Setting The Styles


Is there an easier way to attract readers and get engagement than to prepare a set of Usage Guidelines and insist everyone follow them? No, probably not. Although everybody likes to make Usage Guidelines, the United States is the world’s undisputed leader in this trade. The average American will make over 14 Usage Guidelines per year. We’ll generate policies to cover everything from how many spaces should follow the end of a sentence to under what circumstances one may double up the use of those little paper cups when gathering Horsey Sauce at Arby’s. And under what circumstances these can be substituted for one another. Compliance with these policies will rise, some years, to as high as 0.4 people per year. This gives us all the chance to seethe at how people are messing up what would be a neat orderly life.

So I’m leaping in to this racket. I want to express my idealistic hopes about how the world can be easily made much better. Plus if I can get enough people feeling like they should pay attention to me I can start selling guidebooks and retire on the profits from How To Do Stuff So It’s Not Wrong Already or whatever I end up titling it. Let me give you a tease of some of the first couple good ideas.

First: we’ll need a policy about acronyms. Acronyms were introduced to English during the First World War, as war planners feared the Germans might overhear what we were saying about them as if they couldn’t guess already. This way, if they did overhear they wouldn’t know what the subject was. The fears proved unfounded, as postwar analysis indicated the Germans spent most of their time in Germany and/or Belgium, out of earshot. Still, they’ve remained as popular linguistic roadblocks to comprehension. My guideline: on first use, expand the acronym into full words. For example, “NASA, the National Acrobatics and Slurry Accordion, announced today it is not sending anybody to Mars, as investigation showed we had enough in the pantry to last until the weekend”. Exceptions: ISBN, GIS, HONClBrIF, MRxL, NJIT.

Second: we should clear up dangled participles. I admit I’m fuzzy on just what makes a participle or how one dangles it. But I hear it’s a thing people keep doing. Since I don’t feel qualified to judge whether the dangling is correct I say let’s set a rule that people submit a clear plan to dangle participles to a specially appointed participle coordinator. This will be a small office staff in Syracuse, New York, whom we will be able to catch completely by surprise with our subissions. The statements of intent should be sent by postcard, rather than letters in envelopes, as an economy measure; we can put the time that would have gone into opening envelopes to something more urgent. Put a strip of clear plastic tape over the proposed participle so that it will not get smeared in transit.

Third: alarm clocks should refrain from being so alarming. We have frayed enough nerves these days, what with how everything is alarming and most of it is terrible and about the only good things left anymore are anecdotes about small pets that had problems that looked serious but were actually funny. They should phase down to being responsible-concern clocks and maybe we could go without them altogether.

Fourth: we need to identify the people responsible for iTunes and hold them accountable.

Fifth: we need to better organize scheduling of the city’s summer concert festival series. There’s always the trouble of deciding whether to support the community’s summer concert series or to save ourselves the hassle of going out and finding parking and pushing through the crowds and does it look like rain? Shouldn’t it? If we squint can we make it look like rain? Also, are they going to search our bags? Are they going to search the camera bag even though it’s just big enough to hold a camera? It always feels so good to have gone somewhere, but it’s so much hard work to go there. We could make our lives better if we just had the summer concert series scheduled for the week we were going to be out of town anyway.

I should have some more later on, but if we could get on this we’ll have a world that’s better in easily two, maybe three ways.

Another Blog, Meanwhile Index

The index rose three points today on rumors that while it was going to rain over the weekend it wasn’t going to rain anytime we needed to be outside and it probably wasn’t going to rain hard enough to mess up the satellite TV reception.

215

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Pretty Well Pictured


Oh yeah, comic strips on the mathematics blog if you missed that.

