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Attention-Span Blues

Fewer and fewer of us curl up with a good book anymore. Who can read nonstop for more than an hour, if that? I won’t bore you with my deep thoughts on why this is—not when I can bore you with so much other nerdy stuff.

But I will say this: American attention spans started shrinking with the ascendancy of television in the fifties and drugs in the sixties. And now computers and hand-held gadgets have unleashed yet more fiendishly seductive distractions.

Writers are far from exempt from this cultural inability to concentrate. Here are some recent newspaper and magazine passages that suffer from the same problem: they each fail because their authors somehow zoned out in midsentence.

He speaks in a voice that is both steady, but tinged with emotion.” The writer never went back and reread this sentence before signing off on it. The way out seems so easy: either remove “both” or change “but” to “and.” The writer wanted to emphasize the incongruity of the voice’s steadiness despite its emotionality. Usually, “steady” describes someone who’s composed, unruffled, businesslike. Good point … too bad the sentence is a dud.

Bulb-outs reduce the length of the crossing and also forces the bicyclists to slow down.” “Bulb-outs reduce” is a good start, but seven simple words later the subject of the sentence is forgotten and we get “forces.” Obviously it should be “force.” As in the previous example, the writer couldn’t handle describing two things at once—in this case, the bulb-outs’ appearance and their function. Either change “and” to “which” or change “also” to “this.”

How will America stop the flight of U.S. high-tech manufacturing operations from going overseas?” It looks OK until you realize the sentence says that “the flight” is going overseas. Look again: it should be “operations” that are going overseas. All I can figure is that the writer got intra-sentence amnesia after writing “the flight of” and so thought it necessary to add “from going overseas.” The fix is painless: “How will America stop the flight overseas of U.S. high-tech manufacturing operations?” or “How will America prevent U.S. high-tech manufacturing operations from going overseas?”

Smokers have twice the number of problems with their teeth than nonsmokers.” Who’d ever say “twice the number than”? By the time the writer wrote “than nonsmokers,” all that went before seems to have been forgotten. It should be either “smokers have more problems than nonsmokers” or “smokers have twice the number of problems that nonsmokers do.”

These examples of writers’ carelessness prove the same thing over and over: America’s attention shortfall has taken its toll. In every case the problem was apparent and the solution was simple. I daresay these mistakes would never have seen the light of day but for one sad fact: We’ve become too lazy to proofread.

Tom Stern

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Follow-up to “Pop Gets It Wrong”

The following excerpt appeared in “Pop Gets It Wrong,” from our e-newsletter of October 5, 2016:

Santa’s reindeer  Good for you if you can name them all, but let’s just talk about “Donner” (of “Donner and Blitzen” fame). Turns out Donner is an infamous pass in the northern Sierra Nevada. Santa’s reindeer is Donder, with a second d.

We heard from a number of readers questioning this assertion. For instance, Sarah D. wrote:

The original names for the reindeer in the 1823 book "A Visit from St. Nicholas" were Dunder and Blixem (Dutch for "thunder and lightning") but were changed to the German Donner and Blitzen in the 1949 song "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer."

I'm not sure if there is a need to correct people for saying either "Donner and Blitzen" or "Dunder and Blixem." It certainly makes more sense to me than the non-word "Donder."

Our research shows that a good case could be made for “Dunder.” Unfortunately, this was the final article that appeared in our newsletter prior to the death of Tom Stern, who authored the piece. We wish we could ask him about it.

Thanks to all of you who wrote in about this.

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A little punctuation would have been helpful.

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