Not Looking A Gift Horse in the Mouth: Enjoying the Subtle Art of Idioms in Professional Writing

 

Given that the Internet allows (requires?) that we all use written language to express ourselves, I have found that I am far less disappointed by grammar mistakes than I am by appallingly poor choices of words. I could handle the split infinitive in the newspaper this morning, but not this.

E. J. Dionne, in The Washington Post’s op-ed pages, was explaining why liberal Catholics came to the support of the Church during the dilemma over providing contraception and what it means in the larger “culture war” to have that group surprise the other ends of the spectrum. Not a message that I have any trouble with. It was the following line, referring to why liberals stood with the Church:

[It] is a profound respect for the fact that on so many questions that count, Catholicism walks the talk and harnesses its faith to the good works the Gospel demands.

Does that make other people’s eyes ooze? Walks the talk. Sometimes idioms are necessary. Usually it’s when you’re talking to someone in an elevator about the weather, but I’ll grant that they aren’t without some use in writing. Yet they are lazy, downright lazy. Unless Mr. Dionne was operating under a vicious imposition of word limits, it shows that he felt no need to expend any mental energy on actually describing why Catholicism is still important to people. And oh! The things he could have said! There is beauty in human faith in the divine, regardless of the institution, and only a lack of skill with language could cause someone to avoid the opportunity to write about that beauty. Perhaps, though, he was skipping over it because he felt, contrary to the tone of the rest of his piece, that discussion of religion is too controversial, that truthfully revealing why he himself finds it important puts him too closely in the company of those “other” Catholics.

Regardless of the particular motivation that caused the phrase “walk the talk” to greet me like a mouse tail in my bowl of cereal, there are other sentence-makers out there committing crimes of word choice every day. How will they be stopped? Can they be stopped? If we can’t prevent it in the newspaper, there’s no hope for social media. There’s only one way to save us. New government program: a thesaurus in every home.

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Members have made 22 comments.

  1. Profile photo of John Murdoch Member

    The second count of the indictment:

    Not only has the accused used a really sloppy idiom (“walks the talk…”), he has used a metaphor incorrectly in the same sentence (“…and harnesses its faith to the good works the Gospel demands.”). 

    Dionne probably intends to say that the Catholic Church demonstrates its faith in its many good works. He probably does not mean to suggest that the Catholic Church is driven by good works, which brings faith trailing along behind. But that’s what harnessing is–you harness the horse, and put the horse to the cart. 

    The third count of the indictment:

    This isn’t just bad horsemanship–it’s bad theology. It is crucial to Christian faith that works follow–or evidence–faith. Faith comes first–and is confirmed, or validated, by one’s deeds. If one were to persist with a bad analogy, you’d have to harness the church’s good works to faith, not the other way ’round. 

    • #1
    • February 13, 2012 at 8:14 am
  2. Profile photo of Gus Marvinson Inactive

    Cliches and cursing: the language of the lazy. I, unfortunately, am guilty of each.

    • #2
    • February 13, 2012 at 8:18 am
  3. Profile photo of Albert Arthur Coolidge

    The government should make insurance companies pay for thesauri in every home! When you think about it, they insurance company will actually save money in the long run.

    • #3
    • February 13, 2012 at 8:18 am
  4. Profile photo of John Murdoch Member

    And since we’re talking about gift horses–I should mention that I make a practice of looking gift horses in the mouth, and I heartily recommend it.

    I’m a long-time volunteer with a therapeutic riding program. Think of a horse as a 15-hand high, 1100 lb. heating pad that is constantly shifting–and how that can be used for physical therapy with kids with cerebral palsy. Or the cognitive benefits of teaching mentally-retarded kids to harness and drive horses.

    Equine therapy is a very popular cause among horse enthusiasts–a lot of people will offer to donate older horses that have finished their competitive careers. A gift horse.

    You can’t ask a horse it’s age. But horses lose specific teeth at specific ages–you can tell the age of a horse by examining his teeth. Want a young horse? Look for a mouth full of young, permanent teeth. Want an experienced schoolmaster? Look for a “smooth mouth” in the incisors.

