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Posted January 27, 2005

Republicans, Democrats, and the Afghan on the couch

By Ruth Walker

A reader writes,

One of my pet peeves is that the media call the Democrat party "democratic." But they don't call the Republican party "republicanistic." Nor do I want them to do so!

This seemed especially noticeable during the recent election. Calling the Democrat party "democratic" makes it sound as if the other parties are not democratic. What I want is for the media to call the Democrat party "Democrat" and the Republican party to continue being called "Republican."

What do you think?

Hmm. As a matter of fact, I did notice this phenomenon during the past election. But my peeve is not that so many in the media speak of the "Democratic Party" but rather that not enough do. I hate to disappoint a reader, but with a few exceptions "Democratic Party" is the right phrase.

Here's what "The Columbia Guide to Standard American English" (1993) has to say about all this:

Democrat as an adjective is still sometimes used by some twentieth-century Republicans as a campaign tool but was used with particular virulence by the late senator Joseph R. McCarthy of Wisconsin, a Republican who sought by repeatedly calling it the Democrat party to deny it any possible benefit of the suggestion that it might also be democratic.

That Senator McCarthy used this locution would be a good reason to avoid it. But after researching this question a bit, I have to acknowledge that not everyone speaking of "the Democrat party" could be assumed to be a Republican.

In fact, I ran across several local organizations styling themselves the "Democrat Party" of wherever: the Nassau County Democrat Party on New York's Long Island, for example.

What's going on here? I think we're losing our inflections – the special endings we use to distinguish between adjectives and nouns, for instance. There's a tendency to modify a noun with another noun rather than an adjective. Some may speak of "the Ukraine election" rather than "the Ukrainian election" or "the election in Ukraine," for instance. It's "the Iraq war" rather than the Iraqi war, to give another example. (Compare the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871. If it were being fought today, we might be calling it the France-Prussia War.) Against this backdrop, "the Democrat Party" arguably sounds less like a McCarthyesque slur, although it still doesn't pass muster at professionally edited publications.

As inflections disappear, people seem not to be recognizing adjectival forms as connected to the nouns whence they are derived. Thus I've seen references to "the Afghanistan election," for instance, instead of the simpler "Afghan election," perhaps because someone understood that Afghanistan is a country but thought an Afghan was a dog, or something to wrap up in on the couch in front of the television. I suspect that some people may make a similar split between "Democrats" (the name-brand political group) and "democratic." They simply have the two concepts filed in separate shoe boxes, or in different branches of the route directories in their heads.

Another part of this story is a certain asymmetry in terminology. To describe the party on one side of the aisle, we have a proper noun for the people (Democrats) and a proper adjective (Democratic) to describe their party, their primary, their convention, etc. On the other side, we have the Republican Party, whose members are known as Republicans – a noun adapted from the adjective. One party's name takes two forms and the other's, only one. "Republicanistic," my reader will note, isn't in the picture. The Republicans do have "GOP," an abbreviation for "grand old party." It's a bit of headlinese that's waved into respectable clubs from which the maitre d' would shoo away "Dems," until it came back in a jacket and tie.

This asymmetry shows up elsewhere in life – when we describe different nationalities, for instance. "American," "Canadian," "Russian," "German," and "Italian" all can serve as either nouns or adjectives. (In this regard, all these are like "Republican.") As nouns, they're all helpfully unisex. With "French" and "Irish," it's trickier. These are just adjectives; to make a noun, you need to make it a compound: a Frenchwoman, an Irishman. "British" is even subtler. You can say, "He is British," but if you want to nail "him" down with a noun, you have to know whether "he" is, for instance, an Englishman or a Welshman. For an equal-opportunity, all-purpose noun, there's "Briton," but who would introduce himself as "I'm a Briton"? Not a term with what you'd call a high emotive valence.

There are a handful of other nationalities with a separate noun and adjectival form: Scot/Scottish; Pole/Polish; Turk/Turkish. (All these are, in a sense, like "Democrat/Democratic.") What's not to love about these neat little monosyllabic nouns? Imagine the delight of the first headline writer to realize, back in the early days of the Polish challenge to the Soviet Empire, that a name like "Woiciech Jaruzelski" could be replaced simply with "Pole."

Posted January 20, 2005

The ways we occupy ourselves nowadays

By Ruth Walker

As I was flipping through the Sunday papers the other day – through the supermarket fliers and other parts that make me feel efficient and decisive because I zip through them in no time – my eye fell on an ad in The Boston Globe for "hawkers."

To be more specific: The Globe was advertising for "Independent Contractor Newspaper Hawkers … to sell Daily and Sunday editions" of the paper.

