John McIntyre, whom James Wolcott calls "the Dave Brubeck of the art and craft of copy editing," writes on language, editing, journalism, and other manifestations of human frailty. Comments welcome. Identifying his errors relieves him of the burden of omniscience. Write to jemcintyre@gmail.com, befriend at Facebook, or follow at Twitter: @johnemcintyre. Back 2009-2012 at the original site, http://weblogs.baltimoresun.com/news/mcintyre/blog/ and now at www.baltimoresun.com/news/language-blog/.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Getting the range

Angela Hopp has written on Twitter to inquire about false ranges, a gimmick to which journalists are unfortunately addicted.

To have a proper range, you must have some scale of comparable things with an upper and lower limit, or a set of individual things of the same type. True ranges are all around us:

In Baltimore today, with a blizzard in progress, the range of temperatures is predicted to be 23 degrees Fahrenheit to 29 degrees Fahrenheit.

The stock expression for a dinner with a full set of courses is from soup to nuts, appetizer to the last nibbles.

Samuel Johnson opens The Vanity of Human Wishes with this couplet: Let observation with extensive view, / Survey mankind, from China to Peru. ... That is, there is a geographic range of — to English eyes — exotic lands, the whole world encompassed.

The cruise ship you wish you were on instead of snowbound in Baltimore offers a range of amusements: gambling, overeating, faux-Vegas shows, shopping for overpriced items, overeating, swimming, and on. All of them are part of a limited set of similar activities.

Dorothy Parker commented on the emotional range in a performance by Katharine Hepburn, saying that the actress had “run the whole gamut from A to B.”

A journalist who merely wants to indicate a collection of miscellaneous things will often express that as a false range.

From USA Today: A pair of teenagers downloading songs by artists ranging from OutKast to Billy Joel through an Internet file-sharing service could cost their bewildered parents up to $4,000. Identify, please, the fixed points of songwriting on which OutKast and Billy Joel are parts of a continuum. The writer means as diverse as.

More of the same “as diverse as” false ranges from diverse publications: Products made with nanotechnology -- ranging from sunscreens to socks -- are being sold to consumers without adequate scientific research or regulation, British scientists warned.

A federal judge rebuffed an effort by media organizations, ranging from the Associated Press to Wired News, to unseal whistleblower documents in a civil rights group’s case against AT&T for allegedly helping the government’s warrantless wiretapping of Americans.

The Tisch family, known for making bets on out-of-favor assets ranging from oil tankers to cigarette makers, acquired a $63 million stake in the New York Times Co.

The changing geography of poverty here reflects a national trend, and argues for a more regional strategies on issues ranging from social safety nets to mass transit. (A pity that the superfluous a was not deleted from this Baltimore Sun article.)

The uncompromising Bill Walsh has written on this subject, pointing out that the false range is a crutch for lazy writers. And, he rightly says, even if you are not a purist about the meaning of range, you must concede that this is a tired device.

8 comments:

  1. Thank you for this post. Grammar Girl tweeted a link to it, and I had to come read. I'm glad I did.

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  2. Happy birthday, John!

    Other kinds of "ranges" that would force me to track down the authors of the reports I used to edit were open-ended "ranges," such as "from 20,000 patients to 200,000 or more."

    Also, in that sentence from the Baltimore Sun, I wouldn't have put a comma before "and argues..." Is having one there their style, or am I hopelessly misguided?

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  3. It's been many years since I worked on a copy desk, but I remember being taught that it's "range BETWEEN," not "range from ... to." ("Their ages range between 22 and 45.") What's the verdict nowadays?

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  4. false ranges are not only lazy as a device: they are also cliched

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  5. Where o where is Dorothy Parker when we need her?

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  6. 1. Happy birthday!
    2. Would it be acceptable if the word "ranging" itself were removed, or is it the concept that's objectionable? "As diverse as" would get old, too, wouldn't it?
    3. "From the AP to Wired Press" at least has an alphabetic range in view. Is that one at least marginally acceptable?

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  7. I was once unaware of the concept of a false range, but once Bill Walsh turned me on to it, I started seeing this construction everywhere. I now eradicate the false range every chance I get in my daily chores, which today included this work of art from a college describing its faculty (note that they don't even attempt to write in full sentences):
    Our professors are highly-accalimed, published, awarded for industry excellence and recognized national and internationally. From authors to scientists... psychologists to medical doctors... lawyers to entrepreneurs.

    I'm always amazed at the garbled prose I receive from institutions of higher education.

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  8. false range or not, it just SOUNDS awkward and wrong to me.

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