Wednesday, December 29, 2010

No Mumbo, Plenty of Jumbo: Language in the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act

I finally got around to doing something I’ve been meaning to do for over a year: look up the exact text of the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act, which (among other things) repealed banking safeguards put in place by the Depression-era Glass Steagall Act.

I figured I’d be up to my armpits in unintelligible legal speak in which the actual “repealing” was couched in incomprehensible terms. Boy, was I surprised:

From the first section of the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act, titled “Glass-Steagall Act Repeals”:

Here’s the language:
“Section 20 repealed”
“Section 32 repealed”

Section 20 of Glass-Steagall said that banks can’t get involved in securities trading. (From what I understand, the authors thought banks’ playing with stocks and bonds was too risky and helped lead to the Great Depression.) Section 32 said that no bank officer could be officer in a securities-trading company.

In other words, leaders thought it was a bad idea to let banks, which hold depositors’ money, use that money to speculate on stocks and other yet-to-be-invented securities. By 1999, three congressmen -- Gramm, Leach and Bliley -- decided that, on the contrary, it was a good idea.

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Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Some Bad Sentences Just Coming Lookin' for You

I wasn't even reading this AP story about a derailed chair lift at a Maine ski resort. I was just skimming it when this sentence jumped out at me:

"Jay Marshall, hunkered down in a cold wind while on a lift next to the broken one, said that his lift was moving but that the broken one was not."

Um, if he's on a lift next to a broken one, do you have to tell us that the broken one wasn't working? For that matter, do you have to tell us that one that's not the broken one was working?

And isn't "hunkered down in a cold wind while on a lift next to" a little inelegant? Letting go of "hunkered down in" might have helped:

" ... enduring the cold wind as he rode a lift next to the broken one."

Then again, maybe not. It might be best to just cut the whole sentence. After all, who cares if a guy on a moving chair lift noticed that a broken chair lift wasn't moving?

But then you get to the next sentence and see you've been led down the wrong path.

"Jay Marshall, hunkered down in a cold wind while on a lift next to the broken one, said that his lift was moving but that the broken one was not. There was a 'loud snapping noise' after the lift restarted, he said, then screams."

Aha. So the we see that Marshall was talking about something that happened earlier. But the verb "was," written in the same tense as "hunkered," made it sound as though Marshall's lift was motionless as he was hunkered down and talking to the reporter. Shifting from simple past tense ("was") to past perfect (i.e. "had been") would have saved us the confusion: Hunkered down in a cold wind, Marshall said that the lift next to his had stopped working (at some point prior).

Skimming the rest of the article, I see it's quite well written. (Even good writers let a clunker slip in now and then. That's why they have editors.) But its lone bad sentence just reached out and grabbed me. I hope this isn't the start of a trend. I'd hate to think what would happen if bad sentences starting banding together and coming after editors.

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Friday, December 24, 2010

More Parsing Larsson: A Revisitation

I've been hearing from a lot of people interested in analyzing Larsson's prose, so I thought I'd share links to some blog posts I did a while back examining his writing.

This one inventories verbs on one page of a Larsson book and compares his verb choices to those of Cormac McCarthy and Stephen King.

This one looks at his characters' dialogue and throws in for good measure some sample dialogue from two writers who I believe do it better.

This one, actually my first blog post on the subject, contains a sample rewrite of a short Larsson passage.

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Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Subtleties of Subject-verb Agreement

An additional $18 billion in six-month bills was auctioned


An additional $18 billion in six-month bills were auctioned

Great discussion of this on an old post.

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Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Wonderings and Googlings (Wherein I wonder about words, then I Google them)

Reading about creme fraiche today, I noticed that one website said it has a "nutty, slightly sour taste." Is it just me, or does it seem that every ingestible under the sun is, at times, said to have a "nutty" flavor?

I decided to find out. I did a Google search for the term "nutty flavor." Here are just a few of the foods that were described this way.

cheddar cheese
buckwheat groats
fundamentalist Christians
tawny port wine
butterscotch pie
Peterson Gran Reserva cigars
red snapper
"strawberry fields" marijuana
brown ale
parasitic grubs
soy milk
green tea
asparagus bean
apricot jam
brown butter sauce
lecithin granules
two varieties of apples
sesame seeds
hemp seed butter
basmati rice
soy bean flour
Irish whiskey
whole wheat biscuits
broccoli raab
purple asparagus
El Tesoro anejo tequila
nicoise olives
processed lard
cured raw ham
and, of course, the occasional nut

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Sunday, December 19, 2010

Checklist for Determining Whether Your Kid’s Picture Should Be on Your Christmas Cards

True or False:

1. I always send out little Bobby’s picture because everyone oohed and aahed over how cute he was on our Christmas cards 15 years ago.

2. Childless people like looking at other people’s kids more, right?

3. My child has an Adam’s apple.

4. My child wears liquid eyeliner.

4a. My child’s eyeliner fully encircles her eyes, including around tear ducts. (+2 pts)

4b. My eyeliner-wearing child is a boy. (+3 pts)

5. As long as little Emma's face is out there, it's just a matter of time till she gets discovered.

6. Seeing my adorable kid could help my sister realize what she’s missing -- before it’s too late.

7. (New Englanders only) If we don’t send out our annual shot of Jimmy in his Red Sox cap, jersey, headband, and wristbands, how else will people know he supports the team?

8. If I have to look at my brother’s ugly kids every year, you better believe he's going to look at mine.

9. No one can tell that’s a booger hanging off his nose, right?

10. If you can think of a better way to show off her "Little House on the Prairie" costume, I’d like to hear it.

Scoring: Add up affirmative responses.
1 to 3: You’re the reason the rest of us own paper shredders.
4 to 7: Two words: tubal ligation.
8 or higher: Child Services is en route to your house.

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Thursday, December 16, 2010

Looks Like 'Seasoned' and 'Professional' May Be on the Outs Anyway

Just saw a tweet from Ben Zimmer about a Google tool that lets you search book databases for keyphrases and keywords. So, with "seasoned professional" fresh in my mind, I did a search for it.

A chart of its occurrence shows a steady and marked increase in its use since the late 1920s until its sudden dropoff in the 2000s! I guess those two words are sick of each other, too.

I like this search engine. I like it a lot.

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

"seasoned" and "professional"

"Seasoned professional" is one of those terms I've long relied on. I use it in my own writing and I'm sure I've inserted it into articles I've edited.

But something happened yesterday. I must have seen the pairing one time too many and I just snapped. Suddenly, "seasoned professional" ceased to be a familiar, easy, informative term and became instead droning, meaningless noise in my ear.

I guess I just reached my limit for seasoning my professionals this way.

Yes, these two words have had a great run. But it's time they went their separate ways.

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Thursday, December 9, 2010

Bad Introductory Phrase du Jour

A real sentence (slightly disguised) that I edited yesterday:
"With the idea that instead of shopping all around New York, the attendees could have the city's best shops brought to them, retail outlets were set up with unique offerings of fashions, home decor, toys and cookware."

Even more than the two unnecessary passives that follow, it's the introductory phrase that floors me: "With the idea that instead of ..."

There was no coming back from that. I overhauled the whole sentence, making it something like:

"New York's top retailers set up boutiques at the festival, creating a one-stop shop for some of the city's finest fashions, home decor, toys and cookware."

Amazing how that tangible subject + verb formula can save a bad sentence.

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