On the hunt for the square bracket bonus

The Star Late Edition - - OPINION & ANALYSIS - Con­tact Stoep: E-mail: dbeck­ett@global.co.za DE­NIS BECK­ETT

FOR 264 Stoep Talks, weird small things have been ac­cu­mu­lat­ing in my note­book, wait­ing for crit­i­cal mass be­fore be­ing in­tro­duced to you, good reader. If any low-grade horsethief tells you that means “I can’t think what to write about to­day”, kindly wash his mouth out with soap.

Here’s a weird small thing: the in­ter­net in­sists that Rand­burg has taken over Jo­han­nes­burg. Does it know some­thing we don’t? Does its Ar­ti­fi­cial In­tel­li­gence that works things out a mil­lion times faster than Ein­stein know that on July 18 the Amaplotte Kom­mando will thun­der up Jan Smuts Av­enue in trac­tors, mak­ing us sign Oaths of Loy­alty at mus­ket-point?

AI doesn’t deign to let us know – tsk, hu­mans, hardly worth wast­ing your breath on. All we know is that googling a pizza restau­rant or chain­saw hire or art gallery delivers an ad­dress like 54 Ty­rone Av­enue, Parkview, Rand­burg, or 82 Louis Botha Av­enue, Houghton, Rand­burg or 706 Ont­dekkers Road, Florida, Rand­burg.

Congratulations, Rand­burg­ers. (When your Loy­alty Police reach the stoep re­mem­ber we said that.)

Weird Small Thing 2 is the print in­dus­try fad – in some pub­li­ca­tions a reli­gion – for square brack­ets. As if reporters are on Fi­nal Warn­ings, they clut­ter your sto­ries with more square brack­ets than the com­peti­tors; it makes us look in­tel­lec­tual with­out re­quir­ing read­ers to think.

Of­ten it puts the poor reporter to think­ing, but on how to shoe­horn the square brack­ets in, rather than how to write the story bet­ter.

Here’s a doozy from the other day, quot­ing a DA spokesper­son. What came out of her mouth was ob­vi­ously “Pa­tri­cia has to re­ply on Wed­nes­day by close of busi­ness”.

But this writer was hot on the hunt for the Square Bracket Bonus, and ad­justed things. The in­tended out­come

Don’t let any writer try to fool you by say­ing he’s run out of ideas...

was meant to read “… on Wed­nes­day by [the] close of [the] busi­ness [day]”. Which is a mere six dis­tract­ing square brack­ets im­port­ing a mere three small, un­nec­es­sary words.

But like Sir Wal­ter Scott said, Oh what a tan­gled web we weave when first we prac­tise to de­ceive. Here comes a sim­i­lar prin­ci­ple. Oh how we make our read­ers antsy when we get all over-fancy.

The square bracket bug bit a bit too hard, more than dou­bling the sim­ple three-word “close of busi­ness” into seven words – seven words that on first read­ing you knew were wrong, but you had to read again to iden­tify what was wrong, viz “… on Wed­nes­day by [the] close of [of the] busi­ness [day]”.

That’s far from the end of the pub­lish­ing world’s weird small things. (Pre­dic­tive text! A whole psy­chol­ogy fits into that.) But it’s nearly the end of my word count. So we’ll wind up by stum­bling upon a quiet ad­vance in the state of the hu­man race.

Two of pub­lish­ing’s weird small things can be elim­i­nated to­gether, by neu­tral­is­ing each other. That’s square brack­ets, num­ber one, and sec­ondly the as­ter­isks used for what is mis­tak­enly called “strong lan­guage”. (The truth is “weak lan­guage”, look how it re­places thou­sands of ser­vice­able ad­jec­tives that con­vey mean­ing with one lazy ad­jec­tive that con­veys none.)

Well, let’s play them off against each other. In­stead of coy as­ter­isks in a phrase like “f**king big rock”, we gooi square brack­ets in to say what the speaker might have said if his vo­cab­u­lary hadn’t been dec­i­mated by the f**king pan­demic. Which could be “[im­pres­sive] rock” or “[daunt­ing] rock” or what­ever ac­cord­ing to con­text.

Wad­daya­know, our word count is up and we’ve only touched 2½ weird small things. But we have a dozen in re­serve for next time we don’t admit we got stuck for a topic. A fine Fri­day to you, good reader.

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