As will happen I got to wondering about the Sears Portrait Studio. Like, does it still exist? Does Sears? There’s a free-standing Sears store nearby that I assume is still open because every time I drive past I feel vaguely sad, but do they take photographs? So I looked up SearsPortraits.com and I couldn’t tell whether I was using it wrong. I can’t seem to get my web browser (Safari, because I’m on a Mac is why) to turn up any location at all other than the Cross Country Shopping Center, in Yonkers, at “Rte 87(ny ST) & Cross CT Pkwy”. That first would be what humans call I-87, or actually the Thruway.

Maybe it’s some web browser glitch. Their “Now Hiring” page lists two jobs, Studio General Manager and Sales Associates, and doesn’t list any way to fill in an application. They must need more than two people, right? At least they need someone to make their web browser work with Safari?

But I kept looking. And I found Sears Portrait Studio hours for someplace called The Florida Mall, in Orlando. It’s not listed as one of their Featured Stores. But what is listed?

Featured Stores: Macy's, Zara, Michael Kors, American Girl (R), M and M's World, Apple Computer, Disney Store, The, Crayola Experience, Carlos Bakery.
The Florida Mall has one of those annoying directories where it spins a little loading wheel to dynamically load a page of all its stores and icons, rather than just having, like, a flat page that gets updated the once a month that somebody new comes in or closes up. Just saying. How can the American Girl store be rated R and yet their Sunglass Hut isn’t rated NC-17?

The The Store? I love that place! It’s certainly a place to be! And it’s the spot to buy the most popular articles! Well, one of the two or maybe three out there, at least.

Also it turns out Sears Portrait Studio Canada is alert and active and watching Twitter to see if anyone doesn’t believe in them anymore so, you know, watch what you say. I do want to make it clear to them: I believe Sears Portrait Studio Canada exists and apologize for giving any offense wherever I might have.

Things To Stay Home From This Weekend


Weekend events to celebrate the Fourth of July:

Fireworks Spectacular. The attempt to confront Lisa with her self-centeredness sprawls out of control. Featured side-fights include arguments about who was driving who to that concert in 2005, every remaining issue from Junior Year in the Suites, a squabble that somehow compares Babylon 5 to Star Trek: Voyager, that dispute about the duck pond from two years back, and who told Terry’s mom about the tablecloth after all. Scheduled to begin Friday at 9 pm. Reverberations may last for months, or longer. It depends how long it takes people to start speaking to one another again.

Music Endurance. Once more challengers attempt to turn off Johnny Rivers’s Secret Agent Man instead of kind-of-grooving all the way through it. The last successful Secret Agent Man-stopper was in 2008, so, maybe we’re due? Friday at 10 pm.

Washington Crossing The Delaware Reenactment. The lawsuit about who owns the usufruct of the oars for the reenactment boat was finally settled. The estimated seven Revolutionary War Reenactment groups agreed to have the case mediated by a Court of Oyez and Terminer re-enactors. They’ve been waiting literally since the 1947 State Constitution. That’s the document that asked if we even had oyezes around anymore. They’re some of the more re-enactor-ish groups you can find. The court ruled in favor of hitting with an inflatable squeaky mallet the first person who said “usufruct”. This they revised to anyone saying “usufruct” who wasn’t in the Court re-enactors. Jeremy couldn’t stop giggling. Anyway, now they have all that sorted out and it’s only a little over six months late. Also moved to no river anywhere near the Delaware watershed because that was just too controversial too. Cancelled, due to bad weather.

Annual Doubleheader. Joining the regular debate between “semimonthly” and “bimonthly” is the traditional July treat of “biannual” versus “semiannual” versus “biennial”. Phyllis has promised this will be the first year she doesn’t get into a frothing, screaming fit where she cries out “what would you people make of `centannual’ anyway?” Organizers promise the event will be worth seeing anyway. We don’t buy it either. Punch and small, flavorless sandwiches to be served. Good chance someone will be punched, too, so there’s that. Saturday, 1 pm.

