Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Caught at Sea

Seeing the ever-cheeky Ricky Gervais do his thing on the Emmy broadcast on the weekend reminded me of this bit of his. It's an entertaining example of how even just a slightly offbeat choice of word (in this case, caught) can cause a reader (in this case, the ever-cheeky Ricky Gervais) to make unintended (and in this case, delightfully whimsical) associations.

Friday, August 27, 2010

We Hold These Truths to be Self-Evident...

It appears the sign-writer grew weary of capitalization halfway through. 

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Sartorial Editorial

In the West End of Vancouver during the summer months, there are a number of impromptu street-corner "yard sales"--at least there used to be when I lived there. It was from one of these curbside vendors that I bought this distressed tank-top shirt many moons ago:

I remember standing there for several moments staring at the shirt displayed on the patch of grass just south of Davie Street, munching on my Sunday morning bagel, reading and re-reading the inscription. The daftly exuberant "A START!" The incongruous exhortation "THE GREAT THING TO MAKE" and the comprehensively incomprehensible "THE THAT IS THE 'ZONE.'" Evidently, someone had gone to the trouble of creating a passable graphic design and, with fearless chutzpah, produced god knows how many copies, without ever running the wording past a native English speaker. 

I clamped the remains of the bagel in my mouth, extracted a loonie from my pocket and passed it to the transvestite junkie proprietor of the roadside boutique. I have worn the shirt with equal measures of pride and recurring bemusement every summer since.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Who is this Marshall, and What is his Law?

We watched "Me and Orson Welles" the other night, which means that, since picking up the DVD, I have been soulfully crooning the title to the tune of the 1972 infidelity ballad "Me and Mrs. Jones." Try it: Me-ee aa-and Orson, Orson Welles, Orson Welles, Orson Welles. We got a thing going on...

It's a wonderful little period piece about Welles's famed Mercury Theater production of "Julius Caesar" on Broadway in 1937--lots of fun, and Christian Mckay looks and sounds so much like a young Orson Welles it's downright eerie.

But let's look at the captioning for this scene, in which the Zac Efron character has accidentally triggered the fire sprinklers during final rehearsals, and Welles is exhorting his troops to respond...

In fact, of course, the mercurial (Mercury Theater. Mercurial. Get it?) director is invoking martial law and suspending the hell out of his people's habeas corpi. You could say the mishap was an example of Murphy's Law, except that Welles himself almost wishes it upon the production, because...well, you have to see the movie to get that.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Stalking the Wild Typo

I just saw this feature interview on Salon with one of the authors of The Great Typo Hunt, a book about a couple of buddies who cross the country meeting everyday Americans and pestering them about their spelling mistakes. The book is a synthesis of the blog posts they made during their travels. I don't know--a blog documenting other people's language errors? Seems like a waste of time to me.

The interview is not exactly the deep exploration of the laws of language and the perils of pedantry that it seems to aspire to (although I like the "hawks vs. hippies" vernacular the authors have come up with to describe the age-old prescriptivist/descriptivist dichotomy), but it is, after all, a transcription of a quickie phone conversation. It looks like the book may be worth a look-see.

Now for my own pedantic observation. At one point in the discussion, after the interviewee has described an encounter with someone who is less than appreciative of an unsolicited spelling intervention, the interviewer asks:
Why do you think so many people are so defensive about correcting their language?
I'm not saying there is an error there, since the question can be read in at least a couple of ways, but just to put too fine a point on it (and in the interests of finding a reason to mention this book here), I would say that the people in question are not so much defensive about correcting their language as they are defensive about having their language corrected, or being asked to correct it.

I know this from experience. Like the time I laughingly pointed out to my wife, Kim, that she had misspelled asparagus on the shopping list, and she laughingly kneed me in the groin.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Going the Extra Word

I'm not one of those strident Strunk & White purists (neither was White, for that matter) who believe that all good writing comes in spare, simple prose. There's plenty of room for more baroque styles of expression, if you ask me. But there is complex, playful or engaging wordiness, and then there is sloppy, banal prolixity. The important thing, as S&W command, is that "every word tell."

"Green in color," for instance, is always redundant, since something can't very well be green in height. And "different" is one of those words that always needs to be asked for its ID before gaining admittance to a sentence. Consider phrasings such as "I attended three different schools" and ask yourself what different brings to the party.

Today in Slate, I was checking out the recent TV Club Mad Men discussion, and came upon this sentence, describing the scene where Don's departing secretary heaves a paperweight at him:
But how cool would it have been if Don, ice water pumping through his veins, had unblinkingly caught the orb in his hand and gently placed it on the credenza?
I know these recaps are written, edited, and posted on the fly, so it's churlish to expect polished prose, but I can't help imagining how satisfying it would feel, as a copy editor, to drag a red pencil through "in his hand."

