Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Bryan Garner on “The fallacy of intelligibility”

Bryan Garner, from “The fallacy of intelligibility,” a short piece about the idea that it doesn’t matter how you write it as long as they understand what you mean:

Nonstandard, ungrammatical language irks educated readers. It distracts them and makes them less likely, even unwilling, to align themselves with you. Wrong words are like wrong notes in music: they spoil the tune. And wrong words make readers stop thinking about your message and start pondering your educational deficits.

If anyone tells you otherwise (that is, if someone says it don’t make no never-mind), don’t believe it.
Who would tell you otherwise? Well, there is the familiar construction, beloved of some teachers of writing, “This is not a grammar class.” But teaching writing without attention to grammar is like teaching painting without attention to color and form, or like teaching music without attention to playing or singing in tune. Things come out wrong.

What Bryan Garner says about writing is plainly true. Teachers who encourage their students to think otherwise are cheating them.

Related reading
All OCA Garner-centric posts (Pinboard)

Duke Ellington, The Conny Plank Session

[The back cover.]

Duke Ellington and His Orchestra. The Conny Plank Session (Grönland, 2015). Total time: 29:21.

The Conny Plank Session is the only Ellington release I know of to be named for a recording engineer. Conny Plank (1940–1987) was an acclaimed producer and engineer who would become known for his work with David Bowie, Brian Eno, and Kraftwerk, among other musicians. I don’t suspect an undiscovered Ellington–Plank affinity: my guess is that Plank just happened to be the engineer in the Cologne studio where Ellington was adding yet another session to the countless sessions that formed the stockpile — music recorded at his expense to test ideas and document work in progress. Suffice to say that the band sounds great: bright, clear, rich, and well-balanced. The work of the piano player in particular has startling presence.¹

This session — two tunes, three takes each — gives us the Ellington band in July 1970. Or 1970 A. H., After Hodges, the alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges, who had died on May 11. “Because of this great loss, our band will never sound the same,” Ellington wrote on that day. Yet the band continued, as ever, as a collection of idiosyncratic voices (who sometimes, it’s true, modeled themselves on earlier Ellingtonians). Wild Bill Davis was on board as organist: he had just appeared to great advantage (along with Hodges) on “Blues for New Orleans,” the opening section of Ellington’s New Orleans Suite. Fred Stone, trumpeter and flugelhornist, had played with Clark Terry-like fleetness on the Suite ’s “Aristocracy à la Jean Lafitte.” Norris Turney played a Hodges-like alto and was an important presence in the Suite as a flutist, the first band member to play flute on an Ellington recording (on “Bourbon Street Jingling Jollies”).² Davis, Stone, and Turney all have prominent parts in this session.

“Alerado,” by Wild Bill Davis, is the slighter of the two tunes here. It’s named for the record producer Alexandre Rado, who supervised the French RCA Integrale LP series of Ellington reissues. The tune is little more than its attractive chord changes, which evoke (strongly) the bridge of Rodgers and Hart’s “Blue Moon” and (less specifically) Dave Brubeck’s “The Duke.” Turney (flute, alto), Stone (flugelhorn), and Paul Gonsalves (tenor) solo briefly in what was likely designed as a concert showpiece for Davis.

Ellington never stopped listening: in his last official concert recording (Eastbourne, 1973), he was parodying the Art Ensemble of Chicago and other avant-gardists, giving the audience a taste of “the future” (as he derisively called it) with an atonal explosion that turned into “Basin Street Blues.” “Afrique,” a section of The Afro-Eurasian Eclipse (1971), is a more genuine engagement with the new: it gives us the band playing on a single chord (B minor, of all things) in a latter-day version of the so-called “jungle music” that established Ellington in the ’20s. (“Chinoiserie,” another section of the Eclipse, is another late engagement with the new: particularly in a 1973 performance that gives us the Ellington band hitting “the one,” the defining element of James Brown’s funk.)

The 1971 “Afrique” (released on LP by Fantasy in 1975) is primarily a vehicle for piano, trombones, and reeds, with Russell Procope (clarinet), Harry Carney (baritone), Gonsalves, and Turney (alto) engaging in call and response. The three 1970 takes are markedly slower and more devoted to exploring the atmosphere established by Rufus Jones’s untiring drumming. They are tremendously exciting music. Trombones, organ, and Gonsalves’s tenor are the key elements here, with Ellington’s piano at its most percussive. The third take is one of the wildest Ellington recordings I’ve heard, with an unidentified singer who evokes Adelaide Hall’s growls (“Creole Love Call”) and Alice Babs’s soaring vocalise (“T. G. T. T.,” from the Second Sacred Concert ). The profane and the sacred, in one voice! I can only wonder what further treasures remain in the stockpile.

