Tuesday, February 21, 2006

See Me in My Office After Class, NYT Professor James Early

Dr. Early: I looked forward to an academic's column especially since, as I recall, your biography said you taught English. I taught college English twenty-eight years. Students arrived from high school not knowing how to write a paragraph much less an essay. One couldn't teach them Shakespeare before teaching them comma protocol.

I took the job so that I could get home fast to my four children after school since we lived near the college. I kept it because I loved the students. I miss them now in my retirement and have substituted the press, which needs almost as much help in punctuation as the students did.

The NYTimes features a plethora of basic punctuation errors daily, usually comma errors; its text tends to wordiness, especially the editorials.

Another Black in the op-ed slot delights me. You join the heretofore op-ed token Mr. Herbert. I begged Mr.Sulzberger to name a second woman to alter Ms. Dowd's tokenism--even tackling him at Poynter Institute to press my case as a shareholder when he came to Florida. He hired instead Brookes and Tierney: two C-student white men with only their y-chromosomes and race to recommend them. I sold my stock.

I expect impeccable grammar-punctuation from an English teacher and flag errors below.

My daughters do respect his stance against the draft, but only in the light that Ali was a more honest and sincere draft dodger than Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and others. He couldn’t duck into the National Guard and have a good chance of avoiding altogether going over to Vietnam (many state National Guards weren’t even integrated in the 1960’s); couldn’t hide out in college and get student deferments (he was too poorly educated and boxing was not a college scholarship sport); and couldn’t run off to Canada (he loved living in America too much to do that).

"But" does not signal a contrasting element; "not" does. In addition, the material after the comma is restrictive, so you don't have reason for a comma. You have a compound sentence that gets a comma after "educated."

...largely constructed by a white, liberal left cultural elite.

Adjectives of color aren't part of equal adjectives, so "white" gets no comma after it. You could hyphenate "liberal-left-cultural" for reading ease.

Cashill’s father was a police officer who lost his rank on the force when an Italian became mayor of Newark and chose only to reward other Italians,

"Only" is misplaced modifier: it goes before "other."

They were also staunchly Democratic, for two reasons

"For two reasons" is a restrictive adverbial prepositional phrase: no comma. I would delete "staunchly": it's redundant modifier and cliche.

I have met several people who lived through the Ali era, who never liked boxing, and who, too, are mystified about why they were so consumed with the fights, why they thought Ali’s winning or losing meant so much.

This muddy sentence has confusing structure. The comma after "era" is redundant: more than several people lived through the Ali era. The comma after "boxing" is redundant: you separate two adjective clauses with a comma. The comma after “fights” is redundant because it closes the restrictive compound adjective clauses.

Congratulation on your making the word preceding the gerund possessive: your following the possessive-before-gerund rule that the NYTimes handbook cites may be a first. Times writers routinely violate it.

Edit: "I have met several people who lived in the Ali era who never liked boxing. Why his fights consume people and why Ali's winning or losing means so much mystify them."

In this essay, I note you omit the last comma in items in a series, a practice that violates standard comma rules. Has your throwing your lot in with the greenshade comma abusers seduced you to abandon items-in-a-series protocol to be one of the guys in the comma-abusing press priesthood? These recalcitrants put commas where they shouldn't be and omit them where they should be. They affect defiance of the items-in-a-series rule just to be contrary. I think this affectation marks their bravado as spittoon-using, hard-drinking, rough-and-tough newspaper swashbucklers.

They particularly did not want to be blamed for blacks’ troubles, as Martin Luther King seemed to be doing when he held his 1966 march through white, working-class neighborhoods of Chicago.

Strunk & White inveighs against superfluous adverbs. Graham Greene hated them. I suggest dumping "particularly." The trailing adverbial clause is restrictive: no comma. Adjectives of color are not part of equal adjectives; they are part of cumulative adjectives: no comma after "white."

In such a whirlwind as the 60’s, it would have been miraculous if it had been otherwise.

Careful writers avoid "it" without clear antecedent; two "it's" in one sentence go beyond the pale and confuse readers. Especially given the murky text that leads up to your exit sentence, you should cite what you mean by these "it's." You know; your reader doesn't.

His hero status is deserved for the most part, despite his considerable flaws.

No comma after "part"; it cuts off a restrictive adverbial prepositional phrase. A better sentence would avoid the passive verb: "He deserves his hero status...."

