by

A Swang and a Miss

Count Basie

My new book, How to Not Write Bad: The Most Common Writing Problems and the Best Ways to Avoid Them, was published Tuesday. (Pause for collective “Yay!” or “Yippee!”  And note to self: Look into increased nonironic or semi-ironic use of yay and yippee for possible future Lingua Franca post.)

The book is to a pretty large extent based on my 20 years teaching advanced writing and journalism classes at the University of Delaware—and specifically, on the fairly small set of writing woes I have encountered in my students’ work. The leaders of the pack are wordiness, imprecision, poor or incorrect word choice, and spelling and punctuation errors.

You’ll notice that missing from the list is “grammatical mistakes.” As I write in the book:

In my experience, students are generally aware of and comfortable with grammatical standards. They tend to go off course in a relatively small number of areas. That would include: use of subjunctive (“If I was king”), pronoun choice (“He gave the books to John and I“), dangling modifiers (“Before coming to class today, my car broke down”), and parallelism (“We ate sandwiches, coleslaw, and watched the concert”).

Please hold your fire one second before posting that comment! I am well aware that accepted grammatical guidelines change. All of the “mistakes” I mention could be and have been cogently defended as not mistakes at all; presumably, before too long, they’ll be accepted as standard. But if you’re writing for a class assignment, as a scholar, for publication, and to some extent in a business setting, you need to be aware of the current consensus on usage. If not, what you have to say will be dismissed. (Now fire away.)

Another grammatical issue I got into in the book is past-tense formations. I judged that snuck, hung, and dove, while once nonstandard, are now perfectly OK. However, I listed a few other forms that haven’t yet reached that stage (incorrect form crossed out):

  • He drunk drank the water
  • Honey, I shrunk shrank the kids.
  • In a fit of peak pique, he sunk sank the toy boat.
  • He swum swam all the way from the float to shore.
  • The Basie Band really swung swang.

As I say, the book was published on Tuesday. On Wednesday, I got this polite message on Twitter from the extremely perspicacious blogger and branding consultant Nancy Friedman: “Have to ask about ‘swang’ in How to Not Write Bad. Never seen it as past tense of ‘swing.’”

D’oh! I had actually tricked myself in a game of Simon Says solitaire.

Not to say that swang wasn’t at one time standard. If you were speaking Old English, no problem! But the glory days of swang ended at some point not long after 1700, when the OED  provides its earliest citation for a new form: “They all lovingly swung together at Execution-Dock.” In due course swung became the main past-tense form; the OED deigns to list swang as an alternative, but only preceded by the word “rarely.”

From the 19th century on, those “rarities” have tended to be self-conscious and sometimes deliberately archaic. Wordsworth, in “Guilt and Sorrow,” may have been going for the rhyme, pure and simple: “Now, as he plodded on, with sullen clang/A sound of chains along the desert rang;/He looked, and saw upon a gibbet high/A human body that in irons swang.”

Tennyson gets some humor out of the old form in his play Harold. The First Thane, referring to Brunanburh, hero of the Old English poem of the same name, declaims:

Mark’d how the war-axe swang,
Heard how the war-horn sang,
Mark’d how the spear-head sprang,
Heard how the shield-wall rang,
Iron on iron clang,
Anvil on hammer bang—

To which Second Thane comments: “Hammer on anvil, hammer on anvil. Old dog, Thou art drunk, old dog!”

By the 20th century, swang had descended, or ascended, to the realm of nonsense. A.A. Milne writes of the Three Foxes, in his poem of the same name: “They rode on elephants and swang on swingses,/And hirt three coco-nuts at coco-nut shieses.” The baseball great Dizzy Dean was still broadcasting baseball games when I was a kid. My father explained to me that he was famous for butchering the English language, most famously in saying that a player “slud into third.” I see that Dean continued on CBS through 1965, which is when a Blake Edwards/Tony Curtis movie called The Great Race was released. (I saw that as a kid, too.) The great Johnny Mercer was presumably inspired by Ol’ Diz when he named one of his and Henry Mancini’s songs for the film, “He Shouldn’t-a, Hadn’t-a, Oughtn’t-a Swang on Me.” And not surprisingly, Urban Dictionary offers some shall we say piquant definitions.

But enough stalling. I blew it with swang. If the book sells enough copies to go into a second edition, I promise I will make things right.

 

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