Woo-Hoo for “Woo Woo”

Woo-woo tips mingle with practical pointers. “Eat from heart-shaped bowls, and put heart stickers on your refrigerator,” Minich recommends. (Why? “To keep the spirit of love alive,” duh.)

–The New York Times, March 27, 2016, review of Whole Detox, by Deanna Minich

… “Valley of Love,” a logy, woo-woo drama about a former couple who, at the request of their son, who killed himself earlier that same year, have come to find answers in the California desert.

–The New York Times, March 24, 2016

“I fluctuate between being very practical and very impulsive, and this was a very impulsive decision,” continued Mr. [Tim] Daly. … “Not to get too woo-woo, but there was a good vibe and I just kind of leapt.”

–The New York Times, February 5, 2016

Clearly, woo woo has hit center stage, or at least that portion of it occupied by The New York Times. And what exactly is woo woo? Deepak Chopra offered a rather defensive definition in a 2011 Huntington Post piece: “It used to annoy me to be called the king of woo woo. For those who aren’t familiar with the term, ‘woo woo’ is a derogatory reference to almost any form of unconventional thinking, aimed by professional skeptics who are self-appointed vigilantes dedicated to the suppression of curiosity.”

Some sources attribute the term — presumably an onomatopoetic rendition of the eerie soundtrack that plays when mystical folk unleash their mysticism — to James Randi, the longtime magician/skeptic whose career of debunking was recently chronicled in the documentary film An Honest Liar. The earliest reference I’ve been able to find is from a 1983 edition of New Age Journal, cited in a 1984 Philadelphia Inquirer article by Steven X. Rea:

George Winston, who practices yoga and who currently has three albums on the jazz charts … has jokingly called this crowd the “woo-woos.” In a 1983 interview in New Age Journal, Winston, asked if he knew who comprised his audience, answered that there were some classical fans, some jazz, some pop and “all the woo-woos.”

“You know,” he added, “there’s real New Age stuff that has substance, and then there’s the woo-woo. A friend of mine once said, ‘George, you really love these woo-woos, don’t you?’ and I said ‘Yes, I do love them,’ and I do. I mean, I’m half woo-woo myself.”

Woo woo soon developed from a noun to an adjective, as in this 1988 quote from a journal called Training: “Subsidiary gurus, licensed to deliver high woo-woo programs developed by others, often will remind you of TV weathermen.” (Interjection-noun-adjective is a rather unusual course of anthimeria.) The Times’ first use came two years after that, in an article about the Earth First movement: “In small towns among the redwoods, new-age settlers have appeared in tie-dyed wardrobes and dreadlocks. They work as carpenters, holistic healers, mandolin players, giving themselves names like ‘Sequoia’ and ‘The Man Who Walks in the Woods.’ Within Earth First, these neo-hippies are known as the ‘woo-woo element.’”

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Hugh Herbert

While looking into the origin of the mystic-mocking term, I was struck by how many other different ways it has been used, including as the catch phrase of Hugh Herbert, a rubber-faced comedy actor of the 1930s and ’40s. Wikipedia tells us:

His screen character was usually absent-minded and flustered. He would flutter his fingers together and talk to himself, repeating the same phrases: ‘hoo-hoo-hoo, wonderful, wonderful, hoo hoo hoo!’ So many imitators (including Curly Howard of The Three Stooges and Etta Candy in the Wonder Woman comic book series) copied the catchphrase as ‘woo woo’ that Herbert himself began to use ‘woo woo’ rather than ‘hoo hoo’ in the 1940s.

Interestingly, a 1938 article by Lucius Beebe in the New York Herald-Tribune associates the phrase with other comedians: “Originated by the Ritz Brothers and long accepted in the West as a cry of dismay, festivity, or general acclamation, the screaming of ‘woo woo’ has penetrated the New York bars.”

People nicknamed “Woo Woo” include:

  • Arnie (Woo Woo) Ginsberg, a retired Boston disk jockey, one of whose trademark sound effects was a train whistle. Jonathan Richman referenced him in the 1989 song “Fender Stratocaster”: “Like Woo Woo Ginsberg at the juke box joint/You hear the sound and you get the point.”
  • Legendary Chicago Cub fan Ronnie (Woo Woo) Wickers. (Not to be confused with Philadelphia Phillie fan Brad Golden, who shouts, “Everybody hits! Wha Hoo!”)
  • In the 1940s, 15-year-old Ellsworth (Sonny) Wisecarver Jr. developed a habit of running off with older women, garnering him national publicity and the moniker the Woo Woo Kid. Fun fact: A 1987 film based on Wisecarver’s exploits, In the Mood, was the first starring role of Patrick (McDreamy) Dempsey.

The Wisecarver woo woo seems to stem from the term’s use to denote a sense of risque hijinks, sort of the intersection of “hubba hubba,” “ooh la la,” and, in another bit of onomatopoeia, a wolf whistle, with an implied association with the idea of pitching woo. In 1960, Time magazine illustrated the glamour of the financial writer Silvia Porter by quoting a letter to her lecture agency, “Our second choice would not have the allure and woo-woo of Miss Porter.”

Then there was the Hamilton Jordan affair. As readers who were past the age of reason in 1978 may recall, Jordan, a top adviser in the Carter administration, made headlines that year when, at a Washington bar, he supposedly spit his drink on a woman’s blouse. The White House thereupon issued a 33-page white paper denying the allegation. The Washington Post reported:

The White House rebuttal issued yesterday rested heavily on the statements of Daniel V. Marshall III, a bartender at Sarsfield’s at 2524 L St. NW, where the incident occurred. …

Marshall’s version of what happened is that Jordan was quickly surrounded by young women who wanted to be near the “celebrity.” He said Jordan “woofed down” a steak and drank a beer and two Amaretto-and-creams.

The women were coming up to Jordan “and ‘woo-woo,’ you know what I mean?” Marshall asked.

I could discuss South Park’s Woo Woo PC Chant, the Woo Woo cocktail (vodka, peach schnapps, and cranberry juice), and Jeffrey Osborne’s 1986 “You Should Be Mine (the Woo Woo Song),” but you get the idea. Woo woo has an uncanny semantic productivity. Not to get too woo woo on you.

