Back in April, a letter came to the editor of the South Bend (Ind.) Tribune. The letter began: "All this worry about George W. Bush's 'goings-on' during the Vietnam War is a can of worms that the Republicans tried to crucify Clinton with that now has come back to bite them."
One gazes upon that sentence with genuine admiration. It is a Mona Lisa of mixed metaphor, a plastic gem of purest ray serene. We are reminded, once again, that the English language also is a can of worms -- squirmy nouns, slippery verbs, phrases that turn and bite and slide away. But you know the feeling. Every writer knows it.
When we err on facts, we can blame it on carelessness. We didn't check. Today's dissertation has to do with a different offense against the writing art. This is a failure to read our own stuff with a critically attentive eye -- to read it again, to read it yet again, and to read it once more before deadline. If we stay awake, we will avoid the four-fanged metaphor.
A writer for a newsletter nodded off: "Tea is no longer a stepsister to coffee, but has blossomed of its own accord into a swan."
Neither will we explain certain provisions of tax law with clauses that scratch: "These shelters are a cash cow for accounting firms, which have charged some clients $1 million just to hear a sales pitch and which pocket a percentage of the tax savings." The advice here is never, ever, mess with which/and which constructions. Their bite is fatal to euphony.
One more attentive reading might have clarified this turgid mess: "David Franzoni, the screenwriter, also wrote 'Gladiator,' and Clive Owen's Arthur, like Russell Crowe's Maximus, both faithfully serves the Roman empire and turns against its authoritarian abuses."
Or this: "Mr. Spitzer also says that Express Scripts would offer pharmacies a higher-than-warranted price for drugs whose entire cost could be passed on to the state in exchange for a lower-than-warranted price on drugs where Express Scripts had guaranteed a lower price and could pocket any savings if it bought the drugs for less." Yes.
The quotations are from the New York Times.
All of us have spells of inattention. From the Dalles, Ore., the Associated Press reported: "A plan to commemorate the route of massive Ice Age floods that reshaped the landscape of the Pacific Northwest with trails and interpretive centers will go before Congress next week . . . " Some floods! Some reshaping!
A reporter for the AP in Durham, N.C., covered a kidnapping: "Campos abducted Almendares and two children he fathered with her in Raleigh late Monday afternoon."
Elsewhere in North Carolina, an editor of the Mount Airy News confessed his addiction to cigarettes. He has to light up, but he tries not to offend "people who truly have adverse reactions to smoke or to children."
Out in Vallejo, Calif., prosecutors and defense lawyers made a deal: "The woman who helped raise a boy it is alleged her daughter kidnapped after murdering his real mother has signed a plea deal with prosecutors that would limit her jail time . . . "
A reader in Eugene, Ore., cites a headline three months ago: "U.S. Hiring Sputters in July." He asks, "What's the salary scale for an experienced sputter?"
The time element of a story can cause trouble. From Albany, Ga., three years ago: "The indictment alleged the coach looked down the shirt of one girl and asked if he could touch her sometime between Sept. 1, 1997, and May 15, 1998." Shame on the coach! And a triple-tsk for the writer.
Read your copy! Read your copy! One more time! One more time . . .
Readers are invited to send dated citations of usage to James J. Kilpatrick in care of The Buffalo News, P.O. Box 100, Buffalo, N.Y. 14240. His e-mail address is email@example.com.