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Put it to me this way

Superior phrasemaking

A loyal reader writes:

There’s a New Yorker turn of phrase that is really annoying me: “put it to me this way”. As in: “Recently, a woman in the crowd at a Nine Inch Nails show at Terminal 5, in New York, put it to me this way… [insert banal made-up quote].” ((Legal disclaimer: I’m sure my source did not mean to imply that the particular quote that follows in the article in question was “made-up” — and nor do I! — just, I take it, that an unscrupulous journalist could make up such a quote.))

Yes, that is annoying! My correspondent did not say why he thought it annoying; but I will say why I do, now that it’s been pointed out to me. Considering it arguendo in the worst possible light, a writer’s choice to say that a person “put it to me this way” — rather than, I don’t know, “said”? — bespeaks an egotistical claim of priority over whatever the hapless interviewee happens to have blurted. I had already thought of this, of course, the sage writer implies; and then — look, how cute are the ordinary citizenry! — a civilian put it to me this way. Not telling me anything I didn’t already know, of course, but using an adorably demotic turn of phrase that really adds some colour and credibility to my reporting?

Thus does the writer of “put it to me this way” argue that, in his phat brain, he already understood everything that it was possible to say on the subject the moment he accepted the assignment, and the actual research involved merely a stately roll-call of patsies who would affirm his interpretive genius.

Which way would you put it to me, readers?

  1. 1  Daniel F  September 28, 2009, 10:17 am 

    Yes, you’ve absolutely nailed why it feels so annoyingly self-congratulatory. Thank you. It’s as if you have relieved me of an itch.

    There is also, as you imply, the occasional sense, when this phrase is deployed, that the journalist is off-loading onto a convenient stooge a phrase that is in fact of his own making, and which he wishes to express, but which for some reason (usually embarrassment at the obviousness of his thoughts) he wishes to disclaim responsibility for.

    Speaking of the obvious, it is plain that neither the piece quoted above, nor indeed any piece that has ever appeared in the New Yorker, could fairly be described in this way.

  2. 2  richard  September 28, 2009, 12:50 pm 

    This has to be the most gratuitous use of the phrase I’ve ever seen. The insight that was thus demotically “put:”
    “Trent is sort of a hubba-hubba situation. He’s also probably the healthiest guy here.”
    …so Sasha Frere-Jones fancies Trent Reznor, and sees that he’s fit.
    Thanks, New Yorker.

  3. 3  Adrian  September 28, 2009, 1:15 pm 

    I’ve generally read “PITMTW” as an acknowledgement of a particularly pithy, persuasive or otherwise nice phrasing of the point.

    The linked example does show that it can be put to other uses, though.

  4. 4  belle le triste  September 28, 2009, 3:47 pm 

    Not to defend the “put it to me” formula or indeed the wording of the quote, but Sasha FJ is male and straight, so deferring issues of fanciability in re Trent Reznor to actual women who actually do fancy TR doesn’t seem a totally strange thing to do!…

  5. 5  richard  September 28, 2009, 3:51 pm 

    Fair enough. Although, y’know, I wouldn’t get all binary on his sexuality.

  6. 6  Steven  September 28, 2009, 7:26 pm 

    Oh, I just read some more of the article:

    Robin Finck, who played guitar in one incarnation of Guns N’ Roses, reproduces some of the dozens of harsh guitar tones Reznor has written over the years

    Yes, that Reznor, he writes some great tones?

  7. 7  sw  September 29, 2009, 3:02 am 

    I can’t really believe that I am stepping up to defend Snr. Frere-Jones. I have never really enjoyed any of his pieces, but then I am precisely the demographic he is not writing for (he’s targetting younger hipsters and older squares). So, that having been put to you, I have usually read “put it to me this way” as having quite the opposite effect from the one described above: it gives the quote a sort of muscular finality, crediting the speaker with getting something just right, and so this expression invites the reader to enjoy the way something is phrased and delivered. It’s the anti-literally, in that we are expected not just to listen to the point – which, as you say, has already been made in some form by the writer – but the colourful way in which it is said. Is this necessarily patronising? No. Can it be? Yeah. And surely, in this case in particular, can we not sense Snr. Frere-Jones sitting back to appreciate the sheer strangeness of the quote, which, after all, serves as punctuation in the flow of the article itself? “Trent is sort of a hubba-hubba situation. He’s also probably the healthiest guy here.” Really? Can a person be a hubba-hubba situation, or even sort of one? Well, yes, perhaps! And come on, if you were alive during the 1990s and anything close to a dedicated follower of fashion, would you have ever pegged Trent Reznor as somebody who would one day “probably [be] the healthiest person” in any room that wasn’t some sort of intensive care unit? Not only weird, but weirdly put!

    And, @6, while one might go on to object to the claim that Reznor wrote “harsh guitar tones” (did he literally write “harsh guitar tones”?), that simple phrase actually evoked Reznor’s songs for me – the way in which his melodies were bound up in a harangue of noise and yet still musical, something that one might experience when listening to music from different cultures for the first time; the way in which the aggression and the quality of the sound were generated, a contextual and a practical form of tone . . . So, let me put it to you this way, it worked for me.

    Now, I’ll share the passage from the article I really loathe:

    Reznor doesn’t have a particularly grim backstory—he grew up with his grandparents, liked to pole fish with his grandfather, took piano lessons, and played Judas Iscariot in his high school’s production of “Jesus Christ Superstar”—but he has written some very durable “Fuck you, Man!” songs.

  8. 8  Steven  September 29, 2009, 7:38 am 

    I am precisely the demographic he is not writing for (he’s targetting younger hipsters and older squares)

    There is a problem of assumed audience in the New Yorker‘s pop coverage, isn’t there? This piece appears to be written for people who have never heard of Nine Inch Nails. But if you have really never heard of NiN, you will almost certainly not like them and not care about them at all.

  9. 9  sw  September 29, 2009, 3:49 pm 

    Possibly so! My belief that Snr. Frere-Jones is writing for two other demographics is based on precisely this problem. He seems to be describing a phenomenon for people who have never heard of NiN and who will a) almost certainly not like them but might have something of an anthropological interest in them (older squares) and b) not care about them at all, but probably should (younger hipsters).

  10. 10  Steven  September 29, 2009, 9:42 pm 

    Should the younger hipsters, whoever and wherever they might be, and whatever they might be wearing, care about NiN? Will they be made so to care by this article? Does it, alternatively, offer any anthropological interest to older squares who are interested in anthropology? Can you really write guitar tones? A wiser man than I, over a bavette this lunchtime, put it to me this way: “Would you like a glass of this delicious Fleurie?”

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