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The Word

Entirely wrong

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"NOT AVAILABLE IN all areas," the ads for new cable and phone services say, warning potential customers that their neighborhoods may not yet be wired for all the bells and whistles.

Most people have no trouble understanding that cautionary tagline. But some insist that it's ambiguous, like the reader who e-mailed recently to object: "I could understand spending advertising dollars for something that might be unavailable in some areas, but not unavailable in all areas!"

This alleged ambiguity is a regular target of amateur peevologists - and sometimes professionals, too: James Kilpatrick, who writes a syndicated language column, last year attacked a USA Today headline that read "Mass Transit Not an Option for All Drivers." Kilpatrick insisted that the headline logically meant no drivers could use mass transit: "If mass transit is not an option for 'all' drivers, it cannot be an option for even one driver."

Neal Whitman, who blogs about language at Literal-Minded, spent some time trying to figure out Kilpatrick's reasoning. Mark Liberman, at Language Log, furnished examples of famous writers flouting Kilpatrick's dictum, back to Shakespeare's "All that glisters is not gold." They could find no evidence that English speakers are confused by constructions like "not available in all areas."

So why do people claim befuddlement? I guess they're looking for trouble. These are the same people who tell you that "he only wanted a taste" and "I only have eyes for you" are unclear, and amuse themselves by thinking up improbable sentences to demonstrate the hazards of misplaced adverbs.

(One website giving grammar advice flags "He barely kicked that ball twenty yards" as confusing; it prefers "He kicked that ball barely twenty yards." I'd argue that the first version, in most contexts, is actually better, with the key word barely right up front. But why use your ear and common sense, if you've got a nice neat rule to show off with?)

Sure, you can write sentences in which the scope of the negation (as the linguists call it) is unclear. "The entire team was not available": Were all players sidelined, or only some? And spoken language is more flexible than written: "Everyone can't go" might be puzzling in print, but not if uttered by a baseball fan with three tickets and six friends.

Most of the time, though, the ambiguity is illusory. When I wrote about the "only" obsession in 2001, I asked readers to send me print examples of ambiguous uses of only. My mailbox is still empty.

And if Kilpatrick's concern is valid, why is it so selectively applied? His analysis would condemn sentences like "retirement is not for everyone" (by his logic, it means "no one may retire") or "haggis is not to everyone's taste." But nobody pretends to misinterpret those sentiments.

H.W. Fowler weighed in on the adverb-placement argument 80 years ago, in Modern English Usage, and he voted for flexibility. The adverb absolutists, he said, were bent on "turning English into an exact science or an automatic machine." That dream lives on, it seems, but it's just as cranky and elusive a goal as it was in Fowler's day.

. . .

POINT TAKEN: It's that time of year, e-mails Leon Day of Newark, Del., "when the word within is heavily used by sportscasters" - or rather, in his view, misused. "If a team is trailing by three points," he notes, "the sportscaster will claim it has 'pulled within three points.' Not so! 'Three points' is within four, not within three."

Others have wondered how "exactly three points" and "within three points" could have come to be synonyms, and now there's an answer. Ben Zimmer, an editor at Oxford University Press, last year traced the sporting use of within to its 19th-century context, where it made perfect sense.

The usage first showed up, he found, in descriptions of horse races and boat races, where the competitors' positions shifted along a continuous course. "A boat or horse that was moving up could be said to be 'within N lengths' of the leader," Zimmer said in an e-mail summarizing his research.

But to play on other turf, within had to shift its sense. "When the spatial metaphor was borrowed into team sports like baseball, where scoring is discontinuous (expressed in whole numbers), 'within N' came to be understood as 'previously more than N behind, now exactly N behind."'

The word also migrated into the lingo of pennant races, said Zimmer: "As early as 1880, the Chicago Tribune reported that the White Stockings were 'within four games' (and then 'within two games') of the championship - a calculation we now call 'the magic number."'

Deplore it if you like, but the sporting within can't be blamed on TV sportscasters. It's the metaphorical math of an earlier era, straight from the horse's mouth.

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