James J. Kilpatrick

Sixty-nine years ago this week, the zeppelin Hindenburg exploded at the Lakehurst Naval Air Station in New Jersey. Thirty-six persons lost their lives. A dream of lighter-than air travel abruptly ended. A correspondent for Knight-Ridder newspapers provided some descriptive details:

"The ship was a floating hotel with sleeping berths, a lounge with a baby grand piano made of aluminum and large windows ..."

Some piano, some sentence. Today's reminder for writers is: "Read thy copy at least twice before filing, else thou will wind up with egg on thy face and large windows on thy piano." Today's caveat for readers is: When you consider the millions of opportunities for syntactical error in publishing a daily newspaper, you will marvel at how few these errors are. Press on!

Mike O'Callaghan, executive editor of the Las Vegas Sun, delivered himself of a Thought for the Day as he recalled his boyhood during the Great Depression of the 1930s: "Any shortage of meat, fish or wild berries could be harvested and canned between May and November." We canned lots of shortages in those days. I remember them well.

In Binghamton, N.Y., a plastic surgeon provided a mimeographed sheet of post-operative instructions for his patients. The second instruction read: "May get site wet after 24 hours in the shower." Then stay 24 hours in the dryer.

The Asheville, N.C., Citizen carried a paid obituary notice last July about a young man who died in a traffic accident. He was an unusual fellow: "A warm and hardworking person, he loved English Springer spaniels, which he enjoyed breeding with his mother." Go for it, mom!

Sometimes a feature writer tries a little too hard for the vigorous phrase. A year ago a writer in The Gettysburg Experience vividly described that fateful battle in 1863: "Hooves pounded the soft earth. Sabers clanged in ringing metallic tones. ... Galloping at full throttle, horses collided with a sickening thud." The thud was later removed. And some of those horses had to have their throttles replaced.

One of the rules of prose composition is that a modifying phrase should modify whatever it was meant to modify. In the weddings page of The New York Times last November, we could read of a bride who arrived at the church "in a white limousine wearing a minidress and a bouffant veil." Hers was the best-dressed limousine on Park Avenue.

James J. Kilpatrick

James J. Kilpatrick has been reporter, editor, columnist, commentator, and briefly an adjunct professor of journalism.

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