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Hello, gentle readers.

Perhaps some of you have been anxiously checking the site, wondering when I’m going to get the next post up. Fear not. It won’t be long.

The quick version of the story: A couple weekends ago, after five good years, my home computer took ill. To stretch the metaphor, the problem isn’t inoperable, but the procedure isn’t cheap.

So, true to the American spirit of materialism, I decided to put that money toward a new machine, which arrived today. Once I get it up and running, I’ll be back in the blogging business.

Talk to you soon.


When I hear the word barnstorm, I always see the same picture in my mind: a brightly painted biplane flying low over a sunny stretch of farmland. It turns out, however, that the word predates stunt pilots and flying machines. Merriam-Webster traces the word to 1883, twenty years before the Wright Brothers truly got airborne.

Originally, barnstorm was used in talking about theater troupes who toured 19th-century rural America. I’m no etymologist, but it seems no great stretch to imagine that these amateur thespians staged their performances in local barns. Later, when itinerant politicians and promoters crossed the countryside in similar fashion, the term came to be applied to them as well.

For me, however, the word evokes the county fairs and carnivals of yesteryear, all summer days and azure skies. The heyday of barnstorming was brief: just a few years in the 1920s, before high-profile accidents and safety regulations grounded most daredevil pilots. But its impression on the nation’s psyche remains.

And why not? We’re talking the stuff of classic Americana: plenty of danger and skill, mixed with a bit of foolhardiness, served up with lots of noise and speed, all to entertain the masses. Why, barnstorming might just have been the Avatar of its day.

Even the word itself is a feat of engineering, almost too unwieldy for flight — thanks to seven heavy consonants, carefully balanced between two syllables. And that’s exactly why I love barnstorm: for its delicious heft in the mouth, its Anglo-Saxon-ness. (Both barn and storm, as you might guess, have roots all the way back in Old English.)

Watch carefully, though, as those two open vowels, like propellers, not only get the thing off the ground, but send it soaring with surprising grace. Sure, I enjoy roller coasters and action flicks as much as the next guy. But a word like barnstorm? That’s enough to really take my breath away.

Precise writing is hard to come by some days. We editors do our part to promote precision, diagnosing and treating maladies like adverb-itis and waffle syndrome. (See also: Make a compelling statement! Plant a stake in the ground! Say something without hedging!) But sometimes, a writer can’t be exact and needs to do a little approximating, like in this example:

Among those who qualify, about 20 to 40 percent advance to the second round.

Writers have many tools for approximation. Using a word like about or approximately is one common technique; quoting a range of figures (as in “x to y percent”) is another. But using both, as the writer has done here — especially with an already wide range of percentages — feels downright vague. When I read something like this, the writer’s credibility takes a small hit, leaving me to wonder, “Really? You couldn’t narrow it down further?”

Thankfully, the options for correcting such a problem are numerous. Here are a few ideas, depending on the data the writer has access to:

Among those who qualify, 20 to 40 percent advance to the second round.

Among those who qualify, between 20 and 40 percent advance to the second round.

Among those who qualify, about 35 percent advance to the second round.

Among those who qualify, about one third advance to the second round.

I’ll get back to writing with precision in future posts. In the meantime, keep an eye out for writing that approximates, and make sure your own examples are as tight as they can be.

I’ve been a grammar geek for a long time. Diagramming sentences was something I used to do for fun in school. (No, seriously.) In particular, I can remember reveling in the longish Latinate terms I encountered in my junior-high English textbooks: terms like predicate nominative and objective complement and correlative conjunction. Especially correlative conjunction. The word correlative is just fun to say.

We use correlative conjunctions all the time. They’re pairs of words — like both . . . and and either . . . or — which connect parallel items. Prose writers find them useful when they’re building complex sentences. In my mind, they help readers navigate trickier syntactic paths, kind of like those colored symbols that mark hiking trails.

Both . . . and is probably the most common correlative conjunction, but it does come with one stipulation. It can be used only with two items — not three, not four, not more. The correct format is “both A and B.” I know, I know: this sounds obvious and intuitive. But you might be shocked at how often I encounter a statement like this one:

These trends affected both our selection of case studies, our recommendations, and our strategy.

See the problem? The basic construction here is “both A, B, and C.” And that doesn’t work, since both by its very definition refers to a pair of things. Fix the problem either by deleting both . . .

These trends affected our selection of case studies, our recommendations, and our strategy.

. . . or by reducing the number of items to two.

These trends affected both our recommendations and our strategy.

It’s that simple. And in case you were wondering, some correlative conjunctions work just fine — even elegantly — with more than two items.


April 2010
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