Marching Band. So, funny story. You remember how nobody remembered to arrange a Memorial Day parade until the last minute? And we had to lean on Jeanne to call in some debts with the high schools to put together a respectable marching band? And because of the texting mishaps they started out on Eight Street instead of on Eighth Street? And they started marching a half-hour before everyone else was ready to go? Well, they’ve been spotted on the outskirts of Edmonton. We’ve texted as many of them as we can to tell them to stop and we’re putting together a potluck to raise money to get them back home. Saturday, 7:30 pm. Bring your own sheet music.

Geography Bee. Identify the capitals, populations, economic bases, and interesting features of nations of the world. (This world.) Or try to come up with plausible-sounding alternatives. Championship rounds include making up plausible-sounding countries out of whole cloth. Championship awarded to the person who can compose the most plausible-sounding yet unrealistic continent which isn’t Australia. All are welcome. $4.65 entry fee because the Geography Club has too many 35-cent pieces hanging around. Cloth available $0.65 (city-states and small island countries) to $3.65 (regional powers). Eighth Not Eight Street High School. Sunday, 2 pm.

Grouse Hunt. Hourlong contest to celebrate the diverse set of things people can grumble impotently about. Celebrity categories to include: the roads, newspaper comics pages, piles of things in the corner, record stores, picking your seats when you buy movie tickets, newspapers, how many layers of packaging there are around bananas somehow, those cars where the dashboard instruments are in the center for some reason instead of in front of the steering wheel, and Freestyle. Pitchforks provided, although not the good kind they used to sell in hardware stores, back when the hardware stores were any good and they didn’t have metal detectors even on the entrance doors for some reason. Sunday, 5 pm.

To-Do: Check that this is all happening in the United States. Or the Philippines, we heard that was a thing once. Maybe Liberia? Some of them probably celebrate the fourth as something other than the fourth day of the month, right?

Writing To Be Read


It’s fair to say that writers are writing with the intention of being read. If it’s not then the umpires have been letting me get away with it for so long I could challenge a ruling to the contrary. But it’s not just being read at all that they want, it’s being perused, every word stared at and comprehended, ideally by a reader. But in the modern and endlessly distracted world the only things actually read in their entirety are the airline’s texts announcing flight cancellations and bitter arguments about the meaning of the word “peruse”, with side threads about “decimate” and “transpire”.

How can you get the desired sort of attention without starting your own grammar-quarrel-based airline? I’m not saying that isn’t a good idea, given that you could probably get a near-captive audience just over the question of what’s added by the flight attendant’s instructions saying people have to listen to these instructions “at this time”, but it’s a lot of work and it takes you away from the writing stuff. Also, if you pack a plane full of grammar-quarrel-oriented persons together you’re going to see the depths of human savagery and it’ll be over the number of spaces to put at the end of a sentence. The correct answer is “none before the punctuation mark and three afterwards”.

Unfortunately the best way to make sure you do get read is to accept modern reading habits and adapt your writing to them. People love having finished reading stuff, but not so much the actual reading, because that takes too long. If you write for the rapid and skimming way people expect to read, they’ll read the whole important parts of the thing, at least until they catch on that everybody’s started to write that way. Then they’ll change their reading habits so they don’t have to read stuff, and we can find out what they’re doing instead and shift once more. In this way the language evolves.

The first thing is brevity. Your writing has to seem brief. I know if you write you look with admiration at those late 18th century writers who could compose single sentences that go on for twenty pages, and that read like particularly contentious sub-lease agreements between parties that don’t trust one another, or anyone else, and aren’t so fond of themselves, and so produce these awesome sentences with hundreds of comma- and hyphen-linked clauses, fighting for sun and water in a rain-forest of references, with antecedents and dependent clauses sprawled all over the text, until one can either read the entire thing in one big lump or admit defeat and wake in the middle of the night following unsettled dreams of being back in seventh grade English class and having to diagram sentences, and there’s no way of telling what the sentence began to be about by the time you finish it anyway. Stop that. Everyone hates it. The ideal sentence these days has between six and ten words, and some of those words should be hard-to-resist “eye candy” type words such as iris caramel or “macula taffy” put in quote marks or italics so they don’t look too intimidating.