Grönland’s presentation of The Conny Plank Session is less than satisfactory. The musicians are identified in nothing more than a line of abbreviations reproduced from W. E. Timner’s Ellingtonia: The Recorded Music of Duke Ellington and His Sidemen (2007):

[Got that?]

The line is partly hidden behind the CD spindle, with some of its text barely readable. But for anyone with some prior knowledge and a little time at Google Books, it’s easy enough to put together the band:

Cat Anderson, Mercer Ellington, Fred Stone, Cootie Williams, Nelson Williams, trumpets, with Stone doubling (?) on flugelhorn

Chuck Connors, Malcolm Taylor, Booty Wood, trombones, with Connors on bass trombone

Harold Ashby, Harry Carney, Paul Gonsalves, Russell Procope, Norris Turney, reeds

Duke Ellington, piano; Wild Bill Davis, organ; Joe Benjamin, bass; Rufus Jones, drums
The liner notes identify the brass soloist on “Alerado” as Cat Anderson, but it must be Fred Stone: the instrument is flugelhorn, not trumpet, played with the same facility as on “Aristocracy à la Jean Lafitte.” NPR and other sources identify Lena Junoff as the singer on “Afrique” but offer no explanation.

Related listening, via YouTube
“Afrique” (1971)
“Chinoiserie” (1973)
“Creole Love Call” (1927)
“T. G. T. T.” (1968)

Related reading
All OCA Ellington posts (Pinboard)

¹ Why piano player and not pianist ? Because Ellington mock-deprecatingly referred to himself as “our piano player.”

² Harold Minerve would soon play flute and piccolo (and alto). The trombonist Art Baron played recorder in the Third Sacred Concert (1973). I used to write papers this way in grad school, adding little bits of extra detail in endnote after endnote.³

³ But HTML limits superscripts to 1 , 2 , and 3 .

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Recently updated

2015 workspaces Now with an aerial view of my desk.

2015 workspaces

Here’s a six-second clip, attributed to the Harvard Innovation lab, purporting to show the evolution of a workspace from the 1980s to 2015. App by app, the machine subsumes everything. All your desk are belong to us! All your wall are belong to us! Everything, in fact, but your sunglasses and your phone (another machine) are belong to us.

This image of a proper workspace — with nothing, or little more than, a single machine — is everywhere online. (Here’s a tasteful example.) If it works, great. My sense of a workspace is somewhat different.

[One corner of a carrel to the left of my desk. I tried to get a decent aerial view of the desk and failed, because its contents spill over the sides. All four sides. Am I proud of that? No. But neither am I ashamed. That’s a kitchen timer in the front.]


1:19 p.m.: Elaine was disappointed that I gave up on the aerial view. So here it is. I sheared off the photo to show the desk itself, no feet or carpet below.

[Click for a larger, messier view. That’s a lampshade upper left.]

Related posts
Five desks
“Why shouldn’t your desk be messy too?”

[Yes, lowercase for lab . For “All your . . . ,” see Wikipedia.]

The verb to contact

Another Mencken footnote:

During the heyday of Babbittry (c. 1905–29) to contact was one of its counter-words. In 1931 Mr. F. W. Lienau, an official of the Western Union, forbade its use by employés of the company. “Somewhere,” he said, “there cumbers this fair earth with his loathsome presence a man who, for the common good, should have been destroyed in early childhood. He is the originator of the hideous vulgarism of using contact as a verb. So long as we can meet, get in touch with, make the acquaintance of, be introduced to, call on, interview or talk to people, there can be no apology for contact.” See the Commonweal , Dec. 9, 1931, p. 145. But Mr. Lienau’s indignation had no effect, and to contact is still widely used.

H. L. Mencken, The American Language: An Inquiry into the Development of English in the United States, 4th ed. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1937).
I would have guessed that animus toward to contact had its origin in The Elements of Style (1959):
As a transitive verb, the word is vague and self-important. Do not contact anybody; get in touch with him, or look him up, or phone him, or find him, or meet him.
But it would seem that E. B. White was following Lienau.¹ In the fourth edition (2000) of Strunk and White, the ban on to contact stands, but the language has become inclusive:
As a transitive verb, the word is vague and self-important. Do not contact people; get in touch with them, look them up, phone them, find them, or meet them.
Bryan Garner’s Garner’s Modern American Usage has this observation about to contact:
Brevity recommends it over get in touch with or communicate with ; it should not be considered stylistically infelicitous even in formal contexts.
He adds: “If, however, the meaning is clearly either call or write , the specific verb is preferable.” Garner notes that while Mencken shared what he called the “priggish loathing” of contact , he conceded that “there is plenty of excuse for it in the genius of the English language.”

