When There's Too Much There

In the writing game, everybody has to have an irk. Am I being fastidious or merely fussy in my irk against "there"? A few weeks ago The New York Times‘ editorial writers backed repeatedly into their morning lectures.

"There is a lot of talk that Sen. Hillary Clinton is now fated … There is a lot that Senators Clinton and Obama need to be talking about …" "There is little doubt that Morgan Tsvangirai was elected president of Zimbabwe. There is no doubt that President Robert Mugabe’s henchmen have used …"

The yawing or introductory "there" is an ancient device, not to be condemned out of hand. All the same, a sentence often will be improved by backing up and starting over: "Some observers contend that Sen. Hillary Clinton …" Or, "Senators Clinton and Obama need to talk about …" Let us trim our shrubbery. Like Kipling’s elephant’s child, let us strive to be tidy little pachyderms.

A timely complaint comes to hand from Sally Lacy in Fitzwilliam, N.H. She was recently irked by an Associated Press story about Melissa Jenkins of North Reading, Mass. It appears that "Melissa moved back home to live with her parents to find work after graduating college last year." In the same vein, The New York Times reported a scholarly finding that "girls have for years graduated from high school and college at a higher rate than boys."

One more time: Technically speaking, a graduate doesn’t graduate. It is the school that does the graduating. Thus, Melissa moved back home after she  was graduated from  college last year. The think tank’s report concluded that for years girls have been graduated  at a higher rate.

Yes, just as we generally should avoid foreign words and phrases, we generally should avoid passive verbs when active verbs offer a livelier alternative. And yes, I am aware that both the Times and the AP sanction the offensive usage. What do they know? Occasionally exceptio probat regulam. Right?

Moving on! The Times last month reviewed a book about "the plight of North African immigrants to the United States." Question: Were they "immigrants" or "emigrants"? The usual authorities are not much help.

R.W. Burchfield, successor to the immortal Henry Fowler, defines the terms: "An emigrant is one who leaves his or her own country to live in another. An immigrant is one who comes as a permanent resident in a country other than his or her native land." He adds, not very helpfully: "It is all a question of whether a given person has just passed outward through the exit gate at a port or airport in one country, or has just been accepted as a resident member of another country."

The AP is helpfully unhelpful. An emigrant, says the AP, is "one who leaves a country." Ergo, an immigrant is "one who comes into a country." So defined, a Texan who goes into Juarez for a bowl of chili is an emigrant, and the Canadian who buys a ticket to watch the Lions of Detroit has just immigrated.

The Times is at first briskly brisk. To emigrate is "to depart from a homeland." To immigrate "refers to arrival in a new country." Splendid! Then the Times runs out of brisk: Either word, we are instructed, "can be followed by ‘from’ or ‘to,’ depending on the context." The choice depends upon the "focus." When the focus is upon life in the old country, a resident of Stockholm emigrates from Sweden or emigrates to Canada. On the other hand, when the focus is on the new country, one immigrates from or one immigrates to.

Focus? Hocus-pocus! There is bound to be some simple, crystal-clear rule on the right verb, but as the Times‘ book reviewer demonstrates, not even the Times can explain it.