Let’s Call the Whole Thing ‘Often’

I was listening the other day to “Reply All,” a podcast about the Internet, and P.J. Vogt, the reporter/host, had occasion to say the word “often.” I was pretty confident that I knew how he was going to pronounce it. After all, Vogt is young (I would judge in his early 30s), and speaks with vocal fry, list lilt, uptalk, and, generally, a pronounced Ira Glass-esque lack of slickness.

In other words, I knew he would say “off-ten,” pronouncing the t.

And he did.

A good deal of history is embedded in his choice. The Oxford English Dictionary notes that the word often became commonly used (supplanting oft) only in the 15th century, and that in the 16th and 17th, it was sometimes said with the t voiced, sometimes not. Queen Elizabeth I said offen (the dictionary doesn’t say how it knows this), and that pronunciation became the accepted one. In the blog Daily Writing Tips, Maeve Maddox quotes John Walker’s Critical Pronouncing Dictionary, published in 1791: “in often and soften the t is silent.”

John Keats seemed to be assuming such a pronunciation in lines he wrote for a draft of “Endymion” (1818):

“… O foolish rhyme! / What mighty power is in thee that so often / Thou strivest rugged syllables to soften … ”

(My colleague Charles Robinson, a Romantics scholar, cautions, “I would agree that he probably pronounced often without the t — but you cannot prove it from the rhyme. Remember, there are partial and sight and near rhymes — so even if he did pronounce it off-ten, it would still ‘rhyme’ with soffen.“)

But the t version would soon revive. According to the American Heritage Dictionary, “With the rise of public education and literacy and, consequently, people’s awareness of spelling in the 19th century, sounds that had become silent sometimes were restored, as is the case with the t in often.”

The dictionary is noncommittal about the shift, but in the 20th century, usage commentators often got exercised about off-ten. H.W. Fowler wrote in Modern English Usage (1926) that the t-voiced version was “practised by two oddly consorted classes — the academic speakers who affect a more precise enunciation than their neighbours’ … & the uneasy half-literates who like to prove that they can spell.” Alan S.C. Ross’s “Linguistic Class-Indicators in Present-Day English,” the 1954 essay that coined the terms “U” (upper-class) and “non-U” (everyone else), put off-ten decidedly in the non-U camp.

Eric Partridge’s Usage and Abusage (1957) quotes a contemporary edition of The Concise Oxford Dictionary as calling the t-pronunciation “vulgar.” He adds: “It is certainly unnecessary and is usually due to an affectation of refinement.”

There is a regional as well as a class element to this, at least in the United States. The Dictionary of American Regional English quotes a 1928 issue of American Speech: “The Ozarker nearly always pronounces the t in often.” And DARE also cites the Linguistic Atlas of the Gulf States (1989) as reporting 453 informants who said the t as opposed to 290 who did not.

Data on pronunciation, as opposed to writing, are hard to come by, but I did my best. I listened on YouTube to 12 versions of the opening line of “On the Street Where You Live” — “I have often walked on this street before.” It was offen in both the My Fair Lady original cast album and the movie soundtrack, and in the renditions by Vic Damone, Etta Jones, Bobby Darin, Nat King Cole, Harry Connick Jr., Dean Martin, and Willie Nelson (whose version is my favorite). Only Tom Jones (a Welshman), Nancy Wilson (African-American, born in Ohio), and Smokey Robinson (African-American, born in Detroit) sang off-ten.

“Birches” by Robert Frost, has the lines:”Often you must have seen them/Loaded with ice a sunny winter morning/After a rain.” In this recording, Frost says offen.

As I suggested at the outset, it’s my sense that in recent years, young people have become partial to off-ten. The language blogger Jan Freeman agrees and offers anecdotal support:

I’ve been interested in this one since my daughter, brought up as an OFF-en speaker, went to college at the University of Michigan and came back saying OFF-ten. I don’t think it’s a regional thing — I grew up two hours south of Ann Arbor, and I don’t remember OFF-ten even as a variant. It must have been something she picked up from friends.

To at least pseudo-scientifically test this proposition, I met individually with the undergraduates in the class I’m currently teaching and asked them to read aloud the sentence, “Experience has shown that first impressions are often lasting ones.” Eight said off-ten and five said offen. (Obviously, their pronunciation may have been affected by seeing the t on the piece paper in front of them, or by self-consciousness.)

Whence the appeal of this pronunciation? All I know is that it seems of a piece with the popularity of amongst, whomever, saying “a person that” instead of “a person who,” pronouncing either as eye-ther, and the spellings grey and advisor. These are all changes in previously accepted usage that seem more formal, British, and/or fancier, and (in off-ten and the first three examples) are slightly longer. I leave to greater minds than mine the question of why these qualities are desirable.

In any case, in keeping with these trends, the question of how to pronounce “often” may soon cease to matter. Just as it replaced oft back in the day, it is being supplanted — if my students’ work can be trusted — by an amongst-ish antique word. That’s right, I’m talking “oftentimes.”

Who That?

A couple of weeks ago, referring to Ben Carson’s (supposedly) terrible temper, Donald Trump said, “I don’t want a person that’s got a pathological disease.”

What caught my eye was that he didn’t say, “… a person who’s got a pathological disease.” For some years, I have been noticing that my students favor the choice of that over who as a relative pronoun; I did some grumbling about it here, lumping it with other popular usages (“one-year anniversary” instead of “first anniversary,” sticking a comma after a sentence-starting “But” or “And”) that I collectively referred to as “clunk.”

I hasten to say that that that is perfectly correct, grammatically. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage sums up the matter: “In current usage, that refers to persons or things, which refers chiefly to things and rarely to subhuman entities, who chiefly to persons and sometimes to animals.”

Nor is human that any kind of newfangled thing. Shakespeare writes in Hamlet,  “By heaven, I’ll make a ghost of him that lets me.”  Horace Walpole observed, “This world is a comedy to those that think, a tragedy to those that feel.”  The Man That Corrupted Hadleysburg is a Mark Twain title. Ira Gershwin wrote “The Man That Got Away” and Irving Berlin “The Girl That I Marry,” possibly to avoid having the word whom in the title of a song. (On the other hand, the lovely Oscar Hammerstein-Jerome Kern tune is “The Folks Who Live on the Hill.”) Way back when, which was sometimes slotted in as well, as in the 1662 edition of The Book of Common Prayer: “Our Father, which art in heaven.”

