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Christmas ’Log Review

Every year, for six weeks or so, I get a taste of what it’s like to be a superstar.

From late October to early December, I am accosted daily by an aggressive mob of stalkers who know where I live. Their urgent need for my attention seems to be their only reason for being. No, they’re not paparazzi or obsessed fans. I’m talking about Christmas catalogs. Every day brings a new swarm—they burst out of my mailbox, entreating me to behold them in all their holiday finery.

Well, even a six-week celebrity has an obligation to his public. I checked out every last one. None was turned away. Here, then, is my Christmas catalog review.

For big spenders there is the stately Gump’s catalog, so tasteful you want to take a nap; or Neiman Marcus, with its sullen, stubbly, pasty pretty boys modeling $390 sneakers; or the gaudy Hammacher Schlemmer, for taste-challenged high-rollers: I’ve got to have that animatronic singing and talking Elvis, or more accurately, Elvis’ head and shoulders—the King has been mutilated, I guess, to spare the embarrassment of pelvic thrusts in mixed company. How about spoiling your child rotten with Hammacher’s “6½-foot teddy bear” for $500. If that’s too sissified, the NFL Shop will warp the values of your little tough guy with a personalized 12-minute CD of a football game in which the announcer says the kid’s name 30 times. It’s never too early to learn that it’s all about you.

Frontgate offers a machine that enriches your oxygen as it plays music. An up-and-comer called X-treme Geek has caffeinated soap, a talking toilet-tissue holder, and, for the guy whose girlfriend doesn’t hate him enough already, a Wild West revolver-shaped TV remote, which makes a loud gunshot as it changes channels. It comes with a “super-cool official-looking sheriff’s badge.”

The Signals company tempts pet lovers with the “I kiss my dog on the lips” T-shirt, but I have my eye on the coat rack with three duck tails for hangers. Not to be outdone, What on Earth offers a “cat butt magnet set,” to go with its flatulent toy puppy (“squeeze his belly”) and a Bill Clinton figurine with a corkscrew coming out of his pants.

Wolferman’s offers 44 pages of … muffins?! Fahrney’s offers 56 pages of … pens!? Don’t miss the Marlene Dietrich model (“sensuous curves in all the right places”), a bargain at $880, or the $3,000 “pen of the year” (who voted?).

From high-end catalogs on down, the one constant is the writing, which is excellent across the board. (Is this what good writers have to do to eat these days?) Oh, some are better than others. Fahrney’s thinks the plural of entry is “entrys”—a store devoted to writing can’t make such a dumb mistake. National Geographic’s otherwise classy mailer misfires with the awkward “spiders are one of the creepiest crawlers out there.” Spiders, plural, are “one”? Why not “a spider is”? Sahalie’s writes “completely waterproof.” How is that different from just “waterproof”? Orvis Men’s Clothing says, “Crafted in New England, you’ll appreciate the comfort.” This sentence, taken literally, means “you” were crafted in New England. Herrington’s high-spirited but sloppy catalog spells minuscule “miniscule.” Herrington is also one of many catalogs that can’t get the subject to agree with the verb: “Every one of our vintage Ferraris are parked …” No, every one is parked. Subject-verb agreement is a big problem nowadays, and reflects the carelessness and short attention spans this era will be remembered for.

When you read as many of these things as I did, you come to realize that catalogs have their own language, rules, and customs. Numbers are almost never spelled out, not even leading off a sentence. That’s against all civilized rules of writing, but merchants want to be direct, not correct. They’re targeting our eyes, not our brains. Capitals are thrown around extravagantly because anything capitalized looks Important and Impressive. Hyphens are avoided wherever possible because advertisers will always choose two simple words with a clean space between them over one long, confusing word with an ungainly bar right in the middle.

Many companies sell jewelry made with “Swarovski crystals,” a fancy term for rhinestones, which is in turn a euphemism for phony gemstones. And countless catalogs feature “nutcrackers,” so called because they were inspired by the popular Tchaikovsky Christmastime ballet. The 21st-century versions look to be useless, charmless statuettes, tackier than tin soldiers. You can get them wearing uniforms of your favorite pro sports team or branch of the military. Despite the name, I doubt they could even crack a moldy peanut. Their heads don’t even bobble.