I’ve used to contact mainly in letters of recommendation:
If I can be of further help, please contact me by telephone (KLondike 5-5555) or e-mail (
At some point, I began saying things more simply, well before reading Garner’s entry about to contact. It just happened:
If I can be of further help, please call (KLondike 5-5555) or write (
Those letters of recommendation worked well too.

Also from The American Language
The American v. the Englishman
“[N]o faculty so weak as the English faculty”
“There are words enough already”
The -thon , dancing and walking

¹ It’s White’s work. William Strunk Jr.’s 1918 Elements says nothing about to contact . Nor does the first edition of Fowler’s Modern English Usage (1926). The second edition (1965) approves of the verb.

Monday, July 27, 2015

The -thon, dancing and walking

Mencken writes great footnotes. Here’s one:

The first use of dance marathon to designate a long-distance dancing-match was in 1927. After a while the promotors introduced rest-periods, during which the dancers were free to walk about. In 1930 a promoter in Des Moines called such an ameliorated contest a walkathon , and the word quickly spread. I am indebted for this to Mr. Hal Jay Ross of St. Louis, and to Mr. Don King, endurance-shows editor of the Billboard (Cincinnati). I have been informed by other authorities that the use of walkathon was encouraged by the passage of laws in some of the States forbidding dancing for more than eight hours on end. The cops, it appears, were easily persuaded that a walkathon was really a walking-match, which had no time limit.

H. L. Mencken, The American Language: An Inquiry into the Development of English in the United States , 4th ed. (New York: Alred A. Knopf, 1937).
Also from The American Language
The American v. the Englishman
“[N]o faculty so weak as the English faculty”
“There are words enough already”

A joke in the traditional manner

My dad, who turns eighty-seven today, is still turning out jokes. To wit: What did the doctor tell his forgetful patient to do?

No spoilers. The punchline is in the comments.

More jokes in the traditional manner
The Autobahn : Did you hear about the cow coloratura? : Elementary school : A Golden Retriever : How did Bela Lugosi know what to expect? : How did Samuel Clemens do all his long-distance traveling? : How is fish shipped to a supermarket? : What did the plumber do when embarrassed? : What happens when a senior citizen visits a podiatrist? : Why did the doctor spend his time helping injured squirrels? : Why did Oliver Hardy attempt a solo career in movies? : Why did the ophthalmologist and his wife split up? : Why was Santa Claus wandering the East Side of Manhattan?

[“In the traditional manner”: by or à la my dad. He must take credit for all but the cow coloratura, the squirrel-doctor, and Santa Claus.]

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Definitely NPR

It was almost eight o’clock. I woke up, walked downstairs, turned on the radio. What did I hear? “Definitely feelin’ the summer vibe. This is Weekend Edition.” You won’t hear this bit in the online broadcast. But it was there in the air in my kitchen, right before the start of the show’s second hour.

Oh NPR. The mock-with-it-ness sounds so hollow. It’s almost enough to make me want to send back my lapel pin.

Complaining about NPR is a tiny OCA sideline. If I had caught the Kim Kardashian interview, the sideline might have grown into a line, at least a short one. And I could have commented on how the interviewer defended the interview by calling its critics crabby, persnickety monks. But I missed that opportunity.

Related posts
At the crib : NPR, sheesh : The Real Housewives of NPR : A yucky Wednesday on NPR

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Keeping it reel

[Henry, July 25, 2015.]

In the Henry world, all mowers are reel.

The definition of lawn mower from Webster’s Second :

A machine pushed by hand or drawn by a horse or driven by a motor, and usually with a spiral blade or blades revolving against a tangential horizontal knife, used to clip the grass on lawns.
And from Webster’s Third :
a hand-operated or power-operated machine for cutting grass on lawns.

July 26: Earlier this year, Diane Schirf wrote about the reel mower as an American relic.

Related reading
All OCA Henry posts (Pinboard)

Friday, July 24, 2015

“[S]o much sky”

Willa Cather, Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927).

Related reading
All OCA Cather posts (Pinboard)