Like so many other shibboleths, the idea that that is incorrect in reference to humans originated in the 18th century. The impact on usage was swift, as seen in the Google Ngram Viewer chart below. The blue line represents the relative frequency of the phrase “a person that,” the red line of “a person who”:

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Ngram Viewer charts usage in books, but the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA), which contains 450 million words written or uttered between 1990 and 2012, attests that human that is most common in speech. The chart below shows the  frequency of “a person that” in the different generic databases in COCA; “Spoken” mainly comes from broadcast transcripts.

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But even in print, Ngram Viewer attests that my observation of my students’ affection for that is part of a broader trend: since 1965, the frequency of “a person that” has increased roughly 150 percent.

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What’s the reason for the trend? Some discussions propose that it reflects a societal move toward depersonalization. Others have suggested that that now tends to be used when the subject is vague (“Anyone that wants to retire comfortably should start saving early”) and who when it is specific (“I’m a person who … “). But in my reading and listening, I don’t perceive such a distinction. Mignon Fogarty, aka Grammar Girl, points to a nifty passive-aggressive use: “I always think of my friend who would only refer to his new stepmother as the woman that married my father. He was clearly trying to indicate his animosity.” Maybe Trump was attempting such a ploy.

But I’m going to stick with my earlier hypothesis that a fondness for that is part of a generational sense that streamlined, glossy language moves— even so seemingly small a thing as the use of the word who — are somehow cheesy, and that it’s better to embrace the awkwardness. And why does the younger generation feel that way? Sorry. I’m not the sort of blogger that would hazard a guess on that.

Reporting Profiles

There’s a certain protocol for reporting profiles, whether short or long, or for newspapers, magazines, or online. The tasks below are listed roughly in order of importance, but they are all steps you should take when doing long or short or long profiles. Of course, the longer your article is going to be, the more time you should spend on each step. (To avoid pronoun awkwardness, I’m going to refer to the subject of your hypothetical profile as “she.”)

  1. On more than one occasion (if possible), send time observing her in action, doing the thing that makes her interesting or noteworthy. If a scientist, watch her in the lab; if a chef, in the kitchen; if a reporter, out reporting a story. This will not only give you an insight into how she operates, but will hopefully provide a scene or scenes that will lend drama and color to your story. Spend as much time as you can on this and be, in Henry James’s phrase, “one of the people on whom nothing is lost.” The ideal (though admittedly rarely attainable) goal is to make the person absolutely sick of having you hanging around all the time.
  2. If applicable, experience and reflect on the thing the person does. If a scholar, read her scholarship. If a painter, look at her paintings. If a chef, eat her food. Et cetera.
  3. Read everything that has been written about the person.
  4. Interview as many other people as you can about the subject of your profile. These interviews will fall into two categories. First, people who know and/or have worked with her and can provide insight into her work and personality. Second, impartial experts in the field who can assess her contribution and importance. For example, if the person is an architect, you could talk to an architecture professor.
  5. (Don’t do this before doing steps 2, 3, and 4, as these will help you come up with good questions.) Sit-down interview or interviews with the person. This is necessary, but it’s not going to be as fresh as 1, because an interview is an artificial situation. So use the interview primarily to get facts, details, and anecdotes, as opposed to quotes. (In your story, use long quotes only if the person is a great storyteller or talker. Otherwise, use short quotes of one or at most two sentences.)

Cheat Sheet: Identifications and Ages

Among the hardest things for my journalism students to master are the capitalization and punctuation of identifying people, and the punctuation of ages. Here’s a cheat sheet I hand out to them:

The rules—in terms capitalization and commas—are kind of complicated, so let’s take a look at some examples, first with IDs.

1. On Wednesday, President Barack Obama addressed Congress.
2. The president, Barack Obama, addressed Congress.
3. Barack Obama, the president, addressed Congress.
4. The Commencement speaker was billionaire Bill Gates.
5. Bill Gates, a billionaire, spoke at commencement.
6. Bill Gates, the seventh richest man in the world, spoke at commencement.
7. The seventh richest man in the world, Bill Gates, spoke at commencement.
8. The software pioneer Bill Gates spoke at commencement.
9. Software pioneer Bill Gates spoke at commencement.
9. Speaking out against the rule was sophomore Ellen Jones.
10. A sophomore, Ellen Jones, said she is against the new rule.
11. Ellen Jones, a sophomore, said she is against the new rule.
WRONG: Ellen Jones, sophomore, is against the new rule.
WRONG: Sophomore, Ellen Jones, is against the new rule.

Here are some rules that hopefully will make sense of the above:

Capitalize identification only right before name, and only if it is an official title (President, Senator), as opposed to a description/characterization (billionaire, software pioneer, sophomore).

If identification is after name, always surround it with commas (as in 3, 5, 6 and 11).

If identification is before name, use comma if this is the only person that fits this description (chairman of Microsoft, seventh richest man in the world), or if the identification starts with the word “A” (as in 10).

Ages (Note: with ages, always use numeral rather than spelling out the word)

1. The winner was Jimmy Smith, a 10-year-old.
2. The winner was 10-year-old Jimmy Smith.
2. The winner was Jimmy Smith, who is 10 years old.

Yagoda’s Rules for Quotes, 2.0

Some years ago, I put together for my journalism classes a guide to the use of quotations. I realized it could use a little revision, so here’s an updated version.

I. The Care and Use of Quotes

1. What Are Quotes and Why Use Them?

A direct quote is the material presented inside of quotation marks. It tells the reader that these are some exact words a speaker said. If (and this is a big if) the source is qualified to speak about the subject, a quote is a good—probably the best—way to get opinionated, funny, emotional, metaphorical, personal, ungrammatical, hyperbolic, and generally colorful language into your story. Quotes also enliven a story by bringing in (metaphorical) voices. Also, editors and readers expect them.

Note: if someone is not qualified to speak on the subject, or if the person says something banal, predictable, boring, clichéd or in any way ignorant, do not use that quote. This is also true if the quote contains merely factual information. (See Paraphrase.)

2. Accuracy of Quotes

The short answer is that if you’re using quotation marks, it’s not permissible to change anything the speaker said, such as including in the quote anything he or she did not say.. However, it’s okay not to include meaningless filler words and sounds like “um” and “you know.” Beyond that, different organizations have different rules and policies on quote fidelity, so when in doubt, consult with your editor.

