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Infuriating Phrases

June 20, 2007

Today, Slate had a good piece on why Hillary Clinton’s (and most other politicians’) speeches are so maddeningly boring. It’s because she and people like her stuff their addresses with meaningless jargon that has become so common we don’t even hear it anymore–mainly because we’ve learned to tune it out:

The worst offender—and this week’s column is officially apolitical—is Hillary Clinton, who is “running for president because I believe if we set big goals and we work together to achieve them, we can restore the American dream today and for the next generation.” Clinton also believes that “we can give people the education and opportunities they need to fulfill their God-given potentials,” and that “the foundation of a strong economy is the investments we make in each other.” Who could possibly disagree?

The article also leads readers to a hilarious contest run by the UK Daily Telegraph that asked readers to submit essays stuffed with as much jargon or slang as possible. A favorite excerpt:

A re-evaluation of our methodologies has led to a sea-change. Tasked with delivering sustainable growth in our external horticultural environment, a work-in-progress encompasses benchmarking the broccoli, risk-assessing the radishes and applying change management principles to the diverse peripherals on the compost heap.

This blog will provide frequent rants against jargon and hackneyed phrases. We welcome our readers to submit examples of their own pet peeves.


Posted in Word Use

I Have a Craven

June 8, 2007

This morning I read a column in the New York Post in which Steve Dunleavy huffed and puffed about how Paris Hilton was released from jail after serving only five days of her sentence. [Aside: She’s since been dragged, literally kicking and screaming, back to the slammer. Woo!] I barely skimmed the piece, but my attention sharpened when I reached the concluding sentence:

So why would we expect anything from La La Land, which long ago replaced God with craven images – celebrities like Paris Hilton.

Ignore for the moment the fact that the question ends with a period. My first reaction was “What a doofus! It’s graven, not craven!” But then I wondered–was he actually making a very subtle play on the words? Per Webster’s, craven means “contemptibly faint-hearted.” One could certainly describe Miss Hilton that way. So tell me, smarty-pants readers, am I being too literal-minded, or am I giving Mr. Dunleavy and the Post too much credit for cleverness?

Posted in Word Use

Book Dip: More Fowler

June 3, 2007
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First, in response to readers’ requests for an example of an inversion, here is one from Fowler:

Little by little are these poor people being hemmed in & ground down by their cruel masters.

And, since he cross-referenced to Elegant Variation in that entry, here is an excerpt:

It is the second-rate writers, those intent rather on expressing themselves prettily than on conveying their meaning clearly, & still more those whose notions of style are based on a few misleading rules of thumb, that are chiefly open to the allurements of elegant variation. . . . There are few literary faults so widely prevalent, & this book will not have been written in vain if the present article should heal any sufferer of his infirmity.

The fatal influence is the advice given to young writers never to use the same word twice in a sentence–or within 20 lines or other limit. . . . The writer, far from carelessly repeating a word in a different application, has carefully not repeated it in a similar application; the effect is to set readers wondering what the significance of the change is, only to conclude disappointedly that it has none:– The Bohemian Diet will be the second Parliament to elect women deputies, for Sweden already has several lady deputies.

Boiled down, it’s the cliche of a foolish consistency, etc. Don’t be slavish to your English teachers’ admonitions, kids! Your writing will come out tentative and stilted.


May 25, 2007

Today’s Times carries a brief review of Pearl Harbor, a “historical novel” by Newt Gingrich and William R. Forstchen, and all I can say is that my heart went out to the book’s copy editor the moment I saw the headline: An Assault on Hawaii. On Grammar Too. This book was put out by St. Martin’s Press, a venerable house that I’m sure employs wonderful copy editors. I’m also sure that Mssrs. Gingrich and Forstchen stetted every single red mark on the manuscript. How else could the following be explained?

[Y]ou . . . find phrases like “to withdraw backward was impossible,” sounds like “wretching noises” to accompany vomiting, or constructions like “incredulous as it seemed, America had not reacted.” Although the book has two authors, it could have used a third assigned to cleanup patrol.

This is not a matter of isolated typographical errors. It is a serious case for the comma police, since the book’s war on punctuation is almost as heated as the air assaults it describes. “One would have to be dead, very stupid Fuchida thought,” the book says about the fighter pilot Mitsuo Fuchida, “not to realize they were sallying forth to war.” Evidence notwithstanding, the authors do not mean to insult the fighter pilot’s intelligence — or, presumably, the reader’s.

I can’t imagine that these issues went unnoticed by the good people at St. Martin’s, although I’m sure everyone connected with the book (except, perhaps, for the agent, who probably made a lot of money on this deal) is now writhing in embarrassment and regret. They can comfort themselves, though, with the knowledge that the book’s target audience probably doesn’t know any better.

Font Musings

May 25, 2007

As a copy and production editor, I pay very close attention to typefaces. At both the manuscript and proof stages, my life is made much easier when the body text is in a nice, clear serif font. Running heads, heads, and captions look better in a sans-serif face, and there should never be more than three fonts used in a given document or publication.

These issues came to mind last night as I read an article on Slate about various authors’ favorite fonts, inspired by the MoMA’s current exhibition devoted to Helvetica, that most classic of sans-serif fonts. I was pretty surprised to see that the perference was overwhelmingly for Courier or Courier New, fixed-width fonts from the early days of computer programming. Some people consider these fonts to be easier to read for editing, but something about them makes me miss the most basic and obvious errors. Maybe these faces are just so ugly that my eyes glaze over. A few authors earned points in my book for choosing Times Roman (hooray for Anne Fadiman!) or Century Schoolbook. Neither of those would be suitable for a typeset book, but they’re nice and clear for manuscript editing. I was pleased to see that nobody was so unprofessional as to choose a sans-serif for their manuscripts; I’ve had a few authors submit their MSS in Arial or something similar, and those were cruel reads.

So to my tiny band of readers: What are your favorite fonts for editing or typesetting?

Posted in Style Sheet

Book Dip: Fowler

May 22, 2007

[We’re going to test-drive a few regular features here and see which ones stick. This one will involve a “book dip,” i.e., a random selection from a book on language or style. Today’s book dip comes from the 1944 edition of H. W. Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage. If you like this feature, let us know!]

Inversion. By this is meant the abandonment of the usual English sentence order & the placing of the subject after the verb. [. . .] Inversion is the regular & almost invariable way of showing that a sentence is a question, so that it has an essential place in the language ; & there are other conditions under which it is usual, desirable, or permissible. But the abuse of it ranks with Elegant Variation [a cross-reference to be explored in later posts–ed.] as one of the most repellent vices of modern writing. Inversion and variation of the uncalled-for kinds are like the fashionable high heels placed somewhere below the middle of the foot–ugly things resorted to in the false belief that artificiality is more beautiful than nature . . .

You don’t have to look very far to find a life lesson in there.

Posted in Word Use

Already, a Gripe

May 20, 2007

I’ve spent a good bit of time this afternoon looking for links and sites related to copyediting. Although Will worked in magazines for two-plus years, and we’re not above throwing in some corporate-communications work to pay our bills, our expertise at Geode is mostly in books. Yet it seems as if every blog, discussion group, and professional society is geared toward newspaper copy editors, who are a very different breed (a strange one that eschews the serial comma). Does anyone out there know of a great online resource for book editors? Or will we have to become that source?

Stay Tuned

May 20, 2007
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