Another fine blooper from the land of student journals: “with reference to his grand area.” But you see, because I know the story she’s referring to (“No One’s a Mystery” by Elizabeth Tallent), I know she means “groin area.” Yet it may also be, perhaps, grand.
Some students writers do not write in order to say something. They take a more defensive approach, aiming to write nothing that can be criticized, either for its content or its form. The mantra they adopt is “Use short words. Say obvious things. Keep meaning simple.” What could be safer, I imagine them thinking.
Yet this always backfires with writing that isn’t worth reading, writing that proclaims what we all already know and probably have known for years on end. The short thoughts in simple words leave the evaluator combing the short turf for any bit of fluff they can give credit to. That is the best the student can hope for.
The worst is that by trying to not say anything, such writers overlook what their words – with a mind of their own, it seems — go off and say on their own. Like this case of extreme understatement:
“Islamic art and Western art are to arts that have been around for years.”
Thus opens a paper that makes a reader wish there weren’t another 800 words to follow.
When we enter finals week in Paragraph City and the English department is hollow eyed from reading papers, we revel in such lines as this:
“Hamlet and Laertes start to have a doodle in front of the Queen.”
And I see them clearly, the men suddenly just boys, with newsprint and a box of 16th century Crayolas (they only had eight colors then) between them. What do they draw, do you suppose? Their fathers, I should think.
This Elephant of Style award goes to Duluth Trading Company, which declares the price for its Longtail T shirt to be “Now only 2 for $23”.
DTC isn’t the first or last to be bit by that snaky little “only”, a trickster modifier that the writers in Paragraph City often troll their rough drafts to find. Like a shapeshifter, it usually can slide into any sentence in two or three places, sneaking the meaning away from the writer as it does.
“Only now 2 for $23” suggests time is running out; “Now only 2 for $23 indicates that a more equible price might be 3 or even 4 for $23 — or perhaps that this was the pre-Now price; “Now 2 for only $23” suggests a bargain. But the real bargain is the word only. We pay for just four letters and get a little circus of possible meanings, one for every ring under our big top.
“Only” has cousins, though, that shapeshift nearly as well, including “just” and “nearly” both used and checked and firmly nailed in place in the above palaver.
This Elephant of Style award in the category of the numerically inept goes to my hometown rag, the Olean Times Herald, which in its July 12 issue was so enamored of the following statement that the words not only comprise the third paragraph but also are highlighted in the sidebar spot: “On average, you’re average assessment is probably 35 percent too high or 35 percent too low.”
O the inspired error that can violate rules grammatical and mathematical in a single swoop. Well, technically it’s not a grammar violation and probably not mathematics, either, but that does have a nice ring, don’t you think?
Consider, though, the ability to take an average and arrive at two different choices, either 35% high or 35% low. How do you calculate an average that allows that? Perhaps the double use of the word “average” (“On average, you’re average assessment…”) mixed with the rules of probability (“…is probably 35 percent too high or 35 percent too low”) allow this sort of multiple choice statistics. It’s beyond my poor powers to explain, and thus the award.
On a footnote, we might add that the Times Herald should be required to share the valor of this award, for the statement is actually a quotation from Brian Pavlock of the NYS Office of Real Property Services, but I suspect Mr. Pavlock would decline. I also suspect he will hope to be more kindly quoted in the future (or more circumspect when speaking in the vicinity of the Times Herald reporters).
My first Elephant of Style (with apologies to the venerable Strunk and White, and perhaps Mr. Miller should apologize, too) Award belongs to our local newspaper. Is there any writing instructor anywhere that doesn’t both cringe and cackle with delight over the blunders of his area’s newspaper? Well, perhaps those at NYU, but in Paragraph City we read the Olean Times Herald, and we cackle and cringe.
This is one of those Bread & Butter stories from last week: high school graduation, what the speakers said, lots of names, lots of awards, maybe an interview. Mr. Rick Miller, a stalwart at the OTH, was sent to Ellicottville Central where he not only couldn’t copy the Valedictorian’s name off the commencement program properly, but he heard her say this:
“Remember that anything is possible and that the only dreams that can never be taken away from you are the ones that you do not pursue.”
One has to love the possibilities that double and triple negation open up. Wallace Stevens (think of “The Snowman”) loved them. I love them. But they require that one pay atttention to what one is saying. I seriously doubt Ms. Roblee was suggesting those eager young souls refrain from pursuing their dreams so that they never know defeat, though I wonder what she did say.
Or perhaps Mr. Rick Miller is warning us of the next generation, call them Gen Y Bother? Born to fear failure! The untrod path offers no dangers of tripping over roots! Tis better to have never loved at all than to have loved and lost! Job’s lament becomes our lament: better had we never been born!
Or perhaps it’s better that we remain new borns, savoring the potential of being able to do or attain anything, believe anything, become anything — just so long as we don’t actually try to do something that might bring potential and reality into the same sentence.
I see him now: in the OTH newsroom in Paragraph City, Mr. Rick Miller clutches his Elephant of Style award and delights in our misguided cackles. “They think I dwell in error, oh those of the shallow brain-pan. They do not recognize the next revolution, the advocates of pure existence, divorced from everyday hard facts. The dreamers who resist ever waking. The planners who shun execution.”
Or perhaps he just didn’t read his copy. In Paragraph City you can have it both ways.