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Words at Play

"Punsters take their word-play seriously." (Harley Hahn)  

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Grammar & Composition Spotlight10

Between the Dashes

Friday April 18, 2014

Interrupting dashes--like these, for example--are parenthetical devices favored by many professional writers but often ignored or misused by students. Because they're a handy way of slipping details into sentences--definitions, translations, illustrations, explanations, and qualifications, for instance--interrupting dashes are worth adding to our composition tool kits.

Consider these examples from recent magazine articles.

  • Very little grows here. Yet it is the home of quinoa real--"royal quinoa"--whose seeds are the world market's gold standard. . . .
    (Lisa M. Hamilton, "The Quinoa Quarrel." Harper's, May 2014)

  • Cardinal Walter Kasper--short, sturdy, 81--lives at No. 1 Piazza della Cittą Leonina, a brick apartment building near the old Vatican walls. . . .
    (Paul Elie, "The Pope in the Attic." The Atlantic, May 2014)

  • The tents huddled together on the high prairie. For seven months, they had borne deluge, frost and blizzard. In that time, the occupants--more than 1,000 striking coal miners and their families--had also endured the fear and fact of violence. . . .
    (Thai Jones, "Remembering the Ludlow Massacre." The Nation, April 21, 2014)

  • A new catalog of earthquake lights--mysterious glows sometimes reported before or during seismic shaking--finds that they happen most often in geological rift environments, where the ground is pulling apart. . . .
    (Alexandra Witze, "Mysterious Light Associated With Earthquakes Now Linked to Geologic Rift Zones." Scientific American, January 2014)

  • The Chelsea makes many more star appearances, but it's the denizens of the place, their celebrity and sheer numbers--from Mark Twain through several generations of artists, cranks and druggies, to Sid Vicious--that warrant its reputation. . . .
    (Jeremy Harding, "Short Cuts." London Review of Books, February 6, 2014)

  • The innovation of the coaching schools was not so much the curriculum--Coach U's was so similar to Erhard's that in the late 1990s Landmark sued for copyright infringement--but in the professed goal. . . .
    (Genevieve Smith, "50,000 Life Coaches Can't Be Wrong." Harper's, May 2014)

In almost every example, a pair of commas or parentheses could also do the job, but those marks lack the emphatic dash of the dash. Commas can lead to clutter, and parentheses seem to whisper (inviting us to skip over points that used to be relegated to footnotes).

Like any device, interrupting dashes lose their power and effectiveness through overuse, and too many of them can quickly become distracting. So good writers ration them.

Nevertheless, the next time you want to emphasize a detail clearly and concisely, don't be afraid to try on a pair of dashes.

More About Interruptions:

A Springtime Stroll on the Lighter Side of Language

Wednesday April 16, 2014

Every few months, when the lucubrations of linguists grow tiresome and the cackles of language mavens turn painfully shrill, we slip across to the lighter side of language. Please join us. (For definitions, discussions, and additional examples, click on the highlighted terms.)

  • The Lighter Side of Prefixes
    "If lawyers are disbarred and clergymen defrocked, doesn't it follow that electricians can be delighted; musicians denoted; cowboys deranged; models deposed; tree surgeons debarked, and dry cleaners depressed?"
    (Virginia Ostman, quoted by Laurence J. Peter in Peter's Quotations: Ideas for Our Times. Quill, 1993)

  • The Lighter Side of Privative Affixes
    "The pilot declared it a 'catastrophic failure of equipment' and put the stairs out for us to 'deplane.' Why do we 'deplane'? We don't 'debus,' we don't 'decab.' It's such a phony word. It seems to me an emergency is the wrong time to try to impress people with fancy vocabulary. A simple 'The nose has unexpectedly fallen off this plane. Let's not use it. Get off' would have done the trick."
    (Paula Poundstone, There's Nothing in This Book That I Meant to Say. Three Rivers Press, 2006)

