Sunday, July 17, 2016

How to improve writing (no. 65); or, CBS, sheesh

From a CBS This Morning story about Ken Burns:

Fittingly, Burns also released his first children's book this week called Grover Cleveland, Again!: A Treasury of American Presidents , featuring illustrations and “fun facts” about past American presidents. The idea began when he used to drill his daughter, Sarah, now 33 years old, on the commander-in-chiefs.
Make that commanders-in-chief . But notice too that commander-in-chiefs appears in this passage only because its writer, in an effort to avoid repeating the word presidents , has succumbed to the lure of what H. W. Fowler called “elegant variation” (which Bryan Garner has renamed “inelegant variation”). Why not rethink the entire passage? My best shot:
Fittingly, Burns also released his first children's book this week: Grover Cleveland, Again!: A Treasury of American Presidents , an illustrated book of “fun facts.” The idea for the book took shape years ago, when Burns would quiz his daughter Sarah, now 33, on the presidents.
I’ll leave all but one of my changes to speak for themselves: Burns has four daughters, so no comma after daughter .

Thanks to Sean at Contrapuntalism for alerting me to this passage.

Related reading
All OCA How to improve writing posts
All OCA sheesh posts (Pinboard)

[Garner’s Modern English Usage points out that commanders-in-chief  is nineteen times more common than commander-in-chiefs . Of course, as The Onion reminds us, the effort to get plurals right can lead in the direction of the daffy. This post is no. 65 in a series, “How to improve writing,” dedicated to improving stray bits of public prose.]

comments: 6

Stefan said...

"Quiz" for "drill" stands out among your improvements, Michael. The original caused me to worry a little for Sarah.

Michael Leddy said...

It’s an unfortunate choice of words there. I didn’t see it at first, but once I saw it, I could not unsee it. Ken Burns deserves better prose, even if he is responsible for Jazz . :)

Sean said...

Hehe..."Jazz" is the "New York" of "Baseball". :)

Michael Leddy said...

I haven’t seen New York , but I can guess what you mean.

Sean said...

Still though, I wish he'd do "Pencils." Or maybe "Faber vs. Faber" (narrated by Dustin Hoffman andMeryl Streep).

Michael Leddy said...

I vote for the great Keith David: “It was a new kind of pencil. No one had ever written with anything like it before.”