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Stop! Grammar Time!

Breaking news from Formula 1 today: “a first proper look at both the cars that will do battle in 2021, and at the regulations that will reshape Grand Prix racing as we know it.”

Take a gander at the both/and construction of that sentence. (In this case, both and and are correlative conjunctions, like either/or, neither/nor, not only/but also, et al.)

What the writer is trying to convey is that, through a joint announcement from F1 and the FIA, fans will get a glimpse at (1) what the 2021 cars will look like and (2) the new regulations governing the sport. Both/and.

The way it’s written, however, could lead the reader to assume that only two cars will be racing each other during the 2021 season: “both the cars that will do battle.” The problem is that the both is in the wrong place, a problem that could have been solved by simply removing both and and to see if each clause could stand on its own:

a first proper look at


the cars that will do battle in 2021


at the regulations that will reshape Grand Prix racing as we know it

See what I mean? We have a repeated at. If the writer had instead written a first proper look both at the cars that will do battle in 2021 and at the regulations that will reshape Grand Prix racing as we know it, then we’d have a little clarity:

a first proper look


at the cars that will do battle in 2021


at the regulations that will reshape Grand Prix racing as we know it

This is all just a roundabout (not to mention long-winded) way of illustrating the principle of parallel structure—that sentence elements alike in function should also be alike in construction. A simpler example of this principle is as follows:

(incorrect) Aaron likes to listen to the Grateful Dead, chess, and fried chicken.

(correct) Aaron likes to listen to the Grateful Dead, play chess, and eat fried chicken.

Dig that parallel structure! You get precision, clarity, and rhythm—all in one.

Quote of the Day

“Shyness is the tentative sound of the orchestra tuning up before the symphony begins.” Nick Cave

(While we’re at it, Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds’ latest, Ghosteen, dropped earlier this month, and it’s numinous.)


“One warning,” writes Deniz Cem Önduygu about his interactive timeline of philosophy. “Browsing this visual summary cannot substitute reading a good book of history of philosophy, let alone reading the original texts by the philosophers.”

Fair enough. But don’t let that stop you from exploring the awesomeness. And don’t tell CK I blew the whole afternoon frolicking in this “garden of forking paths of argument.”

Apropos of Nothing, Really…

The missus and I were watching an episode of the new season of Peaky Blinders the other night, and I noticed that every time a character drew on a cigarette, you could actually hear a crackling, hissing sound. I say “noticed,” but it was more than that, really. It was so loud it was distracting.

Now, I’m sure if you put your ear, say, an inch or two away from the glowing end of a cigarette while someone puffed away, you’d probably hear something. But relative to the sound levels of the dialogue, this is preposterous. And it’s not just Peaky Blinders, either. It’s pretty much every show on Netflix or Prime—which is primarily how I “consume content,” as the marketers call it.

Clearly, these sounds are being added in post-production. Which raises an interesting question: Why?

Here’s my best guess: Given that the generally high production value of these shows rules out hack Foley artists and that it seems to be only cigarette smoking that’s set at such ridiculously high levels, it must be some sort of sop to anti-smoking interest groups.

Studio Executive: Hey, uh, we got some complaints from the American Lung Association.
Show Runner: Dude. The series is set in the 1920s. People smoked.
Studio Executive: I know, but maybe we could make it less cool?
Show Runner: I’ll have Dave add some forest fire sounds in post. Good enough?
Studio Executive: That’ll work.

It could all be for naught, though. Which, to be honest, I’d welcome.

A Little Too Close to Home…

Dana Schwartz’s “How to Choose a Writing Instrument and What It Says about You” is so dead-on that I didn’t immediately notice that it came from the New Yorker‘s “Daily Shouts” section. You know, the space normally reserved for “humor, satire, and funny observations.”

I mean, come on. Electric typewriter? “You order rye at bars and secretly think that you should have been alive in the sixties.” MacBook? “You like the idea of hiking more than you actually like hiking and are impressed with yourself for liking the Beatles.” Brilliant.

For the record, I earned my first paycheck as a journalist with my trusty 1946 Royal Quiet DeLuxe, briefly went through a no. 2 pencil phase until I got tired of having to stop every two minutes to sharpen them, and wrote this post with a five-year-old MacBook Pro.

