Friday, February 18, 2005

Poynter Malls Commas

Poynter Mauls Commas
To: Dr. Peter Clark, Poynter Senior Faculty Member of Writing
From: lee drury de cesare
Subject: Newspaper Sexism and Indifference to Grammar and Punctuation; Review of Clark's and Gailey's Prose

In addition to my concern with newspapers' sexism, I note press indifference to language. Newspapers' bad grammar and punctuation puzzle. After all, the press participates in writing business. I complain to The New York Times writers and management. Besides being a lover of language, I am shareholder and reason that bad grammar and punctuation hurt business.

Mr. Sulzberger once assigned a fellow who affected knowledge of language to answer my complaints. He didn't last long. He proved no expert and got petulant. I told him to go back to throwing spitballs into the waste basket.

Mr. Safire, soi disant grammar expert, sent me a note about his overuse of commas. He defended himself by saying that he liked them.

Then I caught him on one of those Sunday-morning opining shows saying he felt "badly" about something. I lambasted him for disgracing the paper with bad grammar as talking head. He didn't answer. He couldn't.

I write Mr. Keller to complain about bad grammar and punctuation. He doesn't answer. But he answered a complaint about bias. From this experience and the daily plethora of errors, I infer newspapers care about charges of bias, not complaints about bad grammar and punctuation. If The New York Times doesn't care, then lesser publications won't.

I puzzle about etiology of press hostility to literacy. I theorize it emerged from renegade beginnings when men liquored up and marginally literate wrote the first proto press broadsides between bouts of delirium tremens. These crude productions evolved into today's newspapers, to which clings residue of their origins. You, who brag about indifference to comma rules in your punctuation piece, represent butt end of this culture of defiance of Standard English.

Early newsrooms must have featured profanity, spittoons, and macho posturing that calcified into antipathy to refinement, including correct grammar and punctuation, considered sissy affectation. I suspect this early atmosphere accounts for endemic hostility to women journalists, a trait which still infects press DNA as one can see in male-dominated mastheads, male front-page bylines, and even in the case of The New York Times majority male letters-to-the-editor.

According to The Trust, Mr.Muley Ochs's language deficiencies made him insecure. He had the mahogany furniture of success but not the ease with language. Other traits showed him a limited fellow. Mr. Ochs's misogyny was such that he wouldn't hire a newspaperwoman just as he wouldn’t name his only child, Iphigene, publisher. His womanizing son-in-law got that post. The founder considered women objects to be pinched on the bottom, not writers to work on his paper.

Muley Ochs's remains residual attitude toward newspaper women. Gloria Steinem writes that she couldn't get out of the NYTimes Building without being solicited at least once. A talented writer in her forties with impressive newspaper experience told me she couldn't land a job with the local press because the men she started out working with were now in positions to hire and preferred women of dewy age to adorn the newsroom for their delectation.

Poynter's employment morphology reflects routine sexism. Before Poynter's solons pontificate on ethics abroad, they should examine morality of in-house misogyny.

Given press bad grammar and punctuation, imagine my delight when I spotted a writing teacher on the Poynter web site. That revelation quite enchanted me until I read some of your essays.

You exacerbate the problem of cavalier punctuation. You say in your punctuation piece that the rules don't matter. Amazing: the senior faculty member of writing for Poynter endorses punctuation ignorance. That attitude smacks of greenshade bravado of yore. Bring back the spittoons.

You devise a Romper Room system of anthropomorphizing punctuation that obviates mastering rules. I call such scams gonzo grammar. Your scheme gives reluctant press scholars who evade standard punctuation Poyter’s imprimatur to avoid mastering it ever.

Your nursery-room transformation doesn't work. It complicates rather than simplifies punctuation. You can't turn semicolons into choochoo trains to avoid learning the bareknuckles of punctuation. A teacher wants to both delight and instruct, but when the choice is between the two, a good teacher dumps delight and instructs. The right attitude consists of this: "All right, my buckoes. Gird up your loins for the Stalingrad of commas: nonrestrictive elements. Fix bayonets. Charge."