3. Paraphrases and Indirect Quotes

An indirect quote is a paraphrase or summary of what someone said. It is not surrounded by quotation marks, and therefore you are not indicating that the person used those exact words (though the person may well have done so). Indirect quotes are used to convey purely factual information that would not lose anything if expressed in “journalistic” language.

Poor use of direct quotes: “The university will be closed tomorrow,” Jones said.

Paraphrase is preferable: The university will be closed tomorrow, Jones said.

Or: Jones said the university will be closed tomorrow. Note: no comma after “said.” (You might also notice the absence of word “that” after “said.” Use “that” before an indirect quote if you need it to prevent ambiguity or confusion. )

4. How Long?

In newspaper writing, quotes should be short. It’s the “sound bite idea,” borrowed from radio and TV. That means that quotes should generally be one or two sentences long. To go beyond that, the quote must be really, really good.

Quite often, a mediocre or poor quote can turn into a good quote by losing one or two sentences. (There is absolutely no ethical problem with trimming a quote, as long as you’re not twisting it to mean something other than what the speaker intended.)

5. How Many Quotes?

Quotes are like cayenne pepper or some other strong spice: a little goes a long way, and too much is a disaster. Quotes are very tempting; for one thing, they take up a lot of space. Resist the temptation. The more quotes you use, the worse the story usually is. Rule of thumb: at least twice as many paragraphs should have not have quotes as have them. Put another way, a quote has to earn its way into your story. If a potential quote doesn’t add substantial value, just say no and don’t use it.

6. Quotation Marks, Commas and Periods

In all circumstances (except in the United Kingdom and certain countries that were formerly in the British Empire), commas and periods always go INSIDE quotation marks, never outside. This is also true for titles and “air-quote” style expressions (which should be avoided anyway—see “Dos and Don’ts of Feature Writing.

Wrong: Winning the game was “very lucky”, Brunswick said.

Wrong: His favorite movie is “Inception”.

NEVER use single quotes (‘like this’) except to indicate a quote within a quote.

7. Attribution Verbs

All quotes have to be attributed—that is, you have to say who said them.

For the verb of attribution, almost always use “said.” Other words come off as hokey and forced (“stated,” “asserted,” “gasped,” “smiled,” “quipped,” “remarked,” etc.) or amount to editorializing. “Claimed” implies you doubt the person; “admitted” implies you think he or she is guilty of something. “Asked,” “replied” and “recalled” are okay when appropriate in the context.

Use past tense (“said”), not present (“says”), except in features and magazine stories.

8. Provenance of Quotes.

When readers encounter a direct quote and attribution, they will rightfully assume that the person made that statement in an interview with the writer of the article, i.e., you. If that’s not the case, you have to make that clear. For example, if the quote was previously published (not desirable but sometimes unavoidable), you have to write something like:

“My job is to ask the questions, not get the answers,” Stewart said in a 2008 New York Times interview.

9. E-mail quotes

E-mail is a great resource, especially for obtaining facts. However, if you want to get any nuance or insight from your source, it’s a poor substitute for face-to-face or even telephone interviews. If you use a quote from an e-mail exchange, you must make that clear, for example, with an attribution like “said in an e-mail.” For subsequent quotes from that e-mail exchange, it’s okay to merely say “said.”

II. The Mechanics of Quotes

1. Standard form:

“That is the most ridiculous thing I ever heard,” Jones said. (Or “he said.”)

Wrong: “That is the most ridiculous thing I ever heard.” Jones said.

Wrong: “That is the most ridiculous thing I ever heard” Jones said.

Wrong: “That is the most ridiculous thing I ever heard”, Jones said.

2. In quotes of two or more sentences, put attribution after first sentence:

“That is the most ridiculous thing I ever heard,” Jones said. “It’s mind-boggling. More sentences can follow.”

Wrong: “That is the most ridiculous thing I ever heard. It’s mind-boggling,” Jones said.

Wrong: “That is the most ridiculous thing I ever heard,” Jones said, “It’s mind-boggling.” (The comma after “said” turns this into a comma splice.)

3. When speaker needs to be identified or described:

“That is the most ridiculous thing I ever heard,” said Alex Jones, a journalism professor.

In this case, the verb goes before the i.d. of speaker, because otherwise the result would be clunky: “That is the most ridiculous thing I ever heard,” Alex Jones, a journalism professor, said. Otherwise, put name or pronoun first and avoid “said Jones” or, especially, “said he.”

In such cases (long description of speaker), attribution can also go before the quote:

Jones, a journalism professor, said, “That is the most ridiculous thing I ever heard.” Note: uppercase “T” in “That.”

Occasionally, a long or dramatic quote is preceded by a colon rather than a comma, as in:

Smith said: “I deplore everything the president stands for.”

4. Setting up quotes

Quotes almost always have to be “set up” by a sentence in your own words that introduces the idea of the quote without being too bland or too similar to it. Never use a key word from the quote in the setup.

Too similar (and repeats word):
Coach Brett Brown said the 76ers have a long distance to travel in order to be a playoff contender.

“This team has a long way to go,” he said.

Set-up doesn’t do enough:
Coach Brett Brown had some comments about the 76ers.

“This team has a long way to go,” he said.

Just right (and note use of understatement, which is often effective):
Coach Brett Brown made it clear he wasn’t completely satisfied with the 76ers.

“This team has a long way to go,” he said.

5. Multiple quotes

Two quotes can’t come right after each other. Instead they must be separated by material from you, the writer.

Wrong:
“This has been the most beautiful autumn ever,” said Kelly Jones, a sophomore.

“I love it when the leaves change color,” said sophomore Audrey Martin.

Better:
“This has been the most beautiful autumn ever,” said Kelly Jones, a freshman.

Sophomore Audrey Martin agreed. “I love it when the leaves change color,” she said.

6. “Orphan” quotes

Every quote has to be attributed, even if it’s clear from the context who said it.

Wrong: Sophomore Bill Kent thought the film wasn’t Tarantino’s best work. “It sucked.”

Right: Sophomore Bill Kent thought the film wasn’t Tarantino’s best work. “It sucked,” he said.

However, a single quote should only be attributed once.

