A recent letter to the editor from Ann Patchett is making the rounds on social media:
I was grateful to see my book “This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage” mentioned in Paperback Row (Oct. 19). When highlighting a few of the essays in the collection, the review mentions topics ranging from “her stabilizing second marriage to her beloved dog” without benefit of comma, thus giving the impression that Sparky and I are hitched. While my love for my dog is deep, he married a dog named Maggie at Parnassus Books last summer as part of a successful fund-raiser for the Nashville Humane Association. I am married to Karl VanDevender. We are all very happy in our respective unions.
Patchett suggest that a comma would fix the offending phrase, like the classic ambiguities that hinge on lack of the Oxford comma: “I dedicate this book to my parents, Ayn Rand and God” and “We invited the strippers, JFK and Stalin.”
But does a comma really help in this case? I’m not so sure. While “ranging from her stabilizing second marriage, to her beloved dog” is indeed slightly clearer, commas aren’t really common in the “from… to …” construction: We don’t say “from A, to Z” or “from London, to Paris,” for example.
John McIntyre, in his editing blog at the Baltimore Sun, suggests that the problem comes from overuse of “ranging from” to refer to things that aren’t true endpoints of ranges. Alphabets and dinner menus are acceptable ranges in his books; loose conglomerations of topics like dogs and marriages are not. McIntyre proposes instead “as diverse as her stabilizing second marriage and her beloved dog.” But while his substitute does happen to resolve the issue, it misses the point as to why this particular example was a problem: It’s not that Patchett was objecting to false ranges, but rather to false implications of matrimony.
The false matrimony comes, not from the lack of comma, not from the acceptability of the range, but from the word “to,” which can be interpreted in two ways—either as part of the construction “from … to … ” or as introducing the object of “marriage.” The problem is that “marriage to” someone is such a reasonable string of words that the “from … to … ” interpretation is liable to get lost, or at least confused. So this confusion about which words associate with which is more similar to the problem of “a course of understanding people in Ipswich” or “talking about sex with Dick Cavett,” which I’ve discussed before.
The most economical solution, if one is fine with the metaphorical use of ranges (and many writers are), would have been to just swap the order of the two parts, giving us “ranging from her beloved dog to her stabilizing second marriage.” Since there’s no such thing as “dog to” someone, our “from … to … ” meaning is the only one that’s available. And we are all very happy with our respective grammars.