Are you deranged?

As people who read Sesquiotica know, I’m not in the business of coming up with inflexible rules for people to slave under. But I am in the business of making observations and occasional suggestions. And sometimes asking questions.

Well, today I have a question for you: Are you deranged?

Actually, that would be better put as Is your prose deranged?

Here’s what I’m getting at. How do you normally express a range in English? You know, from 1 to 20 or from ultraviolet to infrared?

The way I just did, naturally: from…to.

And when people write ad or marketing or expository copy wanting to talk about all the options available in this or that place or from this or that person or business, they very often like to use this form to give a sense of a full range. In fact, two items often don’t suffice to express the ambit of offerings: you’ll get

from Iqaluit to Toronto and from Victoria to St. John’s

or you’ll get

from drama and dance to engineering and physics

and sometimes you’ll even get a string of to‘s.

But what you much too often will not get is an actual range. The from…to construction is grabbed as a convenient way to convey the idea of a a diverse offering, like a sweep of the arms. But too often it lacks clarity, it lacks sharpness, it lacks punch, because it doesn’t express a real range. It’s de-ranged.

Consider a sentence such as

From its beautiful waterfront to its exciting dining options to its lively theatre scene to its lush parks, Toronto has a lot to offer.

Diagram that out if you can. Does that really express a contrast between endpoints or extremes? It’s four different things, but it’s not like

from Bonavista to Vancouver Island, from the Arctic Circle to the great lake waters

It’s more like

from your elbow to a poodle to your nose to pineapples

As I’ve discussed elsewhere (“Sharpening and vowel shifts” and “chiaroscuro“), contrasts appeal. Make a strong statement. Give it some flavour if you can. Go for something like

From Napoleons to beef Wellington, if it has pastry, we make it.

If you don’t have a sharp contrast, don’t pretend you do. But you can probably find one if you look – rather than just being lazy and relying on a usage that seems to suggest contrast. You’ll get more contrast from

Treat yourself to our one-inch micro-whoopie pie. Or to our twenty-inch monster cake. Or maybe just a nice warm muffin.

than you will from

From cookies to cakes to muffins, we have the full complement of baked goods.

This isn’t a rule; this is advice: don’t be de-ranged. Don’t be lazy or sloppy. Don’t rely on clichéd syntax. Stop for a moment and think about the truly vivid images available. You’ll produce much better results if you do.

3 responses to “Are you deranged?

  1. Love it! “Stop and think” is a great way to appeal to these evidences of a lack of thought about what one is intending to say.

    Whenever I’m at a cash register and the counter person says “That will be $11.13” I say “When will it be $11.13?” because what they’re trying to say “It IS $11.13”.

    But, I’ve got to ask – am I wrong to get riled when I see “The game is from 8-10”? Is it not more properly written “The game is from 8 to 10” (never mind, for now, whether the numbers are spelled out or written as digits, that’s for another time).

    • I don’t really cotton to from 8–10 either – for me, the dash makes the numbers a range, a numerical unit; it’s not just a stand-in for the word to. And of course I like between 8–10 even less.

      On the other hand, I don’t have a big issue with the will be – that’s an established usage of expectation or calculation. Yes, it actually is $11.13, or the total is anyway. But just as we may say, when the doorbell rings, That’ll be him now, and any of a number of other usages that use that future compound to signify the result of a calculation, we can take it as idiomatic. Anyway, I certainly don’t see it as an excuse to be snarky to cashiers… Politeness forms are so bedevilling, and those poor people have to be polite to some pretty unpleasant specimens.

      • I actually typed the same opinion of “between” and second-guessed myself🙂

        And, I wholly agree that my being a twit with cashiers isn’t very nice even if I say it in jest. Especially since there’s some established norm to what you introduced to me – “future compound signifying the result of a calculation” – fair enough, always good to learn from you!

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