A person with average intelligence can apply punctuation rules. So pray stop with the coy Little-Engine-That- Could distraction and get on with punctuation boot camp.

Sufficient drills bear fruit. Once they understand there's no escape, comma scofflaws learn punctuation protocol. A real teacher doesn’t let students out the door until they master grammar-and-punctuation lore--especially those headed for writing jobs. You should run Poynter grammar clinics, not erect silly punctuation rigmaroles that evade learning.

You deserve a salute for opposing some obscure newspaper fetish and retaining the standard final comma before "and" in items in a series, but you perpetuate myth when you say in essay No. 35 that a well-placed comma points to where the writer would pause if he were to read the passage aloud. A teacher should know better than to reinforce this canard. One can insert a rhetorical pause after every word in a sentence. Rise and recite this: "Stand, up, for, Jesus, all, you, newsroom, rightwing, religious, zealots." Commas earn their place for structural, not rhetorical, reasons.

For the last three or four hundred years, we have been moving from the "closed" system, the one you wrongly recommend when you advise rhetorical "pause" commas, to the open system's using few commas: only those needed for sentence structure. One thinks newspapers would welcome this trend since open system saves newsprint. Instead, journalists besprinkle their essays with redundant commas: the craft's most frequent error in punctuation.

Clogging sentences with superfluous commas produces bad style. Redundant commas mar rhetorical élan of a sentence. They impede its flow. They check its thrust.

A superfluous-comma error greets us in the current Poynter web page:

Saturday, February 12, 2005

Lou Loved A Good Story
By Butch Ward
Remembering those who inspire good journalism, and what they can teach us.

The comma following "journalism" splits the compound object of the participle "remembering."

Your verb essay is good, but there are four verbs, not the three you cite. You omit intransitive complete: There are transitive active; transitive passive; intransitive complete, and linking. Transitive active is strongest: it has an object of the action. (I run the show.) Intransitive complete is next strongest: it has no object of the action. (I run.) Linking verbs, old term copulas, are usually a form of the verb "to be" but can be verbs of the senses (e.g. Safire's "I feel badly" should have been "I feel bad": predicate adjective follows "feel," linking verb. Linking verbs are mush. Careful writers avoid them. Transitive passive verbs spell death to a good sentence. Except in special cases, a writer eschews them.

In your own writing, you use verbs well. You, however, suffer wordiness, most frequent style error. That people who proofread don't strike padding amazes since extra words eat up print. The New York Times bought a paper business to save on newsprint. The management never thought of telling writers to stop churning out too many words. You write an essay on Strunk & White's warning against adverbs. Strunk &White warns against overmodifying with both adjectives and adverbs--and wordiness.

In addition to overusing commas, you misuse colons. A colon usually requires a sentence preceding it. You sometimes plunk it in the middle of a sentence. I won an argument with the Chicago Manual of Style fellows on this issue.

Let's review a sample of your writing:

Howell Raines: Gone Fishin'

By Roy Peter Clark
Senior Scholar, Poynter Institute

It occurred to me that Wordy: dump this throat clearing. to undertake an X-ray reading of Howell's reporting and writing, No comma: compound predicate nominative and then to interview him about his work habits, No comma: compound predicate nominative in a series with "and" replacing commas and to share that wisdom with the staff. Edit: "I did an X-ray of Howell's reporting, writing, and work habits and shared the wisdom with the staff." about his work habits. Those who have described him, during the recent scandals, These commas cut off a restrictive adverbial prepositional phrase. People described Raines during the recent scandals, not during his newsroom days. as a self-hating Southerner or a liberal ideologue miss the essence of Howell Raines as a man and a journalist. Drop this last phrase or crank up the violins. A a bathetic cliche adds nothing but unintentional humor.When Howell quotes Alabama football coach Paul "Bear" Bryant, Redundant comma: you split compound introductory adverbial clauses. or when he writes with such passion about the "redneck" way of fishing, it is not in the mode of a professional Southerner, No comma: you split a compound predicate complement. but as a true son of the Southern Soil. Flee this cliche as well. Your “it” lacks antecedent. Avoid “it” constructions. They signal lazy writing that clouds clarity. Edit: "When Howell quotes ‘Bear’ Bryant or writes about redneck fishing, he does not play professional Southerner."

