By Lauren Weiner
Rap sheet #3 begins with an older item. Our philosophy is that it’s never to late to learn to write better.
Doctorow in Need of Prose Doctor
The Nation, August 7, 2000. E.L. Doctorow: “We may ask those who speak of this corrupt and corrupting system as a kind of speech that mustn’t be tampered with, if to privilege the free speech of corporations with vast treasuries on those grounds is not undeniably to squelch the speech of others who don’t have the same resources.”
This sentence about campaign-finance law is hard to understand. First of all, we are asked to look upon a system as a kind of speech. That’s odd. Also problematic is the allusion to corporations’ wealth. “Vast treasuries” is fine as an image but it seems to have led Mr. Doctorow to think he needed the correspondingly plural “those grounds.” There aren’t plural reasons to “privilege the free speech of corporations.” What he is trying to say is that there is one reason, wealth.
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Foreignpolicy.com, October 12, 2009. Josh Rogin: “The scene of Haqqani celebrating the F-16 deal, a long-awaited accomplishment of the U.S.-Pakistani relationship, amid the backdrop of the rumors of his sacking, show the complicated dynamic surrounding him.”
We have a scene amid a backdrop where somebody is being surrounded by something. Heavy layers there. Not to mention, the preposition that goes with “the backdrop” is “against” not “amid.” And notice the noun-verb agreement error: “the scene show the dynamic” when really the scene shows the dynamic.
Washington Post, January 21, 2010. Spencer S. Hsu and Jennifer Agiesta: “A senior Obama aide closely involved in the administration review said in an interview that FBI authorities in Detroit have deep experience investigating al-Qaeda cases, and that they gained both valuable intelligence and preserved a criminal prosecution.”
Syntax error. “Both” should come earlier. The authorities both gained intelligence and preserved a prosecution. Better yet, delete it – it’s superfluous.
Realclearpolitics.com, October 16, 2009. Mark Salter: “And yet now, in Newsweek, on the front pages of major newspapers and on nightly television newscasts we are regularly belabored with assurances that he is single-handily forcing the administration to reconsider its commitment to winning ‘the war of necessity’ with an adequately resourced counterinsurgency that proved its efficacy in Iraq as well as the unreliability of the Vice President’s advice.”
We are not here to rap Mr. Salter for a typo (“single-handily”). Rather, we simply don’t get the meaning of this run-on-sentence.
Weekly Standard, November 2, 2009. Scrapbook: “Both rely on a pair of quarter-notes for periodic emphasis – memorably rendered by snapping fingers in Addams – and both employ unsung phrases to drive home the surreal quality of their subjects.”
“Unsung” is an odd word choice, usually used for something or someone ignored or unfairly undervalued. More precisely, Scrapbook meant spoken rather than sung. (The reference is to passages in the theme songs of the television shows “Green Acres” and “The Addams Family.”)
Thedailybeast.com, September 23, 2009. Caryn James: “But just as Minx isn’t what a glib description of a cross-dresser suggests, Rage only sounds as if it’s about fashion; there’s not an eye-catching dress in sight.”
She meant Minx isn’t your usual cross-dresser and “Rage” isn’t your usual movie about the fashion industry. The equation would have been easier to grasp if its first half weren’t so verbose.
First Things, January, 2010. Lauren Weiner: “The straight-laced Davis was loath to join him on ‘Candy Man’ before an audience – eventually Van Ronk caught on that the song he’d been performing was about a pimp.”
“Straight-laced” is in the dictionary. Still, the better choice would have been “straitlaced,” as in narrowly or tightly bound. That would have better captured the Reverend Gary Davis’ strictness. (Thanks to alert reader Mark Halpern for pointing this out.)
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Helping Helprin – Again!
Claremont Review of Books, Summer 2009. Mark Helprin: “When necessary, you can liquidate your holdings with neither legal fees nor court supervision.”
This sentence appears in a piece about piracy off the coast of Africa. Taking a satirical approach, the writer treats the pirates as if they were businessmen – and lucky ones since they operate free of normal business constraints. The conceit is that the constraints are absent. As in, not there. Yet instead of putting it in terms of absence – for which the word “without” comes in handy – Mr. Helprin uses “with” followed by negatives. Not a natural way of putting it.
Weiner, a Gotham team member, is a speechwriter for the U.S. Secretary of Defense.
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