I agree with your daughters' puzzlement at Ali’s apotheosis. My reason is different. Ali's metamorphosis was not original. Ali morphed himself into a version of Step-n-Fetchit. He surrendered his dignity for attention and laughs. I surmise the Black community to be so hungry for heroes that Ali got in on heritage points. I think liberal whites condescend to Blacks and undermine them by agreeing to cite such guys as Ali heroes. Ali's is hardly an "elegiac" tragedy. It's not a tragedy at all. It's a woebegone bring-in-the-clowns comedy.

Ali's life is cautionary, emulative, and rather creepy in my book. His questionable apotheosis does little to help Blacks, and it injured the Black boys in my English classes because it set such as Ali up as someone to replicate, another sports figure. Almost always my Black male students thought sports was the way--the only one-- for black men to succeed. They were not eager students in English class.

You conclude that Ali deserves his hero status despite his "considerable flaws"? I have worked forty-five years in the Women's Movement to eradicate one of those "flaws": sexism that says women are second class compared to any man no matter his color. Believing women inferior--as Ali's behavior toward them has shown--is more than a trivial flaw. It is hideous devaluing of half of the human race. We hear the anthems slurring "hos" as generic term for women from Black rappers that continue this malignant tradition.

I wonder what psychological path led to his daughter's becoming a boxer. Did she become a boxer because she knew that her father deemed women inferior and that her being a boxer--as he was--would get her father's approval for its tribute to him and for its being an activity that distances her from the second-class Second Sex?

I don't see a man who considers women inferior as an ideal father for boys or girls. I bet this daughter had a hard time growing up under the burden of such a father's personality. As I recall Ali married at least three times. Her father's abandoning his first family, of which this daughter was part, and using women like Kleenex couldn't have augmented a daughter's self-worth. My guess is that Ali's being an “unapologetic sexist” includes being a louche father.

What do your daughters think about Ali’s “unapologetic sexism”? And what do they think of their father’s belief that being contemptuous of women does not disqualify a man—black or white—from heroic status?

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Editor and Publisher Strikes Out

The E&P specimen below features template press errors from journalsim's gatekeeper: E&P. The writer puts commas where they shouldn’t be and puts no commas where they should be. He indulges in proliferating passive verbs that exacerbate wordiness.

The comma errors are not sophisticated. They violate the easiest of the six comma rules: Put a comma between two independent clauses joined by a coordinating conjunction, not between two words, two phrases, or two subordinate clauses.

Sometimes a press adventurer will bump up the error to pronoun-case misfires. Hardball's Chris Matthews says with self-satisfied smirk at his display of erudition “between you and I” or, on nights when he wants to showcase his superlative grasp of language, “between he and I.” These blunders corrupt the children and frighten the horses.

If you write the offender, he or she does not answer but maintains surly silence.Maureen Dowd is sole grateful recipient of grammar correction, probably because Catholic sisters instilled in her respect for authority.

Once in a while a press member commits the uptown error of failing to use the possessive before a gerund. The New York Times’s style manual provides possessive-before-gerund rule, but nobody follows it.

Galloping passive verbs in most press prose add to wordiness and vitiate force.

We should show professional writers no mercy on their basic writing errors. Nor should we tolerate their using two words when one will do. The press is supposed to save newsprint and to strive for succinct clarity. We must complain when its members don’t.

More Questions Raised About Delay in Reporting Cheney Misfire
By Greg Mitchell

E&P has learned that the official confirmation of the shooting came about only after a local reporter in Corpus Christi, Texas, received a tip from the owner of the property where the shooting occurred and called Vice President Cheney's office for confirmation. 1 sentence: 42 words

A comma goes after “property.” The “where” clause acts adjective modifying “property.”

A 42-word sentence needs shrinking.

Edit: “EP learned the property owner informed a local Corpus Christi reporter of the shooting. The reporter called Vice President Cheney’s office for confirmation." 2 sentences: 23 words

The confirmation was made but it is not known for certain that Cheney's office, the White House, or anyone else intended to announce the shooting if the reporter, Jaime Powell of the Corpus Christi Caller-Times, had not received word from the ranch owner. One sentence: 43 words

A comma follows “made”: compound sentence. “Jaime Powell” is a restrictive appositive and gets no comma after “reporter.” “Of the Corpus Christi Caller-Times” is a non-restrictive adjectival prepositional phrase modifying “Jaime Powell”: a comma goes after “Powell.” Three passive verbs mar the sentence.

