Tuesday, July 31, 2012


The Wall Street Journal reports on a tizzy over the period at the end of the Obama campaign’s slogan “Forward.” Have you been thinking about this period? Me neither.

Here, as quoted in the article, is one popular grammarian’s take:

“It would be quite a stretch to say it’s grammatically correct,” said Mignon Fogarty, author of Grammar Girl’s 101 Troublesome Words You’ll Master in No Time. “You could say it’s short for ‘we’re moving forward.’ But really it’s not a sentence.”
But really it is a sentence. The Oxford English Dictionary covers this use of forward:

I hear the campaign slogan “Forward” not as a command but as an elliptical form of the hortatory subjunctive: “Let us go forward.”

A related post
Hortatory subjuctive FTW (Yes, it’s for reals.)

[Do you get the feeling that no one quoted in the WSJ article bothered to look up the word?]

Chris Marker (1921–2012)

From the New York Times: “Chris Marker, the enigmatic writer, photographer, filmmaker and multimedia artist who pioneered the flexible hybrid form known as the essay film, died on Sunday in Paris. He was 91.”

Our son Ben introduced us to La Jetée (1962) several years ago. The Criterion Collection calls it “one of the most influential, radical science-fiction films ever made.” It’s worth seeking out.

Recently updated

E. B. White, the fact that Now with speculation about where the missing words might have appeared in proof.

[At least I think they’re missing.]

Monday, July 30, 2012

E. B. White, the fact that

Argosy Book Store has an unusual copy of The Elements of Style for sale:

The book bears the ownership signature of Edith Oliver, the drama critic of The New Yorker, together with a slip reading “with the compliments of the author.” Enclosed is a typed letter from White, signed “Andy,” Brooklin, Maine, 8 May, 1959, promising to have the book sent to her for her “liberry.” In part — “One thing that tickles me about the little book is that I managed to use the phrase ‘the fact that’ (p. 40) after blasting the daylights out of it in two separate places (‘It should be revised out of every sentence in which it occurs.’) Ha.” In a holograph P.S. he writes “The smelts are running. What are you doing in New York when the smelts are running?”
Price: $2500.

But where is the mistake to which White refers? I checked the first edition, first printing, and there’s no the fact that on page 40. Nor does the phrase appear in error elsewhere in the book. In White’s The Points of My Compass (1962), a postcript to the memoir “Will Strunk” also mentions a mistake:
One parting note: readers of the first edition of the book were overjoyed to discover that the phrase “the fact that” had slid by me again, landing solidly in the middle of one of my learned dissertations. It has since disappeared, but it had its little day.
I can think of three possible explanations of what’s going on: 1) my reading skills are not what they used to be; 2) White is referring to readers who read the book in proof; 3) there’s some strange inside joke playing out. I think that 2) is the likeliest explanation.

In the introduction to The Elements of Style, White writes about his tendency to miss the fact that:
I suppose I have written “the fact that” a thousand times in the heat of composition, revised it out maybe five hundred times in the cool aftermath. To be batting only .500 this late in the season, to fail half the time to connect with this fat pitch, saddens me, for it seems a betrayal of the man who showed me how to swing at it and made the swinging seem worth while.
We all miss, but we keep swinging.

Looking at The Elements of Style again made me notice anew details that mark the book as an artifact of the dowdy world. My favorite: “Is it worth while to telegraph?” I would like to see Maira Kalman illustrate that sentence.

[Page 40, first edition, first printing. Thanks, library. Click for a larger view.]


An afterthought (7:07 p.m.): I wonder whether the fact that might have appeared on page 40 in the entry on interesting:

Perhaps this sample sentence first read: “In connection with the forthcoming visit of Mr. B. to America, it is interesting to recall the fact that,” &c. This entry of course cautions against relying on the word interesting.

Related reading
All Strunk and White posts (via Pinboard)

[The telegraph sentence appears, still, in the 2009 fiftieth-anniversary edition of The Elements, three years after Western Union’s last telegram. As of this morning, The Elements of Style, fourth edition, hardcover, is #164 of all books at Amazon.]

VDP, “Letters from the Road”

At Bananastan Records, Van Dyke Parks’s “Letters from the Road,” written during his recent European travels. The letters begin with a Berliner: a madeleine in disguise.

[There are eleven pages: click on the trucks to move forward.]

Nancy + Sluggo = Perfection

[Zippy, July 30, 2012.]

The answer checks out.

Bill Griffith is one of Ernie Bushmiller’s many admirers. In an essay on Nancy, Griffith writes:

Bushmiller creates his own reality, where everything is wholly his and the world as we know it has been reduced to its essentials. Only the purest ingredients are used. You can feel the air in a Nancy strip. Objects aren’t merely drawn, they exist. The thing in itself!
Yes, das Ding an sich.