I disagree: posturing as professional Southerner constitutes Raines's schtick.

If I were him, I'd grab my fly-rod and head for a favorite fishin' hole.

I don’t know whether you play greenshade linguistic barbarian here or don’t know any better. “Him” should be “he”: predicate nominative.

I believe you misjudge Mr. Raines, sir. Allow me to counter with dissenting opinion. I tracked this Times political blow-up. Get the facts right: his quitting represented face-saving forestall of Sulzberger’s firing him. Vanity Fair’s piece demonstrated relative objectivity.

My analysis: Mr. Raines's elevation at The Times was due to the Sulzbergers' odd weakness for faux Southern aristocrats. The Sulzbergers are suckers for showy pretensions of Southern aristocracy. You'd be surprised how naive New Yorkers are about the South. They accept all clichés as valid. Raines played the stereotype of plantation scion and charmed Sulzberger into putting him in the top job. Any one of my genealogy-addicted Georgia aunts would have spotted Raines as poseur and unmasked him in seconds.

Raines sat on a pot of insecurity. He went to a Baptist college and felt inferior to Times people with more prestigious degrees. Ivy Leaguers must have been real pains. So when Raines got the boss job, he threw his weight around and ticked everybody off but Sulzberger, to whom he sucked up. During his interregnum, he violated NYTimes decorum by staging a splashy wedding to a woman too young for him.

I recall writing to rebuke Raines for his crude introduction to The Times's mea-culpa edition about ignoring the Holocaust (which the paper avoided because the Sulzbergers wanted to distance themselves from their Jadishness in an unlovely spasm of gutlessness). Raines said he would never let anything "vulgar" appear in The Times and then wrote with parvenu vulgarity

He wrote an oily, self-serving piece after his behavior forced him out in one of those flossy magazines, The Atlantic, I think. In it he dropped Sulzberger's name every other line. Raines is a tacky guy.

I understand that Mr. Raines emerged from The St. Pete Times newsroom. I wonder if he replicated the management style that reigns there.

Raines's letting that Blair kid bamboozle him with sycophancy to get away with nonstop plagiarism and made-up stories bespoke Raines's blind self-aggrandizing. Raines wanted Blair to serve prop for Raines's affected guilt for Southern racism, paraded to prove how noble he was, like repentant Russian noblemen who started the revolution.

Boyd played an Uncle Tom who never gave Raines anything but "Yassah" for his every false move. Boyd should have said, "Listin, stop acting like Putin on steroids, or you'll get us canned. You have enraged the whole dammed newsroom with your bluster and arrogance."

If you give a person a little power, he reveals what kind of character he possesses. I submit that Raines showed his when he got top job at The New York Times.

Your citing Raines's chronicling giant trifles as reportorial genius at The St. Pete Times does not convince. Copying down bumper slogans from Tallahassee lawmakers' cars does not equate to Watergate. I doubt bumper-sticker literature provided eye-opening apercus into Florida good ol' boys' piney woods weltanschauung. Florida voters don't need pick-up truck bumper semiotics to know how dumb and mean the breed is.

Although my chief target is New York Times, I sometimes whack St. Petersburg Times writers in slack time. My files reflect rebuke below to Mr. Phil Gailey. That he has achieved his management ascendancy at The St. Pete Times testifies to minimal importance of writing in newspaper work:

Mr. Gailey: I espied your essay in my masthead search to see whether women still repine in The St. Petersburg Times basement. They do. Curious, I read your piece to judge writing felicity of the pooh-bah second to Woton Paul Tash.

