Saturday, December 13, 2008

JB and the Little Hyphen

I don't expect you to be reading this after my announcement last week that I wasn't going to post anything to this blog for a while. So if you're not reading this, I understand completely, but if you are, well, I guess I understand that too.

Anyway, one time back around 1981, "e" (my girlfriend at the time) and I were at the Nuart theater watching a couple of films starring Alec Guinness. One of them was Kind Hearts and Coronets and the other was The Horse's Mouth. They're both good movies, but that's not what I'm going to write about.

I don't remember the movies that well, but I remember that before they started and the theater lights were still on, we noticed John Baldessari sitting a few rows in front of us. If you don't know who John Baldessari is, you can always look it up online, but if you don't want to do that, I'll just tell you now: He's an artist. So I guess it kind of makes sense that he was there, since The Horse's Mouth is a movie about an artist. Or maybe he just liked the films of Alec Guimness.

Seeing him in the audience wasn't any big deal, so I pretty much forgot about it over the years, but earlier this week, a friend of mine and I were checking out the new building at LACMA, and I saw a guy who looked just like John Baldessari. I guess it kind of makes sense that he was there, since he's an artist and LACMA is an art museum, but it's also worth noting that the new LACMA building happened to have some Baldessari works on display.

So I'm pretty sure it was him. He looked a lot older, but so do I. So do you. So does everyone.

By the way, I hope you noticed that I referred to "e" as "my girlfriend at the time," and not as "my then-girlfriend." I never liked the construct obtained by prefixing a noun with the word "then." People do it all the time, but I never liked the way it sounds, and I also believe it's based on a misunderstanding of the underlying linguistic structure.

The convention arose because people used to say things like, "In 1977, Jimmy Carter, who was then president of the United States, declared unconditional amnesty for Vietnam War draft evaders."

Using existing rules of the English language, this was shortened to, "In 1977, Jimmy Carter, then president of the United States, declared unconditional amnesty for Vietnam War draft evaders."

And this is where all the trouble began, because the next thing we knew, people were saying things like, "In 1977, Jimmy Carter, then-president of the United States, declared unconditional amnesty for Vietnam War draft evaders."

Those last two sentences sound exactly alike, but that one little hyphen changed everything, because as soon as "then-president" became a noun-phrase, it became okay to use expressions like "the then-president" or "my then-girlfriend," which both sound awkward and clumsy.

And by the way, just to make this clear, I'm not blaming any of this on Jimmy Carter, either directly or indirectly. I'm just using him as an example. I could have just as easily said, "In 1972, Richard Nixon, then president of the United States, visited the People's Republic of China." And just to further clarify, I'm not blaming any of this on Nixon either, or for that matter, any other public figure. If anything, I blame the millions of people who through continual usage of this linguistic abomination allowed it to perpetuate.

Anyway, the other thing I liked about the LACMA exhibit is that on the first floor of the new building, there were two installations by Richard Serra: "Band" and "Sequence." There were only about two other people on that floor, so we could see those pieces the way they're intended to be seen, without a bunch of people milling in and out and destroying the quiet serenity those sculptures engender.

The new building, by the way, is called the Broad Contemporary Art Museum, named after benefactors Eli and Edythe Broad. I think they use the abbreviation "BCAM," which you probably either already knew or could have easily guessed. The only reason I'm even bringing it up is so I don't have to keep referring to it as "the new building." But I'm pretty much done talking about it anyway. As a matter of fact, I'm pretty much through with this week's blog entry. And whether or not I write anything next week is still anyone's guess, which is to say that your guess is as good as mine.