If you go look at the Workman Publishing story about the passing of Peter Workman
, you will notice something that all of us who ever had any contact with him already knew: Here was a person entirely connected to his work. His work happened to be heading an industry-defining publishing company for nearly half a century, but it was clear to me in the, oh, three minutes that I talked to him, that he was completely active in the process of publishing.
He clearly did not need to be. Workman Publishing was hugely successful from the minute he founded the company, publishing Yoga: 28-day Exercise Plan
, which remains in print with sales that are still enviable. Other big successes were the "What to Expect" books for family planning and parental advice, and the "1000 Places to See" series of books. A third of Workman titles has sold more than 100,000 copies. No, the man who founded this company could have checked out long ago, claiming victory into a well-funded retirement.
Among those great successes was the invention of the tear-off daily calendar, the perfect pre-Internet medium for word-of-the-day, fact-of-the-day, cartoon-of-the-day, or the visually driven (and sure-fire hit, naturally) cat- or dog-of-the-day. These calendars, all produced with the Workman Publishing "Page-A-Day" brand, were a revelation in 1979, when the first of them began to hit the bookstore display tables around Christmas.
And that is where I come in. It's a little embarrassing to admit that I knew nothing of the history of these desk calendars when I had the idea to create one from Common Errors in English Usage
. It seemed an ideal fit: not word-a-day but usage-point-a-day. And so, sometime in 2005 I developed the Common Errors in English Usage Page-A-Day calendar, filled with 365 pages of entries to be cycled through the course of 2006, each with its own page. We produced a very limited number of these, sort of a market test of 1000 copies. I was entirely ignorant of the fact that the most egregious error appeared right there on the box design and title page.
At some point I learned from a catalog company that would feature the calendar that the "Page-A-Day" label was actually a brand name owned by Workman Publishing. This was a problem. The artwork for the calendar had already been proofed and approved with the printer. Everything was in motion, and the motion needed to stop until this issue got resolved.
I put them on notice at the printer immediately. Fortunately, the calendar had not been produced, but unfortunately there would be delays for another round of proofs, and the schedule was too close for comfort already.
I decided to call Workman Publishing. I expected nothing noteworthy to come of this. Workman, I figured, is huge. It's corporate. I'm going to be tied up for three weeks with this mess, waiting for some legal assistant to get back to me. In short, I'm sunk. I was asking for something that seems silly in hindsight: permission to use the brand free-of-charge for an extremely small run of test-market calendars with the promise to cease and desist thereafter. In times like those, you just take your best shot and go for it.
I was in for a few surprises over the next couple of days. The first surprise was that when I called Workman Publishing, the person answering the phone knew exactly the company policy and had an authoritative answer for me right then and there. She listened to my story, though, and sympathized enough to give me some small hope that I might actually be able to proceed. This was late in the day, though, and she told me I'd have to wait to get a final, definitive answer after she had had a chance to talk to Peter about it.
"What?" I thought . . . talk to Peter about it? What about Legal? Isn't there going to be a Long Process of going through the copyright attorneys and Team of Experts for advice and consent? Hmmm . . . the only thing to do was the wait, and try to do so patiently.
I don't remember waiting long, though. I had to overnight a proof of the box and the title page for review, but it was not more than two days later that the phone rang in the office. The intercom beeped for me to pick up; Peter Workman was on the line.
This was getting surreal. I assumed, maybe, that this was a misunderstanding. Peter Workman could not possibly be calling me. Rather, this was Workman Publishing calling back, and not the actual Peter himself. I picked up the phone and gave one of those slightly garbled, nervous "hellos" you save up for when you meet people that are famous. Indeed, "This is Peter Workman" was the announcement I heard on the line. It was business, but there was no denying the underlying personality there, the charisma that sold a million copies.
I can't recount the whole conversation—I would just be making it up anyway. All I remember is that the answer was "No" to allowing any use of Page-A-Day for a non-Workman product, and that was A-OK with me. He gave bad news with the best of them. He said he needed to protect the brand, but that he understood very well the pickle that put me in. I figured he would know a thing or two about pickles, but there was also an element of "This is Peter Workman telling me I need to solve my publishing problem on my own," and coming directly from the man that was, well, inspiring.
The upshot of it is that the calendar was produced with the generic "Daily Boxed Calendar" label, and went on to appear in print for the next five years, largely with the help of Barnes & Noble, who even produced it with their own publishing imprint the final year that they had a calendar imprint. I worked with many great people there, but there was one huge difference with all the success of the calendar following that initial big flop: I could have never gotten on the phone with a Mr. Barnes or a Mr. Noble.
But don't take my word for it: read the comments at Workman Publishing
to get a clearer picture of how engaged this publishing giant was. It spanned every minute of his career, not just the three spent on the phone with me to deliver some bad news in the best way possible.
In an otherwise stellar take-down of the state of affairs when it comes to Big Food and our federal government
, Mark Bittman writes this:
But her most public work, the 2010 document called “The Surgeon General’s Vision for a Healthy and Fit Nation,” has a decidedly mild Michelle Obama-ish tone. In discussing the obesity crisis, it lays the blame squarely at the feet of … the victims: “In addition to consuming too many calories and not getting enough physical activity, genes, metabolism, behavior, environment, and culture can also play a role in causing people to be overweight and obese.”