Other Nancy posts
Charlotte russe
The greatest Nancy panel?
Nancy is here
Nancy meets Alfred Hitchcock (Vertigo)
Nancy meets Billy Wilder (The Seven Year Itch)
Nancy meets Stanley Kubrick (The Shining)

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Life at Merriam-Webster

“A powerful culture of silence in the office”: a report on life at Merriam-Webster. With great photographs of the citation files and of the editorial floor in 1955. Shhh!

Friday, July 27, 2012

Night Mail

“This is the Night Mail crossing the Border, / Bringing the cheque and the postal order”: the short film Night Mail tracks the journey of a mail train from London Euston to Glasgow, Edinburgh, and Aberdeen. The film is a 1936 production by the GPO [General Post Office] Film Unit, directed by Basil Wright and Harry Watt, with a poem by W. H. Auden and music by Benjamin Britten. You can see Night Mail in three parts at YouTube.

Night Mail reminds me again and again of early Hitchcock: quick cuts, unintelligible dialogue, and sudden explosions of sound. The mail was moving briskly.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

The cultural bed

[“Public demonstration of the ‘cultural bed’ designed by Ely Alexander, central divider contains shelves for books, sheet music, sculpture, or painting, built in record player and cabinet, and coffee pot on heat proof serving board.” Photograph by Yale Joel. May 1957. From the Life Photo Archive. Click for larger views.]

I can think of only one problem.

[The stringed instrument is a biwa. Ely Alexander is a mystery to me. Life appears not to have a run a story on his creation. Life ran a story with these photographs in its June 3, 1957 issue. Thanks to Bent for the correction.]

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Kyle Wiens, stickler?

At the HBR Blog Network, CEO Kyle Wiens, self-styled “stickler,” explains why he won’t hire people who use poor grammar. I see three problems in what he’s written:

1. Every example of what Wiens calls “poor grammar” is a matter of punctuation or usage, not grammar.

2. Wiens allies himself with self-styled stickler Lynne Truss. But as Bryan Garner says in a review of Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation (2003), “The true sticklers of the world are uniting against Lynne Truss.” Her book is a mess. Look at its title: notice the missing serial comma? And the missing hyphen?

3. Wiens needs to take more care with his writing. Consider this sentence:

And just like good writing and good grammar, when it comes to programming, the devil’s in the details.
Indeed. The comparison that this sentence aims to make never gets made: just like writing and grammar . . . what? A possible revision:
With programming, as with writing, the devil’s in the details.
Why, by the way, did I remove grammar? Because writing and grammar aren’t equal elements; one subsumes the other.

Wiens’s post still makes a useful exhibit for a teacher trying to convince students that in the world beyond college, writing counts. By any means necessary: that’s my motto in these things.

A related post
Garner, Menand, and Truss

[Omitting the serial comma isn’t an error, but as Garner points out, “In opposing the serial comma, [Truss] puts herself at odds with the vast multitude of punctuation authorities, who favor it.” Zero-tolerance, a phrasal adjective, requires a hyphen. The expression is originally “The devil is in the detail,” but the plural is widely used and hardly counts as a mistake.]

Motuweth frisas

From Vladimir Nabokov’s Pnin (1957):

Pnin’s birthday for instance fell on February 3, by the Julian calendar into which he had been born in St. Petersburg in 1898. He never celebrated it nowadays, partly because, after his departure from Russia, it sidled by in a Gregorian disguise (thirteen — no, twelve days late), and partly because during the academic year he existed mainly on a motuweth frisas basis.
The last time I read Pnin all the way through, there was no Internet, at least not for me. Now there is, and motuweth frisas no longer baffles me. But perhaps the words aren’t meant to baffle: I showed these sentences to my fambly, and they figured out motuweth frisas right away, no Internet needed. You too?

If you give up and want the answer, click here.

Related posts
Nabokov’s index cards
Pnin’s pencil sharpener
Pnin’s posy

[If you haven’t read Pnin, you’re missing a great novel.]

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Semi-homemade music

One of the great pleasures of having Rachel and Ben home for a while is the chance to make music together. Here is our cover of Old Crow Medicine Show’s “I Hear Them All.”

[Semi-homemade : because the song is from the store, so to speak.]

Monday, July 23, 2012

Another mystery object

Daughter Number Three has posted a photograph of an object and invites speculation.

[Why another ? Because of this post.]

Recently updated

Crocodile Now with an identification of the mysterious object above.

Museum of Endangered Sounds

Just a block or two away from the Library of Vanished Sounds, so to speak: it’s the Museum of Endangered Sounds.