Paragraph length is at least as important, though not as important as riboflavin in your diet. Everyone knows that the first or the last sentences in paragraphs are the key ones establishing the point, and the rest are just filler added to make the commercial breaks come at the right times. You can’t fight that influence, unfortunately, but you can write so that the stuff you’re actually interested in is the start and end of the paragraph. The rest can just be you indulging yourself, prattling on about whatever you want. You could even put a second writing project hidden inside the first, where it’ll be noticed by literature majors, in case any read you. They’ll write up nice articles about your subtle genius if you do, which would make you feel better if you read literature journals. So size your paragraphs to friendly, appropriate lengths.

We all know that adverbs are pretty useless. Where you write an adverb the reader knows to take it as “make whatever adjective or verb is nearby even more so, unless in context it should be less so”, so you don’t have to bother writing them. Just include a note about what the context should be in a commentary track, because people love seeing commentary tracks about how the thing was written even more than they appreciate the writing, except the people who never listen to the commentary tracks.

Italics. Stuff in italics usually doesn’t matter either, but it makes the text look thoughtful, so include some of that, but don’t bother putting your real content in there. This is a good spot to use, say, your Next Generation/Sonic the Hedgehog fanfic that’s been haunting a series of hard drives since 1997, since now you can get it published without anyone reading it and curling up in a whimpering ball of prose aversion. The same is true for block quotes, which are necessary for nonfiction works but, again, aren’t worth reading. The only reason to put stuff in block quotes is so you can show how someone else said the same thing you’re saying, or so you can point out how dumb they were to say that, so you can just go on to saying what you wanted to say or to making fun of them.

Bullet lists are a good way to make your text look like a PowerPoint slide, which is good for making sure all the text on them is read because the audience would be desperate for something to do while the presenter reads every … single … word on the slide, if they didn’t have their phones out to look at anything else on the Internet instead. Also if you use bullet points your readers are going to expect you to provide them with a presenter who reads every … single … word off the slide. Use bullet lists with caution.

  • Oh, footnotes. Footnotes are a great place for stuff you want to be read because people know they mean you’re showing how the thing you originally wrote was misleading if you let it stand on its own, so it’s like getting to see the author self-snarking, which is always fun. Except for readers who figure if it mattered you’d put it in the text. So you’re on your own here [4]. Me, I can’t resist footnotes and would read a whole book of them, except I’ve read books where it’s all in the footnotes and they weren’t worth it.

If you’re appearing in a real printed book instead of electronically for some reason probably involving ransom demands, you should know that readers are aware the middle of the page is usually boring stuff they don’t need to read either. This requires some attention be paid to the layout of your book but, again, put the real content near the top and bottom of pages and lay on those scenes of Counsellor Troi and Knuckles the Echidna quarreling for the middle. Make sure your editor knows what you’re doing so they don’t let the publisher switch things over to, say, 14 point and screw up all the formatting. Modern professional writing software should let you interweave the real text and the filler without much hassle on your part, but it doesn’t.

It probably strikes you that this means that whatever it is you really want to write is going to be sprawled out over a lot more pages than it would have, say, thirty years ago. That’s all right, because the huge size of the writing convinces readers they’re getting good value for their time, and especially good value if they’re buying books, which is why everything’s too bulky and discursive to actually read anymore.

If you find these tips of use, please let me know in an e-mail I promise to skim at least and might someday respond to. That’s a different discussion.


[4] Sorry I can’t give you useful advice on this one. Maybe we should’ve gone with the grammar-quarrel-based airline instead.

