Switchback English
Entry for 2016-06-22


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 do not make a right. Three lefts sometimes do. I try to sort out switchback expressions by charting each positive and negative reference as a "Yes" or a "No" and then counting them up.

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 it's necessary to seek further clarification in the story under the headline.

In a preliminary (MAYBE)
injunction (NO)
issued (YES)
late this afternoon...
the judge ruled (YES)
that opponents (NO)
of the ban (NO)
would probably (MAYBE)
prevail (YES)
in their argument (MAYBE NOT)
that it violated (NO)
the Constitution by denying (NO)
equal treatment to women and minorities (YES)

That's a 5-4 vote against affirmative action, which would certainly surprise the judge and the Times editors. So much for that system of analysis.

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."