A Tainted Word

“The crow’s nest, where a lookout once shouted an infamous warning–‘Iceberg right ahead!’–has vanished.”

 

“Where the Titanic Shipwreck Rests, New Photos Reveal Extensive Decay”

– New York Times, William J. Broad, August 21, 2019

 

 

The word “infamous” is meant to convey something intentionally evil. The sailor quoted here was simply pointing out an obstacle in the path of the ship. Kingsley Amis wrote in his book The King’s English, “The adjective weakened in severity to something on the level of ‘notorious’…infamous is now unusable through ambiguity.”

 

Don’t say “infamous.” Don’t say “famous.” 

What it is is… And Other Paths of Doom

“What we are getting is an incredibly powerful tool for understanding what went on in the past.”

 

Whenever you see this construction, get rid of it. It’s quite simple: “We are getting a powerful tool for understanding what went on in past.” No need for “what we are,” etc. and especially no need for “incredibly.”

 

Better:

Since “We are getting” is inept, why not say “We have a powerful tool….”? They are already using that tool, so they must have it. No “getting” required.

 

Another example from the same article:

“They looked at ancient and modern DNA of wild and domestic pigs, including specimens from the Iron Gates sites.What they found was that the farmers brought their pigs with them, but that over three thousand years, those pigs interbred with European wild boar.”

 

Better: 

“They looked at ancient and modern DNA of wild and domestic pigs, including specimens from the Iron Gates sites. They found that the farmers [had] brought their pigs with them. During the next three thousand years, those pigs interbred with European wild boar.”

 

Even better:

“They analyzed ancient and modern DNA of pigs, both wild and domestic…”

 

Variations on the phrase “looked at” represent a common crime of carelessness against the language. Radio announcers often say, “Looking at the weather, it should be sunny today….” It is a verbal tic that has no place in good writing.

 

The phrasing “DNA of wild and domestic pigs…” might suggest that the scientists studied one group of pigs that was both wild and domestic. The writer means to say that they studied DNA from two groups, one wild, the other domestic.

 

“An Archaeological Puzzle on the Danube”

– James Gorman, The New York Times, August 20, 2019

Order in an English Sentence

The structure of sentences in English is simple: Subject-verb-object. “John kicked the ball.” That’s it. Everything else hangs on that structure. Sometimes you won’t even need an object: “Jesus wept.” Of course, the rules allow you to elaborate that structure endlessly. In the hands of an expert craftsman, that produces a lovely structure with a dramatic arc, which is easy to follow, as in the opening of Lie Down in Darkness by William Styron:

Riding down to Port Warwick from Richmond, the train begins to pick up speed on the outskirts of the city, past the tobacco factories with their ever-present haze of acrid, sweetish dust and past the rows of uniformly brown clapboard houses, which stretch down the hilly streets for miles, it seems, the hundreds of rooftops all reflecting the pale light of dawn; past the suburban roads still sluggish and sleepy with early morning traffic, and rattling swiftly now over the bridge which separates the last two hills where in the valley below you can see the James River winding beneath its acid-green crust of scum out beside the chemical plants and more rows of clapboard houses and into the woods beyond.

 

But without putting in years of practice, those who attempt such complexity are asking for trouble. As they add more and more words and phrases to that simple structure, they run the risk of separating the subject from the verb or the verb from the object in such a way that working memory can’t keep track of what’s being said. Here is a sentence from the New Yorker magazine, published January 25, 2010:

Two and a half centuries later, in a reaction to the revelation that Benjamin Wilkomirski’s “Fragments,” the 1995 account of the author’s experiences as a Latvian Jewish child experiencing the horrors of the Holocaust, was a fiction (the author was a Swiss Gentile whose real name was Bruno Grosjean), a Holocaust survivor named Ruth Kl├╝ger suggested that a fraudulent memoir–particularly a fraudulent account of extreme trauma–could, precisely because it lacks truth value, never amount to much more than a kind of perverse aesthetic experience, a trashy entertainment (in the more familiar sense of that word)…

 

Believe it or not, that’s not the end of that sentence. The effect is one of acute distress. The eye wants to move forward but has to backtrack, not because the reader is engaged and wants to enrich the associations and deepen the meaning, but because he has lost the thread and is confused. The result is what Orwell refers to as, “slovenliness and vagueness,” and such writing shows just how much havoc you can cause by splitting open the natural structure of a sentence and stuffing in whatever nonsense pops into your head. That’s to say nothing of the other crimes committed in that sentence. Of which more later.

Syntactical Fools

Richard Mitchell, a professor at Glassboro State College, devoted a good deal of his time to battling what he called, “the failures of thought and logic which always accompany bad English. And vice versa.” This is from a memorandum written by someone at his school: “This study supported the conclusion that practicing academic deans could benefit by possessing an expectancy of being able to control their work environment in order to successfully implement role responsibilities.”

 

Ordinarily I would try to pick such a sentence apart and reconstruct it to say what the writer meant to say. But this sentence is so fatally flawed that I have no idea what (s)he wanted to say. I could offer a few ideas for improving it. But as Mitchell put it in his newsletter, The Underground Grammarian, “The betterment of fools, Goethe tells us, is the appropriate business of other fools.” 

 

Mitchell went on: “The Underground Grammarian does not seek to educate anyone. We intend rather to ridicule, humiliate, and infuriate those who abuse our language not so that they will do better but so that they will stop using language entirely or at least go away.”

 

So I will go on to other sentences that we can more easily recast and advise this writer to think before he speaks.

Don’t Use False Titles

“Legendary physicist Richard Feynman was the first person to provide an intuitive understanding of why relativity requires the existence of antiparticles, which also yielded a graphic demonstration that empty space is not quite so empty.”

 

from A Universe from Nothing by Lawrence M. Krauss

 

President Lincoln had a real title: President. Likewise, General Dwight D. Eisenhower shows the use of a legitimate title. A description of someone’s job should not be used as a title: “Jazz drummer Elvin Jones will appear….” Better: “Elvin Jones, the jazz drummer, will appear….” Or: “The jazz drummer Elvin Jones…”

 

But common as it is in newspapers and magazines, slapping just any appositive into that position of being a formal title is crude and incompetent.

 

Also note in the quote from Krauss, the word “legendary” is unnecessary. If he is legendary, you already know about the legend, and the author needn’t draw attention to it. The mistake is easy to correct: “The physicist Richard Feynman was the first person to provide…” or better still: “Richard Feynman was the first physicist to provide…”

 

In addition, the closing clause of the sentence is useless as it stands: “which also yielded a graphic demonstration that empty space is not quite so empty.” We have no idea what he’s talking about when he refers back to something with the word “which.”

 

A really brilliant guy in need of a modestly competent editor.

 

Keep it simple. Keep it active.