Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Sentence Edit of the Day: Dangling from the Rear

Most writers and editors have trained themselves to watch out for danglers and other misplaced phrases (prepositional phrases, especially) at the beginning of a sentence.

So, because I usually work with copy written by well-trained writers and editors, I often find misplaced phrases at the end of a sentence. Here's one:

Just remember to return the favor when others contact you by responding promptly to their requests.

This sentence is confusing (or at least slightly unpleasant to read) because the phrase "by responding promptly to their requests" is attached to the nearest verb—"contact"—instead of the verb it's truly modifying: "return." Here's one fix:

Just remember to return the favor by responding promptly to others' requests.

If you work in an environment where aggressive changes to text are grumbled about, a "rear dangler" (or a squinting modifier) can often be fixed by adding a comma (which can seem to separate the phrase from any dangerous attachments):

Just remember to return the favor when others contact you, by responding promptly to their requests.

A mentor used to call these commas "clarity commas," and they should be used sparingly.

Relative clauses, too, often get mixed up in sentences. Here's a sentence that a friend asked me to help sort out:

Three trends accelerated in 2010 that may redefine the way we shop for good.

Here are the sentence's two main problems: The clause "that may redefine ..." is clumsily situated. And "for good" is trying to be a prepositional phrase that attaches to "shop" (it is intended to adverbially modify "redefine").

Here's my fix:

Three trends that may forever redefine the way we shop accelerated in 2010.

If you feel that "accelerated in 2010" needs more prominence in the sentence, you might try:

Three trends that accelerated in 2010 may forever redefine the way we shop.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Christmas Music

I've spent a lot of time in airports this week—in fact, I'm sitting in one now, waiting for a flight from Boston to Washington, D.C. It's December 17, so sitting in a U.S. airport means listening to Christmas music.

Not to get all bah-humbuggy, but I strongly dislike Christmas music—especially modern Christmas music (with a couple of exceptions). The older stuff—that is, the religious stuff—I often find appealing for its genuineness of feeling (even if I may not share the feeling), and some of it is just beautiful music. I've always liked the melody of "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear," for instance.

But the children's songs annoy. Sorry, Rudolf and Frosty—your songs should just not be sung by adults, especially adults who find a way to sing the songs with "emotion." It makes me cringe. (Jack Johnson, I'm talking to you.)

Further, I think it's time for artists to stop writing and recording new holiday songs unless they can truly bring something new and interesting to the genre. I mean, I just heard Gloria Estefan singing some nonsense about putting her love on layaway for Christmas ... or something. (I can't bring myself to look it up, the asininity of the lyrics bothered me so.) Songs like these annoy me because they so often sound like, instead of songs that truly celebrate a feeling about the season, crass attempts to hit a Christmas-song jackpot, a la Maria Carey.

I recently heard Carey interviewed, and the reporter said that the singer's "All I Want for Christmas Is You" is the number-one song in the universe and has earned Carey $100 billion ... or something. (I don't feel like looking that up either, but the song is huge.) So, of course, Carey has recorded some more Christmas music (new album out now!), hoping to repeat her success—her and everyone else.

The worst, for me, are Christmas songs that try to "rock." The progenitor of this subgenre, "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree," is perhaps the very worst—an insult both to Christmas and to rockin'. Cyndi Lauper's calypso version of the song casts a pall over the artist's entire body of work. (And I adore Lauper!)

They're awful. These songs are true enemies of Christmas—cheapening it with bogus sentiment and asinine rhymes. Just sing the standards, singers! We like the standards. (Except you, Chris Cornell. If you go near "Ave Maria" ever again, there will be consequences.)

To end this post on a positive note, I will discuss a few exceptions to my proposed ban on Christmas music from the modern era:

Many original songs written during or near World War II are moving (to me) for their genuine longing for home—in fact, "I'll Be Home for Christmas" is probably my favorite Christmas song. "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" isn't bad, either (when Judy Garland sings it—but in any recording after 1970, I can swear I hear the singer struggle with the line "Make the Yule-tide gay.")

Vince Guaraldi's music is great—then again, when it comes to Christmas music, it's usually the lyrics that are the primary problem.

I like "Santa Baby" (Eartha Kitt's version) and "Hard Candy Christmas" (Dolly Parton's recorded version) for their sterling kitsch qualities.

And I have one indefensible modern song to add to this list of Christmas songs I like: Wham's "Last Christmas."

I know. I know! I already said it was indefensible.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Sentence Edit of the Day: Unnecessary Words

A friend and I once had a conversation about the phrase "I'm the type of person who ..."—and what an annoying thing it was to hear. We decided that someone who explains himself or herself by saying, "I'm the type of person who ..." is likely a simple, not-very-self-aware person. My friend added that a person who precedes that phrase with the phrase "One thing you'll learn about me is that ..." is even more eye-rollingly annoying (for instance, "One thing you'll learn about me is that I'm the type of person who tells it like it is").

Another friend then noted, witheringly, "You're the type of people who look down their noses at the type of person who says he's a type of person."

It's true.

I was reminded of this conversation again today, when I made an edit I make a lot: removing the phrase "someone who":

Are you someone who struggles with procrastination?

Why couldn't it be, simply:

Do you struggle with procrastination?

I'm the type of person who thinks it could and should.