Word Salad, Part Two

James Evans, a fan of my site, sent me this today:
The lunch menu in the cafeteria at work is advertising “Mescaline Salad” today. I think a “mesclun vs. mescaline” entry may be warranted. A quick search of Google indicates that our cafeteria is not the only one making that mistake.

Here are some examples that pop up:
A recipe: Strawberry - Mango Mescaline Salad 
A salad label 
A photo: Mescaline salad field 
Here's a cartoon on this subject: Mesclun or Mescaline Salad

Mesclun is a French word literally meaning “mixture,” used to describe a mixture of various greens. The term is popular on pretentious menus, where it may designate a mixture of any number of different greens. Since it has no precise definition, I prefer the simple English “mixed greens.”

This mix-up isn’t common enough to qualify for my Web site, but I liked it so much I thought it was worth a blog post.


Word Salad

The comic strip “Frank & Ernest” often touches on mangled language. Today’s alludes to the common misspelling of “Caesar salad,” which is discussed on p. 52 of my book. Remember that the book lists words under their misspellings.


Hiding in Plain Sight

The Washington Post recently published an article about the 2011 Powerball scandal which involved a lottery official secretly buying what was later claimed to be a winning ticket.

This paragraph from the piece puzzled me at first:
Investigators never gave up on the curious case and, three years later, released surveillance footage of a hooded man buying the winning ticket in the hopes that someone would recognize him.
If he was hoping someone would identify him, why wear a hood?

It took three readings before I realized that the phrase “in the hopes that someone would recognize him” belonged earlier in the sentence, after the word “footage.” It was the investigators who were hoping someone would recognize him.

When you’re writing a long, complex sentence it’s easy to make this sort of mistake, known as a “dangling modifier.” After all, you know what you mean. Most of us find it difficult to spot problems of this kind in our own writing. It’s always a good idea to have someone else proofread your work before publishing it.

But in this case, whoever edited this piece at the Post missed the problem.

Dangling and misplaced modifiers are covered on p. 75.


Truck Traffic

I was just listening to Kurt Anderson interview Lucy Liu on his podcast “Studio 360” and heard him say “trucking in stereotypes.” I’m pretty sure he meant to say “trafficking in stereotypes.”

That made me think of the phrase R. Crumb's Mr. Natural made famous: “Keep on trucking.” I thought, “that's got to lead to ‘keep on trekking’.”

And indeed, a ton of people are using this pun, but it’s not as funny as Anderson’s slip of the tongue.


Tracking the Wild Eggcorn

I was interviewed recently by New York Times sports writer Jere Longman about the expression “get untracked” as it applies to teams pulling out of a slump.

The resulting article, titled "A Description as Enigmatic As How to Escape a Slump” appears in the sports section of today’s Sunday Times, where I'm quoted as saying:

“Clearly, it’s a mishearing,” said Paul Brians, an emeritus professor of English at Washington State University and the author of “Common Errors in English Usage.”
“I think people are hearing the phrase ‘he’s got to get back on track,’ and they’re not catching that it’s on, space, track,” he added. “It’s coming across in their minds as ‘untracked.’ And of course, that is exactly the opposite of what they mean to say—that they’re getting back on track, not that they’ve derailed.”
However, the article goes on to cite several linguists and other researchers who have tracked back to the late 19th century the use of “untracked” as referring to a racehorse having trouble getting into its stride. In modern times it seems to have spread widely in sports writing to the extent that it has been accepted as standard usage by several authoritative reference works. 

Outside of sports writing it sometimes appears in headlines affixed to articles which themselves do not contain the term.

Here's a typical example:

NAC can't get untracked
In such cases I suspect a sports-influenced headline writer has used an expression that the author of the article might not have chosen.

In other cases “untracked” clearly means “unstuck” to the writer:

Counseling sessions last around 45 minutes. For many students, one or two sessions are enough to get untracked. 

Here it seems to me “untracked” is being treated as a synonym for “on track.”

