The False Range

There is an illogical, clichéd device that has invaded the language with the zeal and destructiveness of a zebra mussel attack. Writers of every age, experience level, and field use it. It’s a convenient trick when the goal is to illustrate the breadth of something in just a few words. Its usage is so overwhelmingly popular that I don’t think it will ever die. That said, consider this post my arrow.

I call this device the false range. The device is called the false range. Writers use it when they want to express that something contains many varied items, “everything from [fill in the blank] to [fill in the blank].” It’s false  because it assumes a nonexistent continuum or range of things; it posits an A-to-Z or 1-to-100 progression that isn’t.

For example: The mall caters to entire families, providing everything from baby’s first haircut to updos for the prom.

Here the writer assumes that at one end of a spectrum lies baby’s first haircut and at the other lies updos for the prom. But there is no first-to-last ranking of hairstyles. There is no physical or temporal progression that starts with baby’s first haircut, travels through all the other hairstyles, and ends with updos for the prom.

Another example: The theater plays an integral part in the arts scene with productions ranging from A Streetcar Named Desire to A Christmas Carol.

Here the writer is more explicit, putting forth that there is a range of theater productions, with Streetcar and A Christmas Carol representing its terminal points. But that just isn’t so. Streetcar is one play, and Christmas is another. That’s it. They are just separate things in the same group.

And, just for fun, a third: The fish tank—filled with everything from starfish to bamboo sharks—was installed in the master bedroom.

Oh, come on. Starfish and bamboo sharks aren’t even in the same phylum.

Let’s use it correctly: The water park is appropriate for visitors from ages 8 to 80.

Sure, it’s cheesy. But it works: there exists a physical series wherein 8 is on the low end and 80 is on the high end. It is possible to go from 8 to 80. If we’re lucky, we’ll all do it. We’ll start at 8, age one year at a time, and end up at 80. This can happen, this is real.

I imagine some of you shaking your heads at me. You’re thinking, Dude, who cares? You’re geeking out way too much on specificity. It’s common, convenient usage. If it works, why break it? For the following reasons:

  1. As I’ve already said, quite technically these ranges are false.
  2. False ranges are overused. For the next 48 hours, keep track of how many you come across. After being amazed at how often they pop up, you’ll lose count.
  3. There are better, just as easy, just as concise ways to express this.

Like so: The mall caters to entire families, providing baby’s first haircut, updos for the prom, and styles for everyone else.
The theater plays an integral part in the arts scene with productions including A Streetcar Named Desire and A Christmas Carol.
Finally: The fish tank—filled with creatures as varied as starfish and bamboo sharks—was installed in the master bedroom.

Maybe my proposed changes seem boring, as if I’m taking the sweeping drama out of these statements. But think of it like this: instead of presenting these items as points on a line graph, we’re presenting them as points in a constellation. You’re still communicating the breadth of something, you’re just being more accurate and less clichéd in how you communicate it.

Updated Sept. 7, 2009
3 Responses to “The False Range”
  1. mhandsone says:

    Well you covered that subject from soup to nuts.

  2. Sophia says:

    This one is a doozy C.G.

    More examples!

  3. Cachofis says:

    Awesome explanation!

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