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/.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Curse you, Microsoft Word


A couple of readers have complained that the ¾ symbol is showing up in these blog posts, and one suggests that they are occurring where I use the em dash. That surmise is correct.

The em dash is the one on Microsoft Word’s insert symbol menu -- Word 2007, not the earlier version I had been using -- and apparently the Blogger software does not recognize it. (I realize just now that Microsoft Word has used its symbol for the 3/4 fraction, and God knows how that will appear to you.) So now I am reduced to typing in two hyphens if I want a dash, as if I were still working on a damn typewriter.

It’s hard enough to make these dispatches intelligible without having to wrestle with inconsistencies in software. So I will consult with someone more knowledgeable about the quirks of Microsoft Word and the Blogger software – just about anyone is – to see whether some resolution of the matter is possible without my having to go back to school and earn a degree in programming. (Now I notice that something, probably the damn auto-correct feature that I forgot to shut off is converting some of the double hyphens, but not all, to en dashes. Grrrr.)

In the meantime, I may just stop using dashes altogether, which for many writers and all journalists would not be a bad idea. 

More than one in ten is OK


Etymology can suggest, but it cannot command.

The Latin word decem, “ten,” is the root of decimal and also decimate, which originally identified that fine old Roman custom of disciplining a mutinous legion by executing one man out of every ten.

Some finicky self-appointed guardians of language have insisted that decimate should retain its one-in-ten sense in all contexts, but English has moved on. Decimate is perfectly acceptable standard English in the sense of “to kill or destroy a large part of.” A population can be decimated ¾ substantially reduced, not precisely by a tenth, but not eliminated altogether ¾ in the outbreak of a disease.

That degree of license does not, however, mean that anything goes, as can be seen in the initial paragraph of a recent Baltimore Sun article:

An Anne Arundel County firefighter admitted Wednesday to emptying the bank accounts of a regional firefighter charity when he was its treasurer, a crime that has decimated the organization.

One is left wondering what happened. Has the organization lost a great part of its members? Or is the writer trying to indicate financial hardship? Or what? It seems likely that the word for which the writer was reaching, and missed, is devastate.

Another misuse of decimate is in the sense of “to defeat utterly,” as in the warmongering hyperbole favored by the sports pages.

If you can avoid false precision on one side and sloppiness of expression on the other, decimate is still a perfectly useful word.