Thanks to Music Clip of the Day for sending the link to the MES my way.

[One sound conspicuously absent from the MES: dial-up.]

Friday, July 20, 2012

Molly Dodd, Mongol user

[Blair Brown as Molly Dodd, Mongol pencil user. From “Here’s some ducks all in a row,” The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd, June 17, 1989. Click for a larger view.]

Some generous soul has made all five seasons of The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd available on YouTube. Elaine and I are doing our bit by watching. Notice that even in a videotaped-from-TV blur, the Mongol’s ferrule is immediately recognizable.

Whys isn’t this series available on DVD? The cost of licensing music rights appears to be a problem. Why is the cost of licensing music rights a problem? Because Molly does a lot of singing. In the scene above, she’s singing Edward Redding’s “The End of a Love Affair.” But someday this series will be released on DVD. I just know it. Like Molly, I’m an optimist.

The Mongol (now defunct in the United States) is my favorite pencil. Here’s some proof.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

The kids are all right

Rachel Leddy and Ben Leddy put together Adele’s “Someone Like You” and Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used to Know”: “Someone Like Somebody That I Used To Know.”

The dinner hour

The Browns were having left-over meat loaf for dinner one night when the telephone rang.

“It must be important,” said Mrs. Brown worriedly. “Otherwise why would anyone call during the dinner hour?”

Donald J. Sobol, Encyclopedia Brown, Boy Detective (New York: Thomas Nelson & Sons, 1963).
Was the world ever this dowdy? I believe it was. Mrs. Brown is right too — it’s Officer Carlson on the line, with the news that the Princess Bake Shop on Vine Street has been robbed. Hurry, Chief Brown. And drink your milk, Encyclopedia, so that you can go with Dad and solve the crime.

When was the dinner hour? That question (which Google cannot answer) might fuel an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm, preferably in the context of an argument at, yes, a dinner table. I will suggest that the dinner hour or dinner “hour” ran from 5:00 to 7:00, Monday through Friday. In some households, it still does.

Yes, I’m reading Encyclopedia Brown books. Donald Sobol died last week.

A related post

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Henry and a gum machine

[Henry, July 18, 2012.]

Henrietta has just wondered what Henry would look like with a mustache. The mysterious streetside object last seen on July 19, 2011 is here revealed as a gum machine, complete with mirror.

I have never seen these gum machines outside the subway stations of my childhood. But then I have never lived in the comics.

Other Henry posts
Betty Boop with Henry
Henry, an anachronism
Henry buys liverwurst
Henry, getting things done
Henry’s repeated gesture

Harvey Pekar’s Cleveland

Harvey Pekar and Joseph Remnant. Cleveland. Introduction by Alan Moore. Scarsdale, NY, and Marietta, GA: Zip Comics and Top Shelf Productions, 2012. 128 pages. $21.99 (hardcover), $9.99 (digital).

                                The Best Location in the Nation.
                                Metropolis of the Western Reserve.
                                The Mistake on the Lake.

                                Three nicknames for Cleveland, Ohio

“From off the streets of Cleveland”: Harvey Pekar (1939–2010) is a writer whose work is stamped with the name of a city. There is nothing glamorous or sinister about Pekar’s Cleveland; it is not Raymond Chandler’s Los Angeles. Nor is there anything mythic about the Cleveland landscape; it is not the Paterson of William Carlos Williams’s epic poem. But to borrow a phrase from Williams: Cleveland is “the local conditions,” the city of Pekar’s birth, a place in which to work, worry, and observe.

[Click for a larger view.]

Cleveland is two books really: a brief history of a city and the story of Pekar’s life there, through three marriages and thirty-odd years in a “flunky job” as a file clerk in a Veterans Affairs hospital. Pekar’s story of the city begins and ends on notes of hope: the Cleveland Indians’ 1948 World Series win over the Boston Braves (the Indians’ second and last Series win to date) and the development of a medical mart and convention center (scheduled to open in 2013). But the story of twentieth-century Cleveland is largely a story of decline, with years of industrial might (iron and steel, manufacturing, railroads) followed by unemployment, poverty, crime, and suburban flight. This story, alas, has become a quintessential American story, told again and again in empty storefronts and abandoned properties.

