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Between the Lines: Say what you mean; mean what you say

"This past week has been like no other," Rep. Dennis Richardson wrote in an e-mail to constituents under the heading "A Tragic Week in Review." Well, every week is like no other. What set this one apart?

"On Monday the world witnessed the tragedy at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia. On Tuesday Oregon witnessed the passage of domestic benefits for same-sex couples (HB 2007) and civil rights based on sexual orientation."

Mail Tribune

The heading and topic sentence promised the following sentences would provide details on a week unique and tragic. The details were about (a.) killing people, and (b) giving some the same rights others already have.

You learn about the topic sentence in grade school. In Strunk and White's "Elements of Style," it's under Rule 13, where we read, " ... begin each paragraph with a sentence that suggests the topic ... " and " ... the paragraph sometimes begins with a concise, comprehensive statement serving to hold together the details that follow ... "

Of course, it could be argued that the category "a week like no other" could hold both bad details (mass killings) and good details (civil rights). Like the fellow who had quite a week — he got a raise on Monday and was fired on Friday. Richardson told a reporter he did not intend to link the two.

But there's that heading, alerting us that what's up next is tragic. And there's that parallel construction: "On Monday the world witnessed ... On Tuesday Oregon witnessed ... "

The Muddy Tributary's editorial page gave Richardson the benefit of considerable doubt. It said he should find an editor.

Here at the Between the Lines Institute of Murky Language, we'd like to believe that Richardson's odd couple were nothing but a brain burp. Like the sign in a Japanese hotel which, somebody claimed in a cheesy e-mail short on details, said, "Please feel free to take advantage of the chambermaid."

We take a perverse delight in unlikely couplings, accidental meanings and syntactic disasters. The story that says, "the car struck the mailbox as it attempted to get back on the road." The headline that says, "Bush plans swell deficit." The classic that says former Gov. Nelson Rockefeller was "chairman of the Museum of Modern Art, which he entered in a fireman's raincoat in a recent fire, and founded the Museum of Primitive Art."

Syntax is slippery, but part of being a grownup is to make yourself clear. Language is funny in what it reveals. It doesn't take much to turn it on a dime, as in Shaw's famous distinction between lightning and lightning bug.

Here's an extreme example. In Kit Marlowe's play "Edward II," Mortimer plans to have the king killed and get away with it by blaming others in a written order for people to find later. It goes like this:

"This letter, written by a friend of ours, Contains his death, yet bids them save his life (Mortimer says). Edwardum occidere nolite timere, bonum est; Fear not to kill the king, 'tis good he die. But read it thus, and that's another sense: Edwardum occidere nolite, timere bonum est; Kill not the king, 'tis good to fear the worst."

Mortimer made up a Latin sentence in which the difference between killing the king and not killing him lay in a comma. Maximum weasel room. Jimmy Buffet took the opposite view: "Say what mean, mean what you say."

Richardson's ad on the back of our phone book acknowledges that carelessness can cause pain. If he truly thinks civil rights belong in a different category than mass killings, he should send another e-mail to consituents that says so plainly. Or risk winding up running for this year's foot-in-mouth award with Michael Richards and Don Imus.

Reach reporter Bill Varble at 776-4478 or e-mail bvarble@mailtribune.com.