Fear of What Have You


I don’t know when it was online advertising figured that the biggest possible selling point was to show a picture of nobody particular and declare that some big and somewhat annoying organization, like auto insurers, fears him. I’d like to know how this got to be so popular; I imagine someone went around to advertising agencies saying marketing directors feared him. Now I saw one that says grocery stores fear him, and I just can’t help but think: boy, there seems to be some kind of subject/verb disagreement in “… some big and somewhat annoying organization, like auto insurers, fears him”. All my normal methods of studying this don’t seem to give me a satisfying answer. If I strike “like auto insurers” then the sentence reads perfectly well, but I want to put some example in, and the proximity of “insurers” and “fears” looks like a number mismatch even if I keep reassuring myself that it isn’t, and that’s keeping me up nights. But I can’t change that to say it’s “an auto insurer” fearing him because I don’t know an auto insurer that fears him. I don’t even know who he is. I feel like I should take the sentence out back and diagram it. I’m scared to try.

What The Pac-Mummy Teaches Me


I won’t detail the series of several independent events that lead me to looking up plot summaries for the Pac-Man cartoon that Hanna-Barbera made back in the early 80s when apparently they were just going to see what they could possibly animate before someone called them on it. Wikipedia’s got a summary of the various episodes, and some of them I remember, usually because I had serious qualms about the soundness of evil villain Mezmaron’s time-travel logic or was disturbed by the environmental implications of stuffing every Power Pellet from the Power Pellet Forest in the cargo bay of the space shuttle only for Pac-Man to eat every single one of them, even though I now couldn’t give you the full name of the kid who lived across the street from us for six years.

Some of the episodes I’ve forgotten, though, such as the one summarized as episode number 26:

26 “The Pac-Mummy” December 18, 1982

The Mezmaron discovers a mummy, so he uses it to kidnap Pepper and Pac-Baby.

Anyway, thanks to that “so”, now I have a new favorite sentence.

What-Nots That Were


Q. When someone talks about what-nots, as in, “taking care of this or that or what-not” (this isn’t a good example and I should fix that before I send the question in) what are they referring to?

A. Begin by considering things. Now rule out from the set of things: mathematical operations, griffins, pancake breakfasts, sandcastles, ham radio repeater stations, tool sheds, rock operas, and the things you keep in that compartment of your car’s armest but not where CDs are supposed to go. Now take the geometric mean of the things that remain. You can’t, because that’s a mathematical operation, which you ruled out, see? The what-nots are the trinkets you keep on your shelf so that it would be too much bother to remove them before dusting, as well as the receipts from ATM transactions and movie purchases that you keep because they might come in handy someday. Also included, optionally, are up to one quarter-cup of spices (any kind).

Colorful Troubles


I don’t get invited into focus groups much, not since I explained in a slender, carefully chosen, 12,350 words how Star Trek V is much better-directed than people think. I probably had that coming. So I was thrilled when the Department of Rainbows called to have me evaluate some new meteorological products they were test-marketing. All I had to do, they explained, was watch in the early afternoon as they tried out this new rainbow concept where the colors would be there, but faint, so you’d only see them against a light cloud in the background and you’d look up and suddenly, hey, a Neapolitan cumulus was hovering there.

It transpired that come the first test period I was inside doing some emergency alphabetizing of the refrigerator, which was absolutely the top priority because I started out thinking the DVD player had a awful lot of dust on it. Fine, their phone call was forgiving, and they referred me to a pilot project in Blu-Ray dust, which is dusty with such an incredible fidelity that vinyl audiophiles swear it makes records sound more authentically dusty than actual dust can.

The second period, though, I missed because I was looking at the wrong clouds and they could not believe that I don’t know a cumulus from an altostratus. I can’t blame my parents for this; in a package of childhood documents I found the certificate from a pre-kindergarten project which showed that I memeorized every possible kind of cloud there was, including the imaginary ones, in that way that only excitable four-year-olds just learning to classify things can. In my defense, when I was a kinder, “brontostratus” was too a cloud and I can’t be blamed for missing its reclassification as “the habit of looking at the wrong month on the calendar so getting the day of the week wrong”.

