By September 14, 2006 2 Comments Read More →

The Blog Entry That Was His Final Word on the Subject

I filed my review of Night Falls in Damascus this morning. One last remark and then I’ll leave it alone. Highland used one of my least favorite sentence constructions. He only did it once, so I won’t hold it against him, but here it is:

He was just not prepared for–how could he be prepared for?–death’s monstrous feast, the carnage that was the Western Front during the Great War.

Did you spot it? No, it’s not “death’s monstrous feast,” although that’s pretty questionable. It’s “the carnage that was the Western Front.”

Every week or two I’ll spot a similar phrase in a newspaper or magazine: the BLAH that was BLAH. It’s melodramatic, the equivalent of a hack Hollywood composer using swelling strings to accentuate the tears dripping down the heroine’s face.

  • The mighty land that was America.
  • The pop phenomenon that was U2.
  • The death of civilization that was cable news.

I like clean writing. And I try to write cleanly. (In fact, my current five-minutes-a-day book is William Zinsser’s indispensable On Writing Well, which we should all reread from time to time–it instructs us to eliminate cliches such as “from time to time.”) And I believe that, in almost every instance, the writer or speaker would be better served by a less grandiose arrangement:

  • America was a mighty land.
  • U2 was a pop phenomenon.
  • Cable news was the death of civilization.

I made these up, but I welcome real-life examples.

I’m no grammar nazi–using the term “grammar nazi” should be proof enough of that. Besides, my own grammar isn’t reliable enough to allow me to don the jackboots and sleeve protector of that particular group. But because I read a lot, I have developed a fairly keen eye for clutter. And I never had a writing teacher tell me to take a clean sentence and complicate it.

Of course, I’m sure that the archives of Likely Stories contain awkward and overreaching locutions, too, so I’m going to go delete them now.



About the Author:

Keir Graff is Executive Editor of Booklist Publications and the author of five books. His most recent is the middle-grade novel, The Other Felix (2011). Follow him on Twitter at @Booklist_Keir.

2 Comments on "The Blog Entry That Was His Final Word on the Subject"

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  1. Bill Ott says:

    Keir: I heartily agree with your feeling on “the carnage that was the Western Front.” Grandiosity is never a good thing, especially in a sentence. My own least favorite construction almost sunk a book I just starred about Bobby Thomson’s legendary home run in 1951 (Joshua Prager’s The Echoing Green). Here’s the example I quoted in the review: “the sportswriter had mined for gold dust the tedium of spring training.” Sticking that prepositional phrase in the middle is pure clutter–designed only to manufacture emotion. Unfortunately, Prager loves the construction: there are dozens of examples throughout the book. Why not “mined the tedium of spring training in search of gold dust,” or some such (or, even better, dump the whole metaphor). The book told a terrific story, though, so I decided to be big-hearted about it and still give the star.

  2.' Mary Frances says:

    Although I don’t fashion myself a Writer, I do think I have a pretty good command of the language and consider myself a grammar nerd–not quite Nazi, but not a hack, either. (My family calls me Cathy Correction; you get the idea.) When I read this entry, I thought, “Geez, this ‘the BLAH that was BLAH’ construction sounds awfully familiar.” With a sinking feeling, I turned to my trusty Booklist Online advanced search page and used “Keyword in Review” to look for either “that was” or “that is” and me as reviewer. Of the 23 results, most were egitimate–albeit, uninspired–uses of this phrase, as in “…it’s Sam’s rediscovery of himself in middle age that is the real focus in this accomplished debut novel.” (The Last Refuge) But–ack!–I commit Keir’s grammar sin more times that I care to admit. The most recent is a review of a Rita Rudner novel that I call “a lighthearted romp through the sleaze that is Las Vegas.” (Turning the Tables) Did I say that? Or how about this line from an audiobook I starred: “As Quincy attempts to wade through the quagmire that is a multi-jurisdictional investigation…” (Gone) Egads. Excuse me while I go read On Writing Well, the grammar bible that is Zissner’s tome.

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