Tome on the Range

Merrill Perlman’s article over at Columbia Journalism Review exposes a lesser-known organizational error that occurs with ranges. Sentences designed to demonstrate a span, especially those using the construction “from __ to __”, sometimes include items that are not part of the same range. These expressions are said to be “false ranges”. From the article:

“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.”

This can certainly apply to descriptive writing and music. For (bad) example: “Le Sacre du Printemps has everything from obtuse rhythms to pagan Russian folk melodies.” While that sentence expresses a sense of variety, it’s difficult to draw a straight line from “obtuse rhythms” to “Russian folk melodies.” In other words, the space in between could be filled with just about anything, obscuring the extent of that range. As per Perlman’s explanation, a range should contain items that more or less plot along the same line.

My example seems to take Le Sacre du Printemps as a kind of set, or as a gamut, rather than as a range (a range might be a gamut, but not necessarily the other way around). If I want to express a range, an adjusted sentence might read: “In terms of rhythm, Le Sacre du Printemps has everything from plodding simple divisions to multi-layered polyrhythm and polymeter.” Since I don’t list what “everything” is, consistency between the boundary items makes it much easier to consider what that “everything” might entail, and by doing so, more clearly convey the breadth of that range.

While it’s true the difference is subtle, and that the reader is unlikely to otherwise misunderstand what you are saying, I think there is considerable impact to be harvested if one aspires to be a lone-ranger.

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3 Responses to Tome on the Range

  1. I was curious enough to do a search to see if that bad example was a quotation. (I was guessing Proust Was a Neuroscientist, which has a chapter on Stravinsky.) False ranges can rightly (I think) suggest extreme variety (“everything from Campbell’s Soup to windshield wipers”), but your post is a good reminder to make ranges that really suggest a range.


  2. Sean says:

    Also, while false ranges have more to do with consistency than with truth value, there is an aspect to them that is reminiscent of informal fallacy. While the case you’re building in descriptive writing may not be vulnerable to contradiction because of false ranges, I think that excluding false ranges could certainly strengthen the case.


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