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?


Blogger Matt said...

In this essay, I note you omit the last comma in items in a series, a practice that violates standard comma rules.

Misplaced modifier. "I" was not "in this essay".

Edit: I note you, in this essay, omit the last comma in items in a series, a practice that violates standard comma rules.

The Oxford/Harvard/serial comma is not the standard.

6:58 AM  
Blogger Matt said...

>Especially given the murky text that leads up to your exit sentence, you should cite what you mean by these "it's." <

My goodness! Despite all of the typesetting and word-processing facilities available today, you use an apostrophe to make a plural.

... these its
... these ITs

You could have put the "it" in inverted commas:

... these "it"s

I suppose that there is always the argument that your use is acceptable to aid clarity in such constructions as "p's and q's"; however, "it's" stands out as "it is" or "it has". Shoddy.

2:50 PM  

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