Finally, see if you can figure out what this list of words culled from several catalogs refers to: chianti, chili, dirt, dragonfly, dusk, espresso, grasshopper, mineral, nutmeg, ocean, persimmon, raisin, root beer, sesame, spa, sweet pea, sweet potato, toast.

You might as well give up, because you’ll never guess. They’re … colors?! “Oh, sweetheart, you look fabulous in that root beer muumuu!” “Thank you, darling, and that dragonfly-and-dirt sweater goes so well with your spa-and-dusk striped tie and those toast trousers.”

—Tom Stern

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Posted on Thursday, December 12, 2013, at 7:12 pm


Media Watch

Several weeks ago, a Vatican-endorsed medal honoring Pope Francis had to be recalled because Jesus was spelled “Lesus.” Just last week, a political placard at a Washington, D.C., press conference spelled filibuster “fillibuster” and against “againts.” In light of these disgraces, it seems the right time to reopen our Media Malfeasance file…

• “They have arrested two suspects, neither of whom are British.” This decades-old problem is only getting worse. To journalists it may concern: The pronoun neither, like either and each, is always singular. Make it “neither of whom is British.”

• “Prop. 32 is an initiative to curb union’s influence.” Ah, apostrophes. Note that one could also say “to curb the influence of unions”—that’s unions, plural. Plural nouns ending in s show possession with the apostrophe after the s, not before. So make it “curb unions’ influence.”

• “Guess who’s coming to dinner?” Looks all right, you say? The problem is the unnecessary question mark. “Guess” is an imperative—a direct order, not the first word in a question.

• “Rebecca Solnit’s book, Unfathomable City, was celebrated last week.” Remove the commas. This is slipshod editing. With the commas, the sentence means that Unfathomable City is the only book Solnit has ever written. In fact, she has written over a dozen.

The rule is that commas set off nonessential information. If the author has written only one book, its title is not essential to the sentence: “Rebecca Solnit’s [only] book, Unfathomable City, was celebrated last week.” But since she has written several, we must be told which book directly—no commas. Similarly, The actor, Robert De Niro, was there is incorrect with commas. But The president of the United States, Barack Obama, was there is correct.

As writers’ skills decline, so do readers’ standards. The acerbic avant-garde musician Frank Zappa (1940-1993) once described a rock ’n’ roll magazine as “written by people who can’t write for people who can’t read.” Were he alive today, Zappa might not limit his assessment to rock-music journalism.

 

Pop Quiz

See if you can spot the flaws in these actual quotations from the media.

1. “…shot himself with a riffle.”

2. “Is it fair to compare the two crisis?”

3. “It does so many other things that drives up the cost.”

4. “Everyone has come out looking badly.”

5. “Dow closes at new record high.”

 

Pop Quiz Answers

1. “…shot himself with a rifle.”

2. “Is it fair to compare the two crises?”

3. “It does so many other things that drive up the cost.”

4. “Everyone has come out looking bad.”

5. “Dow closes at record high.” (“new record” is a redundancy)

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Posted on Monday, November 25, 2013, at 1:36 pm


Learning From the Masters

There is a universal fellowship of nitpickers and always has been.

More than a century ago, the iconoclastic American writer Ambrose Bierce gave the world Write It Right (1909) and The Devil’s Dictionary (1911). George Orwell published his classic essay Politics and the English Language in 1946. In the 1970s and ’80s, former NBC news anchor Edwin Newman and New York literary and drama critic John Simon each wrote best-sellers deploring our nation’s declining language skills. The New York Times Magazine ran William Safire’s curmudgeonly “On Language” column from 1979 until his death in 2009.

There are any number of grammar sticklers online. GrammarGirl.com is a popular site with young people; baby boomers might enjoy bbhq.com/brushup.htm.

There are also countless reference books, starting with the American Heritage dictionary, with its Usage Panel of distinguished scholars. No pedant’s library is complete without The Elements of Style by Strunk and White and A Dictionary of Modern English Usage by H.W. Fowler (I recommend the 1965 second edition; I’m told the 1996 third edition has made some questionable compromises).