Pekar enters the story in 1939. He recounts a relatively pleasant childhood and adolescence: a far less violent picture of his early years than the one he gives in The Quitter (2005). Here we see young Harvey playing baseball, mastering public transit, discovering the joys of used-book stores, and savoring the “frosty malt” at Higbee’s (a locally-owned department store, now gone). In adulthood, Pekar finds security in a Civil Service job (one requiring little or no intellectual effort, which he reserves for his reading and writing). Pekar regulars Mr. Boats and Toby Radloff appear in scenes at work. Pekar’s first two marriages fail (he is less than generous in his depiction of his partners), but a third marriage, to Joyce Brabner, sticks. And thus the world familiar to readers of American Splendor comes into view. Chronology and continuity are sometimes off, as when Pekar recounts his second wife’s life after marriage and asks, one page later, “What happened to her?” before beginning to tell the story again. At other times, digressions are masterful, as when Pekar’s account of his daily routine makes room for commentaries on Cleveland radio personality Diane Rehm and bookseller John T. Zubal.

Pekar’s world comes into view through the labor of Joseph Remnant, who has become one of my favorite illustrators of Pekar’s stories. His style is reminiscent of Robert Crumb’s, with considerable crosshatching and much loving attention to the sometimes invisible clutter of city streets (chimney pipes, streetlights, telephone poles). For those who know Cleveland well, panel after panel will evoke familiar elements of the city: the Arcade, the Detroit-Superior Bridge, the Public Library, the Terminal Tower. The research that went into Remnant’s work must have been considerable. Here is one detail that for this non-Clevelander was decisive, a panel from Pekar’s account of the life of John T. Zubal:

I don’t know Cleveland, but I know the Bronx, and I know Fordham. Behind John and Marilyn stands the clocktower of Keating Hall, the centerpiece of Fordham’s Bronx campus. That Remnant would take the time to include this detail, one that just a handful of readers might recognize, says much about his approach to making art.

Remnant’s work also delights me in that it gets Harvey Pekar right — not that there is one proper way to draw him, but that there are many ways to go wrong. Remnant’s Pekar is cranky but not crazed, frayed but not frazzled. He wanders the streets of Cleveland in this volume at all ages and in all moods, bent forward in his later years, a man for all seasons and just one city.

What I find most moving in this book in Pekar’s idea of a good city: concerts, libraries, museums, parks, bookstores, and record stores. That’s very much my idea of a good city, and it’s an idea that grows more fragile by the day.

[Harvey Pekar by Joseph Remnant. From the title page.]

Thanks to the publishers for a review copy of the book.

Related reading
Cleveland (Top Shelf Productions)
All Harvey Pekar posts (via Pinboard)

More Pekar and Remnant collaborations
“Autodidact” : “Back in the Day” : “Legendary Vienna” : “Muncie, Indiana” : “Reciprocity” : “Sweeping Problem”

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Sydney Smith on tea and coffee

[Sydney Smith, Wit and Wisdom of the Rev. Sydney Smith, Being Selections from His Writing and Passages of His Letters and Table-Talk (New York: Redfield, 1858).]

Sydney Smith (1771–1845) was an Anglican cleric and, it would seem, delightful company. He created a rhyming recipe for salad dressing. He argued against slavery and for the education of women. One more point in his favor: in profile he strongly resembles the late Bill Youngren. You’ll have to take my word for it.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Donald J. Sobol (1924–2012)

Donald J. Sobol, the creator of Encyclopedia Brown, has died at the age of eighty-seven.

I caught on to the Encyclopedia Brown books in 2008. They’re wonderful. I’m not sure how I managed not to figure that out earlier.

Here’s a post that reproduces an illustration from the first Brown book, Encyclopedia Brown, Boy Detective (1963). Notice the orange crate.

Nancy meets Billy Wilder

From Nancy Ritz’s 1945 screen test for The Seven Year Itch (dir. Billy Wilder, 1955). In an orderly universe, the title would read The Seven-Year Itch and Marilyn Monroe would have had no competition for the role of The Girl.

Other Nancy posts
Charlotte russe
The greatest Nancy panel?
Nancy is here
Nancy meets Alfred Hitchcock (Vertigo)
Nancy meets Stanley Kubrick (The Shining)

[Nancy panel by Ernie Bushmiller, February 12, 1945, from Nancy Is Happy: Complete Dailies 1943–1945 (Seattle: Fantagraphics, 2012).]

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Spam, glorious spam

Hello, i read your blog occasionally and i own a similar one and i was just wondering if you get a lot of spam remarks? If so how do you prevent it, any plugin or anything you can recommend? I get so much lately it's driving me insane so any assistance is very much appreciated.
Cory Doctorow received a spam comment gone awry, one that contained 100+ generic spam comments (a spam menu, as it were, from which the spammer was to choose). That’s one of the comments above.

