Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Knucklerap Corner: Where a Red Hand is the Mark of an Improved Mind

Our favorite grammarian Lauren Weiner takes the red pen to popular prose once more!

Kudzu Word of the Month – Don’t Let It Take Over
“Dark” is everywhere nowadays. People are reaching for this trendy word at the expense of other good words, among them “gloomy” and “somber” – not to mention “macabre,” “sinister,” “eerie,” “deranged,” “depraved,” and “twisted.” It is lazy to succumb to trends.

New York Times Magazine, August 1, 2010. Frank Bruni: “Her voice was suddenly quieter and darker, and that was the clue that these thoughts weren’t abstract – that they had a specific, intimate trigger.”

He might say her voice was suddenly quiet and somber.

National Review, July 5, 2010. Ross Douthat: “[Aldous] Snow is hilarious, yes, but he’s also dark and tormented and miserable, as empty as the lifestyle he’s embraced, and as the movie moves from one comic set-piece to the next, the note of tragedy gets sharper and sharper.”

He might skip dark and go right to tormented and miserable.

Mr. Douthat really lets the kudzu run rampant later in the review: “Its madcap hilarity notwithstanding, [“Get Him to the Greek”] is another dark-dark-dark portrait of the costs of success, and the wages of sin.”

We respectfully ask: If you have to wear it out, Mr. Douthat, is it really doing the job? 

New York Times Book Review, October 31, 2010. Paul Simon: “His career as a lyricist for other composers (Bernstein, Jule Styne and Richard Rodgers) is as distinct from his later work as night is to day, or conversely, day to night, since the quintessential Sondheim song is perceived to be somehow darker, lyrically more cerebral and colder than his earlier collaborative work.”

Okay, okay. So the famed songwriter is playing with the night/day contrast in this passage. “Somehow darker” fills the bill in a way that “somehow more depressive” would not. We hereby pronounce Mr. Simon trendy but cogent.

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New York Times, June 15, 2010. Thomas Friedman
: “I’d love to see him be the most popular leader on the Arab street, but not by being more radical than the Arab radicals and by catering to Hamas, but by being more of a democracy advocate than the undemocratic Arab leaders and mediating in a balanced way between all Palestinians and Israel.”

Note the less than felicitous rhythm of this sentence – but-and-but-and. It is a run-on.

Washington Post, November 28, 2010. Monica Hesse: “They’d met in college at a campus deli, her a sophomore, him a senior.”

It should be “she a sophomore, he a senior.”

Wall Street Journal, June 14, 2010. Leon de Winter
: “The Europeans couldn’t suppress the chance to defame the Jews and redefine Israel’s defense measures as either ‘disproportionate’ or outright aggression – war crimes in other words.”

“Suppress the chance.” The author has conflated two idioms: “suppress the urge” and “pass up the chance.”

Japan Times, December 2, 2010. Steve Clemons: “This doubt is eroding global stability and undermining the trust that allies have in American leadership and increasing the appetite of U.S. foes like North Korea and Iran to shake constraints on them and move the boundaries on their action beyond where they have been.”

To fix it he has to make its structure clearer. Inserting commas would help: The doubt is eroding, undermining, and increasing. (Also “boundaries on” ought to be “boundaries of.”)

New York Times, November 21, 2010. Jon Caramanica:  “That patchwork gnaws away at this album’s emotional impact.”

Since when does a patchwork have teeth? Mixed metaphor.

From the same Jon Caramanica article: “By not allowing for responses to his work other than awe, the value of the work itself is diminished; it becomes an object of admiration, not of study.”

Kanye West, the one who does not allow responses to his work other than awe, has been allowed to disappear from the sentence. He needs to come after the opening modifier.

Why not let Mr. Caramanica’s dangler take us to . . .

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Dangle Alley: Where Modifiers Roam Forlornly

World Affairs, July/August 2010. James Kirchick
: “On a visit to Israel in February, news reports had Vice President Biden telling Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that ‘this is starting to get dangerous for us. What you’re doing here undermines the security of our troops who are fighting in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.’ ”

The one visiting Israel is Biden. The words that come between him and his modifier – “news reports had” – make the modifier dangle.

Los Angeles Times, September 1, 2010. Tim Rutten: “As pontiff, his writings on social justice don’t differ substantially from those of most liberation theologians.”

“His writings” aren’t the pontiff, he (Benedict XVI) is.

New York Times Book Review, August 1, 2010. Damon Linker: “In addition to attacking all three members of Bush’s ‘axis of evil’ (Iraq, Iran and North Korea), Podhoretz insisted that the United States needed to prepare for military assaults on Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon and Libya.”

It is the United States that should attack all three members. A desire not to lead the sentence with the insister (Podhoretz) created complications for Mr. Linker. He did not handle them well.

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Mr. and Mrs. Malaprop

Baltimore Sun, November 30, 2010. Editorial: “But that doesn’t make many of these latest revelations anything more than prurient.”

Not much in Wikileaks’ latest  document dump had to do with sex, so “prurient” is not the right word. Suggested replacement: “trivial gossip.”, August 31, 2010. Rebecca Dana: “One redress has been layoffs; the latest round is expected to be smaller than the last, and the most popular programs, including ‘60 Minutes’ and ‘48 Hours,’ are expected to get a pass.”

“Redress” has an element of restoring justice that the author did not intend. Suggested replacement: “corrective.”

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The Corrections – Part Two

Our helpfulness toward the novelist Jonathan Franzen continues as we turn to page 391 of Freedom:

“While Joey was studying or working at the library, she played Jonathan’s video games with him for hours, laughing congenially at her losses and listening, in her limpid way, to his explications of their features.”

“Limpid” means clear. One can’t listen clearly. Simply, maybe. We believe the source of the malapropism is that Franzen wants to capture his character Connie Monaghan’s honesty and directness without calling her “simple,” that is, mentally slow.

Knucklerap Archive:
October 2010
June 2010
February 2010
August 2009
May 2009

Weiner, a Gotham team member, is a free-lance writer in Baltimore.

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