Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

From Seattle to Shanghai

Posted by Neal on September 22, 2011

Bill Walsh, who can be pretty literal-minded himself, wrote this about a journalistic cliche known as the false range:

A Scripps Howard story on actor John Leguizamo mentions that he “has starred in films and TV projects ranging from ‘Moulin Rouge’ to ‘Arabian Nights.’ ” Let’s see, how does that continuum go again? Oh, yes, there’s “Moulin Rouge,” then
“The Incredible Mr. Limpet,” “Davey and Goliath,” “Gonorrhea
and You: A Cautionary Tale,” and then finally “Arabian Nights.

And when my paper, The Washington Post, says “everything from fantasy to animation to suspense dramas” was popular at the movies in 2001, that necessarily includes straight-to-video Frank Stallone crap, NC-17 films involving barnyard animals and propaganda documentaries denying the Holocaust. Remember: It says “everything”! (link)

Grammar Monkeys, one of the Wichita Eagle‘s blogs, got pretty creative in filling in the missing parts of false ranges, too:

This movie has everything from fistfights to car chases to shootouts.
Really? Everything? Talking animals? Tender romance? Discussions about the nature of existence? Aliens?

The upscale women’s boutique has merchandise ranging from handbags to jewelry.
Just what all is in between handbags and jewelry? Clothes? Nope. Shoes? A few. Sunglasses? Bingo! Fancy pens? Yep — who knew?

The kitchen serves up everything from squid to paella to buffalo.
Again, everything? Even rainbow Jell-O? (link)

Ranges per se aren’t meaningless, as long as there’s a continuum that you’re giving the endpoints of. It can be a measurable continuum, as in from two ounces to two tons or from New York to Los Angeles, or a fuzzier continuum of a subjective property, like life-threateningness in from colds to cancer. But if there’s no apparent continuum, Walsh and others argue, then anything goes. Everything from X to Y becomes in essence, everything. As they’ve been discussing on Language Log, everything without a suitable restriction on its domain is trouble.

The solution, of course, is to interpret everything from X to Y but idiomatically, as the writer intended it: “many and somewhat diverse things, including X and Y.” It’s still a cliche, but at least not a meaningless one.

Anyway, so last night I was talking with my mom about NASA’s Upper Atmospheric Research Satellite, put into orbit in 1991 and falling back to Earth as I’m writing this. Mom said she’d heard someone on a newscast somewhere say that the pieces of the satellite might land “anywhere from Shanghai to Seattle.” A real, geographic range to work with. Let’s see…

Shanghai: 31°N, 121°E
Seattle: 47°N, 122°W

So the UARS might land anywhere along the (shorter) great-circle distance between 31°N, 121°E and 47°N, 122°W, including Tokyo and a long stretch of the North Pacific.

That’s probably too restrictive. After all, from New York to LA is usually taken to mean the entire US, at least the contiguous ones. Shanghai and Seattle don’t suggest such a salient area, but maybe the newscaster meant anywhere in the area bounded by the 31st and 47th parallels on the south and north, and by the 121st east and the 122nd west meridians. That would bring in the rest of Japan, Korea, Manchuria, some of Siberia, a little bit more of Washington’s Pacific Coast, and a lot more of the North Pacific.

No, that’s probably too restrictive, too. Maybe they meant anywhere between the 31st and 47th parallels. Now we’re talking. That’s all the area I mentioned before, plus Mongolia, the land of Stans, about half of Europe, and most of the contiguous United States.

Or, maybe they meant between 121°E and 122°W, a span of 117 degrees of longitude. That would be the area I mentioned two paragraphs ago, plus a lot of Indonesia, most of Australia, and just about all of Micronesia, Melanesia, and Polynesia, as well as Alaska and more of Siberia. So what exactly is the range here?

From what I’ve found out since that conversation, pieces of the UARS could land anywhere between 57°N and 57°S — a much bigger area than any of the possibilities I just laid out, and pretty much my mom’s understanding of “anywhere except the polar regions.” It seems that from Shanghai to Seattle was intended as a false range, with Shanghai and Seattle chosen just for their near-alliterative quality and intended to be taken as “many and diverse places, including Shanghai and Seattle”.

This rhetorical range has just the opposite problem from the usual. Most false ranges, when interpreted literally, generate a set that’s way too big. This one gives you a geographic area that’s too small, no matter how you calculate it. The lesson: If you’re going to use the false range cliche, make it truly false. Don’t choose endpoints that really do have measurable quantities between them.

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3 Responses to “From Seattle to Shanghai”

  1. The Ridger said

    I would argue that this:

    This movie has everything from fistfights to car chases to shootouts.
    Really? Everything? Talking animals? Tender romance? Discussions about the nature of existence? Aliens?

    is silly. Fightfight – car chase – shootout is a pretty definite kind of movie, and everything between the fist fight and the shootout will virtually never include talking animals and tender romance, let alone existential discussions.

    Some of these ranges are a bit silly, but most of them make sense if you take the “end points” as representatives of the bounded circle of maybe a venn diagram or something.

  2. Jonathon said

    I agree with The Ridger. It’s definitely a cliche that’s prone to abuse, but I think the so-called false range is usually harmless. Generally it’s pretty clear that the examples are sketching out the bounds of some sort of abstract space. It takes a deliberate failure at pragmatics to misinterpret a false range.

  3. [...] Minded wrote about false ranges and falling satellites. Dialect Blog expressed dislike over the terms boyfriend and girlfriend (and got married, [...]

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