My current weapon of choice, however, is a Uni-ball Signo UM-151 gel pen with a 0.38 mm tip and blue black ink—but that’s only because I can’t afford this. What does that say about me? That I’m a man of impeccable taste, obviously.

Weekend Miscellany

Consistent writing will make you a better designer, according to Eugen Eşanu.

Not so fast, reports John Seabrook. After all, predictive text could change everything.

Which is probably just fine and dandy with closet descriptivists like Pippa Bailey, who rather enjoys “standing back and watching a living language grow and wrestle with itself.”

For the rest of you, take heart. Y’all will be happy to know that “old-fashioned English grammar” has been saved by the good ol’ U.S. of A.

Every Musical Genre Has Its Keith Richards

You’ve heard of Bach, right? Johann Sebastian? That rather dour-looking Baroque composer of cantatas, oratorios, and liturgical music? Turns out there’s more to him than 18th-century Lutheran piety. Ted Gioia has the details:

I’ve talked to people who feel they know Bach very well, but they aren’t aware of the time he was imprisoned for a month. They never learned about Bach pulling a knife on a fellow musician during a street fight. They never heard about his drinking exploits—on one two-week trip he billed the church eighteen gorchsen for beer, enough to purchase eight gallons of it at retail prices—or that his contract with the Duke of Saxony included a provision for tax-free beer from the castle brewery; or that he was accused of consorting with an unknown, unmarried woman in the organ loft; or had a reputation for ignoring assigned duties without explanation or apology. They don’t know about Bach’s sex life: at best a matter of speculation, but what should we conclude from his twenty known children, more than any significant composer in history (a procreative career that has led some to joke with a knowing wink that “Bach’s organ had no stops”), or his second marriage to twenty-year-old singer Anna Magdalena Wilcke, when he was in his late thirties? They don’t know about the constant disciplinary problems Bach caused, or his insolence to students, or the many other ways he found to flout authority. This is the Bach branded as “incorrigible” by the councilors in Leipzig, who grimly documented offense after offense committed by their stubborn and irascible employee.

There’s more—much more—in Mr. Gioia’s newly published Music: A Subversive History. And while you’re waiting for that Amazon shipment to arrive, check out his Twitter feed. Hardly a day goes by that I don’t learn something from him.

Hey CK, I’m gonna need an advance on my paycheck…

More than a thousand guitars, amps, and assorted gear belonging to the late Walter Becker will be auctioned this weekend in Beverly Hills. Here’s the catalogue if you’re, you know, wondering what to get me for Christmas this year.

The thing is, I was always a little embarrassed by my love for Steely Dan. In college, the guys I knew who were into more straight-ahead rock disliked their slick sound; my jazz friends were offended by the band’s commercial success (even though they all thought Toto IV was brilliant); fellow music students didn’t think of their work as anything even approaching serious art.

But I eventually learned to embrace the Dan. And why not? If you can’t appreciate the intricate harmonies, the pristine production, or the stellar musicianship, you ought to at least be able to dig the lyrics: sophisticated, yes, but also subversive, cynical, ironic, and wickedly funny.

So news of the auction makes me a little sad, to be honest. Like I mentioned in the post I wrote on the occasion of Becker’s death back in 2017, these guys were my people—my tribe, as they say now. It’s weird, I know, but I miss the guy.

Stop! Grammar Time!

I was reading a pretty interesting article this morning about how a Pittsburgh TV celebrity rigged the state lottery back in 1980. (I’d throw in a link, but I think you have to subscribe. It’s free, though, so check it out.)

Anyway, everything was hunky-dory until I came across this sentence:

Over a week, 25 witnesses — including co-conspirators, shop owners, and angry senior citizens — took the stand. 

I know that co-conspirators has become so entrenched in our language that we hardly notice it anymore, but still. What’s with the extra co-?

According to my copy of the OED, a conspirator is “a person who conspires or is engaged in a conspiracy”; a conspiracy is “a combination of people for an unlawful or a reprehensible purpose.” So. Conspirators conspire. They work together toward the same purpose. In fact, they have to work together, otherwise it isn’t much of a conspiracy.

Doesn’t that make the addition of co- redundant, then? Shouldn’t “conspirators, shop owners, and angry senior citizens” have sufficed?

