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To a fault?

[ 2009-09-22 11:54]     字号 [] [] []  
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To a fault?

Reader question:

In this sentence – the film was predictable to a fault – how do we understand “to a fault”? Is it good English?

My comments:

Films are predictable most of the time, i.e. you could infer from the first scenes that this man and that woman are going to fall in love with each other or that the good guy is going to win in the end.

However, if a film were described as predictable to a fault, it is accused of being too predictable, and that is a fault. If you could guess out the film's ending as well as everything else then there's no suspense – nothing to bring you to the edge of the seat holding your breaths. That's no fun.

Now, definitions. If you do something to a fault, you do it excessively. Confucius once said, perhaps in explaining to someone the concept of “enough is enough”: “More (than enough) is no better than less (than enough).”

A real-life example. Thieves, for instance, sometimes knock on doors introducing themselves as beggars. Some generous folks welcome them into the house and offer them food and drink, only to find their purse or jewelry missing afterwards. In cases like these, those charitable folks are generous to a fault. That is, they're so excessively generous that they could reasonably be FAULTED for it.

Now, that's a good way to understand the phrase.

Is it good English? Yes, it is. In fact, according to the American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms, this phrase, “always qualifying an adjective, has been so used since the mid-1700s.”

Here are media examples:

1. The first lesson, which she learned in 1979, was that attention to detail is all important. At the time, she was fresh out of Harvard Business School and just starting her first job at Procter & Gamble. She was charged with figuring out whether the nozzle on shampoo bottles should be half or three-eighths of an inch wide. Despite the tediousness of the task, “I decided I was going to do the very best job that had ever been done at the Procter & Gamble company”, on whose board she now sits. Bring that sort of “execution” to a firm with as much potential as Skype, she suggested, and the sky would be the limit.

The second lesson occurred in 2002. As boss of eBay, she had noticed that a lot of the sellers and buyers on its site were using an online-payment service called PayPal as a sort of virtual wallet, so she decided to buy it. She negotiated for a year, during which the price kept rising. She concluded that in the internet industry one bids early, boldly and pre-emptively high. That is what she did with Skype.

The third lesson was that in such a fast-moving realm “the price of inaction is far greater than the cost of a mistake.” In any case, mistakes can always be corrected. In other words, it did not matter that the “synergies” between a telephone service and an online flea-market seemed few and far between. In her view, eBay was right to buy first and look for the answers to such concerns later.

Collectively, these three lessons have led to disaster. On October 1st eBay conceded, in the language of book-keepers, that the purchase of Skype was just that. It had paid $2.6 billion up front, and agreed to cough up yet more if Skype met certain targets. It did not. This week eBay said that it would take a $1.4 billion charge in relation to the purchase. A portion of the payment is a settlement that absolves eBay of any further obligations to Skype's original owners. But the bigger part, a so-called “impairment write-down”, represents eBay's loss on its ill-fated investment.

Ms Whitman does not even seem to have remembered her own lessons. In terms of the first, eBay's “execution” in integrating Skype with its main business has been poor. Skype's service has deteriorated: it collapsed completely for two days in August. The second lesson—bid early and high—was observed to a fault. As for the third lesson, the mistake has now been admitted, but not fixed.

- The Skype hyper, Meg Whitman's career at eBay suffers “an impairment write-down”, The Economist, October 4, 2007.

2. But above all it's Murtha, whom Pelosi unsuccessfully supported for Majority Leader over Steny Hoyer when she became speaker in 2007, who could cause the most damage for speaker. The caucus overruled her, picking Hoyer, but Pelosi remains close to Murtha. The long-serving House member chaired Pelosi's first campaign for a leadership position and he's a respected Vietnam veteran who helped turn public opinion when he came out against the war in Iraq. Still, "it's possible to be loyal to a fault," says Hoyer. "I think Nancy believes loyalty is a very, very important trait not only to those who display loyalty but to whom you owe. That can be a virtue but it also can be — I'm one who admires loyalty."

- Key Dems' Ethical Clouds Could Haunt Pelosi, Time.com, August 22, 2009.

3. The upcoming issue of OK! Magazine (out on September 14) is a must read for all Adam Lambert fans, as it comes with a few brief quotes on things the rocker did recently. However, according to a scan recently surfaced online, this won't be all that the mag will offer fans, as Adam will also be dishing out details on his upcoming album, his impressions on the Idol Live tour, and much more.

In the meantime, though, we'll just have to make do with the little we have on Adam and how he's like in his everyday life. For instance, the last time the rocker cried was while watching “The Reader” on the plane, he tells the magazine, when he got so emotional that he couldn't hold his tears back anymore and he started sobbing “uncontrollably” for about five minutes or so.

Nevertheless, if he's so easily touched and moved to tears, Adam admits he's not as easily made to lie. In fact, the American Idol runner-up admits, he's honest “almost to a fault,” which is not really news to diehard fans, since he said that on a previous occasion as well. As for the last celebrity he met, Lambert confesses that would be Meatloaf, the legendary singer of whom the younger star has nothing but nice things to say.

- ‘Last Time’ with Adam Lambert for OK! Magazine, News.softpedia.com, September 11, 2009.



About the author:

Zhang Xin is Trainer at chinadaily.com.cn. He has been with China Daily since 1988, when he graduated from Beijing Foreign Studies University. Write him at: zhangxin@chinadaily.com.cn, or raise a question for potential use in a future column.


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