Wrong: “Halloween is the best holiday of the year,” junior Alicia McConnell said. “It’s all candy, all the time,” she added.

Right. “Halloween is the best holiday of the year,” junior Alicia McConnell said. “It’s all candy all the time.”

7. Paragraphing

If you are using a relatively long quote, or want to emphasize a short one, it makes sense to give the quote its own paragraph. Make sure to include attribution.

Sophomore Bill Kent thought the film wasn’t Tarantino’s best work

“It sucked,” he said.

8. Partial quotes

Partial quotes can be as short as one word or as long as a phrase, but are less than a complete clause or sentence. These can be effective, but too many of them create a herky-jerky sensation, so use sparingly (no more than two or three per story), and mainly for vivid words and phrases. They are not preceded by a comma and the first word is lower-casd.

Right: Jones described the proposal as “mind-boggling.”

Wrong: Jones said it was, “mind-boggling.”

9. Quote within a quote

“The guy said to me, ‘Your money or your life,’” Jones recalled. (Hint: people tend to naturally be good storytellers, so when your source says what someone ELSE says, that’s often a sign that this is a good quote.)

10. Attribution in middle of sentence

This should be used only when the end of a sentence is dramatic, surprising, or funny, and only at natural pauses:

Not dramatic enough: “The best holiday of the year,” she said, “is Halloween.”

Not a natural pause: “I did every assignment except,” he said, “for the term paper.”

Good: “I did every assignment,” he said, “except for the term paper.”

11. Brackets and ellipses

Brackets—[ ]—are used within quotes to indicate a word that was not said by the speaker. Even though they’re tempting and commonly used, best practice is never to use them. They are clunky and remove the illusion that we’re hearing the speaker, taking away the quote-ness of a quote.

Almost always, you can tell the reader what you would have put into brackets by taking the time and effort to set up the quote.

Consider how the brackets spoil this quote:

“Arnold [Schwarzenegger] is a wuss,” said Bustamante.

Instead, write something like:

Bustamante made it clear that for him, Schwarzenegger’s tough-guy image is all hype. “Arnold is a wuss,” he said.

Ellipses [ … ] indicate material from a quote has been omitted. Do not use ellipses when quoting from speech. If the material you want to omit is filler, repetitive, or brief, it’s okay to just leave it out.

For example, If in your interview Bustamente said, “Arnold is, you know, a wuss,” your quote should be either the exact words or “Arnold is a wuss,” not, “Arnold is … a wuss.”

However, if the material you want to leave out is a sentence or more, or was uttered at different times, make two separate quotes.

Wrong:

“LaGuardia airport is a disaster area,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said. “…We expect to replace it with the finest urban airport in the world.”

Right:

“LaGuardia airport is a disaster area,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said.

“We expect to replace it with the finest urban airport in the world,” he said later in the interview.

When quoting from written material, brackets and ellipses are okay.

Will Rogers: “Bacons, Beans, and Limousines”

My first book, and in some ways still my favorite, was Will Rogers: A Biography (Alfred A. Knopf. 1992). I have since kept up an interest in Rogers (1879-1935), the great Oklahoma-born commentator, humorist, and entertainer. I was please and honored to be asked by the Library of Congress to write an entry about him for their National Recording Registry, a program that “showcases the range and diversity of American recorded sound heritage.” Specifically, I was asked to write a short essay about a radio address Rogers gave in 1931. You can listen to it online; the essay is below.

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In 1931, Americans were beginning to understand that the stock market crash of two years earlier was a harbinger of a deeper, broader slump. Most obviously, the unemployment rate had more than doubled, to more than 13 percent. A sign of the times was the popularity of a relatively unfamiliar word. The word “depression” appeared 651 times in “The New York Times” in 1929, 3,279 times the following year, and 5,974 in 1931.

President Herbert Hoover had come relatively late to a realization that the economy was in a pickle. He had instituted some public works projects that prefigured the New Deal of his successor, Franklin D. Roosevelt, but he was unwilling to provide federal relief to the unemployed, or to farmers, who were suffering from the effects of a drought and a steep drop in crop prices.

The alternative Hoover promoted was to ask local groups to help out people in their own communities. In August 1931, he created the President’s Organization on Unemployment Relief (POUR) to assist private and local relief efforts around the country; two months later, he kicked off a $90 million fund-raising campaign with a radio broadcast carried by 150 stations nationwide.

Hoover asked Will Rogers to speak on the program. It was a sensible idea. Born fifty- two years earlier in the Indian Territory that would become Oklahoma (he was about one quarter Cherokee), Rogers was probably the most popular and perhaps the most well- respected figure in the country. He had started his career as a rope-spinner on the vaudeville stage. His off-the-cuff wisecracks between tricks had turned into Ziegfeld Follies monologues that were mainly pointed commentaries about politics. (He’d characteristically come out carrying a folded newspaper and open up with the line that would become his motto: “All I know is just what I read in the papers.”) His act had led to a daily newspaper column that, by the time of Hoover’s call, was carried in the “New York Times” and some 400 other newspapers around the country. He also starred in genial comedies for the Fox studio. Two years hence, the country’s motion-picture exhibitors would name him the country’s top box-office attraction, ahead of Clark Gable and Shirley Temple.

Hoover knew that Rogers’ observations, while prescient and sometimes barbed, were never mean. That was a big part of why he was so beloved. A New York newspaper perceptively observed that he had “a curious national quality. He gives the impression that the country is filled with such sages, wise with years, young in humor and love of life, shrewd yet gentle. He is what Americans think other Americans are like.”

So it made sense that Hoover would ask Will Rogers to contribute to the broadcast. But it turned out to be a very bad idea. One would have to considerably stretch the point to call Rogers a radical; any sort of militant ideology would violate the geniality that was integral to his on-stage and real-life persona. Yet the unemployment numbers, the spectacle of bread lines in the cities, and the suffering he’d witnessed on a recent drought-relief tour for farmers in the Southwest had awakened the populist within him.

