Out of range

Everything from 1 to z

We love to “range.” When describing a new shopping mall, for example, an article might say: “It has everything from a roller coaster for the kiddies to high-end boutiques for fashionistas.” The “from” and “to” implies a “range,” and a range implies that “everything” will be along that line. But the only thing the roller coaster and boutique have in common is that they are inside this new mall. It’s a “false range.”

Scientists and mathematicians understand “false ranges” better than most people. Journalists fall into patterns of their own, relying on clich├ęd phrases like “everything from … to” even when “everything” is not listed. If you wanted to say the new shopping mall has “everything” from a roller coaster to pricey clothing, you should list everything it has. Otherwise, just say it “includes a roller coaster for the kiddies and high-end boutiques for fashionistas,” and you’re out of range danger.

A “false range” is similar to comparing apple to oranges—they may have things in common, but the comparison does not start with a level playing field. You must compare apples to apples, or oranges to oranges, and the same goes with ranges.

A “true” range requires that the items are very narrowly plotted and extremely similar, like “A to Z” (all letters) or “1 to 100” (all numbers), where the specific items mentioned are exactly on that line. The dancers on a new sitcom “include a stock quartet of teenage girls ranging from the sullen beauty to the body-obsessed-one-with-pluck,” The Boston Globe wrote, hedging its bets by using “included.” We know the “line” consists of four teenage girl dancers, and here are two of its members.

Think of a “true range” as the trip from New York to Miami. “Our stops ranged from Philadelphia to Charleston to Orlando” is a true range, because all of those are cities on the line between New York and Miami. But if you said “Our stops ranged from Philadelphia to a plantation house to Space Mountain,” that’s a false range because one is a city, one is a house, and one is a ride. If you said, though, that “our stops included Philadelphia, a plantation house, and Space Mountain,” you haven’t set up the expectation of a continuum, so you have not set up a range. “Include” is a great way to avoid even the whiff of a range. (But if you use “include,” you must “exclude” something, or you have listed “everything from …”)

“False ranges” usually don’t confuse readers, so on the range of things to worry about in writing, they rank somewhere below bad organization and somewhere above split infinitives. (That, by the way is a false range, since organization and split infinitives are not in the same family.) But they still “enrange” many readers. When you’re tempted to write phrases that include “from … to,” stop and see if you can get yourself out of range.

Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl. Tags: , , , , ,