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May I Tactfully Suggest…

The phrase “take a different tact” seems to be rearing its ugly head more often these days. Perhaps I’m more sensitive than most to the dissonant clang it makes upon the ears; maybe it’s because I’m doomed to spend a lot of time with people who like the way my face contorts every time they say it.

So let’s just go ahead and fix it, shall we?

The correct phrase is “take a different tack.” Tack is a nautical term for the position of a vessel relative to the trim of its sails. Tacking is the act of bringing a ship into the wind in order to change course or direction.

Get it? A new approach is a different tack. But it doesn’t always require tact.

Corporate Chronology

Which came first, Coke or Pepsi? Wal-Mart or Kmart? Take the quiz over at Mental Floss—some of the answers may surprise you.

It Just Keeps Getting Better

Courtesy of the inestimable Mike Miller—who might very well be The Smartest Person Alive— the last word now has an audio player. Which means it’s easier than ever for y’all to taste our sweet beats.

Go on, now. Get the party started:

[audio:|titles=01 What Is Hip_]

Hemingway Would Be Proud

So let me set the scene. It was the happy hour portion of AMD’s holiday gathering last week. We were at a downtown establishment enjoying various spirits when our writer, Aaron Bragg, was given a manly test. Choosing from among twenty-one offerings on the menu, I ordered him a Scotch—neat. As a whisky aficionado (as well as bourbon), his challenge was to identify which Scotch he was about to imbibe.

He quickly determined it was a blend (certainly not a single malt!), thus narrowing his choices down to four brands. Sensing the quality of the product, he casually eliminated two groups—Dewars and Cutty Sark (a little too easy)—leaving only Chivas Regal’s 12- and 18-year-old blends and Johnnie Walker’s red, black, and blue labels.

Apparently, it wasn’t sweet enough to be a Chivas. (At this point, we’re all beginning to wonder just how much Scotch this man drinks.) So it’s now down to Johnnie Walker. But which one?

More swirls and sips followed, confirming it had been aged at least ten years (Red is way too young, you see), and narrowing it down to the Black (aged at least 12 years) and Blue (age not given, but generally understood to be more than 20 years, apparently). He stroked his goatee, took the final delightful sips, and, declaring it was “smooth as a baby’s butt,” gave us his answer: Johnnie Walker Blue Label.

Amazing! Now at $29 a glass, I don’t think this is his usual pour. But keeping your manly writer happy is a good thing. And on this evening, the best Scotch on the menu made him as happy as he could be.

All Hail the Octothorpe!

The National Post’s Robert Fulford has the goods on “one of the great comeback stories in the history of competitive punctuation.”

Personally, I’ve never been much of a fan of the #, as I find it a bit inelegant and unwieldy. And the fact that it owes its resurrection to something as inane as Twitter, whose users—Twits?—had the cheek to rename it a “hashtag,” makes me even less likely to employ it.

These days, however, it’s nice to see punctuation used at all.

When Good Brands Go Bad

WalletPop takes a look at what happened when nine smart brands made dumb decisions—and how those companies ultimately caved to consumers’ hue and cry. Scroll down to the end of the article to read about three similar scenarios—but where, instead, the companies said, “Up yours.”

Uncle Milton Knows Best

As some of you may know by now, I’m a big fan of the graphic designer Milton Glaser. (His famous Bob Dylan poster is proudly displayed in our office; books by and about him are within easy reach even as I write this.)

For me, Glaser embodies all that is possible with design, and perhaps what’s possible for designers. The documentary film Milton Glaser: To Inform and Delight provides a wonderful insight into his own imagination and process. It’s a great gift idea for all of your sophisticated friends – or you can just take them to the MAC this coming Wednesday when the Spokane International Film Festival screens it at the Eric A. Johnston Auditorium.

Take a look around Uncle Milton’s website. You’ll see lots of beautiful work, some of which can be purchased from the master himself. And on the home page, there’s a short video clip about his 50-year association with the School of Visual Arts in New York City.

If Hitler Hated It, It’s Gotta Be Good

Pieces of art labeled “degenerate” by the Nazis and seized from German museums in the 1930s—and missing ever since—turned up last January as workers were digging near Berlin’s City Hall. They’re now on exhibit at the Neues Museum, just a stone’s throw from the Deutsches Historisches Museum. Which, ironically, is where a Hitler exhibition is currently underway.

The New York Times has the story.

In related news, a French electrician has revealed that he’s in possession of 271 previously unknown Picassos. Apparently, that’s how Pablo paid his bills.

Roll Over Beethoven

Alex Ross poses an interesting question: We have embraced the avant-garde in other art forms; why not music?

For a taste of what he’s talking about, here’s Jonathan Nott conducting the Berlin Philharmonic in a performance of György Ligeti’s Atmosphères (Teldec 8573882612).