On the day of the broadcast, Rogers drove from his home in Pacific Palisades, California, to the studios of radio station KFI in downtown Los Angeles. He started off in his familiar wry/amiable mode, joshing about radio commercials: “Now don’t get scared and start turning off your radios. I’m not advertising or trying to sell you anything. If the mouthwash you’re using is not the right kind and it tastes sort of like sheep dip why you’ll just have to go right on using it.” At various points in the broadcast, he said all the things Hoover had hoped for, asking towns and cities to do their part and even venturing the opinion that the President “would rather see the problem of unemployment solved then he would all the other problems he has before him combined.” But Rogers also confronted the issue with a solemn and eloquent fervor that put the administration’s inaction to shame:

Now we read the papers every day, and they get us all excited over one or a dozen different problems that’s supposed to be before the country. There’s not really but one problem before the whole country at this time. It’s not the balancing of [Treasury Secretary Andrew] Mellon’s budget. That’s his worry. That ain’t ours. And it’s not the League of Nations that we read so much about. It’s not the silver question. The only problem that confronts this country today is at least seven million people are out of work. That’s our only problem. There is no other one before us at all. It’s to see that every man that wants to is able to work, is allowed to find a place to go to work, and also to arrange some way of getting more equal distribution of wealth in the country.

The country wasn’t used to hearing this kind of message, least of all from a quintessentially mainstream figure like Will Rogers. Did Rogers introduce into the national dialogue the notion that unequal distribution of wealth is deeply problematic, or that it’s the government’s responsibility to provide work for the unemployed? That case is impossible to prove, but there’s no doubt that Rogers’ speech (dubbed “Bacon, Beans and Limousines” by “The Survey” magazine, which reprinted it the following month) helped bring those issues to the forefront of the national conversation.

Rogers, for his part, eased back from the forceful positions he had voiced in the speech. In the 1932 presidential election, he tacitly backed Franklin D. Roosevelt, whom he’d long been friendly with. Roosevelt’s election—and his New Deal to combat unemployment and depression—seemed to be exactly what Rogers had in mind as a plan of action. For the rest of his life (Rogers died in a plane crash over Alaska in 1935), he was with the Roosevelt program.

But back in October 1931, Rogers had been one of the first to voice outrage over economic conditions, and the response had been overwhelming. A couple of days after the speech, he wrote in his newspaper column:

I can’t answer all the telegrams and letters, but I want to take this means of thanking the most people that ever wired or wrote me on anything—my little speech over the radio for the unemployed—and will send them copies as soon as I can think of what I said.

How “Online” Became “Offline”

I read this sentence in The New York Times not long ago: “Most evenings, before watching late-night comedy or reading emails on his phone, Matt Nicoletti puts on a pair of orange-colored glasses that he bought for $8 off the Internet.”

The phrase that caught my inner ear was “off the Internet.” It sounded odd because, given the widespread use of the expressions online and on the Internet, one would expect the preposition to be on. 

A possible explanation for the “bought it off the Internet” formulation stems from the use of off (since the 1600s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary), in the sense of from, “esp. with take, buy, borrow, hire, and the like.” It’s a colloquial but very real idiom, as in “I bought it off my brother.” (Even more colloquial is “I bought it off of my brother.”)

But I don’t buy this etymology for “bought it off the Internet.” For one thing, the off-instead-of-from pattern doesn’t really apply: it sounds weird to say, “I bought it from the Internet.” Looking into the history of the phrase further convinced me that the explanation lies elsewhere. Here are some examples from the early years:

  • “The G Box has the responsibility of taking packets off the Internet and handing them over to the LAN or vice versa.”—Computerworld magazine, 1992
  • “‘Getting information off the Internet is like taking a drink from a fire hydrant,’ says Kapor.”—The Nation, 1993
  • ” … sexual images can be downloaded off the Internet.” —CIO magazine, 1993
  • ” … pulling shareware off the Internet.” —InfoWorld magazine, 1994
  • “And we’re looking for ways to try to at least help parents deal with what their children can get off the Internet.”—Pres. Bill Clinton, 1994
  • “People said they would buy more off the Internet if they knew the privacy policies for the companies whose sites they visit.”—Network World magazine, June 1997

The progression is interesting. The early references are to files, software, text, or images, and the word off suggests a sense of the Internet as a giant clothesline, or tree, on which these things are hanging, ready to be plucked. I believe that notion extended to the Matt Nicoletti idea of purchasing things from Internet vendors, as first seen in the 1997 Network World quote.

Before long, people started talking about buying something off a particular vendor. From Nick Hornby’s 2007 novel Slam: “Mum buys stuff off Amazon sometimes.”

I mentioned all this to my daughter Maria Yagoda, and she said people her age (twenties) and younger have taken things a step farther, saying, “I bought it offline” to indicate something purchased in an Internet transaction. Sure enough, a poster to Urban Dictionary created an entry for this in 2005:

Screen Shot 2015-05-28 at 5.08.53 PM

And it’s still very much around a decade later. I did a Google search for the phrase “bought it offline,” limited to things posted in the last year. Of the hits that were not ambiguous, about half referred to purchases that were made in stores (the traditional “offline”) and about half to ones that were made online. Examples of the latter:

  • “Rodriguez purchased a bus pass on the Facebook group recently and said her pass ‘worked perfectly’ and she bought it offline because of the cheaper cost.—The State News (Michigan State University student paper)
  • “i agree about the naked palette i bought it offline because i couldn’t find it in Australia”—YouTube video “Makeup Products OVERHYPED”
  • “Where Do I Find My Product Code If I Bought It Offline And Dont Have The Confirmation Email Anymore?”— message board

How did this usage arise? In 2009, someone posed that question to the Yahoo Answers community: “How come when a lot of people buy something online they tell others they bought it ‘offline’?” Sacha’s response was chosen “best answer,” and I think it’s basically right, including the implicit observation that the old-fashioned and somewhat Al Gore-y term Internet has been supplanted by the all-purpose online. Sacha opined: “its a quick way of saying it. for example instead of saying i bought it off the internet, they say i bought it offline – coz it wouldnt it make sense if they sed i bought it off online. if you get what im saying? lol.”

Lol indeed. The etymology is all well and good, but the phrase remains peculiar at best, nonsensical and confusing at worst. As Neil Roberts points out, offline is in all other contexts understood to mean not connected to the Internet, so where is the possible logic in saying “I bought it offline” when what is clearly meant is “I bought it online”?

But demanding logic from language developments is a mug’s game. So I’m going to withdraw the question and go offline.

Letterman and Irony

With the end of David Letterman’s long TV run, it seems that everyone has weighed in on his significance and contributions. Here’s my take (originally published in the Chronicle of Higher Education) on Letterman’s characteristic stance–irony.