Serious authors and journalists are never much farther from the Chicago Manual of Style or the Associated Press Stylebook than a clergyman is from his bible.

These books present a united front against ignorance, but reading them, one notices their authors don’t march in lockstep—like politicians, there are conservative and liberal word nerds, and they can differ widely over what’s acceptable.

Consider this sentence: It’s different for men than for women. “Since the 18th century,” says the American Heritage dictionary, “language critics have singled out different than as incorrect.”

 Although hairsplitters from both sides of the aisle endorse different from, “It’s different for men from for women” obviously doesn’t work. And “It’s different for men from the way it is for women” is wordy and stiff. So language liberals would tend to accept different for men than for women in cases like this. The conservatives wouldn’t budge. They’d most likely insist on rewriting the sentence—something like “Men and women differ” neatly sidesteps this whole puddle of mud.

 It came as a surprise that some of my reference books didn’t condemn different than outright. Fowler’s venerated Dictionary of Modern English Usage notes that “different than is sometimes preferred by good writers to the cumbersome different from that which etc.” To which Wilson Follett’s Modern American Usage responds, “To condone different than because it is sometimes awkward to follow different with [from] is defeatism.” “The idea that there is anything wrong with different than is a superstition,” declares Roy H. Copperud in A Dictionary of Usage and Style. Theodore M. Bernstein, in The Careful Writer, fires back that if you accept different than, you are a “structural linguist permissivist.” Ouch, that can’t be good.

 I still use these books a lot. Collectively, they’ve helped me become the stuffed shirt I am today.

—Tom Stern

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Posted on Tuesday, November 19, 2013, at 1:13 pm


Clichés Are Too Easy

Clichés are to good writing as McDonald’s is to fine dining. You don’t need to shun them altogether; occasionally they have their place. But overall, like fast food, the job they do isn’t worth the toll they take.

But what’s really so wrong with avoid like the plague? You know exactly what it means when I say it, and besides, I might be on a deadline. Why should I fritter away precious time trying to come up with something fresh and inventive when there’s this prefabricated, comfortably familiar turn of phrase available?

That’s the lure and the curse of clichés. They’re easy and they work, yes, but by definition, they’re tired and overused, even the new, trendy ones. They’re the earmark of the hack writer.

The irony is that clichés are victims of their own success. As trite and shopworn as they become, they were effective and brilliant when they were first coined. They flourish by expressing something universal in words and images that are memorable and original. There’s no such thing as an ineffective cliché, or it’s not really a cliché.

Clichés sometimes start as clever punchlines. About fifteen years ago, for a period of several months, it was funny to hear someone reply to an outburst of brutal frankness by dryly remarking, “So, what do you really think?” But now when I hear this, even though it’s still about as up-to-date as a cliché can be, I get a wee pain.

Same with “wait for it.” It’s become quite a favorite with the higher-brows among us. It signals the reader that something deliciously ironic or amusing or ridiculous is about to be revealed: “So they caught that sanctimonious Pastor Reynolds in a strip club last night, and he said he was just there to—wait for it—do some research.”

In closing, I’d like to try something either really instructive or really dumb…

Cliché Masterpiece Theater
My friend said in no uncertain terms: “Let’s cut to the chase. It goes without saying clichés are something you should kick to the curb, where the rubber meets the road. They stick out like a sore thumb. They spread like wildfire. If you want to be a good writer, don’t go there or you’ll be thrown under the bus. You’ll have your name dragged through the mud. It’s as plain as the nose on your face. That being said, at the end of the day, for all intents and purposes, the bottom line is that when you use them, all bets are off. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure that out; this isn’t brain surgery. It is what it is.”

“Tell me what you really think,” I quipped. I was just jerking his chain since I didn’t have a dog in this fight. But by the same token, you can’t have it both ways. I knew I had to step up to the plate. “Dude,” I intoned, “the long and the short of it is, anyone who thinks I’m not on the same page is barking up the wrong tree. It boggles the mind and it’s freaking me out. I won’t take it lying down.”

