Monday, June 30, 2008


So I was talking to Paula Poundstone last night about commas …

Did that sound convincingly casual? Did I successfully mask my awe about getting to talk to a comedian I’ve admired for years?

No? That’s okay. I can admit it: I’m dazzled and resorting to name-dropping. But in the process I can also pass on a bit of information that you might find interesting.

It started last night when -- thrill of thrills -- I was one of the authors on a panel with Poundstone, comedian Robert Schimmel and authors Dan Kennedy and Beth Lisick (all of whom were hilarious, by the way). It was an event for Friends of Libraries USA and was part of the American Library Assn.’s annual conference at the Anaheim Convention Center.

Afterward there was a book signing. Once I finished signing copies of Mortal Syntax, I joined the line of people waiting for Poundstone to sign copies of her book, There’s Nothing in This Book That I Meant to Say. She was so gracious -- chatting up the people in line and dipping into a seemingly bottomless font of funny stories.

When I got to the front of the line, she told me a little about her struggles to help assure that her kids get a good education -- especially when it comes to grammar and punctuation. It’s an even tougher struggle than you might guess. Poundstone told me that, a while back, she had been talking to one of her kids’ teachers and she mentioned that she would like her kids to have a good grasp of how to use the comma. The teacher, according to Poundstone, said (and I paraphrase): “I don’t teach them about commas. Commas are going to be obsolete soon.”

I paused. Did this teacher know something I didn’t? Was he privy to some cutting-edge research demonstrating that the comma is melting away like the polar ice caps? (Self-doubt is my default response in these situations, by the way. You could tell me, “Did you know your middle name isn’t really Margaret? It’s Beelzebub,” and my first impulse would be to check my birth certificate.)

It was the kind of statement that could easily put grammar-minded people like you and me on the knee-jerk defensive. “No way, man! The comma lives!” So in this case I’m pleased that I seriously weighed the idea before deciding that the teacher was, more likely than not, full of crap.

Yes, commas are largely ignored in school kids’ text messages. Yes, this could change how and when they’re used. But, like grammar in general, commas arose out of their usefulness. To pilfer an example from “Eats, Shoots and Leaves,” consider the difference between:

Woman. Without her, man is nothing.


Woman without her man is nothing.

I think the comma will survive. If I’m wrong, that’s okay, too. It will just mean that we found some other way make ourselves understood. Until then, I’ll just be happy that no commas are required in the sentence:
Teachers who talk out their backsides should consider other careers.

Friday, June 27, 2008

The Unbearable Lightness of Beanie

It was the late 1990s and I wanted a cheeseburger. Settling instead on a reasonable facsimile thereof, I walked into my local McDonald’s. The place was swamped – like David Hasselhoff-sighting swamped – and my prospects for scoring a meal before low blood sugar levels laid me flat on the dirty, french-fry-strewn floor looked bad.

As if to taunt me, there was plenty of food within reach – pristine, untouched hamburgers and cheeseburgers and McNuggets and full orders of fries. They were piled up in the trashcans, most with nary a bite missing.

It was the era of the Beanie Baby.

Being a surly Gen X type, I harbored the requisite disgust for this collecting craze. Yet I had to admit that I liked the name Beanie Baby. The words rolled off my tongue just so. They were literally fun to say. I would never in a million years join the herd of lemming-like Beanie Baby buyers. But my very contempt provided me with opportunities to say “Beanie Babies,” often accessorized with a carefully selected expletives.

In 1999, Beanie Baby manufacturer Ty Inc. raked in $1.25 billion from sales of these little plush toys, according to a 2004 Los Angeles Times article. Many factors contributed to this success. The company’s strategy of manufactured scarcity – the lifeblood of the collectibles market – was a major factor. Its alliance with McDonald’s helped, too, causing crazed collectors to buy food they didn't want just to score the free toy that came with it.

