Monday, August 01, 2005

THIS ONE GOES TO 11

Somehow the world got it set in its collective head that things are done in the 11th hour. This would seem to refer to the 60 minutes from 10 to 11 a.m. and imply one out of every 24 actions occur then.

Of course, this isn’t what anyone means by “11th hour.” It is used to describe something happening as time is running out, and a Google search suggests many things do: There are about 883,000 listed pages including the phrase in some way. A pretty high volume.

What’s exasperating is that a significant majority use it as it is above, as an ordinal number following the rule that zero through nine get spelled out and those above are expressed with digits, starting with 10, 11 and 12. So things are first through ninth, but 10th, 11th 12th, et cetera.

There are 525,000 hits for “11th hour” or the adjective form, “11th-hour,” and only 358,000 for the spelled-out versions, “eleventh hour” or “eleventh-hour.”

These numbers are so out of whack it’s painful to contemplate them. There are few things happening in the 11th hour of any 12-hour span that are worth noting for that reason, let alone between 10 and 11 a.m. There’s an inversely gigantic number of people hyperbolically insisting things happened as time was running out. At the last minute, basically. In the eleventh hour.

The Associated Press rule is that “casual uses” or “casual expressions” of numbers are spelled out, and the stylebook gives three examples: “A thousand times no! Thanks a million. He walked a quarter of a mile.”

The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage performs its usual linguistic and logical judo on the matter, refusing to address the general topic (“spelling out is sometimes appropriate,” says the Times’ style committee’s entry on numbers, with maddening vagueness) but dictating elsewhere, with no rationale:

11th hour. But 11th-hour (modifier preceding a noun)

Of course the Times provides no rationale. There is none. Specifying “11th hour” instead of “eleventh hour” for cliches in news writing makes no more sense than writing, to follow Associated Press examples, “A 1,000 times no!” or “Thanks 1 million!” or “He walked 1/4 of a mile,” and only passes as permissible because it sounds the same when read aloud. So does “making it to 3rd base,” but no one makes the argument it’s a stylistic improvement. (Maybe we could draw different meaningless distinctions if we operated on a base three system instead of base 10.) The problem with the Times’ rule, and the general use of “11th,” is that it makes it seem as though reference is being made to a specific 11th hour — exactly why numerals are avoided in all the other casual expressions using numbers.

By the way, some of this posting was written between 10 and 11 a.m., technically at the 11th hour. Did the drama come through?

3 comments:

eric said...

That dang AP stylebook. I still try to write like it and I get annoyed with all those What's-his-face-and-Blanco followers who blow off AP.

Does Pete Rose have more than 4,000 hits or more than four thousand hits?

Second, I'd say the 11th hour is in the p.m. when it started to be referred to "as a phrase." And, even though I haven't looked into it, I'd bet it had something to do with death warrents and state-sponsored killing at 12:01 a.m.

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Scape7 said...

The cliche is certainly meant to imply doings in the nighttime, and that's why people should take care to write "eleventh hour" rather than "11th hour," because the latter imputes specificity to something that has none. When I point out that the actual 11th hour is from 10 to 11 a.m., it's to exaggerate the silliness of "11th hour" — which, If only because AP style is so prevalent, seems newsy and specific while "eleventh hour" looks literary and general.

The more important point, of course, is that it's a cliche and should be used less. But if people can't think enough about it to write around it, at least they can think enough about it to acknowledge that it's a casual expression, not a specific reference.

eric said...

But who cares what happens at 11 a.m. And 11 p.m. is actually 23-hundred. But, wait! Is is 23:00 or or what?

OK, my razz didn't work. You're right.