Sixty-nine years ago this week, the zeppelin Hindenburg exploded at the Lakehurst Naval Air Station in New Jersey. Thirty-six persons lost their lives. A dream of lighter-than air travel abruptly ended. A correspondent for Knight-Ridder newspapers provided some descriptive details:
“The ship was a floating hotel with sleeping berths, a lounge with a baby grand piano made of aluminum and large windows …”
Some piano, some sentence. Today’s reminder for writers is: “Read thy copy at least twice before filing, else thou will wind up with egg on thy face and large windows on thy piano.” Today’s caveat for readers is: When you consider the millions of opportunities for syntactical error in publishing a daily newspaper, you will marvel at how few these errors are. Press on!
Mike O’Callaghan, executive editor of the Las Vegas Sun, delivered himself of a Thought for the Day as he recalled his boyhood during the Great Depression of the 1930s: “Any shortage of meat, fish or wild berries could be harvested and canned between May and November.” We canned lots of shortages in those days. I remember them well.
In Binghamton, N.Y., a plastic surgeon provided a mimeographed sheet of post-operative instructions for his patients. The second instruction read: “May get site wet after 24 hours in the shower.” Then stay 24 hours in the dryer.
The Asheville, N.C., Citizen carried a paid obituary notice last July about a young man who died in a traffic accident. He was an unusual fellow: “A warm and hardworking person, he loved English Springer spaniels, which he enjoyed breeding with his mother.” Go for it, mom!
Sometimes a feature writer tries a little too hard for the vigorous phrase. A year ago a writer in The Gettysburg Experience vividly described that fateful battle in 1863: “Hooves pounded the soft earth. Sabers clanged in ringing metallic tones. … Galloping at full throttle, horses collided with a sickening thud.” The thud was later removed. And some of those horses had to have their throttles replaced.
One of the rules of prose composition is that a modifying phrase should modify whatever it was meant to modify. In the weddings page of The New York Times last November, we could read of a bride who arrived at the church “in a white limousine wearing a minidress and a bouffant veil.” Hers was the best-dressed limousine on Park Avenue.
Another rule requires that we keep the elements of a sentence in sensible order. The Albany (Ga.) Herald carried a story several years ago about an athletic coach who got in trouble: “The indictment alleged that he looked down the shirt of one girl and asked if he could touch her sometime between Sept. 1, 1997, and May 15, 1998.” It would have taken four seconds, maybe five, to recast this remarkable accusation: “The indictment alleged that sometime between Sept. 1, 1997, and May 15, 1998, he looked …”
Often it helps if writers will read their pearly prose to themselves before they let anyone else read it. A reporter in Florida should have taken a second look at his account of the arrest of a trouble-making juvenile. The boy thought he had successfully evaded the cops: “That’s when he heard the brakes screech on the unmarked detective’s car that had just happened to reach the intersection.” Whereupon a marked detective hauled the lad away.
Stuff happens – but it won’t happen quite so often if we read for the literal meaning of whatever it is we write.
James Kilpatrick is a syndicated columnist.