Monday, January 6, 2020

How to improve writing (no. 86)

Here’s a sentence brought me up short. From The New Yorker, December 23, 2019, page 69:

Buttigieg can give a thoughtful answer to almost any question, but he rarely tells a joke or heartfelt accounts of the people he meets on the trail.
Do you see the problem? You can tell a joke, but you cannot tell an account. Well, you can if you really want to, but you’d be writing decidely unidiomatic English. “He told a joke and heartfelt accounts”: yikes. From 1800 to 2018, Google’s Ngram Viewer shows no results for tell an account or told an account.

So — make sure that verbs and their objects go together:
Buttigieg can give a thoughtful answer to almost any question, but he rarely tells a joke or shares heartfelt accounts of the people he meets on the trail.
I’d tweak a little more:
Buttigieg can give a thoughtful answer to almost any question, but he rarely tells a joke or shares a heartfelt story about someone he’s met on the trail.
I’ll leave the extra changes to speak for themselves.

Related reading
All OCA “how to improve writing” posts (Pinboard)

[The sentence has the same problem in the online version of the article. This post is no. 86 in a series, dedicated to improving stray bits of public prose.]

comments: 15

Frex said...

I hope you don't mind--I love tweaking these myself too... Experimented with the verbs...
"Buttigieg can answer almost any question thoughtfully, but he rarely jokes or tugs on heartstrings with tales about people he’s met on the trail."
--Fresca

Anonymous said...

agreed but wouldn’t you give an account?

Michael Leddy said...

Fresca, I think that The New Yorker would mind us both. I think a problem with your version is that it’s possible to misread — if only for a fraction of a second — the joking and tugging as both being about the people he meets. Having one verb for the jokes and one for the stories helps keep things clearer. But if the New Yorker writer means jokes and stories about the people Buttigieg meets, then I’ve misread it.

Anon., yes, of course. Or you could say recounted.

Elaine said...

More and more often I am cringing during news-casts and series shows (as on HGTV and Food Channel) where dangling modifiers abound, and constructions like , "Her and me agreed on this color scheme." aaaaarrrrghhh

Fresca said...

Michael, Thanks for pointing out the problem in my version--I hadn't spotted it, but I *had* wondered why the heartfelt stuff (that is lacking) should specifically be "accounts of people he met on the trail"--
couldn't there be many other things to give heartfelt accounts of?

Yes? Then I could simply say, "he can answer almost any question ... but rarely jokes or tugs on heartstrings." (Or something like that.)

Anyway, thanks--I love these rewrites of yours.

Michael Leddy said...

Elaine, everyone knows that should be “She and me.” Or “The color scheme appealed to she and I.” Aiiee!

Fresca, I would guess that the writer has in mind the “ordinary people” candidates invoke in debates, people like Frank, a young farmer who’s wondering whether there’s a future in farming. Or Bettina, a young mom who’s gone back to school, &c.

Slywy said...

My issue with "tugs on heartstrings with tales about people he’s met on the trail" is the layer of interpretation/judgment added — like the teller is doing something with an intent. It sounds less factual and a little more manipulative. (I realize it's unintended but it sounds that way to me.)

Frex said...

Ah, yes, I see.

I do assume the politician tells heartwarming tales exactly with the intention to manipulate emotions, yes--I mean, politicians employ rhetorical tricks like that on purpose, right?

It's curious that when even when they know the trick--"add a heart-stirring tale about Bob the Mechanic, Pete"––they don't necessarily use them.

Slywy said...

I'm no expert, but in my view a reporter shouldn't assume or attribute motivations or do anything other than report what s/he observed. "Listeners cried openly as Polly Tician recounted stories of farmers selling their cows and land when dairy prices fell" or whatever.

Michael Leddy said...

How about:

Buttigieg can give a thoughtful answer to almost any question, but he rarely tells a joke or talks about the struggles of someone he’s met on the trail.

Fresca said...

MICHAEL--That's fine, but I finally read the article itself and it's not exactly neutral reportage, so I think your original "shares a heartfelt story about someone he’s met on the trail" matches the article's color better. :)

Example:"Buttigieg wore ... an oversized brown leather bomber jacket that looked as if it had been purchased in haste when the cold descended."

What does an object purchased in haste look like? And why would PB have to purchase a jacket in haste? It gets cold in Indiana too.

Anyway... fun for all!
--Fresca/Frex

Fresca said...

P.S. Glancing through the journalist Benjamin Wallace-Wells's other articles at The New Yorker, I saw this:
Will Hurd, the "lone African-American in the House Republican caucus will not be running for reëlection...".

Reëlection?

Michael Leddy said...

I guess maybe the jacket looked too brand-new? I wonder how the famed New Yorker fact-checking would check that.

That’s the (in)famous New Yorker diaeresis. I used to like it, but now I find it hard to take.

Frex said...

Oh, thanks--I didn't know about the diaeresis.
I do find it hard to take--like ads in the New Yorker for diamond doodads next to in-depth articles about the plight of sugarcane workers.

Michael Leddy said...

Sometimes remarkably few ads. I wonder what’s up with the magazine.