Edit: “Cheney’s office confirmed the incident. Unclear was whether the vice preident’s office, the White House, or anyone else intended to admit the shooting had the ranch owner not told Corpus Christi Caller-Times reporter Jaime Powell.” 2 sentences: 31 words

Hospital officials on Monday continued to offer few details on the victim's condition, but said he was "very stable" and that pellets were possibly still being removed.

The comma after “condition” splits a compound verb.

Indeed, others raised questions as well.

Strunk & White condemns stocking-stuffer adverbs. So does Graham Greene. Dump “indeed.”

"There was no immediate reason given as to why the incident wasn't reported until Sunday," The Dallas Morning News observed. 20 words

The Dallas Morning News adds its passive verb to the verbal slush.

Edit: “The Dallas Morning News said nobody provided reason for not reporting the incident until Sunday.” 15 words

The president, who was at the White House over the weekend, was informed about the incident in Texas after it happened Saturday by Chief of Staff Andrew Card and Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove and was updated on Sunday, press secretary Scott McClellan said. 45 words

This sentence muddle with passive verbs makes unclear who updated whom. One guesses McClellan updated the president on Sunday.

“On Saturday, Chief of Staff Andrew Card and Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove informed the president at the White House. Press Secretary Scott McClellan updated the president on Sunday.” 2 sentences: 30 words

Asked by The New York Times why it did not make the news known, Cheney spokeswoman McBride said, "We deferred to the Armstrongs regarding what had taken place at their ranch." 31 words

Edit: “Cheney spokesperson McBride told The New York Times, 'We deferred to the Armstrongs regarding what took place had their ranch.'” 21 words

In an odd disparity, Armstrong told the Houston Chronicle that Whittington, 78, was "bruised more than bloodied" in the incident and "his pride was hurt more than anything else." Yet he was airlifted to a hospital and has spent more than a day in an intensive care unit. 47 words

Edit: “Armstrong told the Houston Chronicle that Wittington, 78, ‘was bruised rather than bloodied’ and that ‘his pride was hurt more than anything else.’ Yet AirX airlifted him to a hospital where he spent more than a day in intensive care.” 40 words

Time magazine on its Web site observed that Cheney is scheduled to join President Bush on Monday afternoon when he takes questions from reporters in the Oval Office, following a meeting with United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan. 38 words

The pronoun "he" could have as antecedent either "Cheney" or "Bush." The flapping participial phrase at the end adds gawky confusion.

Edit: "Time magazine's web site said Cheney joins President Bush Monday in the Oval Office after a meeting with United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan. Cheney (Bush?) will answer reporters' questions." 29 words

White House aides can be expected to say that the Vice President did not shoot Whittington, which suggests a bullet, but rather sprayed him with birdshot, a type of ammunition made up of tiny pieces of lead or steel," Time predicted. 41 words

Edit: “Time predicted White House aides will say Vice President Cheney didn’t shoot Whittington but sprayed him with birdshot. The former suggests a bullet; the latter describes pellets of lead or steel.” 2 sentences; 32 words.

On Sunday, the Chicago Tribune's James wrote on the Washington bureau's blog at the newspaper's site, "When a vice president of the U.S. shoots a man under any circumstance, that is extremely relevant information. What might be the excuse to justify not immediately making the incident public? 47 words

A Chicago Tribune blogger can’t resist contributing needless adverb to augment blowsy writing.

Edit: “The Chicago Tribune’s James wrote Sunday in the Washington bureau’s blog that a U.S. vice president’s shooting a man no matter the circumstance is relevant information. He asked, ‘What excuse justifies not making the incident public immediately?’” 2 sentences: 37 words

"The vice president is well-known for preferring to operate in secret....Some secrecy, especially when it comes to the executing the duties of president or vice president, is understandable and expected by Americans. 32 words

Edit: "The vice president prefers operating in secret….Americans understand some secrecy for presidential or vice presidential duties." 17 words

"The suit was settled in 2001, but the details were not disclosed." 10 words

Passive verbs add words always.

Edit: “X settled the suit but did not disclose details.” 9 words
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