But, as a word person, I find it impossible to believe that the company would have had the same results had it named them “Small and Pliable Plush Animals” or “Miniature Stuffed Toys” or “Pieces of Colorful Fabric Sewn Around Stuffing and Plastic Pellets in Shapes Resembling Mammals and Sea Creatures.” Even something actually decent like “Tiny Teddy and Pals” or “Li’l Squeezes” probably couldn’t have borne the craze for these surprisingly bland little toys.

That’s my impression, anyway.

The reason I have Beanie Babies on the brain has to do with another fast food chain. Burger purveyor Jack in the Box has rolled out a line of smoothies (fun word, huh? Smoothies. Smooooothies). Commercials keep telling me they’re available in “mango, strawberry banana, and Orange Sunrise.”

Mango I get. Strawberry banana I get. Orange I get. But what’s this “Sunrise” business?

It could mean that the smoothie is not exactly orange but really a combination of orange and other citrus flavors. Or it could mean it contains a shot of tequila. I don’t know because, as a 21st-century American consumer, my expectations of words have been reduced to almost nothing. I know perfectly well that the words hurled at me every day may or may not have any meaning at all. Sometimes, marketers’ words are fired at us in the most literal sense possible, “Buy now!” Other times they’re thrown in just for sound -- the hypnotic and pleasant sensation created by combinations like "beanie" and "babies," the improved rhythm achieved by adding the word "sunrise" to the line of copy, "Mango, strawberry banana, and orange."

Either way, these words come from businesspeople more interested in impressions than meaning -- people counting on our not paying attention. And, either way, the effect is the same: Marketers drain the meaning and impact out of words.

Is this a bad thing? I don’t really know. I just worry about a system that banks on our brains being asleep. And I feel bad for the deflated little words, too. Under different circumstances, “sunrise” could convey a vivid, beautiful, meaningful image. But in my world, “sunrise” has more to do with TV commercials in which a sweaty jogger dangles his mangoes in another guy’s face. Thanks a lot, Jack.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Strunk, Whited Out (encore presentation)

Lately, I keep coming across mentions of Strunk and White's "The Elements of Style." There's a lot of confusion out there about this book's authority. So I'm re-running this June 2007 blog entry arguing that the publishers and promoters of this little book have pulled a fast one on all of us -- a very profitable fast one.

From my June 2007 entry:

To read the back cover of Strunk and White's "The Elements of Style," you'd
think it was God's gift to the English-speaking world -- "excellent,"
"timeless," "delightful," "… should be the daily companion of anyone who writes
for a living and, for that matter, anyone who writes at all."

That's a lot of sunshine blowing around. But something about the beloved
nature of this little book has always sat funny with me. For one thing, most
other style reference books get updated from time to time. But "The Elements of
Style's" status as a "classic" means no one dare touch it (except maybe to add pictures) -- even when its prescriptions become ridiculously out of date.

But there was something else that bothered me about this "beloved" little
book that I was never able to put my finger on until I scored a copy of the
original "Elements of Style" by Cornell professor William Strunk, Jr., long
before his student E.B. White landed the job of revising it.

Consider this excerpt in the original "Elements of Style" entry on headings.
"Leave a blank line, or its equivalent in space, after the title or heading of a
manuscript. On succeeding pages, if using ruled paper, begin on the first

Ruled paper? Now, I had always known that "The Elements of Style" was born
of a college classroom. But it never really occurred to me what a fraud was
perpetrated on the reading public when White "revised" the thing.

Basically, White's task was to take a book written for a small and specific
group of students and make it marketable to you and me. Sure, this happened
because the original "Elements of Style" had already found an audience outside
Strunk's classroom. It sort of caught on like wildfire. But White nonetheless
pulled a fast one on us when he tried to make Strunk's student instructions
required reading for everyone who might ever hold a pen.

For example, before Strunk's passage about headers, White inserted: "If the
manuscript is to be submitted for publication …" Then White nixed that reference
to "ruled paper," knowing full well that newspaper editors, resume writers and
business-correspondence writers who were the book's new target market don't use
ruled paper.

