Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Washington Post Scribes and One in Heartland Ohio Merit Red Pen

Confirm Samuel Alito Washington Post editorial

This editorial had only one comma error, a signal achievement in editorial writing. Its reasoning ranks potent. I agree, even though I fear Alito will overturn Roe. I don’t agree with the redundant comma in this sentence:

Yet Judge Alito should be confirmed, both because of his positive qualities as an appellate judge and because of the dangerous precedent his rejection would set.

The comma after “confirmed” cuts off restrictive prepositional phrases. Flabby passive verb weakens sentence.

Edit: "Yet the Senate should confirm Judge Alito because of his positive qualities as appellate judge and because his rejection sets a dangerous precedent."

Washington Sketch Dana Milbank

For all the expectations of fireworks on the first day of questioning of Alito, and for all the purported high stakes in the nomination, the mood in the hearing room was flat and lethargic. 34 words

The comma after “Alito” splits compound introductory adjectival prepositional phrases modifying “mood.” Sacrifice either “flat” or “lethargic.” This sentence suffers from wordiness: most prevalent press style flaw.

Edit: “Despite people's expecting fireworks because of the nomination’s high stakes, the hearing-room mood was lethargic.” 34 versus 14 words

A contagious wave of yawns spread across the dais, from Specter to Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) to Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.), and crested in a brief catnap for Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.).

One is grateful for attempt to make a piece sprightly with yeasty diction and evocative metaphors, but the experiment here misfires.

The commas cut off restrictive prepositional phrases unless Schumer and Brownbeck acted dais bookends. The writer must make their bookend positions clear to rescue the commas. “Crested” is inexact diction. “Subsided into” might work. Catnapping shows less activity than yawning. Had Brownback snored—delicious prospect-- then his contribution would merit “crested.” “Brief” is redundant. Catnaps are brief by definition.

Edit: “A wave of yawns spread across the dais from Senator Shumer on one end to Senator Russell on the other. Senator Brownback catnapped.”

For Democrats, A Most Tender Roast of Alito
By Marcia Davis

One senses that Ms. Davis is a young writer swept away by the excitement of filling a blank page with words that appear in print. She overwrites to a faretheewell.

Alito's answer: "Well, Senator, I have wracked my memory about this issue, and I really have no specific recollection of that organization."

“Wracked” should be “racked.” See Garner’s A Dictionary of American Usage.

Schumer even spoke of the possibility of a filibuster.

Misplaced modifier: “even” goes before “the possibility.”

Unless you were paying really close attention early yesterday, it would have been hard to figure out whether what you were looking at was more than a garden-variety spat.

Strunk & White begs writers to jettison stocking-stuffer adverbs. “Really” tops the list. “Figure out” and “garden-variety” rank stale diction. Expletive-it constructions produce flabby sentences. Progressive verbs sound hand-wringing.

Edit: “Only close attention yesterday revealed whether you witnessed more than an ordinary spat.” 29 versus 13 words

The fact is that whatever passion and fight the Democrats had yesterday was poured through political politeness, a sieve of senatorial civility.

“The fact that” points to a fact. A writer's intuition is not a fact. The passive verb causes a mushy sentence. Saying the same thing twice guarantees wordiness.

Edit: “Democrats yesterday poured whatever passion and fight they had through a sieve of senatorial civility.” 22 versus 15 words

I'm puzzled, and I suspect you may be puzzled, by some of the questions.

Edit: “Some questions puzzled.” 14 words versus 3

I think that what people are wondering about and puzzled about is not whether you lack independence, but whether you independently conclude that the executive trumps the other two branches.

The comma wrongly splits a compound predicate nominative. The construction wobbles to thirty words.

“People wonder whether you can conclude that the executive trumps the other two branches.” 30 versus 14 words

Ohio Post editorial

The patriotic opposition

It has taken awhile, but serious and principled opposition to renewing parts of the USA Patriot Act is growing in the form of an improbable coalition that includes some of Washington's leading conservatives, the ACLU, gun rights groups, libertarians and medical privacy activists.

I check heartland newspaper writing to see whether it ranks with that in big-city press. It does. This Ohio Post editor shows as far gone in wordiness as do those writing at The NY Times and Washington Post . There goes my romantic notion that everything amid the growing corn, including grammar and punctuation, is wholesomely superior.

The Ohio Post sentence above harrumphs to 43 words. "Awhile" is the adverb: the editor needs "a while," article and noun. A beginning expletive-it construction predicts prolixity. The editor’s inability to dump either “serious” or “principled” marks tendency to wordiness. Progressive verbs (“is growing”) vitiate a sentence that wordiness already drowns.

Edit: “Opposition to Patriot-Act renewal grows from an improbable coalition of Washington’s leading conservatives, ACLU, gun-rights groups, libertarians, and medical-privacy activists.” 43 versus 20 words

One thing is for sure, the coalition with former Georgia congressman Bob Barr at its head is not going to be outflanked on the right, not with a name like Patriots to Restore Checks and Balances. 36 words

Edit: “The Right won’t outflank Congressman Bob Barr’s coalition, not with a name like ‘Patriots’ to Restore Checks and Balances.” 36 versus 19 words

The Patriot Act was passed in the immediate aftermath of 9-11, and this time the act's backers will be unable to avail themselves of the argument that the law's critics were, if not actually abetting terrorism, at least tying the president's hands in the fight. It was nonsense, of course, but they were emotional times.

Vague pronoun reference befogs clarity because we don’t get antecedents of “it’ and “they” in the second sentence. The 44-word first sentence puts a glaze on readers’ eyes.

Edit: “The Patriot Act passed in 9-11’s aftermath. Today’s backers can’t accuse critics again of abetting terrorism or tying the president’s hands." 45 versus 21

Parts of the Patriot Act "sunset" after five years, meaning they will expire at the end of this year unless Congress renews. The Bush administration would like to see them made permanent, but maintaining the sunset provisions insures that Congress, at least once every five years, will reexamine how those provisions are working. 53 words

Edit: “Parts of the Patriot Act that the Bush administration wants permanent expire after five years, and Congress must renew them. Keeping the sunset provision means Congress can re-examine the provisions’ effect at least every five years.” 53 words in one sentence versus 36 words in two

The coalition is targeting/ targets three specific provisions in the act.
The coalition asks Congress in debating the sunset provisions to satisfy itself that the courts are adequately supervising /supervise federal surveillance authority; that investigative resources are indeed being devoted/devoted to terrorism "instead of everybody else;" and that privacy rights are being respected/ are respected. 44 words

Confine progressive verbs to action in progress. Heed Strunk & White’s advice to avoid modifiers, especially adverbs: “adequately,” “indeed.” Put a semicolon outside quotation marks.

Edit: “The Coalition asks Congress to ensure that the courts supervise federal surveillance; that investigative resources go to terrorism alone; and that federal surveillance respects privacy.” 44 versus 25 words

This is only asking Congress to do its job.

This what? Don’t expect readers to trudge through the preceding paragraph to supply a missing one-word antecedent. "Only" is misplaced modifier: it goes before "to do."

Edit: “Voter expectation mandates that Congress do its job.”


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8:04 PM  
Blogger Matt said...

One senses that Ms. Davis is a young writer swept away by the excitement of filling a blank page with words that appear in print.

Passive voice. Try:

One senses that Ms. Davis is a young writer and that the excitement of filling a blank page with words that appear in print sweeps her away.

7:56 PM  

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