Yes. And yes.

A Portrait of the Music Snob as a Young Man

Big milestone in music history today: On October 10, 1969—exactly fifty years ago—King Crimson released its debut album, In the Court of the Crimson King, while Frank Zappa dropped Hot Rats.

Obviously, I’m not the first to notice that the stars aligned that day, as both records were hugely influential in the genres of progressive rock and jazz fusion, respectively.

But they’re much more than historical footnotes to me.

Crimson King is one of those albums that opened up an entire world of musical possibilities, from early Peter Gabriel-led Genesis to David Bowie to Brian Eno to Gentle Giant; Zappa’s cosmic jams were in part what led me, in a roundabout way, to a more profound appreciation of – and ultimately a return to – the Grateful Dead.

Of course, the whole misfit-attracted-to-musical-misfits angle can’t be ignored, I suppose. Crimson and Zappa spoke to me in ways that the made-for-MTV pop stars of the 1980s simply couldn’t. But then, I’ve since outgrown that phase—mostly—and the music still has a power over me. So there’s that.

If you’ve not heard this music before, you’re in for a treat. It’s creative, challenging, and wholly unlike anything else that came before it.

How to Write Good

Nature has published novelist Cormac McCarthy’s tips on how to write a great science paper, and—surprise!—much of his advice just happens to be perfectly suited to everyday writing as well:

• Only use an adjective if it’s relevant.
• Try to avoid jargon, buzzwords or overly technical language.
• Use a personal tone because it can help to engage a reader.

I do have one tiny little nit to pick, however. “It’s more important to be understood,” writes McCarthy, “than it is to form a grammatically perfect sentence.” True, I suppose—but a grammatically perfect sentence will be understood. I mean, isn’t that why we have grammar?

Fright Night

There are few things that truly terrify me. Falling into a giant vat of mayonnaise is one; being trapped in an elevator with Oprah Winfrey is another. But working as a page turner for a live performance is truly nightmare-inducing. Nevertheless, Benjamin Poore explains why page turners – “part of the semi-invisible superstructure of the performance business, along with the répétiteur in the opera house, prompter in the box under the stage, or piano tuner working their magic in an empty auditorium” – matter.

Weekend Miscellany

According to Jack Kelly over at Forbes, it really doesn’t matter whether you go to college: you’ll earn about the same either way.

The season’s hot new ice cream flavor isn’t pumpkin spice. It’s, um…guinea pig.

One of my favorite writers takes on one of my least favorite writers: Andrew Ferguson on Malcolm Gladwell.

Speaking of writing, Zadie Smith defends fiction. The fact that she feels she has to, of course, is a sad commentary on our current age.

And, apropos of nothing, really, I recently discovered the excellent Ambient Music Guide. Better late than never, I guess. Anyway, you’ll find information, reviews, and recommendations therein.

A Writer’s Favorite Complaint

Here’s a fascinating review of John Warner’s Why They Can’t Write: Killing the Five Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities. While I don’t agree with everything in the piece, I’m not about to miss yet another opportunity to remind y’all that, as reviewer Phil Christman says, “Writing…is hard, and has always been so.” He goes on:

It is recursive: at every level of achievement, the same difficulties reassert themselves. It is an activity in which renegotiating the rules as you play is part of the game itself. We not only expect wildly different things from different writers, depending on the situation, audience, genre, and era, but we read in the hope that a writer will flout our expectations in a clever way, or give us new expectations we’d never thought to have. There can be no “mastery” under these circumstances.

Read the rest of Christman’s review. It’s damning and infuriating – and a hot mess when you get to the obligatory “capitalism is the root of all evils” section – but thought-provoking throughout.

DIY Jargonectomy

Does any part of your job involve writing? Are you employed in the marketing, communications, or PR fields? Have you, in the last 72 hours, used incentivize in a sentence—and meant it?

If you answered “yes” to any of those questions, stop what you’re doing RIGHT NOW and read this list of 150 Business Jargon Fixes. Apart from a few glaring omissions—e.g. onboarding and turning ask into a noun—it’s about as comprehensive as it gets. And it’s helpful, too: Instead of simply providing a list of offending words and phrases, it actually offers ways to avoid sounding like a pretentious twit.

Thanks to B. for sending this my way. She knows me too well.

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