Oof! And Other Emotional Reactions to Words

by Rose Blessing

Well-chosen words resonate with me for days. Poorly crafted words make me cringe, or, if quirkily hilarious, inspire a grin.

Once, while working as an editor, I encountered a challenging sentence. I don’t remember its first part, but my company published business magazines during the 1990s, so let’s say it was along the usual lines of, “Our department’s productivity increased once we began using the new software.” The second section of the sentence, however, arrested my attention and sticks with me still: the words he assured, followed by a period.

Oof. The phrase he assured pained me, as a pianist hitting a flat note might offend my oldest sister, the family musician. I needed to investigate this phrase because, before I ask an author to change something, I need solid reasons, which to me are specific violations of grammar and usage rules or of general precepts of good writing.

When editing, I don’t have to refer to a grammar book before I add or remove apostrophes from its and it’s, slice out redundancies, or flag misplaced modifiers that add unintentional humor to a piece. I’m on familiar turf as an editor then.

But for he assured, I had only my ear for language suggesting something was amiss. But I do not rely on “It sounds funny” as a reason to mark up a document, because therein lies the beginning of the slippery slope of making every piece I edit sound as if I had written it. Editing this way—from my gut—is, to my mind, disrespectful to the writer. So I do my homework.

In this case, my treasured American Heritage Dictionary told me what was wrong: assured falls into the category “transitive,” which means it requires a direct object.

Ah, I divined, one doesn’t just “assure.” One assures someone. So the writer needed to tack on a noun or pronoun, such as me or the audience. Or replace the word assured with, perhaps, noted or said. I was back on professional footing again. My pen hit the page.

Cleaned-up prose. What a pleasure.

Finding messy prose in print or online publications can provide sporting fun for an editor. The higher the quality of the publication, the bigger the thrill of spotting an error; if I were to catch one in The New Yorker, famous for its meticulous copyediting, I would feel as if I had won the lottery.

Recently, the word peel having been spelled peal jumped out at me from a page in a story I was reading. Two characters began to . . . peal. . . apples. Peal is one of those words associated mainly with one or two particular word strings, in this case “peals of laughter” or the “peals of the bells.” So my mind distracted me from this story by constructing an image of a cartoony gang of apples erupting into peals of laughter. So silly!

It’s harder to laugh when an error occurs in one’s own work. What a comedown it is to discover, after mailing 30,000 copies of a magazine, that a single letter has been omitted from the word manager, resulting pitifully in the characterization of the esteemed human profiled in the cover story as a . . . manger.

That kind of slip-up often emerges in a prominent position on a printed page, such as in a caption or call-out quote, because these items often get placed at the last minute, missing out on the multiple proofs the body of the text usually gets.

Maybe that is what happened in a brochure of candidate statements produced for voters by King County, Washington, in the fall of 2017. I read that “King County Elections does not correct punctuation, grammar, or fact check candidate and measure statements.” That’s a good practice for King County to follow, because, ha, ha, ha, this sentence suggests that King County Elections does not understand the principle of parallelism!

(The listed items—punctuation, grammar, fact check—should have all been in the same grammatical form: all nouns or noun phrases, or all verbs or verb phrases, for example. In this case, fact check is the outlier; it is a verb while the first two items are nouns.)

Identifying language errors can keep me pleasantly occupied, but the supreme pleasure of being attuned to language is to discover a great writer using words masterfully. My musical sister needs a seat in a concert hall for the ultimate enjoyment in sound, but I require only a wonderful book to make me happy.

My latest joy is Moonglow, by Michael Chabon, a story of the narrator’s grandfather’s life, which encompasses a youth in South Philadelphia, service in the war, a stint in prison, time in a Florida retirement facility and a period of illness in a home in Oakland, California (during which time much of the story is told to the narrator). The story is great; Chabon’s use of language makes me want to whoop with delight.

At the start of Chapter 14, set just after the close of World War II, three characters, all soldiers (one of them the grandfather) accept an offer of shelter in a room at a farmhouse. Chabon doesn’t just say that the snoring of two of them bothered the third. Instead, he writes: “Now my grandfather lay staring at the darkness as Gatto and Diddens took shifts working the stops and pedals of the pipe organ they appeared to have smuggled into the bed.”

How ferociously perfect, the choice of a pipe organ as a metaphor to capture the loudness and the mechanicalness of snoring . . .

In the next swoop of transcendent prose, the grandfather wakes up to “the profundity of the rural dark.” I mull over this phrase. How might I, not having reached Chabon’s level of skill yet (there is a reason I do more editing than writing), have written that? I might have used the phrase “pitch blackness,” but now that I think about it, that is a cliché that has lost its punch. Except for those individuals who tar their own driveways, who nowadays has much direct experience with pitch, anyway?

Profundity gets across the idea of a vastness that is both emotional and physical; rural dark probably resonates both with individuals who routinely experience environments in which night halos reach them from nearby cities and with individuals who do not. I’m lovin’ it.

Early on in Chapter 15 an inhabitant of the farmhouse, a priest, says, “I am sorry to wake you, Lieutenant,” and the narrator observes “something concealed in a fold of the old priest’s voice.” Oooh. How smooth. How fresh, the idea of a fold in the voice, implying that the voice has a physical shape, which matches up nicely with the reality that vocal cords create sound. . . I look up from the page, stretch and take a deep breath, dwelling briefly in the metaphor before I move on with the story.

I am sorry this novel ends after only 428 pages. Fortunately, the world constantly flings blocks of text at me, from unedited online material full of confused homophones to silly typos on menus to masterful prose in novels. Bring it on!

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