Wordsmithing tips from Bryan Garner . . .

Back due to popular request this week is “wordsmithing”—I’ll visit three tips on English usage from famed etymologist, Bryan Garner (author of Garner’s Modern American Usage).

Today, I’ll revisit his usage tips on (1) “would have liked,” (2) “wrack vs. rack” and the concept of (3) “zeugma,” a figure of speech often found in literature and in the media. Enjoy!

(1)   Garner writes that the phrase “would have liked” should always be followed by a present-tense infinitive—such as, “She would have liked to read . . . ” or “She would have liked to travel . . . .” The infinitive verb tense must always be positive, so that “She would have liked to have seen” (past tense) is incorrect.

Care must also be taken to keep the sequence of events correct, so that “She would like to have done more . . .” is also incorrect, because the “having done” occurs before the “liking.”

(2)   Wrack vs. rack: to “wrack” means to destroy utterly, to wreck or ruin something. By contrast, “rack” means to torture or oppress.

“Wrack” is also used as a noun to refer to wreckage (“The wrack of the Titanic”) and utter destruction (“The bombing reduced the basement to wrack and ruin”).

The transitive verb “rack” (He racked his brain to think of someone who could help”) should not be confused with the noun “wrack” (“I racked my mind to recall where I had heard that the wrack had occurred.”).

(3)   “Zeugma” – a figure of speech that “yokes together” two constructions for one word. It may result “in a grammatical error, but sometimes is simply a felicitous way of phrasing an idea.” Garner offers examples first of the witty/humourous kind of zeugma, but indicates that there are also many incorrect/erroneous uses. I’ll cite two funny ones, here (and will describe some erroneous ones, in a later posting):

—From Groucho Marx: “Time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana” (in Jim Shea, “Groucho Speaks,” Hartford Courant, 18 August, 1997). Here “flies” and “like” are used in two senses, yoked together.

—From the “Jim Henson Hour,”  “I just blew my nose, a fuse and three circuit breakers” (16 July 1989). Here “blew” is used in two senses, yoked together, as if one.

© Bryan Garner, “Usage Tip of the Day,” (August 5, 7 and September 1, 2014).

Why do these tips matter? Correct usage (“would have liked,” “wrack/rack”) and using figures of speech (such as zeugma) are powerful tools for emphasis and persuasion.  I follow Garner’s daily etymological blog, because I know and find that idiomatic use of the English language is essential to writers of all kinds—including business writers. To my prospects and clients: you may feel that such issues are best left with me, when I do the writing. But my call-to-action is to be conscious of the ways that we use language (including any irregularities or errors that we make), which are inextricably linked to the ideas that you (my clients) and I want to express.

For more information about Bryan Garner’s seminars, visit www.lawprose.org


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