You have to get up pretty early in the morning to catch me using a cliché. So let’s get the ball rolling. Let’s get up to speed here. Let’s take the gloves off. Let’s pull out all the stops. Let’s push the envelope. Let’s circle the wagons and stop kicking the can down the road. We need to wrap our minds around this perfect storm and think outside the box. But, you kids: don’t try this at home.

In the court of public opinion, clichés are a double-edged sword. On the one hand, they make your meaning clear as a bell; but on the other hand, long story short, in a heartbeat you’re confronted by a bunch of strange bedfellows who are shocked, shocked! That doesn’t pass the smell test.

Left to their own devices, these Einsteins seem to be having a field day with all their bells and whistles. They should give it a rest. They need to get over themselves, beyond a shadow of a doubt.

After all is said and done, this could have been a teachable moment—but, nooo! They had to turn it into a witch hunt.

Well, to them I say, “Right back at ya!” I’m not trying to sell snake oil to these snakes in the grass—these weasels who want to let the cat out of the bag, free as a bird. So in no way, shape, or form am I throwing in the towel. I’m drawing a line in the sand. I’ll fight this tooth and nail. When push comes to shove, I’m not falling on my sword. I’m not going from the frying pan into the fire. I’m not taking the bait like some deer in the headlights. No way, José. That would be deja vu all over again.

I’ve been around the block, but even if you held my feet to the fire, I couldn’t make people put their money where their mouth is—that’s above my pay grade.

Creature of habit? No, I’m crazy like a fox. If they keep fanning the flames, they’ll be dropping like flies. I refuse to be the poster child for being behind the eight ball when the chips are down.

Well, I think I’ve run out the clock. It’s time for the fat lady to sing. There’s nothing more to say—zero, zip, nada. I have to get out of Dodge.

This grammar tip was contributed by veteran copy editor and word nerd Tom Stern.

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Posted on Tuesday, October 8, 2013, at 1:39 pm


Sweating the Small Stuff

At a football game a few weeks ago, Notre Dame University sold soda in cups that said, “Figthing Irish.” Did no one at this distinguished school have the time or pride to proofread a two-word slogan?

Here are a few other items we’ve seen recently and now wish we hadn’t…

Back to Basics Many professional journalists can’t find the subjects in their own sentences, like this one: “The final installment of those tapes—340 hours—were made public.” Make it “was made public.” The writer, distracted by “tapes” and “hours,” forgot that the subject, “installment,” was singular.

Ho-Hum: More Who-Whom Recently in this space, we discussed the difference between who (subject) and whom (object). Pronoun confusion has plagued our language for centuries. Some now claim that English would be fine without whom. But whom holds some mysterious attraction for people who shouldn’t be using it, because they keep getting it wrong, as in “…a man whom he thought was ready” (make it “who he thought was ready”).

Compare that with “Brown, who investigators had trouble reaching for interviews” and “Schulman, who he met on a blind date.” Here the writers were handed whom on a silver platter, but instead chose “who.”

How the Cookie Deconstructs Flawed sentences like those result from either carelessness or grammatical cluelessness. Just as prevalent, and deadly, is poor word choice caused by fuzzy thinking. Here’s a writer who sabotaged his own metaphor when he wrote, “…before the whole house of cards crumbles.”

Dead leaves and old walls crumble. A house of cards collapses.

POP QUIZ

Try to spot the errors or lapses in these sentences, written by professionals.

1. “The case is the latest in a series that have fueled public protests.”
2. “He was convicted in absentia to 20 years in prison.”
3. “…and Steenkamp, whom he believed was still in the bedroom.”
4. “A deadline to Syria to turnover its weapons.”
5. “The first time either of them have heard the recording.”

POP QUIZ ANSWERS

Not all of these sentences have one right answer. See if your remedies agree with ours.

1. The case is the latest in a series of events that have fueled public protests.
2. He was sentenced in absentia to 20 years in prison.
3. …and Steenkamp, who he believed was still in the bedroom. (i.e., who was still in the bedroom, he believed)
4. A deadline to Syria to turn over its weapons.
5. The first time either of them has heard the recording.

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Posted on Wednesday, October 2, 2013, at 2:19 pm