“What’s all this irony and pity?”
“What? Don’t you know about Irony and Pity?”
“No. Who got it up?”
“Everybody. They’re mad about it in New York.”
–Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises

To paraphrase Philip Larkin, irony began in 1973, between Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye and Randy Newman’s fifth LP. The ur-text, for me, was the first paragraph of the preface of Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Breakfast of Champions:

The expression “Breakfast of Champions” is a registered trademark of General Mills, Inc., for use on a breakfast cereal product. The use of the identical expression as the title for this book is not intended to indicate an association with or sponsorship by General Mills, nor is it intended to disparage their fine products.

The kind of irony I’m talking about is verbal, which I define as a form of expression in which one makes a point or conveys an idea by saying something other than what one means. (It’s different from situational irony — the “Gift of the Magi” sort of thing — and dramatic irony, as in a novel where a character traveling on the Titanic excitedly discusses what he’s going to do after landing.). The term, which derives from a stock character in Greek comedy, the eirôn, describes a rhetorical device that obviously originated long before the 1970s, and is most famously employed by Mark Antony: “Brutus is an honorable man.” Anatole France, in the 19th century, adopted “irony and pity” as a sort of watchword; it got into The Sun Also Rises via the critic Gilbert Seldes. (The Language Hat blog has helpfully sketched out this history.)

Hemingway is the great modern ironist. His particular discovery and innovation was the invocation of strong emotion via (ironic) terseness. That extends to his characters, such as Jake Barnes, who remarks, “I’d a hell of a lot rather not talk about it.”

Irony wasn’t a mere technique for Hemingway: It was rooted in his sense that the standard literary language of his time was outmoded, false, and, to a certain extent, debased. He was the most influential stylist in 20th-century American literature, inspiring Raymond Chandler and other private-eye novelists, sports scribes like Jimmy Cannon and W.C. Heinz, tabloid columnists like Jimmy Breslin and Pete Dexter, “minimalist” short-story writers like Raymond Carver and Ann Beattie (who early in her career incorporated as Irony and Pity Inc.), and Vonnegut, who, along with Donald Barthelme, expanded the comic possibilities of irony in the 1960s and 70s.

When I read Breakfast of Champions in 1973, the phrases that jumped out from the preface and gave me an I-needed-that slap in the face were “breakfast cereal product” and “their fine products.” I gathered, without being able to articulate it at the time, that Vonnegut was appropriating corporate and promotional language, thereby suggesting how debased it had become. But he wasn’t asserting that the products weren’t fine, which made what he was doing irony, not merely sarcasm.

And that brings me to Vonnegut’s fellow Hoosier David Letterman, whose final television broadcast aired on May 20. Think of Letterman mouthing the words “television broadcast” — or “beverage” or “ladies and gentlemen” or even introducing himself as “Dave” Letterman — and you get a sense that he was working similar effects, in the realm of the television broadcast. The opposite of irony is sincerity, and sincerity has for a long time been debased by TV talkers, with their sympathetic nods, creased brows, and phony concern. For years and years, Letterman was palpably not sincere in a single syllable he uttered.

Starting with and moving beyond the 1960s “put-on,” Letterman’s comedy generation did remarkable things with ironic poses. The list is long: Bill Murray’s smarmy lounge singer on Saturday Night Live; Steve Martin’s wild and crazy guy; Albert Brooks’s faux standup persona; SCTV’s pinky-ringed Sammy Maudlin and Bobby Bittman (played by Joe Flaherty and Eugene Levy); Martin Short’s Jackie Rogers Jr. and Irving Cohen on SCTV — and his whole self-presentation for the last 10 years; Letterman’s band leader and sidekick Paul Shaffer, with his groovy lingo, elephantine shades, and circus-clown sport coats. All took on the dissembling and self-aggrandizing affectations of an earlier show-biz era. (That this shtick played so well and lasted so long is testament to the pleasures and power of the old model. Again, irony and not sarcasm.) The younger Stephen Colbert went ironically all in to an extent never seen before, in his decade-long stint as a preening and blustering conservative talk-show pundit.

Of course, Colbert ended his run last year and will step into Letterman’s time slot in the fall, presumably playing himself. That’s appropriate. Irony is extremely hard to carry off over the long haul. Look at Hemingway, who was unable or unwilling to drop it and became a self-caricature.

Letterman’s pivot from irony has been a result not merely of getting older but also of a series of powerful events in his and the nation’s life. In 2000, he had quintuple bypass surgery and a glimpse of mortality. The following year was 9/11 (which Graydon Carter predicted would bring the end to the age of irony. Not so much.) Letterman came on the air less than a week after the attacks and delivered what was probably his most sincere televised declaration to date: “If you didn’t believe it before, you can certainly believe it now. New York City is the greatest city in the world.” In 2002, after his friend Warren Zevon received a terminal diagnosis, Letterman devoted an entire affecting episode to the singer; three years later came the death of his mentor, Johnny Carson. In 2009, after receiving blackmail threats, he acknowledged multiple affairs with staff members and devoted a segment of the show to a public apology to his wife and staff.

But the biggest happening was the 2003 birth of his son, whom he often talks about on the air, with warmth and emotion. Once, referring to his bypass surgery, he held up a picture of the lad and said, “This is the reason I think my life was spared, so I could be part of this kid’s life.”

In the run-up to his final show, Letterman has said what he means, a lot, expressing appreciation for his long run and gratitude to his longtime staffers and favorite guests, especially musicians. But it’s not that easy being sincere, especially for someone with so much irony in his blood. In these weeks, he’s tended to haul out go-to phrases like “Thanks for everything” and (when someone thanks him) “You’re too kind,” making him sound like he’s in a receiving line.

And, as inevitably happens when an ironist puts away his mask, there’s a bit of the Boy Who Cried Wolf effect. When Oprah Winfrey finally came on his show, ending their years-long feud, or “feud,” Letterman told her, “It means a great deal to have you.”

“Does it really?” she replied. “Or are your just doing your Dave thing?”

Ironically, you couldn’t really tell.

