John McIntyre, whom James Wolcott calls "the Dave Brubeck of the art and craft of copy editing," writes on language, editing, journalism, and other manifestations of human frailty. Comments welcome. Identifying his errors relieves him of the burden of omniscience. Write to jemcintyre@gmail.com, befriend at Facebook, or follow at Twitter: @johnemcintyre. Back 2009-2012 at the original site, http://weblogs.baltimoresun.com/news/mcintyre/blog/ and now at www.baltimoresun.com/news/language-blog/.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Surprising -- surprisingly weak, that is

She started out so promisingly, too. Jill Lepore in the current New Yorker:

“At present the United States has the unenviable distinction of being the only great industrial nation without compulsory health insurance,” the Yale economist Irving Fisher said in a speech in December. December of 1916, that is.

The journalistic device of leading you in one direction and then bringing you up short with an additional amplifying detail can be effective. But adding the feeble that is merely dilutes the effect with cliche. If the fragment after the opening sentence had simply read, “Of 1916,” the reader would have felt the impact of the nation’s long failure to deal with the issue. Instead, the reader gets the impact of the writer’s elbow nudging him in the ribs. Didja get that, huh, didja?

7 comments:

  1. John, why don't you ever talk about what's RIGHT with the New Yorker?

    :-)

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  2. Because that would take far less entries. :)

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  3. I'm with you, John. "December 1916" would have been plenty strong enough. I always fear that by putting the date in the "that is" sentence, away from the month, a skimmer, or someone who doesn't know who Fisher is, will miss the "that is" sentence and will think that perhaps Mr. Fisher spoke in December 2008, or something. Crazy fear perhaps.

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  4. "So they packed up their truck and they moved to Beverleeee ... Hills, that is."

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  5. Excellent point. Well presented, too.

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  6. Is "December of 1916, that is." even a sentence? Thank you for commenting on a growing trend that is extrememly annoying.

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  7. The humor-killing New Yorker wordiness reminds me of a current TV commercial in which a woman holds up a manikin's arm and leg to demonstrate what she doesn't want to pay for a car, then says, "an arm and a leg." If she had to say what she wanted, it would be funnier if she held up the arm and leg and said, "an ear and a dimple."

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