Reading with Our Ears

Mayor Cabot,” he wrote, “cast the only dissenting vote.”

Then the editor reconsidered. Without altering its meaning in any way, he recast the sentence to read, “The mayor cast the lone dissenting vote.”

With a stroke of the pen, so to speak, he had achieved a line of perfect iambic pentameter. The MAY-or CAST the LONE diss-ENT-ing VOTE. He had added a touch of cadence to his story — and for a split second he had made it a more readable piece.


To add a pinch of cadence to a broth of prose is trickier. Such seasoning surely can be overdone, but in moderation, like amending “only” to read “lone,” the pinch can be remarkably effective. Consider, for example, a perfectly acceptable sentence from an account in The New York Times last May about an expensive motor home: “The electronics on board … rival those of a Silicon Valley bachelor pad.”

Could that sentence have been usefully tweaked? It generally is a bad idea to dragoon proper nouns, such as “Silicon Valley,” into service as adjectives, but we can reach for a pinch of cadence. Suppose we try, “a bachelor pad in the Silicon Valley.” The bachelor pad begins to swing.

Two years ago, the Times editorialized on capital punishment. In her final sentence, the editor warned that the United States is becoming isolated “as a growing number of nations become unwilling to extradite prisoners if they may be executed.”

Let us tinker. The final sentence of an editorial (or a short speech or essay) ought to end with a bang, not a whimper. This one ended on the multisyllable “executed.” It sort of, you know, kind of, drifted off … Suppose we recast the concluding clause: “become unwilling to extradite prisoners if they may be put to death.” The sentence gains the final snap of a hangman’s noose. —James J. KilpatrickReading with Our Ears (Yahoo! News (will expire))