COMMENTARY

On good grammar, short sentences, hazy headlines

9/24/2012
BY THOMAS WALTON
BLADE COLUMNIST

Many years ago, I worked with a Blade copy editor whose command of the language was an inspiration to the rest of us. But his inflexibility on the rules of grammar was an occasional aggravation.

One of his rigid rules concerned the word "hopefully." Staff writers quickly learned that they were not to start a sentence with the word "hopefully," as in: "Hopefully, good weather will return in a day or two." Nor were they to misuse it within the sentence, as in: "Good weather will hopefully return in a day or two."

His point was that the weather was incapable of hoping anything. The only acceptable way to say it, he believed, was to write: "It is to be hoped that good weather will return in a day or two." That's a wordy non-starter for me, no matter what the rules of grammar might dictate.

It was a rule I rebelled against. I understood the grammarians' point of view, but I also recognized that people do not talk that way. Why be wordier than necessary?

Of course, people in Ohio and the Midwest also say "I seen" instead of "I saw," which for me is the grammatical equivalent of fingernails on a blackboard. You hear it from educated people who should know better. A guy I know is a certified public accountant, a whiz with numbers, but he can't grasp the concept of "I saw."

Jim Norman, an English teacher, supplies another aggravation: "anyways." There is no such word in the language, he rightly points out. I'm with Jim on this one.

So when it comes to the language, I guess I am part modernist, part purist. Anyways, it is to be hoped that hopefully you are too.

As you've probably figured out from my frequent carping on the subject, I'm a big fan of the English language when it is used properly. A well-crafted sentence is a beautiful thing.

You want short? "Jesus wept" pretty much says it all.

You want long? One sentence in William Faulkner's Southern Gothic novel Absalom, Absalom! is 1,288 words long. That pales in comparison to the 4,391-word sentence attributed to Molly Bloom in James Joyce's novel Ulysses.

I can't vouch for how well crafted either of those monsters is, because I refuse to give either one a go without an oxygen tank and a nice Chardonnay.

I once marveled at an 82-word sentence assembled by a former associate on The Blade's editorial board. With careful use of conjunctions and punctuation, thereby providing the reader a breath here and there, he constructed a word journey worth taking.

Even so, I still think it could have been boiled down to: "The President is stupid." Or: "Jesus wept."

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A few more headline gems -- or "crash blossoms," as they're called -- those headlines with an unintended meaning:

"Stern wants to stop flopping." I say just throw him back in the water. Catch and release. Works every time.

"Commission reverses earlier approval of denial." No unintended meaning, but I can't figure out the intended one either. I guess you had to be there.

"Bill hits farmers hardest." I knew Bill had a mean streak, but why take it out on the folks who grow our food? It reminds me of another headline from years ago: "Farmer bill dies in House." Can't be the same guy.

"Rachael Ray dishes on cooking, her books." Reader Bob Klahn observes that the comma was easy for the eye to miss because it was at the end of a line. Ms. Ray would probably not be offended by the implication, unless of course it were true.

This one came from the garden page of an out-of-town paper: "Prune your bloomers." Yes, but keep the girdle.

From our own sports pages: "Six free agents to get shot with Walleye." Like fish in a barrel, eh?

"Overweight population falls." And they can't get up.

Sometimes you see these things not in a newspaper but elsewhere. I spotted this sign at the supermarket:

"BBQ chicken available every day or it's free." How does that work?

Here's one from a celebrity cookbook: "Joan Rivers toast." In her case, the double meaning was probably intended, or maybe I'm inferring a subtle reference to her career.

Her recipe for toast? "Put two slices of bread in the toaster, push down the handle, wait two minutes or until handle pops up, and spread [with] butter or margarine." A family secret for generations, she says.

I tried it. It was pretty good.

I've always appreciated Ms. Rivers' candor. She told an interviewer recently that President Obama and challenger Mitt Romney are "idiots" for taking two years to campaign.

"Idiots" is a little harsh, but she's right. Presidential campaigns should last two months. No more.

Thomas Walton is the retired editor and vice president of The Blade. His column appears every other Monday.

Contact him at: twalton@theblade.com