SARAH SMILEY

Troop withdrawal: Results may vary

Sarah Smiley
Sarah Smiley
Posted Oct. 29, 2011, at 5:19 p.m.
Last modified Oct. 30, 2011, at 11 a.m.

Words matter. The order in which a writer places words matters. Simple wording is best. And verbs can change everything.

This is why, when I teach writing, I ask students to find examples of powerfully placed words. It’s not a difficult task. Examples abound, with the advertising world leading the pack. Consider: “There is no other machine that is as long lasting or powerful as ours” versus “Nothing runs like a Deere.”

Even a carefully placed error — in grammar, punctuation or meaning — has impact. I’m thinking of the Bangor Daily News’ motto, “It’s what you need. To know.”

Consider also how L’Oreal created new meaning by changing just one word as their slogan evolved from “Because I’m worth it” to “Because you’re worth it” to “Because we’re worth it.”

Probably one of the most dramatic and effective tools in a writer’s toolbox is the verb. If I tell you someone “walked” down the street and someone else “staggered,” you envision two very different people.

However, my personal favorite effect is the use of a powerful last word or sentence. People remember what they read last. A recent example, which has hung in my mind since I read it, came from Peter Savodnik’s article “Inside the Russian Short Wave Radio Enigma” in the October 2011 issue of Wired magazine: “The front door appears to be locked. There is no light on inside; no one comes in or out. But someone has been here. The dog, after all, must be fed.”

That last sentence, a double entendre that is as much about an actual dog as it is about media consumption, on the heels of an otherwise ordinary feature article, caused me to close the magazine, hand it to my husband and say, “You have to read this.”

Words are powerful.

Students like finding mistakes best of all, especially when the mistake was made by someone famous or their teacher. I’m thinking of Bob Dylan’s or Eric Clapton’s erroneous use of “lay” instead of “lie” in the songs “Lay, Lady, Lay” and “Lay Down Sally.” But just imagine the fun when I accidentally wrote in a recent column that my husband “should of” — instead of “should have” — thought about his options!

Newspapers, of course, are fertile ground for errors. Unlike magazines and books, newspapers are written on tight deadlines. Editors do not have weeks and months to read and reread a single piece of writing and make corrections. This doesn’t make grammatical errors excusable, but, rather, understandable. And, well, it makes some editions of the newspaper excellent teaching aides.

There is nothing better than a well-placed misplaced modifier in a national publication to make a lesson more memorable for students. And these mistakes are more common than you might expect. Even Philip Corbett, who has a regular column on The New York Times blog outing mistakes in his own newspaper, has no shortage of examples.

Misplaced or dangling modifiers are one of the most frequent writing errors, and the result can be comical. Consider this from Groucho Marx: “One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas.” More often, however, mistakes in grammar or usage result in confusion, lost meaning and, even, misinformation.

Which brings me to The Associated Press’ wording in the announcement that U.S. troops are leaving Iraq: “America’s long and deeply unpopular war in Iraq will be over by year’s end and all U.S. troops ‘will definitely be home for the holidays,’ President Barack Obama declared Friday.”

As someone whose husband is actually leaving, not coming home, just in time for the holidays, the wording of this sentence stung.

Not all U.S. troops will be home for the holidays.

I’ve said it before, but it’s worth repeating: military service members serve and sacrifice in war and in peace. By the time I was 22 years old, my Navy-pilot dad had accumulated 11 years of sea duty. He had been gone half my life. And he was never deployed in a war. That’s 11 years of sea duty in times of peace, when the military’s comings and goings were not headline news.

The Associated Press made a mistake. It is a mistake of grammar or of understanding. Perhaps the AP does in fact believe that “all U.S. troops” will be home for the holidays. But if they know the truth — that at any given moment, holiday after holiday, thousands of U.S. troops are separated from their families — then I’d like to offer this sentence to my students as an example of a noun that needs modifying.

The sentence should read, “all U.S. troops in Iraq ‘will definitely be home for the holidays’.”

To phrase it any other way is to give Americans an excuse to look away, to clap their hands and say, “Whew, that’s done.” It gives Americans a clear conscience to gather their family around the Christmas table and not worry about the military. Because military families are together, too, right?

The answer is no.

Perhaps the AP should have taken another cue from the advertising world and included an asterisk leading to a disclaimer after the word “all.”

Something like this:

“America’s long and deeply unpopular war in Iraq will be over by year’s end and all* U.S. troops ‘will definitely be home for the holidays,’ President Barack Obama declared Friday.”

*Results may vary. Some restrictions apply.

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