“a red cord thing”


Waiting for an elevator with me at 826 Broadway on February 13 last week there were two women who were chatting.

We were all going to a concert of medieval music in the Strand Bookstore’s rare book room. I had entered at the Strand’s main entrance next door, at 826 Broadway. I had bought a book that looked very interesting: Wordsworth’s Classical Undersong: Education, Rhetoric and Poetic Truth by Richard W. Clancey. The subject matter fits right in with the focus of this blog. I often find interesting books at the Strand by serendipity.

One of the women said to the other that (as I had experienced) she could not get to the Strand rare book room by entering at the store’s main entrance and walking up or taking the elevator from there to the third floor, as I had tried to do. (The nonfiction books on literature are in the basement, a usual first stop form  me.) She said to her interlocutor: “They have a red cord thing” blocking passage to the rare book room from the main store and that therefore she had recognized you had to take the elevator (as we were doing at that moment) next door.

That’s a redundancy, I thought to myself. I am always “proofreading” and “editing” people’s speech (including broadcasters’ and newspaper reporters’) whenever I detect what I am sure is a grammar error or infelicity of style.

Or is it redundant? I thought.

She could have said, as an English teacher would probably so correct a student’s sentence to: There was a red cord blocking the door. Or, A red cord was blocking the door.

But “red cord thing” actually conveys her meaning very well. For she wasn’t certain whether it was a cord (a piece of rope), a string, tape, or whatever. But something resembling a cord such as one sees in a rope line or tape blocking access to accident and crime scenes, something red, was blocking access.

Young women whom one constantly hears chatting on their cell phones often get made fun of by grammar snobs such as myself for using like constantly as an intensifier or qualifier. He seemed like about to go crazy; or, I saw a guy who was like riding a bike with no hands.

English is a marvelously fertile and flexible language, rich in nuance. New ways of saying things in non-formal speech are always being come up with. Such as the use (perhaps overuse) of the all-purpose like as an adverb, and many expressions that convey the meaning exactly, but who would of thought of them before they were invented, e.g., couch potato and soccer mom.


–Roger W. Smith

  February 2020

8 thoughts on ““a red cord thing”

    1. Roger W. Smith Post author

      You missed a couple of typos and mistakes in wording. I try to write carefully and usually revise MANY times, but in this case, and in some others, I write when I am in transit or between appointments and am eager to post, which I do from some remote location. I usually catch the typos later.

      Anyway, the passage you seem to object to (?) was “English is a marvelously fertile and flexible language, rich in nuance. New ways of saying things in non-formal speech are always being come up with.” This, by the way, I feel is true, and that was the main point of this post, which I think I got across.

      I like the way I said it. Perhaps someone would say it is clumsy or awkward wording, but I see nothing wrong with it. Good writers trust their ear, experience, and know-how to guide them. In my post “proverbs from Roger’s writing lair,” I observed that “Good writers are allowed to break the rules, but first they must know them.” I have studied writing all my life, and have a whole shelf of style guides.


      1. Pete Smith

        Didn’t miss the typos; just didn’t want to be overly critical.

        Yes, you know writing well and yes, good writers break the rules. You have every right to do so. It’s just that “being come up with” is an unusually awkward phrase, which of course also broke a rule, and which I thought was worth kidding you about.

        So this is the kind of nonsense up with which you should put.


      2. Roger W. Smith Post author

        Pete – “an unusually awkward phrase” (Tom Wolfe and Theodore Dreiser come to mind)? I guess so. It ends with two prepositions. But “come up” is one of those verb forms like “kick out” or “clamp down on” which require verb followed by preposition.

        Benjamin Dreyer, in “Dreyer’s English,” which I know you know, addresses the “rule” that one should never end a sentence with a preposition on pages 11-12. This morning, I was running this through my mind without consulting a style manual and was thinking of examples. For instance,” ‘We were always fighting over political issues at the dinner table.” “At dinner time, political issues were constantly being fought over.” I think that usage and word order often depend on the question of what the desired emphasis is. Putting “fought over” at the end of the second phrase seems not undesirable and I think I prefer it that way.

        I could have written something like “People are constantly coming up with new ways of saying things,” but I wanted to avoid there being a subject-actor, so the passive construction works. “New ways of saying things” is the subject of the sentence and is at the beginning, emphasizing this (new says of saying things), and “being come up with” is at the end (passive construction).


  1. Pete Smith

    Hey, we don’t need hundreds of words to discuss the phrasing of four words. I would have said “new ways of saying things often occur” or “often arise” or “often come up” to avoid what read to me as awkward phrasing, but let’s let this jest rest.

    My latest bete noir isn’t from you, though — it’s from the insurance company with incessant ads with the slogan “you only pay for what you get”. Instead of “you only borrow for what you get?” It should be “you pay for only what you get” or something like that.


    1. Roger W. Smith Post author

      Pete – if you post a comment I’m probably going to reply.

      I would not have preferred phrasing such “new ways of saying things often occur” or “often arise” or “often come up” — seems to me bland by comparison.

      re “you only pay for what you get” instead of “you pay for only what you get,” I constantly see mistakes like that which show ignorance of the most basic things, such as where the modifier goes. That’s why grammar is important. But we all agree, don’t we, that a “Winston tastes good, like a cigarette should” (should they have said “ought to”?)?



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