Here’s a comment that Doctorow didn’t get, aimed at education-related content. This comment has appeared online at least 395 times (thank you, Google) and has been deleted, no doubt, many more times. Exactly as typed:
I have been a student at one of the High Speed Universities online since August 2009 and it has been an answer to my prayers. Their assessments and papers are NO easy task, so for those who say online schools are "dummed down" are highly mistaken.
Related reading
All spam-themed posts (via Pinboard)

Rule 7 and other rules

I have long been a fan of what is called, simply, Rule 7:

The only rule is work. If you work, it will lead to something. It’s the people who do all of the work all the time who eventually catch on to things.

As I wrote in a still mildly popular 2005 post, I found this rule in Learning by Heart, a book by the artist Corita Kent, where it appears in a list of rules for students and teachers in a college art department. Here’s the full list.

This morning Elaine showed me the same list, attributed to John Cage. Wha?

This 2010 post by Keri Smith and the comments that follow explore the question of attribution. I find Smith’s hypothesis plausible: that the quotation from Cage that forms Rule 10 led somehow to all the rules being identified as his work. If the list of rules is by Cage, I’d say it’s the best thing he ever wrote. But a comment on Smith’s post from the artist Jill Bell quotes correspondence from Richard Crawford that would seem to confirm a collaborative effort by Kent and her students. Crawford was one of Kent’s students.

[Thanks to Daughter Number Three for letting me know who Jill Bell is.]

Maria Cole (1922–2012)

Maria Cole, widow of Nat King Cole, has died at the age of eighty-nine. In the 1940s, as Marie Ellington, she sang with the Duke Ellington Orchestra.

Of course, I was very lucky to have three such singers as Kay Davis, Joya Sherrill, and Marie Ellington all at one time, but there is a sad corollary to be detailed: all three were pretty, all three married, and all three left me.

Duke Ellington, Music Is My Mistress (New York: Doubleday, 1973).
Here is a recording of “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)” with all three singers. Sherrill died in 2010; Davis, earlier this year. The singer Herb Jeffries may now be the last link to the 1940s Ellington orchestra.

Woody Guthrie centennial

[“Folk singer Woody Guthrie playing guitar w. sign on it reading THIS MACHINE KILLS FASCISTS.” Photograph by Eric Schaal. New York, New York, 1943. From the Life Photo Archive. Click for a larger view.]

Woody Guthrie was born in Okemah, Oklahoma, one hundred years ago today. His songs were made for you and me.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Taco Bell’s Canon

Halfhazard work, Ivory League school : just-retired professor James Courter writes about the spelling habits of some of his students, the ones who would appear to do little reading: Teaching “Taco Bell’s Canon” (Wall Street Journal ).

Some of the more startling errors I’ve seen of late: and for an (from several writers), beast for best , retail for retell , scarface for sacrifice . The final item in this series might be the result of the Cupertino effect.

Related posts
No job too small
On “On the New Literacy”

(Thanks, Van Dyke.)

Norman Sas (1925–2012)

The New York Times reports that Norman Sas, the inventor of electric football, has died at the age of eighty-seven. I like this comment from Mr. Sas’s wife Irene: “It wasn’t just something you turned on and it vibrated. It was something you did with your little men.”

I remember spending a small part of my early adolescence attempting to play electric football. It was a total waste of time, not even exasperating enough to be funny. This thirteen-second clip from The Simpsons gives an accurate picture of the “game.”

[That last set of quotation marks are for what Garner’s Modern American Usage calls “so-called-but-not-really.”]

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Molly Dodd, Molly Dodd, Molly Dodd

“Are you ever gonna learn how to land this machine?”

“Oh, don’t transfer your anger — it’s immature. Just bend your knees.”

At YouTube, all five seasons of The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd (1987–1991), starring Blair Brown as a beautiful soul lost in New York. Elaine and I share a great affection for this television show, which captures like no other the lonely pathos and sudden surrealism of life in the city. The uploader, who seems to be in a position to know, writes that “the corporate stars and legal planets have aligned to keep Miss Dodd out of the digital age.” Perhaps someday that will change: we have been waiting for years for the series to appear on DVD. The YouTube transfers are from videotape, tracking problems and all. I’m not complaining, only stating a fact. I’m grateful as all get-out for the chance to see this show once more.

Above, Miss Dodd and Davey McQuinn (James Greene) discuss elevator operation. Davey has just offered a frank appraisal of Miss Dodd’s latest poetic effort, which she has described as “part one of a trilogy, tentatively entitled ‘Empty Rooms.’”

I adore Miss Dodd, though she is a lousy, lousy poet.


November 2016: The show is long gone from YouTube.

[Note to Slywy: this series affords many opportunities to see a mail chute.]

