Gimme Shelter: Word play in the world of 2019

With a look back at 2019 slipping over the horizon as a smoking pile of bad rubbish (good riddance), let’s turn our attention to the sunlit uplands of 2020 where we can think about what has happened to the English language.

Oh, my.

It was a year when phone calls became perfect, some people were woke, some had a platform and those who didn’t were canceled and thrown under the bus, thought leaders had to grapple with optics to the point where you couldn’t wrap your head around it for all the ghosting.

That last, uh, sentence, beyond not taking the advice that clichés should be avoided like the plague, contains some of the words that the cold-eyed (and hearted) language constables of Lake Superior State University (LSSU) have sent to the gallows in their annual “Words Banished from the Queen’s English for Mis-use, Over-use and General Uselessness.”

Other utterances that deserved a swift and merciless death, according to the Robespierres of LSSU are “eschew” because, “Nobody ever actually says this word out loud, they just write it for filler.” And “wheelhouse,” describing an area of expertise that is “an awkward word to use in the 21st century. Most people have never seen a wheelhouse.”

Added to Merriam-Webster’s dictionary this year is “dad joke,” which reminds me: A misogynist, a billionaire and a Russian agent walk into a bar. The bartender says, “What’ll you have, Mr. President?”

Speaking of jokes, we should mourn their passing as one more example of how storytelling is fading away in a blizzard of images, and sarcasm has become wit. Tell me a story? If you insist.

Bank manager realizes $9 million has gone missing. After an investigation all guilt points to a teller who is deaf and mute. Manager hires a sign language expert, brings in the teller and says, “Tell him to tell me where the money is.” The interpreter signs, the teller signs back. “He says he doesn’t know what you’re talking about.” Manager pulls out a gun, puts it to the teller’s head. “Tell him I’ll blow his brains out if he doesn’t tell me.” The interpreter signs, the teller quickly signs back with the exact location of the cash. “What’d he say?” the manager asks. The interpreter replies, “He told you to go to hell.”

Where was I? Oh, right. “Words, words, words,” as Hamlet responded to a question of what he was reading.

We can learn a bit about the state of the souls of English-speaking people in 2019 by dwelling on the most frequently searched words in Merriam-Webster last year. On the list are: cynical, apathetic, conundrum, ambiguous, integrity and pretentious.

There are no … words.

As we do each year at this time, we asked David Lozell Martin, the journalist, editor, best-selling author of a dozen novels, as well as one of the finest American memoirs, “Losing Everything,” to weigh in. The hanging judge of language — do not get on the wrong side of him over the serial comma — complied, releasing his holiday guide of, as he put it, “this year’s writing outrages.”

Below is Mr. Martin’s dispatch from his fortress on the Delmarva Peninsula, named for the brave and noble Delmarva tribe.
You know what really frosted my Christmas tree ornaments this year? Misplaced modifiers.

I’m seeing more and more of this mistake in the copy I edit, and I think the reason is that writers are relying on spell check and grammar check software instead of carefully reading their sentences. A couple of recent examples:

“Santa entered the room of children with a big white beard and red suit.”

“The quarterback only threw passes on third downs.”

In the first case, readers can figure out it was Santa with the beard and red suit, not the children. The damage is being ridiculous, not confusing.

The second example is trickier: Did the quarterback throw only passes, no run plays, on third downs or did he limit his passing exclusively to third downs? It was the latter, so the sentence should read: “The quarterback threw passes on third downs only.”

Here’s how placement of a modifier can change meaning in this sentence: “I scratched Bill on the face.”

“I only scratched Bill on the face.” Just scratched him, no hitting, no gouging.

“I scratched only Bill on the face.” Didn’t touch anyone else, just Bill.

“I scratched Bill on the face only.” The rest of him was unmarked.

The lesson is: place modifiers as close as possible to that which they are modifying.

At a recent holiday party, someone told me, “When the weather is cold and rainy, I stay inside and watch out the window while the dog sniffs around and then immediately after defecating I allow him back inside.”

This was confusing on several levels. Then I figured out the culprit, once again, was a misplaced modifier. At least, that was my fondest hope.
With thanks to Mr. Martin, Merriam-Webster and LSSU, we’ll end with a simple question and answer that is possible only by taking English out to play: Did you hear about the insomniac agnostic who suffers from dyslexia? Poor man was up all night wondering if there was a Dog.