Thursday, July 14, 2011

Dick Cavett...criminal

Dick Cavett writes a blog post periodically for the New York Times.   Great Jumping Jehoshaphat, that man makes a pen glad to meet paper.

We agreed on a night. There were but three malefactors in the car. Henkle and Breslow had to miss our D-Day for some kind of graduation ceremony, I think it was. But we had set our date and seemed possessed with some sort of near-fanaticism so gripping that, probably, like Macbeth’s hired murderers (paraphrasing) our spirits shined through us.


It's the sentence -- There were but three malefactors in the car -- that caught my eye.  I've been hollering about simplicity and sentence order (subject verb object) over at QueryShark for more years now that really bear recalling.

Yet here it is: There were but three malefactors in the car. 

Is there a simpler way to say this? Yes: Three malefactors were in the car

Compare the two. Which falls upon your ear more gently?

The rules are there to get you started. Once you know them, you don't always have to obey them. But you must break them intentionally...and beautifully.


One of the ways to learn how to do that is to see it done.  Dick Cavett blog posts are a good resource.

16 comments:

Curtis said...

That dude can write.

Rebecca Clare Smith said...

That is a pretty awesome sentence. It was my favourite part of the paragraph before I realised that was what you were picking up on. Exquisite.

HunterValleyYabby2 said...

Well, that sentence is OK - the second 'but' sounds like a bit of an echo, though. Plus 'shined' should be 'shone'. However, I've seen this particular mistake so much I'm starting to get the impression that the difference between transitive and intransitive is getting distinctly blurred.

furrykef said...

Merriam-Webster lists both "shone" and "shined" as acceptable (though it lists "shone" first).

The difference is actually the sense of the verb, not transitivity. "He shone his flashlight down the corridor" would be permissible according to M-W, but not "he shone his shoes".

For some reason "shined" sounds better to me here, though I don't know why. I think it's probably just exposure to a number of similar examples.

Leah said...

He recently published a collection of his posts. http://www.amazon.com/Talk-Show-Confrontations-Commentary-Off-Screen/dp/0805091955/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1310647168&sr=8-2

The stories are funny, sad, exciting, and always interesting. I loved it.

IsaiahC said...

I think you just gave us a great bullet point for a definition of voice:
- Breaking the rules intentionally...and beautifully

ryan field said...

This is the same reason why I love Joel Stein's column so much.

Mr. Thompson said...

I tell my sixth graders that they have to know the rules before they can break the rules. Glad to see I'm on the right track with them!

JS said...

Plus 'shined' should be 'shone'

No, it shouldn't.

"Shined" and "shone" are dialect variations in US English. Both are perfectly acceptable; my guess is that Cavett would be as unlikely to use "shone" as you would be to use "shined".

The purpose of grammatical, syntactical, and lexical stickling is to improve fluency of communication, not to stigmatize particular dialects or usage groups.

Elaine said...

Writing is such an objective thing that it's really hard to not break rules. Writing is about what sounds right, I think. That is why that sentence is so beautiful.

Gregory K. said...

The point of the sentence in question, at least to me, is not that there were three folks in the car. The point is that there were only (or "but" if you prefer) three even though we were expecting more. We are expecting five, but two, we learn, have a conflict. So if you say "There were three in the car" you're changing the point of the sentence, at least the way I read it, as opposed to just making something simpler. Am I missing his meaning, do you think? (Wouldn't be the first time, I'm sure).

Michael Offutt said...

George R.R. Martin uses the phrase "He was not wrong," a lot in his books. The first time I read it, I thought it sounded better/was catchier than say "He was right" but the cleverness wore off say about the tenth time I read it at the beginning of a paragraph.

Andrew said...

A good example of why "literary" doesn't sell. It's nice to read, but if you spoke to someone like that, they'd sneer and walk away. Writing that sells is easy on the ears as well, but it gets to the point without pussyfooting around:

"Suicide bombers are easy to spot. They give out all kinds of telltale signs. Mostly because they’re nervous. By definition they’re all first-timers." --Lee Child, Gone Tomorrow

Patrick said...

One of my favorites for simplicity and impact: "The father of waters once again flows unvexed to the sea" - A. Lincoln. There are perhaps simpler ways to announce that Vicksburg has been taken yet much would be lost.
Pat Moore

Aleta said...

I love how you took the sentence that grabbed me from the paragraph.... then showed the simple version verses the broken rule. Nice.

Michael J. Kannengieser said...

Sounds like he writes the way he speaks.