Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

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 clichéd 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.

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Merrill Perlman is adjunct assistant professor at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism and president of Merrill Perlman Consulting, offering consulting and freelance editing services and training in journalism, grammar and usage. Among her clients are The New York Times, ProPublica and the Poynter Institute. She writes the "Language Corner" column and blog for Columbia Journalism Review. Merrill retired in June 2008 after 25 years at The New York Times, most recently as director of copy desks with responsibility for managing 150 copy editors. Click here to read more articles by Merrill Perlman.

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Comments from our users:

Tuesday July 31st 2012, 7:17 AM
Comment by: Rae (Titusville, FL)
I liked Merrill Perlman's explanation of, "range." One way I hope to keep it stuck in my brain is to think of the Sangre de Cristo mountain range: the same kind of things, mountains, all it a row. I know its only a partial mneumonic, but I hope it will trigger the rest of the explanation when I'm trying to use the best and most effective words in writing.
Tuesday July 31st 2012, 8:20 AM
Comment by: eric W. (pittsfield, MA)
In your first example, doesn't the corrected text lose some meaning, though? The original seems to imply "The mall's attractions have something for everyone" to merely highlighting a pair of the mall's more noteworthy features. This just seems far too pedantic, to me. English isn't math.
Tuesday July 31st 2012, 10:49 AM
Comment by: Orin Hargraves (CO)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Great article that I hope will result in some false range avoidance. When I saw your title though I immediately thought of ASCII code, which does indeed range from 1 to Z, and beyond.
Tuesday July 31st 2012, 2:01 PM
Comment by: Jim B. (Brandon, FL)
Another helpful and instructive Merrill Perlman column. She is everything from a great professor to a great copy editor.
Tuesday July 31st 2012, 4:30 PM
Comment by: Nancy FriedmanVisual Thesaurus Contributor
When I was a neophyte copyeditor I was taught never to use "range from A to Z." The correct usage, I was instructed, was "range between A and Z." That "rule" (if it ever was one) has relaxed--MWDEU isn't prescriptive, and Garner doesn't mention it at all--but thinking about "range between" has certainly helped me avoid false ranges. It may be helpful for other writers, too. If you can't say "range between," maybe you should say "include."

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