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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


Words Can Be Bullies

Words that start with the letter h don’t always act like it.

Consider “herb,” when it means “an aromatic plant used for seasoning in cooking.” Americans dump the h, whereas many Brits pronounce it. So we say “an ’erb,” but an Englishman says “a herb.”

A different sort of h-confusion happens when self-important speakers and writers say “an historic occasion” or “an heroic soldier.” Ever notice that “an” only precedes a few highfalutin h-words like “historic(al),” “hypothetical,” “hallucinogenic”? And they tend to have three or more syllables: “An heroic soldier” is also “a hero.”

About 20 years ago, Time magazine ran a front-cover headline beginning, “A Historic…” and misguided word nerds raised a furor, insisting Time should have said “An Historic”—but the magazine never budged, stating flatly that “an historic” is wrong.

In everyday conversation, would you describe a wailing brat as “an hysterical child”? I sincerely doubt it. But what makes “hysterical” so different from “historical”?

A Google check yields tips from various websites, which only reinforce common sense: “You should use ‘an’ before a word beginning with an ‘H’ only if the ‘H’ is not pronounced” (from the website wsu.edu/~brians/errors/anhistoric.html).

Or this: “you use an before vowel sounds…Following this rule, we would say ‘a historic,’ not ‘an historic’ ” (betterwritingskills.com).

Or this one, which ought to seal the deal: “I’d love to hear a reasonable argument, based on logic and not convention, in support of ‘an historic’…given the prevalence of such similar constructions as ‘a hotel downtown’ and ‘a high bar’ and ‘a hitman killed my dog’ ” (ask.metafilter.com).

Pomposity often leads to tortured language. I remember lawyer-turned-sportscaster Howard Cosell, rest his troubled soul, and the way he regularly subjected professional athletes to his cruel and unusual polysyllabic punishment. In general, jocks are spoiled, semi-educated boors, and they know it, so the tug-of-war between them and Cosell was great theater.

At its most sublime, it involved boxing champion Muhammad Ali. He and Howard made a great team, and there was genuine love and trust there. Whatever his faults, Cosell, perhaps at the risk of his own career, had taken up for the draft-evading Ali when the champ was something of a national pariah. (YouTube.com has many wonderful sequences of these two through the years.)

Although there was a good Cosell, all too often we got Bad Howard, neurotically insecure, the one who knew he was kept at arm’s length by these great physical geniuses—and resented it. He knew they mocked him, not caring that Cosell had more knowledge of more subjects than all of them put together. So he would sometimes do perverse things, like the time he bullied a poor rookie football player from some Deep South ghetto. Bad Howard said something like: “So, my young friend, in your estimation, did the immensity of the task assigned you, juxtaposed with the metaphysical certainty of your callow demeanor, effectuate a lessened or heightened capacity on your part?”

I’m not kidding. That’s pretty close to what Howard said. As the kid listened, his eyes widened with terror and confusion, as if he were being swarmed by a raging horde of ruthless linebackers. I don’t recall his answer.

 

Pop Quiz
As we discussed last time, the great writer Elmore Leonard, who died August 20, deplored adverbs. Experienced writers like Leonard prefer strong nouns and verbs. In this quiz, try rewriting each sentence with greater precision and economy. There are no correct answers, but our suggestions may be found in the Answers section.

1. Avoiding wordiness is basically a simple principle of good writing.
2. He went into the room quickly.
3. She was incredibly thrilled by the experience.
4. He said things about us that were viciously harmful and insulting.
5. The committee strongly expressed disapproval of them.

 

Pop Quiz Answers

1. Avoiding wordiness is a fundamental of good writing.
2. He hurried into the room.
3. The experience elated her.
4. He vilified us.
5. The committee censured them.

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Posted on Saturday, August 31, 2013, at 6:53 pm


I’ll Be Hanged! Or, Have I Just Gone Missing?

Several readers responded to Tom Stern’s article The media made me do it which asked for alternatives to gone missing. Interestingly, the overwhelming choice was to simply replace the phrase with missing.

This is fine in many, perhaps most, cases, e.g., The man was missing instead of The man went missing. But it’s no help at all in sentences such as The man went missing two days ago. For such sentences, we have few options other than disappeared or vanished, which, as Stern pointed out, sounds as if the man in question were more the victim of a magic trick than a potential tragedy.

So dig deeper, readers! If you can come up with an inspired alternative to The man went missing two days ago, many will thank you for having done our beloved language a great service.

HANG IT ALL

Speakers and writers who value precision know that the past tense of hang, when it means “to put to death using a rope,” is hanged, rather than hung. This applies to both the active and passive voice: They hanged the prisoner and The prisoner was hanged.

For inanimate objects, use hung. Under unusual conditions, people also hung or are hung, e.g., He hung from the tree with one hand or He found himself hung upside down.

POP QUIZ
Select the correct word for each sentence.

1. We hung/hanged the stockings by the chimney with care.
2. The angry mob hung/hanged the outlaw Gomer Dooley.
3. The disgraced prime minister was hung/hanged from a lamppost in the town square.
4. An effigy of the prime minister was hung/hanged from a lamppost in the town square.
5. The man hung/hanged from the rafters with a rope around his waist.

POP QUIZ ANSWERS

1. We hung the stockings by the chimney with care.
2. The angry mob hanged the outlaw Gomer Dooley.
3. The disgraced prime minister was hanged from a lamppost in the town square.
4. An effigy of the prime minister was hung from a lamppost in the town square.
5. The man hung from the rafters with a rope around his waist.

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Posted on Monday, July 29, 2013, at 9:29 pm