    Learn more here: http://horses-arizona.com/pages/articles/teeth.html If you study really hard, you may be able to keep up with the twelve-year-olds in my 4-H club. 

    • #4
    • February 13, 2012 at 8:32 am
  5. Profile photo of Casey Member

    Let’s face it, finding a good opinion writer is like trying to find a needle in a haystack. They’re all cut from the same cloth.

    Oh well, live and let live I guess.

    • #5
    • February 13, 2012 at 8:38 am
  6. Profile photo of Gus Marvinson Inactive
    Casey: Let’s face it, finding a good opinion writer is like trying to find a needle in a haystack. They’re all cut from the same cloth.

    Oh well, live and let live I guess. · 1 minute ago

    You could have a fine career writing rock lyrics.

    • #6
    • February 13, 2012 at 8:42 am
  7. Profile photo of Casey Member
    Gus Marvinson
    Casey: Let’s face it, finding a good opinion writer is like trying to find a needle in a haystack. They’re all cut from the same cloth.

    Oh well, live and let live I guess. · 1 minute ago

    You could have a fine career writing rock lyrics. · 1 minute ago

    Truth is it’s a piece of cake and guys like me are a dime a dozen… but thanks.

    • #7
    • February 13, 2012 at 8:45 am
  8. Profile photo of GLDIII Reagan
    Casey
    Gus Marvinson
    Casey: Let’s face it, finding a good opinion writer is like trying to find a needle in a haystack. They’re all cut from the same cloth.

    Oh well, live and let live I guess. · 1 minute ago

    You could have a fine career writing rock lyrics. · 1 minute ago

    Truth is it’s a piece of cake and guys like me are a dime a dozen… but thanks. · 5 minutes ago

    oh oh oh back, demons be gone…way to early on a Monday morning for this

    • #8
    • February 13, 2012 at 8:53 am
  9. Profile photo of James Gawron Coolidge

    Lara..er.. Maura,

    Catholicism is the pearl before this swine.

    Regards,

    Jim

    • #9
    • February 13, 2012 at 8:57 am
  10. Profile photo of Casey Member
    GLDIII
    Casey
    Gus Marvinson
    Casey: Let’s face it, finding a good opinion writer is like trying to find a needle in a haystack. They’re all cut from the same cloth.

    Oh well, live and let live I guess. · 1 minute ago

    You could have a fine career writing rock lyrics. · 1 minute ago

    Truth is it’s a piece of cake and guys like me are a dime a dozen… but thanks. · 5 minutes ago

    oh oh oh back, demons be gone…way to early on a Monday morning for this · 8 minutes ago

    You’re right. I could have a field day with this but I’ll Eighty-Six it before I overstay my welcome.

    • #10
    • February 13, 2012 at 9:03 am
  11. Profile photo of Sandy Member
    Maura Pennington:

    If we can’t prevent it in the newspaper, there’s no hope for social media. There’s only one way to save us. New government program: a thesaurus in every home. · · 34 minutes ago

    May I suggest that you are looking for civilization’s standard-bearers in the wrong place? I think it is the case that journalism has never has been up to the task. For instance, if you consult Henry Fowler’s The King’s English, published in 1906, you will find that many of his examples of poor usage come from English newspapers of the time. Here is an example of “gross error” from the Daily Telegraph: “It is only those converted by the Gospel whom we pretend are influenced by it.”

    • #11
    • February 13, 2012 at 9:07 am
  12. Profile photo of Western Chauvinist Member

    That’s it, Casey! I’m fed up with you! I’m throwing down the gauntlet!! I demand you put your cards on the table. Show me whachya got!

    • #12
    • February 13, 2012 at 9:21 am
  13. Profile photo of Casey Member
    Western Chauvinist: That’s it, Casey! I’m fed up with you! I’m throwing down the gauntlet!! I demand you put your cards on the table. Show me whachya got! · 28 minutes ago

    Keep your pants on, WC! You’ve read me the riot act and I oughta come out swinging but I’m three sheets to wind so I think I’ll just hit the sack.