Strunk never meant "The Elements of Style" to be a book of iron-clad
rules for you and me: "This book … aims to lighten the task of instructor and
student by concentrating attention … on a few essentials."

Yes, "The Elements of Style" contains some great wisdom, mixed in with some
old-fashioned silliness. But unless you're a Cornell student stuck in a time
warp, don't consider it an ultimate authority.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

If I Were a Webster (Wherein I criticize highly skilled lexicographers for not doing their job they way I think they should)

I would add another definition for the word "complement." It would be:
v. to go well with

This is how people often use it. And I believe there's a subtle but clear difference between how people use it and how the dictionaries define it. Webster's New World and Merriam-Webster's give the definition: "to complete."
something that fills up, completes, or makes perfect -- Merriam-Webster Online

But it seems to me that's not exactly how people use it. When they say, "This wine complements the meal nicely," they're not always saying that it completes the meal. Often they just mean it goes well with the meal.

Plus, you often hear stuff like, "That wine complements the chateaubriand nicely" or "That rug really complements the couch." Clearly, these people don't mean that wine completes meat or that rugs complete drapes.

A dictionary's job is to report how the language is being used. And when it comes to "complement," I think they've been asleep at the switch. (Either that or wine drinkers know something I don't about meat.)

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Laughing Linguist

In the grammar game, there's one well-kept secret that's better kept than all the others. It eludes every strict schoolmarm who would tell you you can't use "nauseous" to mean "nauseated." It's unknown to every pinch-faced pedant who demands you can't end a sentence with a preposition. It's a mystery to every snob who takes "whom" too seriously.

The secret is this: Language is not just a tool, it's also a toy. Words are fun. They present infinite opportunities not just for expression but for exploration. For play.

There was one man who got this better than anyone else. A man who has been called comedy's first true linguist. Who did more than any other to spread the word about just how much fun words can be.

Rest in peace, Mr. Carlin.

Monday, June 23, 2008

War of the Websters

-- Webster's New World College Dictionary preferred spelling

-- Merriam-Webster preferred spelling

Friday, June 20, 2008

War of the Websters -- Wherein we examine disagreements between dictionaries

-- Merriam Webster Online

-- Webster's New World College Dictionary

Thursday, June 19, 2008

War of the Websters -- Wherein we examine disagreements between dictionaries

Webster's New World College Dictionary gives you two choices on how to write:
preempt or pre-empt

Merriam-Webster Online gives you just one:


Wednesday, June 18, 2008

War of the Websters -- Wherein we examine disagreements between dictionaries*


Webster's New World College Dictionary says that, in informal uses, "itch" can be used to mean "scratch."

Merriam-Webster Online does not.

American Heritage's fourth edition fully sanctions "itch" to mean "to stratch (an itch)," without even discounting it with a term like "informal."

*Special thanks to Joe, whose comment sparked this idea!

Monday, June 16, 2008

Eye Caramaba (Wherein we stray from the topic of language to ponder the unspoken words implicit in certain notable images )

I bought a photo album the other day and it contained a brochure of the company's products. The brochure included this image:

Now, gentlemen, riddle me this: When was the last time you packed up a suitcase with dress shirts, neckties, boxer shorts, and your wedding photo album? Wait. Don't answer that.

Instead, consider the modified question: When was the last time you packed your suitcase with dress shirts, neckties, and boxer shorts? More importantly, where were you going? Were you taking a romantic cruise through the Hawaiian islands with the wife? Were you traveling to your hometown to help your mom take care of your dad as he recovers from his gall-bladder operation?

Judging by the clothes you packed, probably not (unless you're the 21st century incarnation of Miles Silverburg, in which case I fear for us all).

More likely, the guy whose suitcase innards look like this is going on a business trip. And since I, when preparing to travel with my husband, never let him close a suitcase without first cramming in some personal items of my own (a girl can't have too many bikinis, pairs of strappy high heels, or copies of Garner's Modern American Usage, right?), I'm guessing this guy's not bringing the little woman along.

