David Frauenfelder, whose Breakfast with Pandora is fine reading for anyone interested in language and myth and storytelling, wonders what I would do with the following sentence, from a Los Angeles Times article by Rachel Abramowitz:
Of all the major American artists, [Woody] Allen has experienced one of the cruelest and most violent whipsaws of fortune, of tumbling from audience adulation to mass approbation.David notes the various problems with this sentence: "preposition abuse," "false genitive," "a terrible mixed metaphor," "and to top it off, a hilarious malapropism at the end."
Preposition abuse: check. Of all . . . , one of . . . of fortune, of tumbling . . . . The repetition is awkward; the final of could be cut with no loss.
False genitive: check. The genetive or possessive case "marks a noun as modifying another noun." "[A]udience adulation" should be "audiences' adulation." (I'm grateful to know the name for this problem, which I correct often in my students' writing.)
A terrible mixed metaphor: check. P.R. Wilkinson's Thesaurus of Traditional English Metaphors (London: Routledge, 2002) defines whipsaw as "A double disadvantage; bad dilemma; something that cuts both ways and is injurious whatever you do [Amer]." Nothing to do with tumbling, and nothing to do with what happened to Allen. The writer may have been thinking of whiplash or backlash, though those tired metaphors too don't go well with "of fortune" or "tumbling."
A hilarious malapropism at the end: check. Approbation is "an act of approving formally or officially." David suggests that the writer was in search of opprobrium: "something that brings disgrace," "public disgrace or ill fame that follows from conduct considered grossly wrong or vicious."
So what to do with the original sentence? I'd revise to give a clearer sense that Allen's relationship with Soon-Yi Previn generated more widespread interest than his movies. I'd also remove the pretension of "major American artists" and the melodrama of "fortune." Reversal of fortune is a trope that applies to, say, Oedipus or Lear. Such reversal follows from choices made with inadequate knowledge, by those who have no way to foresee what will befall them. It's reasonable though to anticipate disapproval when embarking on a relationship with the adopted daughter of one's long-time partner. My sentence:
Once celebrated by critics and fans, Allen is now a figure of scandal even among those who have never seen his films.[This post is no. 23 in a very occasional series, "How to improve writing," dedicated to improving stray bits of public prose. And by the way, I like Woody Allen's films, or most of them.]
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