A couple of weeks ago The New York Times carried an editorial on the troubles afflicting Medicare. The piece was impeccably magisterial. This Constant Reader was about to nod it off to the round file, but one stylistic matter cried out for comment. Let us pray.
You have heard me carry on about the sound of what we write. My contention is that we read not only with our eyes but also with our ears. It is a subliminal thing. Silently, we read aloud. The phenomenon isn't worth much if we're reading a box score or a table of tides for September, but it affects a great deal of our daily communication.
The Times' editorial ended with a virtuous admonition: “With Medicare expenditures soaring, there is no room for any more waste, fraud or complacency.” Who could improve that? Let us try. Suppose we tweak that final sentence just a teeny-weeny millimeter. Now it reads: “With Medicare expenditures soaring, there is no room for any more waste, complacency or fraud.”
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Fraud! The final single syllable carries a wallop that is muffled and lost if we end on “complacency.” Listen up, you writers! Tune your ears to the unheard sound of the printed word.At a less cosmic level, permit me to inquire one more time: Is “media” singular or plural?
The Stylebook of The Associated Press says that in the sense of mass media, such as newspapers and TV, the noun is plural. The New York Times grumpily concurs. (The Times will keep the noun plural “for now.”) The Wall Street Journal, on the other hand, reported last month that “the Obama-leading media is quite capable of ignoring Biden's flaws.” One hungers to know what the subject of “is” is.
I vote for the plural construction: One medium is, two media are. If you disagree, take it up with the dear lady who taught me Latin at Taft Junior High School in Oklahoma City 75 years ago. She's dead, but Latin isn't.
Wonder of the Week Department: The VISA credit card folks bought a full-page ad during the Olympics — calendered stock, two colors — and won a booby prize for their effort. The text began, “Maybe it's not where AN ATHLETE'S from that makes us root for THEM.” (My caps). The ad continued in the third-person plural with cheers for the flag on “their back” and the anthem we hear when “they win.”
Who got dipped?
Don't nobody at VISA's ad agency know a singular antecedent when it pole-vaults across a high-priced page?
And at least a tsk-tsk to proofreaders at the venerable Wall Street Journal. In late July they fumbled a piece that touched upon Al Gore's dim view of oil wells: “His inconvenient speechifying only tightens the vice Democrats find themselves in over drilling.” Come now! Everyone knows that Democrats shun vice. But they often tighten vises.
While we're passing out prizes, let us award a purple potato-masher to a restaurant critic at the Eugene (Ore.) Register-Guard. She liked almost everything at Manola's Thai Cuisine, but the spring rolls left an especially unforgettable impression:
“Once dipped into an amber-colored, jam-like plum sauce, which is made in the kitchen, I sat back with pleasure and let my mouth ponder the wonderful feel and taste.”
And then the critic went home and took a hot shower.
Alas, dear readers, not all writers can be as perfect as me.