When Wrong Is Right

Scott Joplin is my favorite composer. A line from his opera Treemonisha has been running through my head lately: “Wrong is never right.”

Joplin is correct, of course – unless you’re talking about language. Wrong is right when it’s more clear or more natural – or when you simply like it better. 

Here’s an example from the introduction to a personal essay by my friend Jane Brumbaugh:

Mary Ann, a music teacher, was a friend of mine. She invited me and a few other women to her living room to discuss forming a group to work toward passing the Equal Rights Amendment.

Someone in our writing group suggested that it would be better to put “me” second, like this:

“She invited a few other women and me…”

Check! Most of the time you’re supposed to put “me” after “women.” (Similarly, “Paul and I” sounds much better than “I and Paul.”) 

But I voted for putting me first in Jane’s piece. Doing it that way builds an oh-so-subtle bridge between the first sentence and the second one. Another advantage is that writing the sentence this way helps personalize Jane’s piece.

Mary Ann, a music teacher, was a friend of mine. She invited me and a few other women to her living room….

Ready for another one? Here’s a sentence I wrote myself based on a nono in Theodore Bernstein’s wonderful book Watch Your Language. Bernstein would give this sentence a thumbs-down. Even though I’m a great admirer of his, I would leave the sentence the way it is. (And to make things more interesting, I sneaked in another problem! Can you find it?)

The trio was honored for the performance they had given in March.

Give up? Trio is singular, and they is plural, so there’s an agreement error. (The sentence should be worded this way: “The trio was honored for the performance it had given in March.”)

I like my version better (sorry, Mr. Bernstein!) because it humanizes the singers. They is a better choice than it, even though a strict grammarian might slap my wrist with a ruler.

It’s true you could avoid the problem altogether by writing the sentence this way:

The trio was honored for the performance in March.

But I like “they had given” because now I can see – for just a moment – that trio performing on stage.

Let’s go on to the second problem – passive voice. I’ve known some self-proclaimed experts who say that passive voice (“the trio was honored”) is always wrong. Here’s how they’d want me to write the sentence:

The Arts Council honored the trio for the performance it had given in March.

Word processors tend to agree, and they always put an angry red line under passive-voice constructions.

So why did I decide to stick with passive voice? Because my version puts the trio in the position of importance, right at the beginning of the sentence. I don’t even want to mention the Arts Council. I want all the focus to go on the trio – and passive voice does the job for me very nicely.

Let’s challenge one more rule. Last month I did a post about Strunk and White’s admonition to “Omit needless words” in their classic book The Elements of Style. I suggested that sometimes those apparently needless words can enhance a sentence. Along the way I quoted an excerpt from Margaret Mitchell’s novel Gone with the Wind.

Enter Darrell Turner, a regular visitor to my blog who often leaves thoughtful and intelligent comments for me. He noticed something I had missed in that excerpt from Gone with the Wind: Mitchell’s unnecessary words. Here’s Darrell’s list:

“expectantly” in “expectantly upon him”

“long” in “long harangue”

“always” in “country funerals were always long”

“loved” in “loved friend”

What a great comment! I hadn’t noticed the redundancies. What’s even better is that Darrell’s comment got me thinking. If I had been Mitchell’s editor, would I have omitted those unnecessary words?

Umm…maybe. Editors need to be wary of making changes for a writer as strong as Mitchell was. And there’s always the question of whether those seemingly unnecessary words add something to the book. On the other hand, Gone with the Wind is a huge novel. Surely some cuts would be helpful, especially for readers who might not want to tackle such a weighty book.

So – here goes. I would have cut “expectantly” and “always” on the grounds that they don’t evoke any of the five senses. I would have kept “long” and “loved,” which are more tangible words.

What would you have done?

That last question is more important than anything else I’ve told you today. If you find yourself scratching your head when you’re working on a piece – wondering if there’s a better way to word a sentence, or trying to decide if the word you’ve chosen is the right one for the job – congratulations! You have entered the realm of real-world writers.

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