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June 17, 2008

To Be Sure, of Course

Writing a fluffy trend piece for the New York Times? You’d do well to remember the following rules: your subject can be as asinine as you want to it to be, provided that a) it appeals to people with money, and b) somewhere, you employ the phrase "to be sure" or "of course" to acknowledge the silliness of that which you are writing about.

A good example comes from an article about Michelle Obama’s clothes that appeared the Sunday before last. The author points out that "it is possible, of course, at a time when campaign images are scrutinized by media sibyls as ardently as the entrails of birds were read by the ancients, to read too much into Michelle Obama’s grooming and wardrobe," before proceeding to read too much into Michelle Obama’s grooming and wardrobe.

If you can work it in, "to be sure" may even be preferable to "of course." This piece announces in the headline that "writers blog ‘till they drop," and then goes on to note that, "To be sure, there is no official diagnosis of death by blogging, and the premature demise of two people obviously does not qualify as an epidemic."

The phrase pops up in more serious trend articles, too. This report on how the recession is affecting everyday lives notes—in a particularly tortured analogy—that, "To be sure, there are many places where talk of recession still seems as out of place as a diner trying to score a table at a trendy Los Angeles restaurant without reservations on a Saturday night."

To be sure, the paper has also noted the rhetorical idiocy of the phrase. William Safire informed us of the unique linguistic function of “to be sure,” stating that it is a straw-man modifier designed "to pull the teeth of targets before they can bite back."

So for your next spurious trend piece, maybe you’ll want to stick with "of course", as this author did: "It seems to be the age of the $50,000 bathtub, when new tubs are more like works of art than functional objects. Of course most bathrooms still have far more modest tubs, the kind that can be purchased for $250 at Home Depot."

She then goes on to list several grotesquely expensive bath tubs, of course.

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