Grammar Moses: Writing this column through a veil of tears
I wrote a few years ago about how, as a child, I misinterpreted song lyrics in amusing ways.
I'd sing "Canada Dry" to the Buckinghams' "Kind of a Drag," because that's what it sounded like to my 5-year-old ears, and Canada Dry ginger ale was the closest my mother was willing to come to actual pop (diluted with grape juice, of course.)
It could be that I misheard the words. After all, my two sources of music were a self-contained mono record player with speaker that I believe was a hand-me-down from my uncle and a little pink transistor radio (broken) that I won in a contest in second or third grade. Both had a total harmonic distortion rating of roughly 70 percent.
Or I simply could have misunderstood the lyrics because I'd never read them.
I've done considerable reading in the intervening half century, but I still occasionally run into something in a book that looks different from what I imagined it to look like.
To wit: "vale of tears."
Sure, I'd heard the phrase before, and I'm sure I've read it before, but probably not in the proper context.
A "vale of tears" refers to the tribulations of life that Christian doctrine says are left behind only when one leaves the world and enters heaven. The term "valley of tears" sometimes is used.
When hearing the phrase, I picture Tammy Faye Bakker with mascara-infused tears streaming down her face in a "veil of tears."
Had I been brought up reading Christian literature, I would have known better.
Curiosity got the best of me. I compared "veil of tears" with "vale of tears" in Google's Ngram viewer. The "vale" version was consistently used much more in books published between 1800 and 2000.
But when I compared "through a veil of tears" with "through a vale of tears," I got a much different result.
As you can see from the attached graphic, the two phrases traded dominance over the years, with the "veil" version coming out on top in 2000.
Linguist Bryan Garner notes that "veil" is well on its way to replacing "vale" in this context.
Sometimes I feel something is so plainly wrong that I just put it out there for you to see it. Such was the case last weekend when I published a photo of a grocery store gelato advertisement sent to me by Kevin Killion. I noted that Kevin said there was an extra apostrophe in it.
I received wait-a-minute responses from Bruce Steinberg, Mark Ludwig, Gail Hanna, Jan Gollberg, Mary Kay Davis, Randy Harris, Cynthia Cwynar and Chris Albers.
Clearly, I should have explained my endorsement of Kevin's position.
First of all, I read the sign as a sentence: "Gelato taste's so sweet it can't be beat."
"Gelato" is the noun, "tastes" is the verb, and the apostrophe therein is unnecessary.
Others read "Gelato" as a one-word headline and "taste's" as a contraction for "taste is," where "taste" is the subject of the sentence: "taste is so sweet it can't be beat."
If only people would be as charitable to me when I mangle a sentence ...
For this scenario to be in the same room with plausibility, the T in "taste's" should be capitalized. Better yet, it should be preceded by the article "The."
"The taste's so sweet it can't be beat."
Even under those conditions, it's at best clunky.
If you'll recall, my most important core value is writing clearly. If you have to jump through hoops and wink at conventions to justify the structure of a sentence, then the sentence has failed you.
I'm sticking by my guns (and Kevin) on this.
I appreciate all of the conversation, though. It shows me how much people care.
• Jim Baumann is vice president/managing editor of the Daily Herald. Write him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Put Grammar Moses in the subject line. You also can friend or follow Jim at facebook.com/baumannjim.