The third time I missed because I was explaining to our pet rabbit that if he insisted on barking like that people were going to think I was mad. He insisted that this was my problem and if he wanted to bark he was jolly well going to bark. (I alter his words a bit; he said something more like “certainly going to bark”, but the “jolly well” seemed to fit his huffiness more.)

And the fourth time, which is entirely my fault and I can only blame myself for it, I missed because I was hard at work coming up with ways to use the word “transpire” in casual writing in ways that pedants would find acceptable.

So, Rainbows got all upset with me, and I guess they’re right to be. I don’t know how much work is involved in bringing new rainbow concepts to the test-marketing stage but I’m sure it’s something. And they did all sorts of work trying to train me, too. For example they revealed you can always tell a cumulus from an altostratus by scanning the upper right corner with a price-check laser, or by trying to play middle C and seeing what note does come out.

What I really don’t know what’s going to happen with this. I was really hoping to make a good impression and maybe get into this group I hear’s trying to refresh heptagons. They’ve been clinging to that seven-sided thing for a long while and I think we’d have to stick with that, but that “hept” thing isn’t really working. People tend to figure it’s a fake prefix because it was created by agents for the Soviet government in 1930 when the country sought ways to sneak cash out of western governments.

As such the prefix doesn’t really mean anything, but it’s caught on among people who need to group together seven things in a prefix, as soon as they think of any. I mean, you can think of groups of seven things and find them all over the place, we just do well enough calling them “the seven things” and I don’t see that changing so much, so we need to find ways to bundle seven things into smaller groups that go at the start of things, you know, like, prominent colors in a rainbow. Oh, I bet the Department of Rainbows will like it if I point that out to them.

How To Overcome Popularity


If you’ve followed my advice you’ve managed to become more likable all around, and good for that. But people don’t always know how to stop once they start doing a good thing. This is how approximately 16 percent of all our problems came about: we started out doing something good, such as walking a mile each day, and then kept doing it a little more, such as two miles, or three, and before long we were walking 185 miles each day and finding ourselves far out into the ocean before lunch. Similarly, if you’ve been too good at making yourself likable it’s possible you’re spending all your free time and two-thirds of your neighbors’ keeping up with the obligations of being liked, such as asking people how they are, appearing in Likability Day parades, or trying out hats. So here’s some ways to tamp down that excessive popularity.

Likability is made or broken in small talk. Consider when someone asks you how you’re doing: the temptation is to answer “fine” or “okay” or “somebody dropped my computer from a blimp” or “my tire pressure is low”. Any of them serve to make you look like an interesting, involved person. You must crush this at any moment. Respond by looking sheepishly around and checking that it’s actually you being asked about, and if the person insists, answer that they don’t really want to know. Before long, they will. Or won’t. You know what I mean.

It’s possible this won’t be enough, and people will persist in liking you. Then it’s important to start warning them that you are unlikable, and that people shouldn’t like you. Don’t let up on this. Keep sending out the message that people don’t like you, and eventually even the people who do will give up and go on to more likable people, such as people who won’t stop talking about how they hate that Flickr and Google Maps don’t make much sense in the web browser Lynx.

If someone still hasn’t given up talking to you, computers are a great subject to make yourself less likable. This isn’t about how you use them, exactly, but rather just start talking about how foolish people are to ever buy a new computer, for any circumstance, and keep pointing out that whatever old machine they might have is perfectly usable, if you’re willing to put up with Lynx. Be relentless, something like this:

FRIEND: So I’ll be going to Best Buy to test-drive a bunch of laptops this evening.

YOU: Why do that? Your old computer’s still as good as the day you bought it. Better, if you’ve been sensibly upgrading it and keeping it on a fiber-rich software diet.

FRIEND: It was made by Commodore.

