When “When” is Enough

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Several weeks ago I had an opportunity to hear Newsweek/Daily Beast Editor-in-Chief  Tina Brown speak about changes in content delivery, shortly before  announcing their plans to discontinue print publication of their well known news weekly.

I had already grabbed a copy of the magazine and tossed it into my tote, which for me, was like catching up with an old friend. I’m one of those people who received a student-rate subscription in high school and continued subscribing well beyond college graduation. In more recent years, I’ve been a casual reader.

In flipping through my issue later that night (September 24, 2012), I fell into my usual bad habit of thumbing through the magazine back to front to see if anything caught my eye, before settling down to “read it right.”

I must have noticed Damon Linker’s article on page 53 first which started “When Tori Amos set out to commemorate the 20th anniversary of her seminal debut album…” because I soon came upon the top left page of an article about hospitals (page 46, by Marty Makary) which started “When I was a medical student.”

Nothing seemed out of the ordinary, until I flipped back to page 42, to find part of an article about the television program ‘Homeland.” It started “When Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa set out in early 2010…” (this section was part of a larger article about Secret Weapons by Eli Lake) and on page 41, it contained a paragraph that began, “When asked why more women make it as targeters than men, Graham said…”

I don’t think the similarity in sentence structure hit me until I backed up to page 34 and saw an interview by Leslie H. Gelb with economist Paul Volcker that stated, “When Paul Volcker speaks, Republicans and Democrats, Labor and Business, listen.”

All of a sudden, I realized it was “when this, when that.” That’s a lot of “whens!” Merriam Webster says that this adverb derives from Middle or Old English, or perhaps Old High German, citing “hwanne” and “hwenne” as the origin. “When” denotes a period of time broadly or specifically.

I was quite young when I learned that Americans say “When” to indicate when to stop filling a glass.  That always seemed silly and somewhat random, until I realized it was variation of “Say Goodnight, Gracie” followed by “Goodnight Gracie.” (Credit that to George Burns and Gracie Allen.)

“When,” if used with beverage pouring, is really just a sassy response to, “Tell me when to stop pouring.”

As a writer, “when” offers an easy way to set the stage. “When Mrs. Springer was a young girl, her family used kerosene lamps.” But could we say it another way? “Even as she started to lose touch with the present, Mrs. Springer could still hear the crank of the old kerosene pump that fueled the lamps in her childhood home. She remembered painstakingly bringing her mother a can of the precious liquid each afternoon before the sun set, alternating between relishing the smell and being repulsed by it.”

“When” comes in handy when writing historical accounts or conveying parallel timelines. “When the czar’s foot soldiers stormed the village, Hannah was already gone.” Try it a different way. “By time the Cossacks arrived at the village, Hannah was clamoring up the hill, clinging to a bundle of food and clothes, perceptible as no more than a speck on the horizon.”

Don’t get me wrong. “When” is a perfectly adequate word, but it risks being overused. One exception:  The Beatle’s “Rain” . “When the sun shines, they slip into the shade… when it rains… when it rains and shines.” Can’t quite get enough “when” there.

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Categories: Language, News reporting, Writing, leading words & clinchers, magazines, observation, reporting, word choice

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