More likely, he's on his way to some type of business convention. Or maybe he's a traveling salesman working hard to bring home the bacon. And everyone knows no salesman or conventioneer leaves home without a copy of his wedding photo album, right?

In other words, who is this company trying to sell photo albums to? To the millions of men who take their wedding albums on business trips? Or is the company maybe playing on the fears of the wives who worry that what happens in Vegas really does stay in Vegas and their only hope is pre-emptive guilt?

(Just askin' is all.)

Words I'm Looking Up (One in an occasional, cleverly named series on words I'm looking up)

infix. n. Linguis. a morpheme that is added within a word (Ex.: -o- in

affix. n. Linguis. a prefix, suffix, or infix

morpheme. n. the smallest meaningful unit or form in a language: it may be an
affix (Ex.: un- in undo or ‘er in doer) or a base (Ex.: do un undo)

Source: Webster’s New World College Dictionary

Friday, June 13, 2008

How to Learn -- Really Learn -- Grammar

A few months ago, I was giving at talk at Powell’s bookstore in Portland, blathering on as usual about all the mythical grammar “rules” out there – stuff like “you should never split an infinitive,” “you should never end a sentence with a preposition,” “you should never use 'nauseous' to mean 'nauseated.'” All of them pure BS.

I realized these false rules have something in common with the bits of usage minutiae that also happen to be true – stuff like, “don’t use ‘enormity’ to mean bigness because it really means great evil or wickedness.” Right or wrong, such tidbits all provide the disservice of overwhelming people. Someone who sets out to “learn” grammar is pelted from all directions with little snippets of info that, together, make it seem impossible to ever get a handle on the whole business.

As I said to the people gathered at Powell’s, it’s important to distinguish between the stuff you really should know and the stuff that need not be committed to memory – stuff that even the experts look up. Anyone who wants a good grasp of grammar should get an education in the basics and just keep a good usage guide handy for the millions of little bits of minutiae.

A woman in the back raised her hand: “So how do we learn the basics?”

The irony, of course, is that I was standing in a bookstore. Walk into any bookstore and you’ll see beaucoup books about grammar, language, and usage. Fun books, funny books, quirky books, word lovers’ books, dumbin’-it-down books, handy-dandy compendia of notable fact books. These books (and I count mine among them) are great for certain readers. But the person who wants not to read about grammar but to actually learn it – someone who wants a comprehensive grasp of the basics – is often buried in a sea of quirky grammar girls (present company included) and members of the apostrophe police.

So, for the first time, I stopped to consider what, exactly, I would recommend to the person who wants to master grammar and usage. A three-pronged approach came to mind – luckily in time to answer the woman’s question.

As I told her:

1. Learn about the parts of speech, especially adverbs. The resource I recommend: http://www.grammar.uoregon/. It’s free (until they realize how much traffic they’re getting from recommendations like this one), smart and very reader friendly.

2. Learn about phrase and clause structure. The resource I recommend: Oxford English Grammar. Dry as croutons, painful even, but worth the effort. I believe that a basic understanding of phrase and clause structure is perhaps the most powerful way to improve writing. The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language is a competing title authored by highly respected experts, but it’s really pricey and usually wrapped in plastic at the bookstore. So I have yet to pony up the dough or muster up the cajones to tear into one. While you're in Oxford, also read up on tenses, so that terms like "past progressive" lose their power to strike fear in you.

3. Have handy a good dictionary and a good “usage” guide.

When choosing a dictionary, be aware that they often disagree and that different publications consider different dictionaries to be “official.” Webster’s New World College Dictionary is the default dictionary of the Associated Press Stylebook. The Webster’s with “Collegiate” in the title is the default dictionary of the Chicago Manual of Style. American Heritage’s current (third) edition is also excellent, arguably better than the other two. Read the front of your dictionary to understand what the little symbols mean and the dictionary’s approach to listing things like plurals, irregular verb inflections, comparatives, and stuff like that.

