Friday, March 25, 2011

Careful What You Say Lest You Be Quoted

Connye Griffin writes My Writing and Editing Coach

Johnny Carson and his protégé, Jay Leno, occasionally stopped talking to guests to present the silly, laughable misprints and unintended messages posted on billboards and in the print media. I regret the days when I made a similar mistake and will be eternally grateful that no one let Johnny or Jay know when I did.

The humiliation that accompanies these mistakes should instruct us to develop our editing skills by paying close attention to the messages that we construct. That is the lesson of this post: Editing 101, also known as Editing According to Common Sense.

Consider the lack of common sense in the quotations below, each taken from Foolish Words: The Most Stupid Words Ever Spoken, compiled and organized by Laura Ward.

• How frustrating to labor over a complicated jigsaw puzzle, only to find that essential pieces have been misplaced! The picture will never become whole without them and remain an enigma, yet General Westmoreland, during the Vietnam War, once said, “Without censorship, things can get terribly confused in the public mind” (50). I wonder if the General regrets these words for they suggest that pieces of the puzzle should be withheld intentionally so that the complete picture will never emerge in order to protect civilians from (gasp!) the truth.

• When British troops asked how command-level officers planned to protect them against the devastating power of the atom bomb, they received little consolation when in The British Army Journal, February 1949, they read: “The best defense against the atom bomb is not to be there when it goes off” (51). The troops could hardly have been reassured by those words.

• After an incident that General Westmoreland apparently could not censor, an anonymous U. S. officer explained that “To save the town, it became necessary to destroy it” (53). Well, if that is the officer’s opinion, I hasten to ask that he never attempt to save me.

• “I have opinions of my own—strong opinions—but I don’t always agree with them” (74), President George W. Bush once said, and his words require no further comment, do they?

• Quoting President George W. Bush reminds me of Vice-President (to President George H. W. Bush) Dan Quayle who said, “Rural Americans are real Americans. There’s no doubt about that. You can’t always be sure with other Americans. Not all of them are real” (78). So, Mr. Quayle, what are they? Pure figments of America’s imagination?

• Finally, when trying to avoid confessing, I suggest that you avoid an actual confession, something that David Dinkins, former mayor of New York City, failed to do when he declared, “I haven’t committed a crime. What I did was fail to comply with the law” (79).

Language is often messy, especially when speaking extemporaneously. My tongue freezes, words stall, and others fly freely whether they fit correctly or not. Forgive me this day my daily sound-byte.

The written word, however, must be carefully, doggedly, laboriously edited so that what we write will be clear. May I be so lucky every time out.

Reading Challenge:

Read political speech, the carefully crafted and rehearsed kind as well as the unrehearsed, impassioned kind. Online you will find 100 of the greatest speeches of all time. You might also consider a collection of speeches in print, including the one shown hereon. The best speeches will not show a dearth of common sense, however.

Writing Challenge:

Record the confusing and sometimes comical passages that lack “common sense.” Enjoy them in moments of sorrow. In addition, use the speech writers' gems as patterns for your own messages.

Grammar, Usage and Mechanics (GUM)

A very common error made by my student writers involved the spelling rule that reads: I before E as in those words listed below.

• Believe
• Grieve
• Reprieve
• Thief
• Niece
• Achieve

The spelling rule continues: I before E except after C as in the words below.

• Receive
• Deceive
• Perceive

The complete spelling rule reads: I before E except after C and when the vowels sound like A. Thus, the correct spellings for words in which the vowels E and I combine to sound like A are

• Neighbor
• Weigh
• Rein
• Reign