  • The Lighter Side of Misplaced Modifiers
    "For many people eating spoonfuls of Marmite every day would be their worst nightmare, but for St. John Skelton it's his dream job. . . . Despite being loathed by millions across the world, St. John can't get enough of the stuff and eats it almost every day."
    ("Meet the Man Who Earns a Living Eating Marmite." The Sun [UK], April 14, 2012)

  • The Lighter Side of Proverbs:
    "Perhaps we should have a general reconditioning, or reupholstering, of proverbs. It could be done without too much trouble, and economically. New materials would not be needed. The old materials that Shakespeare and his great contemporary, Anon, used are still as good as new, and can't be bettered. You can't get stuff like that today. A simple rearrangement of a batch of the more prominent proverbs might do everybody a lot of good.

    "Something on this order: A man is known by the Russian he scratches. A bird in the bush is worth two on Nellie's hat. An apple a day is the evil thereof. He that keeps the doctor away will live to fight another day. A penny saved is a pound foolish. Beauty is only the spice of life. You see, they sound just as sensible as the originals, and if delivered by an adult in a solemn, minatory voice, will convince a youngster of his own unworthiness as thoroughly as if they made sense."
    (Frank Sullivan, "A Watched Proverb Butters No Parsnips." The Night the Old Nostalgia Burned Down. Little, Brown, 1953)

  • The Lighter Side of Anthypophora
    "Do I get annoyed when people ask themselves their own questions and answer them (rendering the interviewer irrelevant)? Yes I do. Should we allow this virus in the paper? No we shouldn't."
    (Kevin Mitchell, quoted by David Marsh and Amelia Hodsdon in Guardian Style, 3rd ed. Guardian Books, 2010)

  • The Lighter Side of Assemblage Errors
    "Runny Babbit lent to wunch
    And heard the saitress way,
    'We have some lovely stabbit rew--
    Our Special for today. . . . "
    (Shel Silverstein, Runny Babbit: A Billy Sook. HarperCollins, 2005)

  • The Lighter Side of Brevity
    "[Calvin Coolidge's] most celebrated trait was his taciturnity. An oft-told story, which has never been verified, is that a woman sitting next to him at dinner gushed, 'Mr. President, my friend bet me that I wouldn't be able to get you to say three words tonight.'

    "'You lose,' the president supposedly responded."
    (Bill Bryson, One Summer: America, 1927. Doubleday, 2013)

  • The Lighter Side of Reading Speed
    "I just got out of the hospital. I was in a speed-reading accident. I hit a bookmark."
    (Steven Wright)

  • The Lighter Side of Connotations
    "'Why is it a handbag instead of a purse?'

    "The General simultaneously rolled her eyes and released a tired sigh. 'A purse is a cheap, plastic discount store thing. A handbag is what contemporary, fashion-conscious women carry. And that's what we sell. Expensive designer handbags. An assortment of the latest trends and must-have famous names. They are handbags and you need to refer to them that way. You can say bag for short, but never, ever, ever say the word purse It's an insult to the exclusive designers we carry. Got it?'

    "'Got it.'

    "But I didn't really get it. The whole thing sounded kind of snooty and stupid."
    (Freeman Hall, Retail Hell: How I Sold My Soul to the Store. Adams Media, 2009)

More From the Lighter Side of Language:

What's the Hardest Part of Writing?

Monday April 14, 2014

For you, what's the hardest part of writing?

Ernest Hemingway said that it was "getting the words right." My six-year-old nephew says, "It makes my hand hurt." After considering these other responses, let us know which aspect of the writing process is most difficult for you. (Click on "comments" at the end of the post.)

