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January 5, 2012

Free-range Verbs

Filed under: usage — amastyleinsider @ 2:16 pm
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“Patients in the intervention group received doses of study drug in the range of 80 to 325 mg.”

“Patients in the intervention group received doses of study drug ranging from 80 to 325 mg.”

Both of these sentences use forms of the verb range in the sense of “to change or differ within limits”1 or “to vary between certain limits; to form a varying set or series.”2 And both use the word correctly, yes?

The answer would at first seem to be a firm “perhaps.” Some language purists might suggest that range is a verb (at least when so used), and it is not possible for doses and other inanimate subjects to “range.” In this view, the second sentence above would be incorrect. On the other hand, the use of range with inanimate subjects seems quite widespread in everyday speech and writing (eg, “prices ranging from $1 to $15”; “topics ranging from A to Z”). So is this a case of language purists insisting on a distinction that has long since begun to evaporate or yet another case of language becoming more permissive with time?

When attempting to formulate an answer to this question, at least 3 concepts might come into play. First, it is important to note that, unlike some languages such as Japanese3 and the American Indian language Ojibwe (Anishinaabemowin),4 which have different verb forms for use with animate and inanimate subjects, English makes no such distinction. So perhaps those who insist that verbs may be used only with animate subjects are taking their cue from the grammars of other languages with which they might be familiar.

Second, English does distinguish between animate and inanimate subjects when it comes to selecting relative pronouns—who is used with animate subjects (eg, “Patients who received the study drug….”); that is used with groups or inanimate subjects (eg, “The group that best responded….”; “The drug that was administered first….”). Setting aside the questions of whether that constructions are always necessary in such sentences (“The drug administered first….”) and also of whether who should be used only when the subject is human and that used when the subject is nonhuman but animate, it seems possible that a distinction maintained for one part of speech has been analogously applied to another.

Third, there is some precedent in English for avoiding the possessive with inanimate subjects, although that precedent has been on the wane for some time. As early as 1965, Theodore Bernstein quoted American grammarian George O. Curme as saying that, to take the possessive, “‘the [subject] must usually have some sort of individual life like a living being, but this idea of life may be very faint. It is faintest when the name of a thing is used as the subject of a gerund, where it is often not felt at all.’”5 In his discussion Bernstein cites such common examples as “death’s door,” “sun’s warmth,” “ship’s propeller,” and “storm’s fury”; he further notes that inanimate subjects may take the possessive when poetic effect is desired, citing as examples “April’s breeze” and “river’s trembling edge.” However, Bernstein does also point out that the use of the possessive with inanimate subjects is a throwback to previously accepted usage: “Undoubtedly we are witnessing these days a reversion in part from the prepositional genitive—the specialty of the day—to the simple ‘s’ genitive of the older days—the day’s specialty.” So again, it seems entirely possible that over time a distinction maintained for one part of speech might have come to be analogously applied to another; moreover, if that is the case, the new distinction (verbs should be used only with animate subjects) seems to have been based on a distinction (only animate subjects can take the possessive) that superseded earlier usage (animate and inanimate subjects can both take the possessive) but that is once again in decline.

Certainly the use of verbs such as range with inanimate subjects has been accepted since at least the 1830s.2 When David Livingstone wrote in 1857 that “The thermometer early in the mornings ranged from 42° to 52°,”2 he surely meant that the temperature varied between those limits—but he nevertheless was using range in a manner already accepted and considered correct. In a discussion of which prepositions best follow range, Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage cites an example from 1973: “‘…ranging from a whisper to a bray.’”6 (Incidentally, it is pointed out in that same discussion that while Bernstein states that range should be followed only by the prepositions through, with, along, or between, in actual usage range is most commonly followed by from.) More recently still, the 10th edition of the AMA Manual of Style provides, in a discussion of an unrelated point, the example “The percentage of patients who reported gastrointestinal symptoms ranged from 20% to 30%.” (§19.7.2, Percentages, p 831 in print). However, it is worth keeping in mind that when using ranging or ranged with inanimate subjects and describing variation between set limits, those limits should be specified whenever possible (eg, “doses ranging from 80 to 325 mg”) to avoid imprecision.

So free up those verbs, and let those cases, diagnoses, doses, incidence rates, etc, range from X to Y. Just be certain that X and Y are defined when possible, and avoid constructions such as “widely ranging doses” or “incidence rates ranged widely.” —Phil Sefton, ELS

1. Range. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. 11th ed. Springfield, MA; Merriam-Webster Inc; 2003:1030.
2. Range. The Compact Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press; 1991:1508.
3. More verbs, Japanese grammar and the particle “ni.” All About Teaching English in Japan Web site. http://www.all-about-teaching-english-in-japan.com/Japanesegrammar.html. Accessed January 3, 2012.
4. Anishaabemowin grammar: verbs: transitivity and animacy. University of Wisconsin Letters and Science Learning and Support Services Web site. http://imp.lss.wisc.edu/~jrvalent/AIS/Grammar/InflMorphology/verbTransitivity.html. Accessed January 3, 2012.
5. Bernstein TM. The Careful Writer: A Modern Guide to English Usage. New York, NY: Atheneum; 1965:336-337.
6. Range. Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage. Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster Inc; 1989:796.

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