Iwo Jima Letter

IMG_1873This past Saturday, my wife was going through some old papers and found a letter her cousin Bob Terese had written to his parents almost precisely sixty years earlier. Years later, Bob would cofound a major philanthropic venture called Lambs Farm, which is still in operation. But at the time, he was a twenty-year-old Chicago kid, half a world away from home. Here’s what he wrote.

 

IN PORT

March 22, 1945

Dear Mother and Dad:

I guess this might be called “An Anniversary”, because it was a month today that I received my Battle Colors – in the invasion of IWO JIMA. Inklings of the momentous engagement came to me from the thunderous salvos of our warships tearing the Japs and their island to bits. From three o’clock when I first answered the call to man my battle station I could see the crimson and orange of cannon lightning and the brilliant bursting of star shells as they radiated their glow of death. And in the clear of the dawn I saw the midget of land – small, and so out of place in the vastness of the ocean, like a tree on a desert – “Hell’s Acre”, two and a half miles wide and five miles long.

Even in the happy newness of an early morning sun, the island looked desolate and grimly pale – first from the haze of exploding Jap guns and the bursting of our bombs from dive bombers and later from the mist of a miserable rain that kept falling throughout the day. On the signal bridge I watched the first assault of our Invading Amphibious Units that struck about a mile from Mount Surabachi, which was the strategic key to the whole island. The amphibious detachments from the ARTEMIS followed in another of the early landings.

Up until today, I have never given you the full “dope” quote about the ARTEMIS. I told you it was a cargo ship – but neglected to mention that it is also Amphibious. I only did this because I didn’t want you to fret too much – but now that a major engagement has been accomplished without a single casualty to our Crew, I feel that now is the time, for your mind ought to be more at ease. Please remember that I do not hit the beach with Amphibious Units. I remain on the mother ship (ARTEMIS) to discharge cargo, man the anti-aircraft guns and haul our invasion boats aboard when they return for fuel or a night’s lodging. It’s a good thing you are not up on our Navy symbols, or you might have discovered my well meant secret along time ago. It’s all in the address as “A “stands for Attack, “K” for Cargo and “A” for Amphibious – (AKA-21)

I believe you have seen the type of invasion small boats we have, either in the movies or in the newspapers. They are nick-named “Sea Going Jeeps.” I’ve ridden in them a number of times for transportation purposes and each trip is a new thrill as their flat bottoms make them as unpredictable as a “hobby horse”. They ride the waves as stoughtly as a beer truck churns down Division St. The front collapses and forms a ramp when they drive up on the beach so the troops can disembark faster and safer – and that’s about all there is to the hidden talents of the “”Mighty A”. Our convoy had formed back in Pearl Harbor and then went to the Marshalls and from there to our last jumping off place, Saipan, in the Marianas. Naval Regulations prohibit any mention of contact with enemy units until thirty days after the initial encounter, so you can see why I did not tell you about it sooner.

A horde of wonderings must be creeping into your mind, and all without answers. Most of them usual queries and having the usual answers. Was I scared? – and how! My nomination for the supreme heroes of IWO JIMA are the United States Marines who left four thousand comrades behind to be buried in the volcanic rock hundreds of miles away from those they love. To a thousand of that immortal four thousand who never made the summit of Mt. Surabachi, but whose death were stepping stones for the Marines that did, there should be some higher tribute.

I saw the American flag raised atop the crater and I cheered – but I did not know how blood red was that Star Spangled Banner. We had a few air raids that made me a few years older – but then one expects those things when stealing apples from under his enemy’s nose. After all, it was the boldest assault we’ve pulled so far, only six hundred miles from Japan. I had a box seat in fact, our ship was so close that the shells from our battleship screamed and whistled as they passed directly overhead. It’s no use telling you about the strategy or progress of the battle, because those who know how to tell it have already done so a hundred times. We won only because we out-fought the Japs.

All the advantages were on their side as we played in their ball park against fortifications that were impregnable except by direct attack with flame throwers and without the element of surprise for Tokyo have been broadcasting an accurate prophecy about the possible invasion of IWO two weeks before it came off. Yes, we were all scared when we first entered the battle, but I’ll bet the Japs wet their pants too. After the aweness of the fracas wore off nothing bothered us and we spent most of the leisure time of our remaining three days preparing special snacks of toasted cheese and spam sandwiches and large pots of hot coffee. Our reverie was disturbed somewhat by a “big ass Betty” (Jap Bomber) that came to see if the uninvited guests were still around – and damn it, we were!

My most memorable personal experience was the hoisting aboard of Marine casualties with our ten ton boom. It seemed everything was against our getting them safely on deck except GOD, and it was only through Him that we did it. The water had devastating swells that pitched the small boats we were hosting the Marines from unmercifully and to harass matters more, it was pitch dark. It took an hour to accomplish a task that normally would have taken fifteen minutes. Some of the Marines had arms blown off, others suffered shrapnel wounds and one died the next morning from severe burns he received when a tank blew up from a bomb hit. And so that night I witnessed my first burial at sea.

Two shells were strapped to his legs for weights and then he was placed upon a wooden plank that extended over the side of the ship. A huge American flag was placed over the body and threatened to blow off thru out the ceremony. I can’t describe how sad I felt when the plank was raised and I heard the body splash into the water. The empty flag looked so lonely and it seemed to wave farewell to a very dear friend. I guess that’s the first time I’ve cried since I’ve been in the Navy – tears for a buddy whose name I didn’t even know, but in a sense of comradeship I knew him because he played on my team and was an outstanding hero. I don’t know how this sounds to you – I hope not too dramatic, because really I can’t ever write exactly how I did feel – can anyone recite a perfect prayer?

Speaking of prayers moves me to thank the Clan and especially you, who have always remembered me in your daily prayers. I owe you much for the way those prayers have been answered. I nor any other member of the Crew received a scratch.

I’m in pretty safe waters at the present and I have no idea just how long we are to remain here. The best thing about this vacation is all the lost sleep I’m finally catching up on. Also the movies which are all I look forward to. We have them every night and they have all been marvelous such as “Going My Way” (third time I saw it and could see it again) “Since You Went Away”, “The Pirate and the Princess”, “Meet Me in St. Louis” and others. I read “Keys of the Kingdom” four years ago when I was a sophomore and I can remember recommending you to read it as it is one of the finest books I have ever read.

I received a swell letter from you today and was happy to know that Russ is finally on his way and you are all well.

Love,

BOB