A crossword in your ear

Photo: Not at all relevant, but one of my better sunset photos from 2016

I lashed out this week and shouted* myself a new crossword book as the old one was (more or less) completed and someone had (a) left melted chocolate fingerprints on pages 19 and 20 and (b) the cover and edges of several pages were festooned with the squashed remains of a cockroach which dared to stray too close to the late-night toast and marmalade.

After a bit of trial and error, I settled for an A5 sized book with 65, large-type crosswords. At just $4.60 that’s astonishing value compared to buying a daily newspaper, about eight cents per crossword compared with paying $3.50 for a weekend newspaper which might have two crosswords, if you’re lucky. Let’s be clear – I don’t do cryptic crosswords because my brain does not work like that. I mean, who can work with clues like this one from a weekend newspaper:

“A cradle of land left after a big bang?”

Oh, I hear some of you crypto fans cry – any dunderhead knows that! We’ll have to wait for tomorrow’s Sunshine Coast Daily to be sure.

One of my readers, closer to 80 than 70, does the cryptic crossword in the weekend newspaper, Macquarie Dictionary opened on a reading stand.

“It might take me all week,” he said, when the subject came up, “but I get it done.”

Newspaper crosswords don’t let you know the solutions until the following day or week, so there cannot be, ahem, cheating, as there is with crossword books, which have the answers in the back. Never let it be said that I sneak a peek. That would be defeating the purpose, which is to keep the mind sharp, test one’s accrued general knowledge, learn new words and whittle away at the cockroach population.

I place a cross next to a word I’ve never come across before, and there are more than a few crosses in my tattered copy of Crosswords for Pleasure, which is being recycled as we speak. Fantail, for example (the overhanging part of a ship’s stern), or deists (believers in God). Grammarians and sub editors might know this one – cedilla (the diacritic put under a c in some languages).

Anyroad (northern English dialect for ‘anyway’), this is not really about crosswords, or even well-tempered words; no, this is about our shared love of the English language and its many foibles. I was telling a reader this week that when I post FOMM to my WordPress website, invariably the Readability program button flashes red. Too many long sentences, it grumbles. Too much use of the passive voice. Last week I did better, apparently, scoring only 9% use of passive voice (below the maximum recommended use of 10%).

I did not fare so well with a recent essay about racism in Australia (hard to sum up in 1,200 words, but I gave it a bash).

Apparently, 45.9% of sentences contained more than 20 words, which exceeds the recommended maximum of 25%. Also, 27% of sentences contained passive voice. But worse, the essay scored only 52.3% in the Flesch Reading Ease Test. Perhaps you don’t remember that one?

To be or not to be (Shakespeare) to be, to be, doo (Sinatra)

William Shakespeare was better known for his use of the subjunctive and prepositions but this is cited when grammarians give examples of passive voice: “Hamlet was written by William Shakespeare (passive) instead use “William Shakespeare wrote Hamlet” (active) although there is a lively debate whereby some scholars claim he did not write the play.

Charles Dickens didn’t mind a long-winded sentence – so much so his critics claimed (wrongly) he was being paid by the word. George Orwell ran on a bit too. I tested the first chapter of Down and Out in Paris and London with my website’s readability tool to find that 29.2% of sentences contained more than 20 words and 22% of sentences contained passive voice. While Orwell’s first chapter scored 69.9% in the reading test (considered ‘OK’), the programme chided him for starting three consecutive sentences with the same word.

“Try to mix things up,” the programme suggested.

Blogger Stroppy Editor says Orwell complained about the passive voice while using it extensively himself, even in the same sentence as his complaint.

The opening chapter of Bleak House by Dickens begins four consecutive sentences with the same word, but also packs 150 words or more into a paragraph (which he does six times) and 35.6% of sentences in chapter one contain more than 20 words.

Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snowflakes—gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun.” 33 words.