    • #13
    • February 13, 2012 at 10:06 am
  14. Profile photo of Greg Cook Inactive

    ” I could handle the split infinitive in the newspaper this morning…”

    After a lifetime of living in fear of inadverantly splitting an infinitive I was overjoyed several years ago to fortunately find this summary of the issue in Bill Bryson’s book The Mother Tongue: English and How it Got that Way.

    Quote follows:

    Nothing illustrates the scope for prejudice in English better than the issue of the split infinitive. Some people feel ridiculously strongly about it. … I can think of two very good reasons for not splitting an infinitive.1. Because you feel that the rules of English ought to conform to the grammatical precepts of a language that died a thousand years ago.2. Because you wish to cling to a pointless affectation of usage that is without the support of any recognized authority of the last 200 years, even at the cost of composing sentences that are ambiguous, inelegant, and patently contorted.
    • #14
    • February 13, 2012 at 10:12 am
  15. Profile photo of Western Chauvinist Member
    Casey
    Western Chauvinist: That’s it, Casey! I’m fed up with you! I’m throwing down the gauntlet!! I demand you put your cards on the table. Show me whachya got! · 28 minutes ago

    Keep your pants on, WC! You’ve read me the riot act and I oughta come out swinging but I’m three sheets to wind so I think I’ll just hit the sack. · 59 minutes ago

    Heh. I knew it. You’re a piker. Well, then, sleep tight, pudy tat.

    • #15
    • February 13, 2012 at 11:16 am
  16. Profile photo of doc molloy Inactive

    But can Dionne ‘chew his bum’ at the same time? Gnaw, didn’t think so.

    Let him chew on that..

    • #16
    • February 14, 2012 at 1:33 am
  17. Profile photo of Sisyphus Member

    I stopped reading Dionne a long, long time ago, life is too short, but I cannot even imagine reading him near meal times. Given his typical message, it is fortunate that his writing style conveys a complementary awkward fumbling. 

    • #17
    • February 14, 2012 at 3:28 am
  18. Profile photo of MMPadre Inactive
    May I suggest that you are looking for civilization’s standard-bearers in the wrong place? I think it is the case that journalism has never has been up to the task. For instance, if you consult Henry Fowler’s The King’s English, published in 1906, you will find that many of his examples of poor usage come from English newspapers of the time. Here is an example of “gross error” from the Daily Telegraph: “It is only those converted by the Gospel whom we pretend are influenced by it.” · 19 hours ago

    Fowler is indispensable. But get the original edition, not the bowdlerized modern one.

    • #18
    • February 14, 2012 at 4:26 am
  19. Profile photo of katedee Inactive

    “good is simple” it just isn’t usually easy. Faith is knowing that God actually knows what is going to happen tomorrow and yet put the rules in play yesterday no matter who thinks they don’t apply today. I am in constant amazement that self professed Catholics think the rules (law, commandments) are arbitrary.

    • #19
    • February 14, 2012 at 4:30 am
  20. Profile photo of MMPadre Inactive

    I am incapable, any more, of thinking of E. J. Dionne without thinking of Dracula’s much-abused and eventually betrayed toady “Renfield”. The craven sucking-up to the vampire class –visibly repelled, we see, by the bold presentation of the Cross– is pathetic to behold.

    • #20
    • February 14, 2012 at 4:32 am
  21. Profile photo of Palaeologus Member

    Regardless of the particular motivation that caused the phrase “walk the talk” to greet me like a mouse tail in my bowl of cereal, there are other sentence-makers out there committing crimes of word choice every day. How will they be stopped? Can they be stopped? If we can’t prevent it in the newspaper, there’s no hope for social media. There’s only one way to save us. New government program: a thesaurus in every home.

    You can’t stop them, Maura. You can only hope to contain them.

    Lazy journalists are a dime a dozen. Why you’d expect that leopard to change spots is all Greek to me.

    • #21
    • February 14, 2012 at 9:21 am
  22. Profile photo of Tom Lindholtz Inactive

    My favorite example of this is when people who are seriously ill are described as being “in grave condition.”

    • #22
    • February 14, 2012 at 12:47 pm