YOU: Then it’s got classic-ish lines and a BASIC that in some ways isn’t perfectly horrible.

FRIEND: And the video chip broke so all it shows on the screen is noise.

YOU: Beautiful! You can set up a web server on that, and ssh in for all your computing needs.

FRIEND: It’s a Commodore 16.

YOU: That’s great, think of the novelty value! Everyone who thought those were only made as a prank will be proven wrong. You’ll be Internet Famous if you market it right.

FRIEND: And I already dropped it over a cliff.

YOU: That’ll make such an interesting blog entry about it.

FRIEND: From a blimp.

YOU: See, who’d do that with an iPad mini?

If people persist in liking you through computer talk, shift to grammar. Everyone has something that annoys them about some words: I don’t like the phrase “grow your business” and for absolutely no rational reason. Maybe it’s because it makes me feel like I ought to have a business to grow. Find your own peeve, though, and carry on about that whenever you can. If you can’t think of something you care about, try complaining about the evolution of the word “decimate”. The only times “decimate” has been used to mean “destroy exactly one-tenth and not more or less” since 1732 has been in sentences composed by people complaining about the evolution of the word “decimate”, so it’s a well-established thing that people don’t want to hear about anymore.

If that doesn’t work, keep trying. Remember, any time you make a social interaction into an endurance contest you have already overcome likability, and congratulations on your victory.

Fred Allen: Correcting Alphabet Soup


Fred Allen is a comedian I didn’t discover, outside his famous quips about how committees work and about television, until I was well grown and listening to a lot of old time radio. He’s not remembered as well as his rival Jack Benny, and if you wish to point out Jack Benny isn’t well remembered I’ll come over there and spit on your driveway. Besides, Fred Allen did get a cameo in an autographed photo on 30 Rock last season.

Most of his writing defies quotability, as he liked to be very timely, and enjoyed commenting on the other comedians of the day, and so he has to be flanked by footnotes. But some bits carry through, such as this one from the Salad Bowl Revue of October 6, 1933, which is available on archive.org as part of their old time radio collection, and which I believe to be out of copyright. I can’t convey Allen’s voice in print, and unfortunately there aren’t even any good cartoons that parodied him, but he came from Boston so take your guesses and this really is what YouTube is for.


Announcer:

And now Mr Allen’s help and advice on etiquette:

Good night, ladies and gentlemen. Well, our etiquette department is going like a blacksmith’s clientele in a one-horse town, and a postcard tonight comes from Professor Merrill G Clark of Detroit, Michigan.

Professor Clark says, quote, “I am an English professor at a local college and always have trouble eating alphabet soup in restaurants. Invariably the waiter serves me a plate of alphabet soup containing grammatical errors which he expects me to swallow. I have taught English for so long that a grammatical error even in this form upsets me internally. What should I do?” Unquote.

Alphabet soup has always been a problem to grammarians, Professor Clark. Many professors finding errors correct the soup and send it back to the chef, giving him some homework besides. Other teachers send for soup censors supplied by the makers of the illiterate broth. The censors will gladly remove any objectionable words that may have formed in your soup; but generally, by the time the censor leaves your soup is cold and, while you may enjoy a grammatical triumph, gastronomically you are defeated.

The best thing to do is to order your alphabet soup with the H’s dropped and eat it as English mutton broth. Since fully sixty percent of the soup consumed in this country ends up on men’s vests anyway, you are really swallowing nothing but your pride and forty percent of the liquid insult.

If you, too, have a problem in etiquette lying unsolved in your dumbwaiter, ladies and gentlemen, why not send me the spare parts of a possible faux pas and I shall be glad to spank my mind in an effort to help you as I know I have helped Professor Clark tonight?


A bit of Internet searching reveals to me there was a Canadian diplomat named Merrill G Clark, but I can’t figure out when he lived, or if there were any reason that Allen might have heard such a name, or whether he just made up something that sounded plausible and not distracting.