Longman's research turned up a number of people in the sporting world who are confused or put off by “get untracked,” so calling it “standard usage” even in the realm where it is most common may be exaggerating a bit.

Some writers feel their job is to rule a usage either right or wrong, but I tend to side with those who prefer to examine how acceptable, unusual, or off-putting a particular usage is. This case is almost impossible to quantify, but it's worth noting that according to Google on the Web the expression “get back on track” is about 2,000 times more common than “get untracked.”  

Even if “get untracked” has had a separate history from “get back on track" it seems highly likely that the two expressions have long gotten confused with each other in many people’s minds, and that far more readers are likely to be flummoxed, like Longman, by “untracked.”

Here’s what I wrote in 2009 on p. 302 of Common Errors in English Usage: 
When things begin running smoothly and successfully, they get “on track.” Some people oddly substitute “untracked” for this expression, perhaps thinking that to be “tracked” is to be stuck in a rut.
The result of all this is that I've revised this entry as follows, to appear in future printings of the book: 
When things begin running smoothly and successfully, they get “on track.” Some people substitute “untracked” for this expression, perhaps thinking that to be “tracked” is to be stuck in a rut.

“Untracked” in a positive sense can be traced back a century or more, mainly in sports writing; but it is liable to confuse readers who are used to “on track.” After all, if a train gets off track it gets derailed—wrecked; and to get off   one track and onto another is to switch tracks, not get “untracked.”
So by continuing to include “untracked” in Common Errors in English Usage am I continuing to call “get untracked” an error? Not necessarily. As I’ve explained in many contexts, the book is not a mere list of errors. Rather it discusses usage that may be considered erroneous by some English users. 

Would it be less confusing if I changed the title of the book? Undoubtedly, but for several reasons that’s not practical. I’ll continue tracking usage in the same way, trying not to switch tracks.


In Journalism, Grammar Is Everything

Paul Brians is right; if people are turned off by nonstandard usage, that is not akin to racism.

But I have a turn-off of my own: a widespread inattention to the vocabulary of usage terms. Look at this from The Wall Street Journal article Paul links to:
The date flopped for a couple of reasons, but bad grammar bothers Mr. Cohen. Learning a potential mate doesn’t know the difference between “there,” “they’re” and “their” is like discovering she loves cats, he says. Mr. Cohen is allergic to cats. “It’s like learning I’m going to sneeze every time I see her,” he says.
Does it jump out at you, too? It says that "bad grammar" bothers the gentleman, but then lists the confusion of the homonyms "there," they're," and "their" as the example that is off-putting to Mr. Cohen.

I don't know if this is the fault of the author of the piece (Georgia Wells), Mr. Cohen, or an inattentive copy editor, but this is not an example of bad grammar; it is an example of bad spelling. This is how grammar gets a bad name; it is used as a catch-all expression for any usage error. I call upon Stan Carey, contributor to Visual Thesaurus to make my point:
It would be useful to keep the other categories separate, but lists of "common grammar mistakes" rarely stray beyond gripes in just these areas. They recast grammar as style, usage and even spelling. They collapse and confuse the principles governing language use, leading insecure readers to feel bound by linguistic rules that often don't apply to them or to anyone.
I've written about this before, but somehow that has not stopped The Wall Street Journal or anyone else from writing about all usage errors as if they were "grammar mistakes." They are not. For good measure, let's have a look at what a dictionary has to say about it:
a :  the study of the classes of words, their inflections, and their functions and relations in the sentence
b :  a study of what is to be preferred and what avoided in inflection and syntax

a :  the characteristic system of inflections and syntax of a language
b :  a system of rules that defines the grammatical structure of a language

a :  a grammar textbook
b :  speech or writing evaluated according to its conformity to grammatical rules

:  the principles or rules of an art, science, or technique
See? It's about structure, not spelling, capitalization, or the rest of the hodgepodge The Wall Street Journal discusses in this article.