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Friday Bonus Post!

Words of wisdom from columnist Charles Krauthammer:

“Advertising is legalized mendacity.”

Discuss.

From the Department of Homeland Grammar

To a graphic designer, there are all kinds of interesting things about this story—upper- vs. lower-case letters, font selection, etc. But what really struck me was this line: “federal copy editors are demanding….”

Just think about that for a moment or two. Read it again. Now say it out loud.

There are positions in the U.S. government for copy editors? And they get to demand things? And people have to respond to those demands?

What an awesome country this is.

On the Dignity of Work

What I’ve long suspected—that American literature these days is dominated by a bunch of MFA-degreed Nancy boys who publish in prestigious literary magazines that nobody reads—turns out to be true, according to this essay by Gerald Howard.

Given my work history, which includes stints as a farm hand, construction laborer,  janitor, and Subway Sandwich Artisan™, it seems there really is no excuse for my inability to write a decent short story.

How Not to Write Criticism

As someone who once scraped together a modest living as a music critic, I found the premise behind this diatribe intriguing—until the whole thing quickly became predictable.

The author relies on a single criterion for determining if art is worthy of his esteem: whether he likes it. That’s all well and good, I suppose, except that he points to Damien Hirst—the hack whose “art” includes the suspension of dead animals in solutions of formaldehyde—as one who creates “art for the ages.”

Then there’s the tiresome adulation of the Beatles, the self-aware “to me, [insert popular fiction writer here] is light reading,” the tendentious claim that art has to blow his mind in order for it to be considered “good.”

Yawn.

Here’s a good rule of thumb for aspiring critics: drop the pretense before you write. Oh, and get out more.

Where Did You Go to Cropping School?

For years I’ve been asked the question, “Is it okay to crop a person’s forehead?” Maybe it’s time to shed some light on the subject of portraits and people cropping.

The short answer is, yes, it’s okay. In fact, there are no formal cropping rules whatsoever. The only guide I follow is doing whatever makes a person (or personality) more interesting and fits the required space. But some folks are under the impression that you should never crop out any part of a person’s head, hair, etc. That’s a valid approach—if the portrait is meant for the FBI’s “most wanted” list. Or if it’s for your daughter’s senior portrait in her high school yearbook, which no doubt required some serious mirror time and expense. The only other situation in which standard cropping is acceptable—well above the head, beyond the ears, and well below the chin—is when it’s for your ID badge or your driver’s license. But do any of us really expect those pics to be good?

I have no idea why this topic is so sensitive. But I’ve been asked to un-crop photos of some very important people (usually the client’s client, or the client’s boss), because I violated the driver’s license rule. To demonstrate my point, take a look at the pics below (with apologies for using yours truly as a subject—but this keeps it safe). So which one do you like?

Write with Clarity

I’m normally not a fan of burning books, but I think I’d make an exception for The Associated Press Stylebook (“More than 2 million copies sold!”). That so many otherwise serious institutions continue to abide by its arbitrary and specious rules is a continual source of amusement to me; that so many adults are unable to write clearly due to its predominance in public education is an unmitigated disaster.

Consider the possessive. Strunk & White treat it thusly:

Form the possessive of singular nouns by adding ‘s. Follow this rule whatever the final consonant. Thus write,

Charles’s friend
Burns’s poems
the witch’s malice

Simple. Elegant. And easily understood by the reader. Contrast that with the AP’s instructions, which, in my 2004 edition, contain no fewer than five variations for singular nouns alone (out of sixteen total, including “nouns plural in form, singular in meaning,” “quasi possessives,” and “inanimate objects”).

As is the case with the serial comma, the AP is chiefly interested in saving space in newspapers—creating room for more advertising—rather than in its journalists writing something that can actually be read.

Got a light?

The Most Important News You’ll Read All Day

By way of apologizing for the lack of posting over the last week or so, I’ve decided that today is a day for fun and frivolity. To wit:

There now. We’ll be back to our regularly scheduled programming in no time.

Quote of the Day

In my career as a professional writer, few qualities have been so needlessly celebrated by those around me as consistency. At an advertising agency I once worked at, in fact, there was an account executive who insisted on repeating a printed grammatical error in all subsequent pieces—because to not do so would be inconsistent.

With that in mind, I offer up the following from Aldous Huxley: “Consistency is contrary to nature, contrary to life. The only completely consistent people are dead.”

Word.

