I made an unwittingly controversial remark in a recent draft of an intra-company technical document. I wrote, regarding my acceptance of an exceedingly challenging software engineering task:
Like the proverbial "man with no teeth," I may have bit off more than I can chew.
This offhand remark created a firestorm of criticism. The internal squabbling arose because team members couldn't seem to agree on why the sentence was incorrect, or even if it were incorrect at all. Here are the reasons that were provided to me. Which one(s) are correct?
(1) There is no well-known proverb or parable that features a man with no teeth: The counterargument is that the word "proverbial" can refer not only to a proverb, but to something or someone who is well known. Surely all readers have known or met a man with no teeth.
(2) "Man with no teeth" shouldn't be in quotes. It's not a movie title. Is this a valid criticism? Can't quotes be used to indicate a common characterization of a person? Referring to a man's title or characterization in quotations, as in "the Heisenberg of Newport Beach" for example, characterizes the subject as a Newport Beach drug manufacturer. Presumably there is no movie titled "the Heisenberg of Newport Beach," yet the quotes properly indicate how the subject is perceived and referred to by the locals.
(3) A man with no teeth cannot chew. The argument here is that it takes at least one good tooth to execute a proper chew and as such, changing the phrase to "man with loose teeth" or "man with one tooth" would solve the problem. One of my critics used an extreme example to illustrate the problem: Having lost both of his arms in the Iraq war, Sonny Boy found it extremely difficult to clap along with the Katy Perry song. His point being that a "man with no teeth" cannot chew any more than a man with no hands can clap.
(4) The word "bit" should be changed to "bitten." Even after consulting a dictionary, I'm not sure which word is more appropriate here.
(5) The word "bit" is past tense but "can" is present tense. Could this disagreement in tense be corrected by replacing the word "can" with "could" ? But what if what I bit off (in the past) is greater than what I can currently chew (in the present).