Hawkers? Now there's a job title right out of Dickens – if not Samuel Johnson or even Shakespeare. I half expected to see a help-wanted ad for "fishwives" or maybe "bootblacks" the next column over. But "hawkers" is an equal-opportunity, common-gender noun. Both sexes may apply. And "Independent Contractor" makes for a modern touch. Hmm…did Horatio Alger's intrepid newsboys ever think of themselves as "independent contractors"?

Whatever – "hawkers" got the wheels turning about how job titles reflect both the constants and the changes of the world of work. Teachers, nurses, accountants, engineers, managers were in demand. But so was a "Chief Officer for Diversity and Equity" for a major university. A local locksmith company was seeking a "locksmith/access control salesperson." Think of all the people who come and go at their workplaces nowadays to the sound of a beeping access card, rather than a nod from the doorman or receptionist or the guy in the guardhouse. All those "access systems" have to be sold. These are not your father's classifieds.

My favorite was an ad from a local eatery advertising for a "doughnut finisher." Actually, a little research revealed that this is a significant player in the making of doughnuts, but a lot of us will tend to think of a doughnut finisher as the one who, when anyone brings a dozen into the office, can be counted on to eat the last one.

An ad from a landscape design firm introduced me to the concept of "hardscape," a term used to refer to rocks, bricks, flagstones, etc., as distinct from "softscape," or actual plants.

As an example of good coinage, I have to admire "ultrasonographer," one who operates an ultrasound machine. Obviously modeled on "photographer" and similar terms, it combines a Latin and Greek elements and ends with the Anglo-Saxon "er" suffix that indicates a "doer."

Another occupation with a nifty-sounding Greek-derived name that I can't resist mentioning at this point is "dendrochronology." Not that the want ads are full of openings in the field. To oversimplify, dendrochronologists, numbering about 1,000 around the globe, count tree rings, and this helps them date pieces of wood to specific years. When a painting thought to be a portrait from life of William Shakespeare emerged in Ontario a few years back, for instance, a dendrochronologist named Peter Klein determined that the painting was on oak from a Baltic forest dating from 1597. His finding has helped make the (still not proven) case for the portrait's authenticity.

If the help-wanted ads tell us something about the world of work today, individual surnames often reflect the world of work of a few centuries ago. Miller, Baker, Carpenter, Taylor, and Weaver live on both as surnames and as occupations, but where is Mr. Programmer, or Ms. Consultant, or perhaps the Litigator family?

If modern occupations were to take hold as surnames, Can you imagine a wedding invitation of the year, say, 2205: "Mr. Jonathan SystemsAnalyst and Ms. Hillary EventsManager request the honour of your presence at the wedding of their daughter…"??

Posted January 13, 2005

Going 'postal' after a conflict

By Ruth Walker

At this point, I'm the only one I know of that's worried about this, but prepositional phrases seem to be under attack.

Everywhere I turn, I find they have morphed into adjectives. "Children at risk," for instance, is becoming "at-risk children." A straight-ahead prepositional phrase (the preposition "at" plus the object "risk," a noun) that would have been perfectly happy trailing the noun it modifies ("children") gets turned into an adjective tucked in front of the noun.

At risk of what? Of, among other things, what once upon a time was known as "juvenile delinquency." (Does that locution ever sound quaint. Gee, where's Officer Krupke when you need him?)

But with "at-risk" before the noun, the emphasis is on "children" (as well it should be, right-minded people everywhere will concur). In the phrase "children at risk," the emphasis – I mean here the natural emphasis we put on words when we speak – is on "risk," which makes it all the more obvious that the question, "at risk of what?" is being avoided.

The preposition that seems especially under pressure is "after." It keeps getting crowded by compounds formed with "post." "After lunch, we'll go for a walk in the park." Sounds lovely, doesn't it, even on a day when our forecast here in Boston is for three inches of sleet? But when Robert Weiner, a birdwatcher at George Washington University, went out to Roosevelt Island, D.C., a few years ago, he called his perambulation a "post-lunch walk."

True confession: "post-lunch walk" was originally a just meant to be a fun example invented to illustrate a point, but when I Googled the phrase "post-lunch," I got 28,400 hits, not all of them, admittedly direct substitutes for "after lunch." Last year when all of India took the afternoon off to watch an important cricket match again Pakistan, The Times of India called it a "post-lunch holiday."

After the Democratic National Convention last summer, or post-DNC as we might say, John Kerry experienced a slight post-convention bounce, but not big enough for him to claim, postelection, actual victory.

There are any number of "postal" compounds that are quite useful. World War II was such a bold black line of demarcation in modern history that we have all gotten our money's worth out of the adjective "postwar." It's a useful shorthand for the period beginning in 1945. There was a "police action" in Korea in the 1950s, and then the Vietnam war (never officially declared and therefore left by many newspapers with a lowercase "w").

