Break a Leg!

August 2, 2012

Talk about an unclear sentence in this Associated Press story

The Culpeper Star-Exponent reports that court security immediately tackled Riddick and all of them toppled over a table, breaking two legs as they fell to the brick floor of the tiny courtroom. As they wrestled, Flood screamed at security not to hurt Riddick.

Contrast that sentence with how the original report from the Culpeper Star-Exponent handled it: 

Armed court security positioned to his rear immediately tackled the defendant to the brick floor in the historic Madison County Courthouse, all of them toppling over the lawyers’ table, in the process breaking two legs on the table.


August 23, 2011

During today’s coverage of the fighting in Libya, this banner flashed across the bottom of the screen: “MASSIVE FLIGHT OF CIVILIANS OUT OF TRIPOLI: CNN Crews Report Scores of Residents Fleeing the City.” By that account, our fathers brought forth our new nation several thousands of years ago.

Feast on This!

June 10, 2011

Yesterday, I criticized someone’s misuse of a word, and frankly I always feel a bit small when I do that. Not only does it imply that I myself never make mistakes, but it suggests that the only pleasure I get out of language is the mean, tight-lipped satisfaction of catching someone in an error. Actually, I love language, particularly when it startles me into seeing something in a way I’ve never seen it before. This happened today when I read Ariel Levy’s piece in the New Yorker about Silvio Berlusconi, the rather creepy Prime Minister of Italy. Here’s the sentence Levy wrote: “Berlusconi is Italy’s waning Hugh Hefner, alternately reviled and admired for his loyalty to his own appetites.” “Loyalty to his own appetites”! What an arch piece of phrasing that is! I’ll never think of superannuated hedonism in quite the same way again.


Losing Proposition

June 9, 2011

I think I’ve commented before about the phenomenon one encounters increasingly on the cable news channels: a new word or term is floated by one commentator and, within two weeks, it’s being uttered by every talking head twenty-four-seven, as the phrase has it. I saw this happen over the course of the past few weeks with the verb “double down.” I had never heard it on air until last month, and now I’m hearing it all the time. Yesterday, I heard it used on four separate occasions.

This mindless mimicry is bad enough, but what’s worse is that, over the course of a week or so, the words start to wobble and yaw until they lose their original, and very precise, meaning and transmogrify into something else entirely. This has been the case with “double down.”

“Double down” is a term used in blackjack, and it means doubling your original bet after you’ve received two cards but before you’ve been dealt your third. By extension, when it is used idiomatically, it means “to double or significantly increase a risk.” As a gambling term, of course, the connotation of risk is at the heart of the word.

Yesterday, I heard a politician on cable news say that, once we understand the policies of the opposing party, we’ll walk into the voting booth and “double down” and vote for him. I guess what he meant to imply was that we would enthusiastically pull the lever for him (with double the force because double the enthusiasm?). What he did imply is that, having once taken a risk by voting for him, we might as well blow the whole wad and vote for him again out of sheer hopeless desperation.

One can only hope we’ve heard the last of “double down,” but I wouldn’t bet on it.


A Matter of Degree

May 23, 2011

In today’s Washington Post you can find a story in the Metro section about a typo on Georgetown University’s commencement program cover.  The headline and much of the story’s content focuses on the transposition of two letters in the word “university.”

This is a blog about language and we’ve noted in earlier posts that the Post has lost its groove when it comes to producing clean, error-free copy.  I’m not calling them out for noting the error. It’s  just the degree to which they’ve highlighted it that irks me. For the newspaper to make such a big deal about a single typo strikes me as a case of people living in glass houses throwing stones.  Notoriously, the Post has gone downhill in the copy editing department ever since they’ve thinned the ranks of  what used to be one of the finest stables of copy editors around.

Yes, misspelling “university” is embarrassing and shouldn’t have happened. But I suspect it occurred for the same reason that it happens daily among the pages of the Post and in other publications: fewer people are taking on more work as resources shrink. It’s true at Georgetown, as it is true pretty much everywhere else.

I’ve made my share of typos (I made three errors in the first draft of this post which my husband caught. By the way, he caught two errors in the Post yesterday). When I have time I use the old proofreader’s trick of reading text backwards so as to catch errors that my mind might otherwise skip over. But, alas, mistakes still get through.  So until we all replace our windows with Plexiglas®, maybe we shouldn’t throw such big stones. 


I’m watching the news coverage this morning regarding the killing by U.S. forces of  al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden. His death is welcome news to anyone who mourns those murdered on 9/11 and all the other victims of  al-Qaeda related brutality.

It’s maddening to hear journalist after journalist this morning bandy about the word “closure.” It brings to mind what Dr. William Petit, whose entire family was slaughtered in a horrific home invasion, said: “I don’t think there’s ever closure. I think whoever came up with that concept is an imbecile, whoever they are.” Anyone who has lost a loved one, particularly in a brutal act of terrorism, knows that the idea of closure is something manufactured by the Dr. Phil-ization of our collective national psyche.