What writers love about the Internet is that, having had an idea, one can always find someone out there who has touched on the subject. The Huffington Post compiled a list of famous authors who made it OK to commit grammaticide. Of these, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle often used the passive voice, because unclear writing is a mystery, and Arthur loved a good mystery.

The girl had been murdered’ is more gut-wrenching that ‘someone murdered the girl’ because it puts the focus on the girl without revealing who murdered her.

Or: “No, your boy had been observed, and that gave me a guide where to look.” (Hound of the Baskervilles).

Journalist Constance Hales wrote in the New York Times blog Opinionator: ‘the most pilloried use of the passive voice might be that famous expression of presidents and press secretaries, “mistakes were made”.

Politicians have long used the passive voice to spin the news, avoid responsibility or hide the truth. One political guru even dubbed this usage “the past exonerative”.

Stroppy Editor says one obvious thing you can do with the passive (but not the active), is to omit the agent.

“This is very handy if the agent is unknown, irrelevant, too obvious to mention or too contentious to mention. This technique can also make a passive sentence much shorter and punchier than any active equivalent.”

“Yesterday I got dumped, fired, burgled and urinated on.

Yesterday, armed with an active-voice shopping list and a high school drop-out’s notion of grammar, I went to the butcher shop to pick up the Christmas ham.

“Mate,” I said. “Is there a ham here to be picked up by me?”

The kindly butcher, used to the eccentricities of the locals, called out to his off-sider “If the ham for Mr Wilson be ready, it is to be picked up by him now”.

You’ll be delighted to find, despite the provocative, 66-word opening sentence, that this essay scored 71.7 on the Flesch-Kincaid readability test. And I only used one cliché. A handy tool, but don’t let it fence you in.

We wish you and yours a safe and happy holiday. Friday on My Mind returns on January 6.

*In Australia, to ‘shout’ is to buy (a beer, a meal or a crossword book) for a mate.


Each cliche a cliffhanger

Image by Tom Newby https://www.flickr.com/photos/noodle93)

She Who Reads Newspapers: “Dear, it seems a raft of measures has been swept out to sea by a storm of protest.”
“Zounds,” I say (exhuming an archaic oath meaning indignation). “That will teach them not to put all their eggs in one basket.”
There was a time when a journalist wouldn’t touch a cliché with a barge pole, as Nigel Rees says in the introduction to his book, The Joy of Cliches. We all ought to have learned this at our mothers’ knees. Or as per a poster in a venerable Fleet Street news room: “Cliches should be avoided like the plague”. That said, the word itself as a double-word score is worth 26 points.

A cliché is an expression which has lost its original meaning through over-use and thus become trite or irritating. More persistent is the over-use of axioms (a phrase as self-evident as to be taken as a truth) and idioms (wise but clichéd sayings which often make no literal sense).
Today’s generation of journalists seem wedded, indeed married to the notion of over-using axioms, idioms and clichés. Battening down the hatches, they defy the fickle finger of fate, avoid being hoist with their own petards and keep everyone on tenterhooks.
According to worldwidewords.org, it is a long time since anyone saw a tenter, never mind the hooks. It refers to a process of making woollen cloth involved drying and stretching lengths of wet cloth on wooden frames (tenters), allowing them to dry and straightening their weave. Metal hooks were used to fix the cloth to the frame.
To be on tenterhooks, translating to someone being in a state of anxious suspense, goes back a bit. While fabric makers were using both tenters and hooks from the 11th century, the exact phrase on tenterhooks was first used by Tobias Smollett in Roderick Random in 1748.

Cliches to avoid like the paralysis tick

Steve Lautenschlager compiled 1658 splendid examples of the clichés to which so many of us turn when written or verbal expression finds us wanting. Among these gems are those that mention bridges, under which much water has flowed.

“We’ll cross that bridge when we get to it, that is, unless we’ve already burnt it.”

