Thanks to Oscar Wilde and the apparently irresistible nature of puns, Ernests Gulbis’ early career has been dogged by pedestrian wordplay in near-lockstep with his varied results. When Federer avenged a prior loss to the Latvian in Madrid last year, the headline predictably ran ‘The Importance of Beating Ernests’. No one saw that coming. At some point during Gulbis’ current Grand Slam streak – something like 21 consecutive dropped sets going back to Wimbledon 2009 – we were treated to ‘The Impotence of Bleating Ernests’. More creative, perhaps, but equally trite, for it adds little, and evokes nothing of the original title’s effervescence, nor its deft play of meaning. As with most punning headlines, the composing of which is a dying art that had little life to begin with, a facile delight in the similarity of phrasing is deemed a sufficient end in itself.
Anyway, context: Gulbis has pushed through to the final in LA. Even as the final point was played, I started to imagine what the Wildean headline might be if he takes the title, but quickly gave up. Why expend the effort, when so many geniuses will inevitably bring their wit to bear? Which isn’t to say that dull puns don’t leap to my mind as readily as they do to anyone else’s. To the contrary, bad writing is the starting point for all writers – only the most conceited or lucky contend otherwise – but it is only for bad writers that it remains the end. The trick is to see the bad ideas as bad, and the dull ideas as dross, to discard what cannot be saved, and then work on the few useful nuggets that remain. Even then, the common mistake is to imagine that any nuggets left in the sieve are therefore gold. They almost never are, and so working on them requires less polishing than it does chipping and laborious grinding.
That’s the other thing about bad phrases. They rarely give themselves away by being too simple, but by being too ornate. The most irritating writers of all are those who fancy themselves stylists, at their most cringeworthy when verbiage leads them into the kind of metaphorical trap in which intended meaning is inverted or destroyed. Take this humdinger from Tennis.com: ‘You didn’t need to see the swooping fire graphic on the back of Nadal’s shirt to feel the heat he brought in extinguishing American qualifier Ryan Sweeting.’ If extinguishing was Nadal’s intention, you’d imagine more heat was the last thing he would bring to bear, yet the writer seems to be implying that the ideal tool for putting out fires is a flame-thrower. How about this one, from the same writer on the same site: ‘It was born as a pizza cutter with training wheels and has evolved into a slice of gear ingenuity, complete with its own commercial catch-phrase topping.’ There is a metaphorical thread here, but it is snapped when the pizza-cutter somehow evolves into a slice of pizza, while the ending – ‘commercial catch-phrase topping’ – is so contrived that it actually sounds like a parody of bad writing. The possible reasons why this made it to ‘print’ are both quite depressing. Either the writer noted it, and due to a looming deadline or laziness decided it didn’t matter, which from a professional writer is frankly not best practice. Worse still is the possibility that he simply didn’t notice.
One last example, since I cannot resist: ‘He appeared more the introverted, slump-shouldered carpenter’s helper, resigned [to] this task on a hot summer afternoon—at least until it came time to assert himself on the court and blast forehands and aces as if he were swinging not a racket but a nail gun.’ The passage, which concerns Juan Martin del Potro, had me until he started to wave that nail gun about. I’m pretty sure that’s doing it wrong. Furthermore, I assume carpentry apprentices still use hammers, which as a metaphorical tool would have worked perfectly well (if a tad cliched). Instead he tried to get fancy, and we have del Potro spraying nails everywhere, an apt reminder that metaphors are all fun and games until someone loses an eye.