Meanwhile, over in another corner of Slate, advice columnist Prudence (yeah, like you don't read it, too) is dispensing counsel to a new husband who says that:
my wife was the DEFINITION of a bridezilla when planning out our wedding, and I felt bad for her attendants.
Unless there is an important difference between planning and planning out when it comes to weddings, that sentence would stand stronger if it were one word lighter. And yes, it should be badly, not bad, but let's leave that for another day. Poor guy has enough on his mind, what with having married an insufferable harpy.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Friendly Skies, Bitchy Tarmac

A frustrated JetBlue flight attendant allegedly fled his plane via emergency shoot -- beer in hand -- after getting into a fight with a passenger and then cursing out the entire cabin over a loudspeaker.
So begins a story about a skyhop getting into a dust-up with a passenger who got up to fetch something from the overhead bin while the aircraft was taxiing to the terminal (which, as anyone knows, is just asking for flight attendant jihad). The contretemps escalated and the attendant was bonked on the bean...
At that point, the flight attendant got on the loud speaker, told those aboard to "go f*** themselves," grabbed a beer from the galley, deployed the chute and ran into the terminal. 
Well. Someone's wound a little tight. Anyway, please return your seat to its upright position and note that the loudspeaker (as in, electronic communication device) in the first paragraph, becomes a loud speaker (as in, Rush Limbaugh) in the latter. Also, if we are going to use a direct quote, I'm guessing our spunky little steward told those aboard to "go f*** yourselves." And finally, of course, there is the matter of the getaway chute, which, in an amusing case of homonym befuddlement, is initially identified as an emergency shoot.

Andy Borowitz, by the way, has played off this story to great effect, with a faux news report entitled "All U.S. Workplaces to be Fitted with Inflatable Slides."

Monday, August 09, 2010

Advertising Age

I love looking through vintage magazines and papers, and I especially love browsing the old ads--fustily composed, epic-length come-ons for corn flakes and cigarettes, lavishly illustrated pages promoting remedies for ague and the grippe...and then there is this one, from a 1926 copy of MacLean's magazine I picked up in a quaint museum gift shop in the quaint town of Aggasiz:

In keeping with the purpose of this blog, I will force myself to point out that the phrase "the only pouch in the world which opens with a single sliding movement" assails my ear as a miscast restrictive use of the word which. (I know the Brits do it, but they drink weak tea with milk and kill each other over soccer games, too, so do we really need to take our lead from them?)  Anyway, I really just wanted to share this slice of life from a time when a zipper was considered the height of hi-tech wizardry.

And then there is this inventive re-imagining of modern social media, as portrayed in Mad Men-era ad style.

Again, I could get picky and point out that leasure should be leisure and that enchantment is not an adjective. But these faux ads were designed in Brazil so let's give them a pass on the English spelling and grammar and just enjoy the way they so deftly applied yesterday's advertising sensibilities to today's cultural touchstones.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Rules of Engagement

A happy day for the forces of moral progress. A federal judge in California decided that it wasn't OK after all for the majority to confiscate a civil right from a minority, and overturned the "Prop 8" ban on gay marriage (subject to further appeal, of course, but it's hard not to feel that the gay marriage genie is never going to go back into the tastefully-appointed bottle now).

In honor of the occasion, lefty blustermeister Keith Olbermann ended his show tonight with a rerun of his impassioned Special Comment (is there any other kind?) from November 2008, when the abominable Prop 8 passed. This site offers a video clip and transcript, from which I quote the following:

I keep hearing this term "re-defining" marriage. If this country hadn't re-defined marriage, black people still couldn't marry white people. Sixteen states had laws on the books which made that illegal in 1967. 1967.
The parents of the President-Elect of the United States couldn't have married in nearly one third of the states of the country their son grew up to lead. But it's worse than that. If this country had not "re-defined" marriage, some black people still couldn't marry black people. It is one of the most overlooked and cruelest parts of our sad story of slavery. Marriages were not legally recognized, if the people were slaves. Since slaves were property, they could not legally be husband and wife, or mother and child. Their marriage vows were different: not "Until Death, Do You Part," but "Until Death or Distance, Do You Part." Marriages among slaves were not legally recognized.
You know, just like marriages today in California are not legally recognized, if the people are gay.

It's well worth checking out, if only to see the sanctimonious Olbermann employing his best "how dare you, sir" sanctimony in the service of smiting an enemy that could use some sanctimonious sanctioning.

But in the heat of the moment, let's not overlook the nits that need picking. Standard matrimonial patter gives us the phrase, "until death do you part"--meaning, I'm quite sure, that death gets to do the parting of the happy couple. When you insert a comma to make it "Until Death, Do You Part"--as it is rendered in this transcript (with hysterical flourishes of capitalization, I might add)--it sounds like you, the couple, may now part...until death.

A minor quibble, I grant you. But as we're finding out, when it comes to defining marriage and its rules, details matter.

Monday, August 02, 2010

When Adjectives Attack

A couple of comically ambiguous meanings from yesterday's Province. First of all, this headline:

It's ok to shoot a serial offender dead (at least grammatically speaking--I won't make moral judgments here), but the intended adverbial sense of dead is easy to miss when the word is positioned like this. If you scan that headline and presume dead is performing its usual adjectival function, it sounds like the flatfoots where over-zealously perforating a corpse.

Elsewhere in the Sunday pages, in a story about how a local society of East Indian rationalists is offering  $100,000 to any soothsayers who can prove their ability to make accurate predictions, there is this sentence:
Astrologers, ghost-busters*, black magicians--whatever their specialty--are invited to answer 10 questions based on a person's janam kundli, or astrological birth chart.
Now, for all I know, it may well be that practitioners of black magic refer to themselves as "black magicians" (I really can't be bothered to look it up), but should we--and more importantly, should African-American conjurers in the white magic arts--really put up with that?

*I know what you're saying: shouldn't that be ghostbusters, as we all learned in the Ackroyd/Murray cinematic classic? According to Wikipedia, the movie was promoted as "Ghostbusters," yet titled on-screen as "Ghost Busters." So I guess the ghost-busting community is kind of open on this one.