The Write Stuff
A ‘Quaker Anchor Maker’?
By Alan Crawford,
Have you ever been advised to read your writing aloud? It’s a good way to catch problems with your prose. But an even better way might be to have someone else read it aloud to you.
That might have helped the author of a new biography of Light-Horse Harry Lee, a hero of the American Revolution, had he — the author, not Lee — done so himself. I reviewed the book, and in the review I quoted one line that should have been caught and fixed. The author wrote that one of Lee’s commanders, Gen. Nathanael Greene, was the son of a “Quaker anchor maker.” Now unless the author intended that to sound funny, and I doubt if he did, he’d have changed it once he heard it.
Unfortunately, other passages in the book were comical and, for that reason, distracting. Some turns of phrase just sound funny, and you notice them more when you actually hear them.
Adverbs or ‘Badverbs’?
“Quaker anchor maker” sounds funny. So does the way the author describes how Lee dressed down his British counterpart after a battle. Lee, he writes, “cockily admonished” the man. Other word choices are simply odd and, because they are odd — as well as cumbersome and confusing — they make the reader stop. Food at Valley Forge was “vanishingly scarce.” The author has a problem, it becomes apparent, with needlessly multisyllabic -ly adverbs. His adverbs too often become “badverbs.”
And then there is this real howler. Lee’s children were delighted — as who would not be? — when a hen at his plantation “gave birth to tunefully chirping chicks.” Not only does “tunefully chirping chicks” sound funny, but, even funnier, the sentence suggests that the author does not know that chickens do not give birth. They lay eggs.
Reading those passages aloud might have spared the author some embarrassment. But it would also have deprived the reader of a few chuckles. So, I guess, in the end, it is your call.
Notice I didn’t say “at the end of the day.” I will save that one for another column.
ANNOYING WORD OF THE MONTH. Trope. I wonder how many politicians and analysts talking about Rep. Ilhan Omar’s “anti-Semitic tropes” can even tell us what “trope” means. This is not to suggest that the Minnesota Democrat’s positions aren’t objectionable; they certainly are. Why her critics default to “trope” is hard to figure out, except that they are hearing other people say and write it, so, in its own way, it has gone viral. I think they mean that Omar is using a kind of shorthand, the way they accuse some fringe Republicans of using “dog whistles” when talking about race. Except “dog whistle” really is a trope, if trope means — as I think it does — figurative language to suggest something the speaker or writer is reluctant to say forthrightly. In that sense, a phrase Omar used, “it’s all about the Benjamins,” really might be a trope, though the people now using the term wouldn’t know it.
Until now, the best I can tell, the term was confined to discussions of literary devices but then leaked over into talk about movies and television shows. Now it’s everywhere. Once again, the ever-useful Urban Dictionary rides to the rescue. Trope, it says, is an “overused, nearly meaningless word worn out by pretentious twits, much like paradigm.”