I had a "click" moment of realization one day several weeks ago when I reviewed a story in which a junior editor had felt a need to specify "post-World-War-II." My own instinct would have been to say "postwar" because "anyone" would know this really meant "since 1945." Hmm, well, maybe not. Maybe "post which war?" is a fair question nowadays. We've had Iraq and Afghanistan, and before that the Gulf War, which is how we used to refer to what we now call the Iran-Iraq War.

And then since not all wars are unequivocally "wars," and might be just disturbances of the peace in some way, the international policy wonks are making liberal use of the more general term "conflict," which in turn has its "post" phase. This gives us "post-conflict," or "postconflict," as we say at the Monitor, since we like to "close up" compounds involving "post" when we can. Thus we have "post-conflict societies," places that have been through war. We even get "postconflict periods," which end up in prepositional phrases after all, and so we get, as in a recent World Health Organization publication, the phrase "in the post-conflict period," – or, as we used to say, "after the war."

More recently one of my colleagues came up with "posthostilities" as an adverb to mean "after this war [whichever one it was] is over." The word gets an angry red squiggly underline even as I write it in Word, and the copy desk had to insist that this particular coinage just wouldn't fly. It sounded too much like a breakfast cereal that was very high in fiber but would take forever to chew.

Posted January 06, 2005

Tuneups at the Grammar Garage

By Ruth Walker

It's been a busy past few weeks in newspaperland. This is probably the result of holiday multitasking and staff shortages, compounded – and overshadowed – by a tragic global news event. As I've tried to broker agreements between subjects and verbs, nail down dangling participles, and perform the other tasks of an editor's day, I find myself continually coming back to metaphors of mechanics and construction.

As I try to scope out the wrecks driven, or towed, into the Grammar Garage for quick repair on deadline, I often want to ask, If this sentence were a truck driving onto the Mass Pike, would it make it as far as the first tollbooth before its fenders – or its wheels, for that matter – came off? If this paragraph were a house, would its roof leak?

A contractor called in to do a building renovation – perhaps to knock out some walls – needs to understand which are the bearing walls of the structure. Knock out one of those, and things will really start to fall apart. Similarly, an editor needing to recast a sentence – or to confirm that it's correct – needs to know which are its structural elements, and which are merely decorative.

Speaking of building: A Monitor story last week on rebuilding (or not) a year after the earthquake in the Iranian city of Bam included this sentence:

Everything from "school-in-a-box" kits to hand tools for clearing rubble was distributed.

The process inside the heads of at least two editors went like this: "That sounds like a lot of stuff to take only a singular verb; am I sure that's right?" But stripped down to its bones, the sentence read, "Everything was distributed." All the rest was prepositional phrases – useful additional information, but nothing that called for a plural verb. "Was" was correct.

Writers and editors who get entangled in dangling participles, misplaced modifiers, and various forms of bad syntax generally do so because they haven't figured out the "bones" of their sentences and to pay proper attention to what connects with what.

Thus a Monitor piece mentioning an Englishwoman caught up in the tsunami in Thailand included a sentence that, in an early version, concluded, "…she recounts later at the Phuket airport waiting for a flight back home." Well, no, not quite. The airport is not waiting for a flight anywhere. In the final version, she recounts "later at the Phuket airport as she awaits a flight back home."

The concept of "waiting" needed to be connected to the woman, not to the airport. Sometimes writers get into trouble because they're trying to be too concise, to get by with a phrase where a clause is needed. This overcompressed writing is what the Beatles were spoofing in "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite":

Having been some days in preparation, a splendid time is guaranteed for all.

Because they've been some days in preparation, a splendid time is guaranteed for all. Or "Having been some days in preparation, they guarantee a splendid time for all." But who wants to argue with the Beatles?

Legos, the Danish building toys, provide another metaphor for sound prose. There's something satisfying about the way the little plastic bricks snap together, and good writing should provide a similar delight as the sentences fit together.

Unsuccessful writing is often that which fails to make the right connections. The antecedents of the pronouns are ambiguous; confusion in verb tenses may leave the reader uncertain whether something has happened or is happening or is expected to happen. Cause-and-effect relationships are muddled. Sometimes words or concepts are repeated three times in a single sentence – and yet some other major point goes unstated, or is only obliquely implied.

I sometimes wonder what an English grammar equivalent of NPR's "Car Talk" would be like. ("My boyfriend says I need to loosen up on split infinitives. What do you think?") In any case, mastering all the nuts and bolts rules doesn't guarantee that anyone will become a great writer. But it will assure you the verbal equivalent of a nice sturdy family car that will make it down the road all right, even in a snowstorm, without the engine falling out.

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