You could spend a bit of time, as I did, hunting down the supposed derivation of such clichéd phrases as ‘dressed to the nines’ (attributed to tailors using nine yards of cloth to make a suit). ‘Too many chiefs and not enough Indians’ is the original and now politically incorrect way of denigrating office politics, committees, boards and editorial meetings. One can vary this to ‘too many cooks in the kitchen’ or ‘too many cooks spoil the broth’ – in all, they mean too many people attempting to achieve something and in the end achieving nothing.

Babies and bathwater

Now contemplate the vividly awful image of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. I suppose it depends what floor you’re on. It also brings a new twist to the 19th century French warning “Garde à l’eau” which residents bellowed before throwing their bedpan contents out of the upstairs bedroom window.

The baby and the bathwater idiom means to discard something valuable along with something not wanted, from the German proverb, Das Kind mit dem Bade ausschütten, first recorded in English in 1853 by Thomas Carlyle.

Australian journalist Chris Pash has become the unofficial curator of cliché use in journalism.
Pash went through the Dow Jones Factiva database to short-list seven howlers he claims are the worst – in fact he challenges readers to put them all in one sentence. So here goes:

“At the end of the day, there was a split second outpouring of support for the unsung heroes who, after a last ditch effort, saved concerned residents from an embarrassing about face.”

I would have thought ‘sort after’ might get a mention.

Making a sow’s ear and all that

We all should know why journalists, particularly those who have to turn around fresh radio news every half hour, resort to snatching things out of thin air, saving a stitch in time, keeping their shoulder to the wheel, going the extra mile and cutting off their editor’s nose to spite his face.
A fresher way to express the latter would be to say that Alice, who in doing something bad to her editor out of a need for revenge, caused herself more harm because she is now perceived as a hateful harpy who can’t spell “sought after”.
It is truly disturbing in 2015 to peruse Nigel Rees’s book and the chapter about clichés in journalism (he wrote the book in 1984), to find that many are not, as one might expect, dead as a doornail. When all’s said and done, the smell of midnight oil or martyrs burning ought to set alarm bells ringing.

Rees says one of the more useful clichés for a journalist is ‘amid mounting’ – which as he coyly observes has nothing to do with horses or sex. Only journalists can use ‘amid mounting’ as it can be appended to any number of news stories linked to words like ‘opposition’ ‘derision’ ‘calls for his or her resignation’ (or in Oz) ‘calls for another leadership spill’.

Don’t drop the petard

The Phrase Finder’s Gary Martin observes just how many of the tired old maxims and tropes we use derive from the Bard himself, William Shakespeare. Consider “Hoist with your own petard.” (Hamlet 1602). A petard is, or rather was, a small bell-shaped device full of gunpowder used to blow breaches in gates or walls. Once you know what it means, being ‘hoist with your own petard’ is easy to fathom. It’s like pulling the pin out of a grenade in a trench then dropping the damn thing so it rolls downhill and under a plank and by the time you lift the plank…
Basically it means hurting yourself while in the act of trying to hurt others. The analogy would not be lost on Tony Abbott, nor, to be fair, on Julia Gillard or Kevin Rudd, or, in the fullness of time, Malcolm Turnbull.

Throwing glasses at castle walls

We could have some more fun with this but the real reason writers use common clichés and weary phrases is it soaks up the word count in less than no time, or no time at all if you prefer. But it’s a risky business pointing out other writers’ flaws.

As a waggish writer (possibly moi), once quoth: “People who live in stone houses shouldn’t throw glasses.”

So I’ll admit to playing with fire, stirring up an ant’s nest or even opening a can of worms, though why anyone would keep a can of worms in the pantry is anyone’s guess.

I just go with the flow, you know, Steve’s handy cliché list at hand. I’m running with wolves, burning the candle at both ends, waiting for the other shoe to drop.
Speaking of which, it’s time to rest on my laurels, so to speak, and hand this over to She Who has Eyes in the Back of her Head, the most sort (sic –Ed!) after editor this side of the Black Stump.