Hortatory subjuctive FTW

I was sitting in on a course in seventeenth-century poetry, many years ago. The professor was an obdurate character: there was a right way to read poetry, and there was everything else. You can guess whose way was the right way. Anyway: the discussion turned to the words “let us” in a poem. “I’ve always wondered,” the professor mused, “what that verb form is called.”

And me: “It’s the hortatory subjunctive.”

A defensive personality might have heard in my quick response a trace of accusation: “Goodness me, doesn’t everyone know that?” I intended no such accusation. But as I recall, the professor made no reply beyond a weak smile. Victory, for about three shining seconds, was mine.

The hortatory subjunctive is indeed for reals. I learned about it when studying T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” with Jim Doyle, who mentioned it in passing: “Let us go then, you and I.” I of course was writing it down.

My response when a student tells me something I don’t know: gratitude, plainly expressed.

A related post

[The best-known instances of the hortatory subjunctive in seventeenth-century poetry might be these three: “Let us possess one world” (John Donne, “The Good Morrow”), “So let us melt, and make no noise” (Donne, “A Valediction Forbidding Mourning”), “Let us roll all our strength, and all / Our sweetness, up into one ball” (Andrew Marvell, “To His Coy Mistress”).]

Wednesday, July 11, 2012


There’s something very meta about this box. If I have it right: Salesman meets with store representative and shows sample items tagged with Crown Price Tags. Salesman then attempts to sell not only sample items but also a supply of Crown Price Tags.

That’s one dowdy upsell.

The instructions on this box seem to me to make sense only if “your customer” is a store representative. Let us hope though that the customer’s tags come in a different box. I found this box in an antiques mall (or an “antiques” “mall”) with, of course, a price tag attached.

[The shift from “sell him” to “sell them” makes for a slight stumble in reading, or at least it did for me. You too?]

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Garner’s Usage Tip of the Day

It’s no more than coincidence that on Proust’s birthday, Bryan Garner’s Usage Tip of the Day concerns sentence length. An excerpt:

What is the correlation between sentence length and readability? No one knows precisely. Rhetoricians and readability specialists have long suggested aiming for sentences of varying lengths, but with an average of about 20 to 25 words. And empirical evidence seems to bear out this rough guideline.

In 1985, three authors calculated figures for several publications, using extensive samples. Average sentence length ranges from about 20 (Reader’s Digest ) to 24 (Time ) to 27 (Wall Street Journal ). They arrived at a provocative conclusion: “Varying your sentence length is much more important than varying your sentence pattern if you want to produce clear, interesting, readable prose.” (Gary A. Olson, James DeGeorge & Richard Ray, Style and Readability in Business Writing 102 (1985)). If you’re aiming for an average sentence length of 20 to 25 words, some sentences probably ought to be 30 or 40 words, and others ought to be 3 or 4. Variety is important, but you must concern yourself with the overall average.
Ted Berrigan once said in an interview that a little man in the back of a poet’s head manages rhyme and meter. I think that the little man’s little brother manages sentence length in prose. In other words, I find it difficult to imagine variety in sentence length as the product of conscious effort.

The averages that Garner cites made me curious enough to look at sentences of my own. In a review of David Foster Wallace’s unfinished novel The Pale King that I wrote last year (for World Literature Today, a print publication), the sentences average 28.1 words. The longest sentence: 47 words. The shortest: 12. The little man’s little brother was hard at work: the shortest sentence comes right after the longest. In a review of Christopher Lasch’s Plain Style that I wrote as a blog post last month, the sentences average 28.6 words. The longest sentence: 74 words. The shortest: 4. And in a post last week on Alan Paton’s Too Late the Phalarope , the sentences average 18 words. Once again, the longest sentence (33) and the shortest (9) appear one next to the other.

Student writers are often wary of long sentences, sometimes because of uncertainty about punctuation (any longish sentence must be a “run-on”), sometimes because of poor teaching. And short sentences seem even more dangerous (because short must equal “dumb”). But variety in sentence length is of course a good thing. Even Proust has short sentences. One of them begins Du côté de chez Swann: “Longtemps, je me suis couché de bonne heure.”

[Bryan Garner, author of Garner’s Modern American Usage (2009), offers a free Usage Tip of the Day. You can sign up at LawProse.org. Orange Crate Art is a Garner-friendly site. The first sentence of Swann's Way in Lydia Davis’s 2002 translation: “For a long time, I went to bed early.” The free Mac app TextWrangler made the work of counting sentences and words no work at all.]

Joyeux anniversaire, M. Proust

Marcel Proust was born on July 10, 1871.