Dictionaries are much more useful than most people realize. They're not just for looking up spellings and definitions. For example, when someone asked me recently whether "youth" can be used as a plural, my source was a dictionary (both "youth" and "youths" are fine, I learned). Want to know how to put "today I lie down" in the past tense? It's right there in the dictionary, where the past tense of "lie" is shown to be "lay" and its participle is shown, too: "lain." Dictionaries also help with preposition choices, helping you choose between "dissent from" or "dissent with."

Usage guides, though listed here last, are probably the most important – they're most likely to save your butt when you sit down to write something. The resource I recommend is Garner’s Modern American Usage, which is excellent and which seemingly is becoming the preferred source of experts. There are other good ones, including Fowler’s, Webster’s (Usage Guide, that is) and Follet’s. What’s important is that they contain the word “usage” in the title and that you understand what a wealth of information these guides offer you. They’re basically an alphabetized list of answers to practically every usage and grammar question you could imagine.

If you buy just one book, make it one of these usage guides.

(And, in case my publisher’s reading: My books are great sources for people who need a little extra incentive to read about grammar. The incentive being entertainment. So if you find you can’t get past page 1 of “Oxford,” give mine a try. How’s that, Penguin?)

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Language Butcher du Jour

The copywriter who wrote a radio spot I heard recently promising, for just $2,900, "bigger, more sexier breasts," using those words not once but twice.


Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Free Booze for Sober People -- A Book Tour Journal (encore presentation*)

I’m one of those sober people.

Haven’t had a drink for a long time. A very long time. I’ll spare you drama queen version and instead sum up the gory days in as few words as possible: lost jobs, lost friends, lost contents of stomach, early-stage DTs (yes, really), smashed cars, waking up in the hospital after smashing said cars to a cop standing over me saying, “Young lady, are you aware you were three-point-oh? Three times legally intoxicated?”

Gnarly stuff.

There’s only one thing I’ve ever done that, for me, rivaled the difficulty of quitting drinking: quitting smoking. I know that for some people quitting smoking isn’t quite so harrowing. But for me it was about as easy-breezy as removing my own gall bladder with a rusty garden trowel.

So, long story short, I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, I don’t mess with any of the lovely prescription drugs I’ve heard so much about and which seem to make air travel a breeze. I find my soma, when I need it, in cat ownership and Simpsons reruns. It works just fine.

Then I go on book tour.

I’m writing this from the bathroom of room 422 at the Prescott Hotel in San Francisco, where I’m up early in advance of a Stacey’s Bookstore signing and trying not to wake my husband. The Prescott Hotel is a lovely place -- all the lovelier for the fact that they upgraded us for no reason whatsoever to a “Club Level” room. From what I can tell, it’s just like any other room, except it comes with free top-shelf cocktails from four-thirty till six.

We go to the lounge. Ted orders a martini. I order a ginger ale. It’s all good, except it begins to conjure memories that in turn cause me to suspect that the wonderful world of authorship is trying to get me loaded.

The last book tour -- two years ago for Grammar Snobs -- made all too clear the possibility that a cabal of New York book publicists is conspiring to help me help myself get to the morgue on time, with a brief layover in the gutter.

In the 2006 tour, it started in Seattle. I was scared in that butterflies-in-the-stomach kind of way and sick over a couple of negative user reviews on Amazon. My book tour was going to include teaching a Mediabistro course, which terrified me, and giving a talk, all by myself, to an auditorium that seats hundreds of participants at Portland’s Wordstock festival. The tour was ten cities, unlike this tour’s four. My husband wasn’t with me then. And my stomach felt like I’d been doing lemon juice shooters with a milk chaser.

I checked into the gorgeous Alexis Hotel in Seattle (they have an Author’s Suite that’s about the size of my whole downstairs back home), I paced like a lunatic for two hours, then went to my book signing. When I returned, I found a lovely surprise from management. A note (paraphrased from memory):

Dear Ms. Casagrande: Thank you for staying at the Alexis Hotel. We have taken the
liberty of obtaining a copy of your book in the hopes that you will sign it as a
permanent addition to our library. Please also accept this amenity with our

The note was next to a copy of my book, a bag of roasted almonds, and a bottle of white wine on ice. I signed the book. I took the almonds. And I felt like an ungrateful schmuck for leaving that lovely (I suspect) bottle of wine sitting untouched.

