In Search of the Bracket Lady | Letters | Chicago Reader

In Search of the Bracket Lady 

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To the editors:

I always read Hot Type, even though I tend to get lost in the lower corridors of power and don't have even a passing acquaintance with those who dwell therein. Mr. Miner, I suggest, might just once turn his eye to a different aspect of his usual topic.

What I have been waiting for is a responsible scrutiny of that brand of English peculiar to the media. A language unknown in hard covers, it pervades the press with so many convolutions, perversions and illogicalities that to read them fluently is like trying to rollerskate in a brickyard. Whether their origin is a newspaper's cherished Style Book, or journalism courses at the University of West Hogsback, the one thing certain is that this jargon has no precedent in the prose of any respected literatus--North American, British, Australian, Irish or what.

The Style Book is a compilation nobody outside the newspaper building ever sees. It would be easier to lay hands on the first edition of the Index Expurgatorius. On the sole occasion I heard an editor refer to it he did so with the reverence a junior commissar would have given to Mikhail Suslov over a knotty point in Marxist theology. And its star interpreters are the Adverb Man and the Brackets Woman.

There is, I have good reason to believe, more than one journalist who chases these crackpot rubricians down to the loading bays the moment they lay their itching hands on any piece of civilized English he or she happens to have written. But such rebels are in the minority, and it curiously is the case that they aren't getting any support from James J. Kilpatrick, William Safire, or other oracles whose targets don't normally include the semantic antics of Style Book contributors. (Possibly because they have to defer to a Style Book themselves.)

In Chicago I firmly would nominate Kup as the Adverb Man's most devoted disciple. I may be outdated--I quit reading him when I got tired of seeing the term "jazz great" applied to someone who had never been heard of outside his own family, and--had they been contemporaries of his--Muggsy Spanier and Floyd O'Brien wouldn't have recognized if they had met him in the middle of an airport runway. So it perhaps could be the case that Kup belatedly has learned to write English. Unless, of course, Kup is the Adverb Man, a possibility I entertained until I reminded myself that there has to be one at the Tribune too.

Before we come to the Brackets Woman, we might consider those 50-word sentences that appear to have made their point until we reach a "however" at the very end. Then, too, there are the lengthy passages of oratio recta which leave you wondering who's doing the talking--the Mayor? Bobby Thigpen? Cardinal Bernardin? The question is settled when you come to the terminal quotation marks and learn from the tag end that the speaker was someone hitherto mentioned only once, and six paragraphs earlier at that.

Then, too, there are the geography lessons. These, if applied to the arts, would give us The Last Time I Saw Paris, France or The Merchant of Venice, Italy. As for the daft birthday lists that underpin the gossip columns, what are we expected to do? Rush out and buy a Hallmark greeting card? Then, too, there is the critic's allusion to "this writer," who isn't the discussed author at all, but turns out to be the reviewer himself. This writer, and now I'm referring to me, myself, whose letter you patiently are reading, is tired of trying to figure out who's who in this bashful evasion of the first person singular.

To continue. Who is the idiot who coined the acronym IDOT? Who is the twerp who decided upon twp for township? And speaking of townships, when one of these mysterious locations is the scene of a brutal murder, does the fact that the place is "unincorporated" lessen or magnify the heinousness of the crime? And does gunmanship, to which the media rightly are opposed, require the disclosure that the weapon was a .38 caliber? Would anyone about to be shot prefer a .37? (To cite one of the NRA's favorite comebacks--the murder knife--would the news be incomplete if we didn't know the width of the blade?)

Then, too, there is the hunk of doggerel described as a poem, the shepherd who becomes a sheepherder, the Hindu an East Indian, and the scatterbrained ten-year-old schoolgirl a student. As for the political campaign called a race, if these tedious longueurs are races, what has A.J. Foyt been doing all these years?

And so to the Brackets Woman. Here are a few examples of her work.

The speaker is the Bangladesh Ambassador to the U.S. "For [them], every day, every moment, is despair."

Next, the Secretary of State. "The truth of the matter is [that] the strong preference of the United States . . . "

Next, an unidentified observer says of Alderman Bloom: "Prominent community leaders have to shame his [critics] into supporting him."

And here is Princess Di caught speeding. May I be struck dead this minute, but here's how it came out. "The [officer] followed the car, which entered Kensington Palace, and [gave] a verbal warning."

And it is the picky perpetrators of this gibberish who constantly are putting the word "gotten" into the mouths of Brits who discarded the word when the Tudors were on the throne.

But I see that my time is up. (Correction: This writer sees that his time is up.)

Tommy Wheelwright



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