You have strange compatriots. An American girl who assures me she is very beautiful, twenty-seven years old (since she lives in Rome, the Villa Wolkonsky, I have forgotten her name, I don’t give a hang, anyway) writes me that for three years she has done nothing night and day but read my books. I shouldn’t repeat what she said (because I never repeat this sort of thing) except for the conclusion which, if it doesn’t belittle her, humiliates me: “And after three years of uninterrupted reading, my conclusion is this: I understand nothing, but absolutely nothing. Dear Marcel Proust, don’t be a poseur, descend for just once from your empyrean. Tell me in two lines what you wished to say.” Since she didn’t understand it in two thousand lines, or rather since I didn’t know how to express it, I decided it was useless to reply. And she will find me a poseur. Do you know who she is (although it is of no importance)?

Marcel Proust, in a letter to Walter Berry, December 9, 1921. From Letters of Marcel Proust, translated by Mina Curtiss (New York: Helen Marx Books / Books & Co., 2006).
Related reading
All Proust posts (via Pinboard)

Monday, July 9, 2012

Cheating at Stuyvesant High School

The New York Times reports on a cheating scandal at Stuyvesant High School, one of the city’s best schools.

A 2010 editorial from the school newspaper (cited in the Times article) suggests that cheating is pervasive at Stuyvesant. Yet a search of the Stuyvesant website turns up nothing in the way of a school-wide policy concerning academic integrity. The school’s code of conduct covers cell phones and iPods, clothing, elevators, extracurricular activities, hallways and lockers, and lunch. Not a word about cheating or plagiarism. I think I hear a blind eye, turning.

Related reading
All cheating posts (via Pinboard)

Prune shake

Inquiring minds want to know: what made you think this ad blogworthy?

First, its comedic value. Second, its comedic value. Third, I have to go with “comedic value.”

Haha. Is there a fourth reason?

Yes. This ad is relevant to a previous blog post.

You mean this one?

No, this one. I’m surprised to see that the prune shake served at the House of Toast in Bob and Ray’s Mary Backstayge, Noble Wife has some basis in reality, or at least a basis in some copywriter’s imagined reality. I mean, there’s no reason to think that anyone beyond this ad ever drank a prune shake, is there?

[Awkward silence.]

Is there?

Could a fifth reason for choosing this ad be the strange resemblance that the mother in the middle bears to Joan Crawford?

I hadn’t noticed that before. But I did notice that the guy and gal at the top seem to running into each other trying to get to a bathroom in time. That could be a fifth reason. Or that coy phrasing could be a fifth reason: “Sunsweet’s delicious — and does something for you.” Kapow! But, hey, wait a minute — you didn’t answer my question.

Sorry. The “C-L Process” is new to me. Or me to it. I gotta go.

[Awkward silence.]

See you soon.

[This ad appeared in Life, April 24, 1950.]

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Ernest Borgnine (1917-2012)

[“Ernest Borgnine, talking on phone, in scenes from the movie Marty.” Photograph by Allan Grant. December 1954. From the Life Photo Archive. Click for a larger view.]

Sad news in the New York Times: Ernest Borgnine has died.

Orange Crate Art is a Borgnine-friendly site. I love Marty. I’ve even watched A Grandpa for Christmas three times — because it stars Ernest Borgnine.

One of my favorite OCA posts imagines life after Marty for Marty Piletti and Clara Snyder, who will never die.

The Cummerbund Response

From a dream:

The Cummerbund Response: a gesture, utterance, or choice of apparel whose degree of formality exceeds what is appropriate to an occasion, typically a result of social uncertainty.
A related post
Skeptiphobia (also from a dream)

[In my dream, the term showed up uncapitalized, but capitals look so good in Jim’s comment that I’ve added them here.]

Friday, July 6, 2012

Domestic comedy

“I think our family is loyal to intellectual questions the way normal families are loyal to a sports team.”

Related reading
All domestic comedy posts (via Pinboard)

[Used with permission.]

“Medium talk”

At a dinner party, Larry David (Larry David) asks Hank (Chris Parnell) a question:

“So how’s your marriage?”

“What the hell? Why — why would you ask me that?”

“I’m trying to elevate small talk to medium talk.”

From “The Hero,” Curb Your Enthusiasm (2011).
Related posts
Deep talk v. small talk
Larry David on the red phone
Larry David’s notebook

[We’re watching the eighth season of CYE on DVD.]

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Too Late the Phalarope

Jim Doyle, the best teacher I’ve ever known, recommended Alan Paton’s Too Late the Phalarope (1953) to me more than thirty years ago. I bought the novel in paperback, a long time ago — so long that the price, $3.45, now looks like a highly improbable price for a book. The book sat on one shelf or another until last week, when I thought I should read that.