Then came Milwaukee, where I checked into another beautiful hotel room, pristine and perfect except for the fresh smell of cigarette smoke in the air and an open pack of Marlboros and a lighter sitting on the bed. For a moment I thought they’d accidentally given me an already-occupied room. But no, either some employee had stopped in for a smoke or perhaps this had been a wait-here-while-we-get-your-real-room-ready room for some other guest. Either way, it came with a free sample of kiss-your-freedom-from-cigarette-addiction-goodbye.

I’m proud to report that my weak state of mental health didn’t cause me to hesitate as I set the cigarettes in the hallway outside. No harm done.

An hour later I was in the bathtub, trying to wash the stink of book-tour terror from my hide, when I noticed on the white tile floor a small white bump that, upon clearly focusing, I saw was a large pill -- a horse-pill-type caplet with no markings of any kind to indicate whether it was a calcium supplement or a quaalude.

And that’s when I knew that Satan schedules book tours.

* Originally published April 7, 2008, republished on account of several friends mentioned recently that they liked it.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Pith of a Salesman

I got a great e-mail yesterday:
I work with a bunch of really smart sales and technical people that have an
uncanny knack for butchering the English language. About a year ago, my
boss and I started keeping a list that we call "The Board." I thought you
might enjoy a few of the gems we have collected via e-mail or while in

For all intensive purposes
We need to broil it down
I wanted to go straight to the horse
I have built a close niche team
He is a loose gun
Throw icing on the cake
I am venomitly opposed to that idea
I don’t want to cry chicken
I’m going to put all my ducks on the table
We need to shuffle the dice
I don’t have a photogenic memory
I want to get ahead of the 8 Ball
I don’t want to throw him under the table
He has been under the sheets for a while
Their business is cylindrical
This deal is starting to get feet

(Thanks to C for this great stuff!)

Monday, June 9, 2008

Words I'm Looking Up (One in an occasional, cleverly named series on words I'm looking up)


File this one under Lessons from the Spam Folder. Today I got an e-mail with the subject line, "Clad your feet in luxury." I realized I'd never heard the word "clad" in the imperative -- or even the simple present tense, for that matter. I hear it only as a past tense or past participle: "Clad in his best armor, the knight rode into battle. "

I realize that a lot of people might know what the present tense of clad is, but I (and I'm not too mortified to admit it) did not. Here's American Heritage Dictionary:

v. a past tense and a past participle of clothe.

Therefore (surprise, surprise) the spammer used it wrong.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Letting Go of Grammar Snobs

I just stumbled across what may be the single most valuable grammar lesson I've received to date. All this time I've been tilting at grammar Goliaths I never realized that the best defense against the snobs just might be a good offense or, better yet, a preemptive strike.

The lesson came from an unexpected source: the blog of performer/humorist/outspoken atheist Julia Sweeney. And it appears right in the header of her blog, where every visitor every time sees a disclaimer that includes:
"I use spell check but I miss some words. I have run on sentences, pronoun
problems, and I can blather and forget my point. And, I repeat myself. Please
don't quote me in a newspaper from my blog. Not that I'm so important, it's just
... it happened a few times, and it's embarrassing."

Wish I'd thought of that.

Actually, come to think of it, I'm glad I didn't. Were it not for the regular rip-jobs I get for mistakes (real and perceived) in my grammar column, A Word, Please, I would have never come up with the idea for Grammar Snobs Are Great Big Meanies.

(Julia: In case you see this, drop me a line with an address of publicist/manager/P.O. box and I'll be happy to send you a free copy. You just might recognize a few of the antagonists!)