Your tone leaks irascible condescension. You regard as silly reader outcry questioning your not seeing Fahrenheit 9/11 before condemning it. Attending the movie to quell the clamor confirmed, not challenged, your preconceived opinion.

I won't argue your right to luxuriate in wrongheaded mind-set and to expatiate on it for a paper at which you reign lord chamberlain and doubtless sport a well-filled stocking and Cialis corporate perquisites whilst preening other emblems of exalted office such as an acre-wide desk. Polonius would be pea green with envy. I will, however, dispute language.

Excerpted follow specimens from your essay:

That said, let me give Michael Moore his due for the last third of Fahrenheit 9/11, which confronts audiences with gruesome and bloody images of death and suffering in Iraq, by both U.S. soldiers and Iraqi civilians, that they will never see on the network evening news.

Flagged commas cut off a restrictive adjectival prepositional phrase. U.S. soldiers and Iraqi civilians, not mullahs and belly dancers, model the gruesome and bloody images. Style: you overmodify passim. Dump either "gruesome" or "bloody."

Moore does not mention that it was Richard Clarke, the White House counterterrorism chief and a holdover from the Clinton administration, who made the decision to allow Saudis to leave.

The expletive "it" produces flabby writing. Avoid the device. Edit: "Moore does not mention that Clinton holdover Richard Clark allowed Saudis to leave.”

... that Bush is using the nation's post-9/11 anxiety for his own re-election purposes and to keep the nation at war to benefit his friends.

Parallelism falters.

Bush uses the nation's post-9/11 anxiety to promote his election and to keep the nation...

Or that Clarke has since become one of Bush's harshest critics on both the 9/11 attacks and the war in Iraq. It's clear why Moore didn't use Clarke in the movie.

One allows a genius artful fragments, not newspaper opiner. A standard sentence must replace this fragment. Another boggy expletive construction appears, and one mars your exit sentence. Recast to get rid of both.

Master Rodney Thrash must occupy a low rung at The Times, probably little above that of women. The same edition sees his report on Pacifica speaker’s night-time appearance at Tampa Performing Arts Center. Had I known him present, I would have sought him out to give him a pat on the head. Sleep- deprived, Rodney stumbles into vague pronoun reference and case error in "Critic." "Goodman said that it taught her that people are hungry for outlets that present all perspectives, no matter who they offend."

Isn't there anyone who proofs these stories before they see print?

"It" lacks antecedent. Mr. Thrash could replace "it" with "the experience." "Who" should be "whom," object of the verb "offend."

Don't pick on Mr. Thrush for lapses. He made fewer than did you. While straining to take notes in Arts-Center-balcony gloom, he doubtless fretted over inability to pay rent on the pittance that The Times pays him, an instance of wealth transfer from worker bees to augment bloated salary and perquisites for lord-chamberlain-management parasites.

While Master Thrash toils into the night, the grandee who receives the let-them-eat-cake largesse bled from proletariat employees lies abed on 600-thread-count French sheets bought on a Times-reimbursed-executive--faux-management-tra-la-la-expense-account spree at some pricey Paris Lit, Bath, et Là-bas off the Avenue de Breteuil.

In addition to no night duty and voluptuous linens, this cosseted chamberlain revels in license to make writing errors, cleave to idiosyncratic views, and condescend to readers hey nonny nonny. A cautionary note: Such small-bore corruption tends to metastasize and makes one object of the blog-forensics community's scrutiny with subsequent exposure on the The Daily KOS, Buzzflash, and thither across the World Wide Web.

As Mr. Oliphant's current cartoon showed, bloggers are storming the gates of the mainstream, toothless press.Some of these blog saboteurs have an additional tool in storming the gates of the complacent press: they know grammar and punctuation niceties and will bore in on your writing too.

Your style represents avuncular fusty, Mr. Gailey: from it wafts a whiff of moth balls. The product comes from a mind that needs airing.

Very, very respectfully yours,

lee drury de cesare
15316 Gulf Boulevard 802
Madeira Beach, FL 33708


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