Oh, to Be Normal

A couple of weeks ago I was visiting the Maryhill Museum of Art—worth the drive for the Rodin collection alone—and learned that Sam Hill, railroad executive and founder of the museum, had a rather intense friendship with Queen Marie of Romania.

I’m sure the museum’s collection of the queen’s royal memorabilia (coronation gown, crown, jewelry, etc.) is fabulous; the problem is, all that went through my mind as I toured the exhibit was this little ditty by Dorothy Parker:

Oh, life is a glorious cycle of song,
A medley of extemporanea;
And love is a thing that can never go wrong,
And I am Marie of Roumania.

I proudly recited the poem to each of my kids. One responded by rolling her eyes, the other by heading for the nearest exit.

“Soylent Green Is People!”

I’ve always harbored suspicions that Oregonians were a bit, well…rigorous in their adherence to green orthodoxy. But I had no idea how rigorous:

This sign, located outside Manzanita, clearly shows just how far they’re willing to go.

Improving Our View

 

We’ve all seen electrical grid pylons along our highways, but how cool would it be if they actually became more interesting? The firm of Choi+Shine Architects provides an interesting solution. It’s always nice to see ordinary, everyday objects reinvented.

Beating a Dead Horse

As a followup to last week’s post about beginning sentences with “and,” let me just add one last point for the benefit of those who, for whatever reason, believe that their high school English teacher is right and everyone else is wrong.

From The Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition (2003):

There is a widespread belief—one with no historical or grammatical foundation—that it is an error to begin a sentence with a conjunction such as and, but, or so. In fact, a substantial percentage (often as many as 10 percent) of the sentences in first-rate writing begin with conjunctions. It has been so for centuries, and even the most conservative grammarians have followed this practice.

Had enough yet? No? Then let’s hear from Charles Allen Lloyd, from his 1938 book We Who Speak English: And Our Ignorance of Our Mother Tongue:

Next to the groundless notion that it is incorrect to end an English sentence with a preposition, perhaps the most wide-spread of the many false beliefs about the use of our language is the equally groundless notion that it is incorrect to begin one with “but” or “and.” As in the case of the superstition about the prepositional ending, no textbook supports it, but apparently about half of our teachers of English go out of their way to handicap their pupils by inculcating it. One cannot help wondering whether those who teach such a monstrous doctrine ever read any English themselves.

Now, this wouldn’t be such a big deal if so many people weren’t absolutely convinced of the veracity of the no-conjunctions-beginning-a-sentence hoax. As Lloyd suggests, to stubbornly insist on obeying such a “rule” against all evidence to the contrary is to handicap the writer. And that makes for bad writing.

There. I’m done now.

Parting Is Such Sweet Sorrow

For those who breathlessly await each new post on the last word, I have some bad news. This Thursday, the family and I are headed to an undisclosed location to sit back and put our collective feet up for a spell. I shall return Tuesday, August 31—tanned, rested, and ready.

In the meantime, dig this: Grammar Nazi booted from Starbucks.

I sympathize with the woman, but geez-o-pete. Get a life, already.

Marauding Pigs!

Because it’s Friday—the 13th—I bring you a chilling tale of…radioactive boars!

“And the earth was without form, and void…”

Many, many, many times I’ve been told to not begin sentences with “and.” Or any other conjunction, for that matter. It’s one of two rules people remember from high school English class (the other being never to end your sentences with a preposition).

Both are nonsense.

Winston Churchill famously disabused us of the latter with “This is the sort of English up with which I will not put.” As for the former, I’ll let the late William F. Buckley, Jr. clear things up a bit.

To a correspondent who wrote in to say “Don’t start a sentence with ‘and,'” and then wondered “just how good (or bad) your high school was,” Buckley shot back a terse reminder that “verses 2-26 and 28-31, Chapter I, Genesis, all begin with ‘And.’ The King James scholars went to pretty good high schools.”

Touché.

What’s more important than scoring a cheap debating point, however, is to consider how Buckley explained his position to a subsequent correspondent:

“But my point wasn’t that the King James scholars correctly translated from the original, rather that they were the most influential writers in English history. The general rule is not to begin a sentence with “and”; the particular rule is that writers with a good ear know when to break the general rule.”

So here’s a rule worth remembering: Let your ear be your guide.

And don’t, warns Paul Brians, Emeritus Professor of English at WSU, confine English usage in a logical straitjacket.

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