Words That Should Get a Divorce (One in an occasional series on words whose relationships have grown tired)

treasure and trove

This trove goes beyond typical codependent words such as the pomp in pomp and circumstance.

Webster's New World demonstrates why trove is the ultimate second-class citizen of the word world. Not only is it attached to treasure with a hyphen -- treasure-trove -- but it doesn't even retain its own definition. Of trove, Webster's says only, "short for treasure-trove." As such, it's barely clinging to life.

I say we put it out of its misery.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

'Shock' Treatment

Did you know that Jill Tarter, the astronomer who inspired the Jodie Foster character in “Contact,” has a “shock” of silver hair? And, more important, do you care?

The author of a front-page Los Angeles Times story today thinks you do -- or at least that his mentioning it will enhance your appreciation of his article. There’s just one problem. “Shock of hair,” as I’ve written here before, is so clichéd as to be basically meaningless -- code for, “I want you think you’re reading a skillfully descriptive article even though I haven’t bothered to think about whether my words have any visual impact at all.”

Usually when I read the term “shock of hair,” I get the distinct impression that the writer is just going for a sound -- a rhythm to words with little to no descriptive power. Either the writer’s brain is on autopilot or he’s writing with his ear instead of with his eye (a fine choice for poetry but downright rude when trying to pass your words off as visually descriptive). At last, with today’s Los Angeles Times cover story, I believe I’ve found proof.

Webster’s New World College Dictionary’s third entry for “shock” describes it as “a thick, bushy or tangled mass, as of hair.”

So I searched Google images for Jill Tarter. I found a lot of pictures. Yup, she has silver hair all right -- thin silver hair. It’s not thick. It’s not bushy. It’s not tangled.

Perhaps sensing his word was a mild overstatement, the writer had tacked on a little qualifier: “a shock of silver hair cut short.” But, even if hair cut short can still appear thick, bushy, or tangled, does the word “shock” retain any descriptive power at all?

No, this word tells you that the writer was more interested in sounding fancy than in doing his job of creating meaning for the reader. And, lest you think I’m putting too much stock in one little word, I offer exhibits A and B.

A. Early in the piece, the writer introduces a scientist named Rick Forster, whom he describes as having “the long beard of a man who has spent years in the solitude of the forest.” Turn to page 24 and there’s a picture of Forster -- a man whose neatly trimmed beard is just an inch or two too long to qualify as “short.” Not quite the ZZ Top whiskers the writer had suggested.

B. Backing up to the very first sentence, the writer had described the scientists’ telescope dishes as “sprouting up amid the soaring ponderosa pines.” The writer was gambling, of course, that readers would pay no more attention to his words than he did. Why would anyone cram satellite dish radio listening devices between tall trees? I’m reminded of a TV commercial for satellite broadband service that proclaims, “All you need is a clear view of the southern sky.”

Two pictures accompanying the article solve the mystery. Far from sprouting up “amid soaring ponderosa pines,” the dozen satellite dishes in the cover photo are spread out over a vast, mostly open stretch of land, with a just two bushy trees visible in between. Only by scrolling through the supplemental online photos can we actually see what the writer meant. Apparently, the dishes sit in an open expanse circled by hills, and that's where the trees are.

More maddening yet: It was, overall, a good article by a clearly talented writer. Yet he felt the need to resort to hammy showboating -- as if either the subject matter wasn't interesting enough on its own or his readers are too dimwitted to appreciate an article about science unless it's sprinkled with cartoonish descriptions and references to E.T. and Alice in Wonderland.

I’m not sure why these things irk me so much. Perhaps it’s because I find descriptive writing very difficult. Pressed to think of a better word than “shock” to describe, say, Christopher Dodd’s hair, I find myself at a loss. Bush of hair? Tuft? Pile? Mass? Bolt? Mane (also clichéd)?

But just because I can’t come up with anything better doesn’t mean I must accept a word that’s just plain wrong. Tarter is not “a plain-spoken woman with a shock of silver hair cut short.” She’s a plain-spoken woman with short silver hair. Is it really so awful to just say so?


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