Switchback English

Some passages in English reverse the field repeatedly and get you coming and going. This, for example, was a front page headline in the New York Times a few years ago:

FEDERAL JUDGE EXTENDS BAN
ON END TO AFFIRMATIVE ACTION

Is that good or bad?

Two wrongs don’t make a right. Three lefts sometimes do. I once thought you could sort out switchback expressions by charting each positive and negative reference as a “Yes” or a “No” and then counting them up. To wit,

FEDERAL JUDGE
EXTENDS (yes)
BAN (no)
ON END (no)
TO AFFIRMATIVE (yes)
ACTION (yes)

This would give the “yes” vote a 3-2 majority, so the ruling would favor affirmative action. But if “affirmative action” is taken as a single, redundant affirmative, then the tally is even at 2-2. So much for that theory..

I yearn for a simpler time when, as James Thurber recalled it, his enigmatic friend Christabelle (who had promised her butler that she would write him into her next novel as the uncharacter of a nonbutler) would respond to someone’s assertion by saying,

“That’s not unmeaningless.”

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About Al

Editors of The Horse You Rode In On (listed below) hail from Boston, Pittsburgh, and San Francisco. All contributions are signed. When guest contributors are included, their comments will be signed in a manner consistent with their needs for discretion, witness protection, or yearning for personal adulation.