graphic showing that “a person born into a poor family who graduates from college has a 19 percent chance of entering the top fifth of earners in adulthood.”

The fight now will be over the reasons that this is happening. But at least we’re starting to see agreement that economic mobility is declining, and the left and right can argue over how best to fix it.

More recent studies on economic mobility in the U.S. and elsewhere:

Editor at Large Spoken English Written English

Posting On By Accident

Celebrity gossip sites are often gold mines for grammatical errors. Writers may be hired more for their snark than their smarts, although some, happily, have both.

Today’s offender does not.

A certain starlet, writes a certain gossipmonger, did not get pregnant “on accident.”

On accident? ON ACCIDENT?! This is a mistake that teenagers make, not grown-up blogslaves! This is not just bad grammar, it’s inexcusable in a writer who has grown up writing English. How often do accidents happen? How many times a week are we exposed to the correct usage of “by accident” on the 10 o’clock news?

There are so many less painful ways to get across this information. The starlet’s pregnancy was no accident sounds particularly succinct to my ear. Or we can do Strunk & White a favor, dispense with the negatives and simply say that the pregnancy happened on purpose.

In researching this blog entry, I shuddered to find that the use of “on accident” instead of “by accident” is becoming more prevalent. Grammar Girl has a particularly clear-eyed (i.e., unmarred by prescriptivist paranoia) take on the whole thing. But I’m not the only one who finds “on accident” to be the grammatical equivalent of nails on a chalkboard. Novelist Jonathan Safran Foer uses “on accident” to humorously great effect in the voice of his non-native English narrator in Everything Is Illuminated (Google Books link).

Maybe in fifty years this expression will have become a normal alternative, but it still causes far too much controversy to be an acceptable usage right now. If “on accident” showed up in your writing, I’d correct it.

Punctuated Written English

A Pop-Culture Moment for the Semicolon?

The New York Times tried to bury the story in its N.Y./Region section. But by early this morning, it was the paper’s most frequently e-mailed article.

Was it a commentary on hometown girl Lindsay Lohan’s nude photo shoot? An elegy for former NYC mayor Rudy Giuliani and his presidential aspirations? Hardly! The Times took a moment yesterday to recognize the semicolon; readers echoed the encomium around the web.

The punctuational love-fest came from Times reporter Sam Roberts’ account of the positive reception afforded to an NYC Transit anti-litter poster on the subway:

“Please put it in a trash can,” riders are reminded. After which Neil Neches, an erudite writer in the transit agency’s marketing and service information department, inserted a semicolon. The rest of the sentence reads, “that’s good news for everyone.”

Roberts retains an appropriate air of neutrality throughout the piece, writing that “in literature and journalism, not to mention in advertising, the semicolon has been largely jettisoned as a pretentious anachronism,” and that “Americans, in particular, prefer shorter sentences without [the semicolon].”

Oh yeah? Tell that to the thousands of readers with whom this article has struck a chord. Tell that to my boyfriend, who confesses that the semicolons in my e-mails won his computational linguist heart.

Or just tell it to the NYT. A rudimentary search turned up semicolons in three articles in the last two days, including one usage that probably should have been a comma.

Is the world going semicolon crazy? And if it were, dear readers, wouldn’t it be great?

Editor at Large

Welcome to the Belletra Blog

Hi, I’m Casey. I’ve been an editor-in-chief, a game show champion, a Spanish translator and a jazz singer, but I am foremost a writer in love with the English language.

If you’re looking for editing or translation assistance, you’ll find a decidedly more corporate tone on my Belletra business homepage.

This blog is a chronicle of my idiosyncratic language interests: my observations, as a native speaker, of a world in which English has become the de facto lingua franca of business and Internet communication. Occasionally you’ll see a subject-specific post, usually on politics or international relations.

I spent a long time deciding whether that last paragraph should contain “observations of” or “observations on.” And what about those two Latin phrases one after another? Cliché?