Please, fellow journalists, save the word “closure” for traffic reports.


Something Stinks

February 24, 2011

You’ll remember a few weeks ago I reported that in the span of a couple of days I noticed that a nationally syndicated columnist and a Pulitzer-Prize novelist both misused the word “vagary.” I write with sorrow that I just came across a well-known New Yorker writer using the word “noisome” as a synonym for “noisy.” As the Oxford American Dictionary points out in a note, noisome “means ‘bad smelling’; it has no relation to the word ‘noise.’”  

The New Yorker!!!


The Butt of the Joke

February 9, 2011

In an uplifting AP story this evening heralding the good news that Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords is regaining her ability to speak, an Arizonan state senator is quoted as saying, “She’s a fighter, there’s no ifs, and or butts about that. She’s always been very tenacious, and I have no doubt whether it’s politics or her recovery that she’ll still have that same amount of energy.”

The story has been picked up all over the place, and in some versions the “butts” have been corrected. For those copy editors who feel embarrassed about not catching the mistake, you can console yourself. At least you’re not this guy. He’ll be the real butt of the joke around this town for the next 24 hours or so.


Vague, Vaguer, Vaguest

February 8, 2011

In the past four days, I’ve chanced on the egregious misuse of the word “vagaries,” once by a syndicated advice-columnist and once by a Pulitzer-Prize winning fiction writer. Given the contexts, they used the word to mean something like “vague answers” or “indeterminate responses.” Let’s say—to make up a totally fictional situation to illustrate what I mean—a very kindly and thoughtful father picked up his thirteen-year-old daughter from school today and the following conversation took place:

 “How was school.”


“What’s that you’re holding?”


 And so on. That’s what these two writers appear to have meant when they used the word “vagaries.”

I’ve never heard the word used this way, and so I double-checked a half-dozen dictionaries, including the OED and American Heritage, and they all define “vagaries” as “extravagant or erratic actions or behaviors; whims,” such as in, “I can’t bear to look at where my retirement fund stands given the vagaries of the market in the past year” (to make up another entirely fictional example).

 What strikes me is that the word was misused in precisely the same way by two people who are really excellent writers, and this makes me suspect that the older meaning is falling away and a completely new one is beginning to take its place.

 Just saying.


It’s the Law

January 30, 2011

The day after I wrote a post about Twain and plain language, well over a month ago, I chanced on a copy of H. R. 946, which was signed into law October 13, 2010. H. R. 946 is commonly known as The Plain Writing Act, and a very laudable act it is. “The purpose of this Act,” the honorable members of the House proclaim in Section 2, “is to improve the effectiveness and accountability of Federal agencies to the public by promoting clear Government communication that the public can understand and use.” Good for them! And then, in the next section, they go on to define “plain writing”: “The term ‘plain writing’ means writing that is clear, concise, well-organized, and follows other best practices appropriate to the subject or field and intended audience.”

Who can argue with that?

Well, actually, I can.  Sure, it’s clear enough, but Mrs. Klein, my high-school English teacher, would have been all over me if I had written this. In this sentence, four items are governed by “is”; the first three are adjectives—“clear,” “concise,” “well-organized”—but the fourth is a verbal phrase, “and follows other best practices . . .”

“Parallelism!!!!” Mrs. Klein would have scrawled triumphantly in the margin and return my paper to me contemptuously. To get a grade, I would have to rewrite it. Maybe I would have put an “and” after “concise” to indicate that “well-organized” was the final item in that series and then have used the existing “and” to recast the whole sentence as two elements governed by two separate verbs: “is . . .  and . . . follows.”

Or maybe not. Maybe I would have scrawled “You self-aggrandizing pettifogger!!!” in the margin and handed it right back to her.

So, that’s why I’ve not written this post for over a month. Part of me wants to correct The Plain Writing Act, part of me could care less.

In point of fact, I’m deeply ambivalent about correcting other people’s writing. I say this with some embarrassment because I teach English at a local university, and they pay me enormous sums of money to correct my students’ writing. And even though I, too, will write “Parallelism!!!” in the margins and look over the top of my glasses at them as if they were irredeemable louts, I at least have the grace to think I’m something of a jerk for doing so. Patricia T. O’Conner, the well-known language and usage writer, famously said, “It’s better to be understood than to be correct.” I’m not even that demanding. My motto is is, “Usually, it’s clear enough.”

Which gets me to a second point of law. Several months ago in Virginia, a driver was acquitted when he passed a stopped school bus. His argument? The law was unclear, he said. “A person is guilty of reckless driving,” the law reads, “who fails to stop, when approaching from any direction, any school bus which is stopped . . . for the purpose of taking on or discharging children.” The judge agreed. It should have been written, “. . . at any school bus.” Jeez! What a self-aggrandizing pettifogger that judge is. The law’s clear enough.



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