Put aside the imprecise, non-grammatical writing. Instead of talk about curbing the marketing of junk to children, we get a discussion of “limiting television viewing”; instead of banning soda from schools, we get “Make sure water is available throughout the school setting.” In short, instead of criticizing the industry for peddling and profiting from poison, it criticizes us for falling prey to it. [emphasis added]
That is, Mark claims to have found a sentence composed by the surgeon general to be ungrammatical. But please reread that sentence:
In addition to consuming too many calories and not getting enough physical activity, genes, metabolism, behavior, environment, and culture can also play a role in causing people to be overweight and obese.
. . . and let me know if you find an error in the grammar of it. Specifically, here is what I see as the bones:
In addition to ___________, genes, metabolism, behavior, environment, and culture can also play a role in causing people to be overweight and obese.
If I filled in that blank with a single-word noun, such as "overeating," I bet Mark would never label it ungrammatical. The question remaining is whether the phrase used in the original sentence acts as a noun phrase that could work as a noun. Here it is:
consuming too many calories and not getting enough physical activity
This phrase acts as what is commonly called a gerund phrase. A grammar expert—a real grammar expert—would, I know, be able to tell you more specifically about how this operates in the sentence, but the basic description of "gerund phrase" is good enough for our purposes: A gerund phrase begins with an "ing" verb acting as a noun. In this case the two conjoined gerund phrases are "consuming too many calories" and "getting enough physical activity" with the second of them negated by the "not" prefixed to it.
The opening phrase works just fine as a noun, and the sentence should not, therefore, be construed to be non-grammatical. So far, so good, but let me conjecture a little more about Mark's thinking and say a word about one thing that may contribute to what people judge as bad writing.
When I first read that sentence, I messed up the "In addition to" part and started trying to read the first part of it as a modifying participle phrase. In fact, the very same phrase could be used that way in a sentence like this:
In addition to consuming too many calories and not getting enough physical activity, Jared watches too much TV and has poor dental hygiene.
And if you read the surgeon general's sentence that way, you start trying to make this phrase into a dangling modifier, as if it were "genes" that were "consuming too many calories and not getting enough physical activity." It is possible Mark is referring to that sort of problem when he calls it non-grammatical, but I think it's more likely that Mark is just using non-grammatical as an umbrella term for "bad writing," and this sentence surely is an example of that.
To make this a better sentence, the confusion created by the opening phrase needs to be eliminated. There is more than one way to do that; here is just one possibility:
Consuming too many calories and not getting enough physical activity can contribute to weight problems. Other factors could be genes, metabolism, behavior, environment, and culture.
That is still not great, but it does the job of making it easier on the reader. I think it puts it more clearly into the realm of what people might call bad writing (isn't "not getting enough physical activity" synonymous with "behavior" in this context, e.g.), but those critics would not actually call it non-grammatical.
Mark's other complaint—that the information in the sentence is imprecise—has not been addressed, but if I wanted to be snarky I could shoot back: You say it's imprecise. Could you be more specific?
I wrote more on the topic of using grammar
as an umbrella term for usage problems here
In response to an article in today’s New York Times about the return of Robin Roberts to “Good Morning America” a reader wrote “Does ABC keep jobs open for all of its employees for 6 months while they recuperate, or just marquis players?"
For a moment I thought the writer might be referring to TV nobility, but then I realized what was meant was “marquee.”
In Britain, “Marquis” has traditionally been pronounced “MAHR-qwiss” and often spelled “Marquess” to reflect this pronunciation. In the US, the most common pattern is to follow the French in pronouncing it “mahr-KEE” in names such as “the Marquis de Sade.”
The French-influenced American “-ee” pronunciation also prevails in the US for the Mercury Grand Marquis, and even the British often use the US/French pronunciation when not referring to titled persons.
An exception to this pattern is the common American use of the British pronunciation when speaking of the Marquis of Queensberry rules of boxing.
Americans often prefer French-influenced to Anglicized pronunciations, such as in “herb” with a silent “H,” as well as a silent T in “valet” (“val-AY” instead of UK “VALL-it”) and “filet” (“fill-AY” instead of UK “FILL-it”). (We don’t get the vowels right, though, so our pronunciations don’t sound correct to a French speaker.)
There are no “Chick-fil-A” restaurants in Britain. (Lucky them!)
Americans are so conscious of not pronouncing French final consonants that we sometimes create phony French pronunciations for words that don’t deserve them, as when a waiter offers you “vish-ee-SWAH” (vichyssoise). When the last consonant in a French word is followed by an E, the consonant is not silent, but pronounced. It’s “vish-ee-SWOZ.”
Then there is the French expression coup de grace, properly pronounced “coo duh GRAHSS,” is commonly mispronounced in the US as “coop duh GRAH” and misspelled coupe de gras. Here the ending of coup is mistakenly sounded when it should be silent, and the ending of grace is mistakenly silent when it should be sounded.
A coup is a blow, but a coupe is a cup. (In both languages a coupé is a vehicle.)
Grace in this phrase is “mercy” but gras is “fat,” as in foie gras; so theoretically a coupe de gras might be a cup of grease.
The sign over a theatre entrance is always a “marquee” (though there are several “Marquis Theatres” in the US). So a “marquee player” is an actor famous enough to be featured on the sign outside. Even if Sir Patrick Stewart appears at your theatre, don’t call him a “Marquis.”