And now I can recommend Too Late the Phalarope. The novel tells the story of the destruction of Pieter van Vlaanderen, Afrikaner, police lieutenant, footballer, stamp collector, husband and father, a man undone by his desire for a black woman named Stephanie. The narrative works as does ancient Greek tragedy: we know from the beginning that Pieter is doomed. His family falls with him: the house of van Vlaanderen. The novel’s narrator is Pieter’s aunt Sophie van Vlaanderen, disfigured, unmarried, unable to prevent what is to befall her nephew (and thus something like the chorus of Greek tragedy). Here and there, we read excerpts from Pieter’s journal, now in Sophie’s hands. In these pages, Pieter is never able to articulate what it is that he feels for Stephanie: his is a desire that dare not speak its name, or that has no name.

Too Late the Phalarope captures the agony of living with the expectation that one’s secret will be (or has already been) found out. A neighbor’s glance, the tone of an offhand remark: to Pieter, the slightest gesture or word begins to seem dangerously meaningful. He hides his secret in a world divided into irreconcilable categories: black and white, body and soul, damnation and salvation, justice and mercy, love and sex. Presiding over all events is an angry patriarch — Pieter’s nearly humorless, rigid father, who is willing to banish his son and lock the door against his return.

I think I’m a better person for having read Too Late the Phalarope. And now I wonder why its enigmatic title didn’t move me to read it sooner.

[A comment on a previous post places Jim’s first encounter with the novel in spring 1980. And if it doesn’t go without saying: Paton was a committed opponent of apartheid.]

Higgs boson explained (?)

My son Ben passes on a link to a video from PhD Comics, The Higgs Boson Explained. It’s beyond me. But I find a satisfactory explanation of the particle in the work of Luther Dixon and Al Smith:

Higgs boson, can’t you hear me when I call?
Higgs boson, can’t you hear me when I call?
Now you ain’t so big, you just small, that’s all.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

The Fourth of July

[“American children of Japanese, German and Italian heritage pledging allegiance to the flag.” Photograph by Dorothea Lange. California, April 20, 1942. From the Life Photo Archive. Click for a larger view.]

Saying no to xenophobia is the American way, or ought to be, always. Happy Fourth of July.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Andy Griffith (1926–2012)

Sad news in the Chicago Tribune:

Actor Andy Griffith, whose portrayal of a small-town sheriff made The Andy Griffith Show one of American television’s most enduring shows, has died at his North Carolina home, television station WITN reported on Tuesday.
Another reason to remember Andy Griffith: his performance as Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes in Elia Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd (1957).

A pipe with a cigar in it

Navigating the parking lot of my local multinational retail corporation, I noticed a man behind the wheel of a station wagon. He was smoking a pipe with a cigar in it. The bowl of his pipe held perhaps three or four inches of cigar.

Men do smoke in this manner. Women too. Card Cow has proof that even roosters enjoy a cigar in a pipe. The why though puzzles me. Can anyone suggest an answer?

[I stopped smoking cigarettes almost twenty-three years ago. But sometimes, still, je veux fumer.]

Monday, July 2, 2012

Proust in the NYT crossword

Marcel Proust makes an anagrammatic appearance in today’s New York Times crossword. The clue for 25-Across: “French writer’s state of drunkenness.” The answer: PROUSTSSTUPOR. The maker of today’s puzzle is ninety-eight-year-old Bernice Gordon, who has been making crosswords for sixty years.

Related reading
All Proust posts (via Pinboard)

Nancy meets Alfred Hitchcock

Caution: If you’ve never seen Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 film Vertigo, you may want to skip this post.

Behold Nancy Ritz and Sluggo Smith, in their screen tests for the roles of Madeleine Elster and John “Scottie” Ferguson, roles that went to Kim Novak and Jimmy Stewart. Nancy’s Madeleine, possessed by the spirit of her great-grandmother Carlotta Valdes, is about to speak the haunting line “Somewhere in here I was born, and there I died.”

[Click for a larger view of Novak, Stewart, and a cross-section of a redwood.]

More haunting still is the Ritz and Smith version of Vertigo’s recognition scene. In the blue-green light of the Hotel Empire’s neon sign, Scottie sees Judy Barton transformed at last into the now-dead Madeleine.

Vertigo is my favorite film. I think it can take a joke.

[Click for larger views.]

Other Nancy posts
Charlotte russe
The greatest Nancy panel?
Nancy is here
Nancy meets Stanley Kubrick (screen test for The Shining)

[Nancy panels by Ernie Bushmiller, March 13 and March 30, 1945, from Nancy Is Happy: Complete Dailies 1943–1945 (Seattle: Fantagraphics, 2012). I’ve removed speech balloons from the second panel. Blue-green light courtesy of the Hotel Empire.]