Give it a minute or two to load. You won’t be disappointed.

What’s It Mean to Be “Creative”?

Hollywood writer and producer Rob Long has a hilarious take on the creative process, courtesy of KCRW. You can subscribe to Long’s weekly podcast, Martini Shot, here.

Happy Thanksgiving

There’s a lot of talk this time of year about how to properly cook a turkey, how to ensure a lump-free gravy, and whether it’s true that jellied cranberry sauce has its origins in a subversive communist plot. Here at the last word, however, we’re (and by “we’re” I mean “I’m”) all about the stuffing.

So here you go—courtesy of the White Castle Family of Columbus, Ohio:

White Castle Turkey Stuffing

10 White Castle hamburgers, no pickles

1 1/2 cups celery, diced

1 1/4 tsp. ground thyme

1 1/2 tsp. ground sage

3/4 tsp. coarsely ground black pepper

1/4 cup chicken broth

In a large mixing bowl, tear the burgers into pieces and add diced celery and seasonings. Toss and add chicken broth. Toss well. Stuff cavity of turkey just before roasting. Makes about 9 cups (enough for a 10- to 12-pound turkey). Note: Allow 1 hamburger for each pound of turkey, which will be the equivalent of 3/4 cup of stuffing per pound.

An Appeal

Back in the 90s, it was “don’t go there.” In the aughts, it was “my bad” (still a pox on our culture). Now, we have “rock” as a transitive verb—as in, “Mr. Rogers really rocks that cardigan.”

How bad is it? It’s hit the pages of Sunset magazine, as staid a publication as you’re likely to read. From the latest issue, in a blurb about a new Spokane business:

The just-opened Sun People Dry Goods Company is modeled after an old-fashioned general store but rocks eco-mod design, with exposed brick and salvage-metal accents.

Please, please, please stop. All of you. Right now.

More Grammar! Yay!

Following up on Wednesday’s post about the many-splendored semicolon, I want to shed a little light on the frequently cited but completely misunderstood “run-on sentence.”

In the advertising/marketing/PR/communications world, brevity reigns supreme—an admirable trait, to be sure, but not necessarily an inherent good. I get it, of course. “Omit needless words” is one of Strunk & White’s Elementary Principles of Composition, after all. But sometimes, a thought requires more than half a dozen words.

Consider Whittaker Chambers’s review of Dr. Zhivago, in which he writes:

“Reading it is more like taking, under compulsion, a very long journey, about which you begin to suspect, from the general route, scenery and comments by the way, that, after you have got wherever it is you are going, you will not have got much of anywhere.”

There’s a certain type of person who recoils at stuff like this. I like to call them “illiterate.”

Now I’ve written sentences a lot like that one, and when I do, nine times out of ten some editor or proofreader or account executive sends it back with the instruction to “fix the run-on sentence.”

The thing is, it’s not. It’s a long sentence, but it’s not a run-on sentence. The two are not at all the same.

A run-on sentence is an error in which two or more independent clauses are joined by a comma (rather than a conjunction or semicolon). It’s also called a fused sentence; the offending comma is called a comma splice.

So, in the case of run-on sentences, size really doesn’t matter.


Research suggests that a habitual marijuana habit impedes cognitive function. Who knew?

Half a Colon’s Better than No Colon at All

One of the more egregious writing errors I come across—from adults who ought to know better, no less—is the joining of independent clauses with a comma.* Like this, for example:

I’m not feeling well this afternoon, I’m going home early.

The two independent clauses (clauses that can stand alone as complete sentences) are, of course, I’m not feeling well this afternoon and I’m going home early. They each contain a subject and a verb; each is syntactically correct. Which means replacing the comma with a period would technically be within the rules.

I’m not feeling well this afternoon. I’m going home early.

Clearly, however, that’s lame. So what’s a writer to do? Let’s look at three options, the first of which plays on the cause-and-effect relationship:

Because I’m not feeling well this afternoon, I’m going home early.

Now we have both a dependent and an independent clause; joining the two with a comma is grammatically kosher. Second, we could introduce a conjunction. Like, say…so:

I’m not feeling well this afternoon, so I’m going home early.

Not just any conjunction will do, however, so choose wisely. Finally, we could deploy the much-maligned semicolon, which is far and away my favorite punctuation mark:

I’m not feeling well this afternoon; I’m going home early.

What’s the difference between the period and the semicolon? Semicolons indicate a closer relationship between the two clauses. (Notice the implied “therefore” in the above example?)

INCORRECT: Aaron is a genius, I have much to learn from him.
CORRECT: Aaron is a genius; I have much to learn from him.

*Known as a comma splice or a run-on sentence.

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