  • Patricia Sprinkle on Sitting Down to Write
    The hardest part of writing is sitting down with an idea and staying in that chair long enough to birth it into something you recognize. After college I needed to know if I wanted to write badly enough to do it without a professor assigning a topic.
    (Patricia Sprinkle, Hold Up the Sky. New American Library, 2010)

  • Jane Hamilton on Confidence
    I think the hardest thing about writing is just having the confidence to put something down and think that anyone else will want to read it.
    (Jane Hamilton, quoted in the Tampa Review, 1998)

  • Judy Blume on First Drafts
    The hardest part of writing for me is getting that first draft. I find it pure torture.
    (Judy Blume, in an interview with Cynthia Leitich Smith in Judy Bloom by Cee Telford. Rosen, 2004)

  • Henry Giroux on Finding the Sequence
    Once I get an idea, the daunting task begins of reading everything I can on the subject, collecting information, data, and trying to think through how the project will be developed. . . . I enjoy the research, but I find that I can't actually think through a project or write anything until I can sequence my argument and see how it is going to be developed. Trying to figure out the sequence is very painful for me, and I usually get very depressed at some point . . .. Once I get the sequence, however, the writing seems to proceed smoothly.
    (Henry Giroux, quoted by Gary A. Olson and Lynn Worsham in Critical Intellectuals on Writing. SUNY Press, 2003)

  • Reynolds Price on Loneliness
    It's the loneliness that's the hardest part. I don't want to sound like the pope or the president--the loneliness here at the top, the Oval Office. I don't mean that. But you are alone: you just sit in your room . . . and you work.
    (Reynolds Price, in an interview with A.B. Crowder in Writing in the Southern Tradition. Rodopi, 1990)

  • James Baldwin on Not Writing
    The hardest thing about writing, in a sense, is not writing. I mean, the sentence is not intended to show you off, you know. It is not supposed to be "Look at me! Look, no hands!" It's supposed to be a pipeline between the reader and you. One condition of the sentence is to write so well that no one notices that you're writing.
    (James Baldwin, quoted by Donald M. Murray in Writing to Deadline: The Journalist at Work, 2000)

  • Beverly Cleary on Pushing Through to the End
    The hardest thing about writing is pushing through to the end . . .. The easiest thing is revising. I think all writers do some revising. That is when I cross out a lot and shorten a page to one paragraph.
    (Beverly Cleary, quoted by Dorothy S. Strickland in Collections: Hidden Surprises. Harcourt, 2000)

  • Rawlins and Metzger on the Lack of Revising Time
    The single most difficult thing about writing in school is the lack of revising time. There is no way to create extra hours in the day, so all you can do is learn to use the little time you have well.
    (Jack Rawlins and Stephen Metzger, The Writer's Way, 9th ed. Cengage, 2014)

More About the Writing Process:

Blackboard: an "American proverb" (according to the Oxford Treasury of Sayings and Quotations), variously attributed to Mary Heaton Vorse, Somerset Maugham, Robert Frost, and countless others.

Revising for an Audience

Friday April 11, 2014

In their venerable textbook The Reader Over Your Shoulder, Robert Graves and Alan Hodge encourage the writer to "imagine a crowd of his prospective readers . . . looking over his shoulder."

What an awful thought.

Most of us, I suspect, prefer to be left alone (imaginatively and otherwise) so that we can write unself-consciously and undisturbed. Composing a rough draft is usually a solitary activity: put out the cat, shut the door, turn off the phone, and get down to work, keeping our thoughts as far away as possible from the madding crowd of prospective readers.

But when the first draft is finally done, the isolated writer turns into an active reader, and that's when some company might be welcome. So let's reconsider Graves and Hodge's advice, replacing the word write with revise:

We suggest that whenever anyone sits down to revise he should imagine a crowd of his prospective readers (rather than a grammarian in cap and gown) looking over his shoulder. They will be asking such questions as: "What does this sentence mean?" "Why do you trouble to tell me that again?" "Why have you chosen such a ridiculous metaphor?" "Must I really read this long, limping sentence?" "Haven't you got your ideas muddled here?" By anticipating and listing as many of these questions as possible, the writer will discover certain tests of intelligibility to which he may regularly submit his work before he sends it off to the printer.
(Robert Graves and Alan Hodge, The Reader Over Your Shoulder: A Handbook for Writers of English Prose. Macmillan, 1943)
For more advice on revising (always open to editing, of course), see The Graces of Prose: Graves and Hodge's 16 Stylistic Principles.

Revision Checklists:

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