Thursday, May 25, 2006

Deliver Us from Complacent Language Pomposities from the English-Only Crowd

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Empowerment through English
By Jeff Jacoby, Globe Columnist May 25, 2006

A READER 'responds to an animadversion of mine against affirmative action by e-mailing me President Lyndon Johnson's famous argument in favor of racial preferences: ''You do not take a person who for years has been hobbled by chains, liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race, and then say, 'You are free to compete with all the others,' and still justly believe that you have been completely fair.''

Mr. Jacoby, who has made an appearance in Grammargrinch before, starts his essay by using “animadversion.” He summons this flossy word to alert the world that he is an English-language savant and worthy to criticize poor Mexicans’ lack of facility in the language on which Mr. Jacoby preens Olympian knowledge.

I don't know what that stray apostrophe after "Reader" means to Mr. Jacoby.

It is a column about the English language, which has always been indispensable to the American identity, and without which no citizen can fully participate in American life.

Le Jacoby falls into the most frequent punctuation error of newspaper writers: redundant commas. Jacoby plops a redundant comma between two dependent adjectival clauses modifying “language.”

Racist! As if Americans who speak Spanish aren't as capable of learning English as any other linguistic minority. As if it is bigoted and mean-spirited to want all Americans to be able to follow their nation's political debates, read its founding documents, and take part in its civic life. Racist to embrace English as the common American tongue!

Here the master of English commits three grammar felonies in the language in which he advertises his mastery: fragments. Students in remedial English classes conquer fragments before they move on to more challenging errors. Mexicans can best fragments in a shorter period than the lifetime Mr. Jacoby has had to learn to avoid them but still messes up.

Jacoby endorses a double standard for mastery of English. As born American, he claims his pass on ignorant abuse of English despite his college education and professional-writer status. But he preaches against any latitude for field-hand immigrants.

''One television ad featured pictures showing 'Official English' signs and a voice warning, 'It always begins like this,'.'' Linda Chavez, who supported the initiative, later recalled.

"This,'." should be "this," before "Linda Chavez."

Jacoby doesn’t know punctuation protocol of other marks of punctuation in relation to quotation marks. One supposes immigrants would not get a pass in this area either. Jacoby quotes the all-purpose Republican Aunt Tom Linda Chavez, ever ready to betray her race, to buttress his language bigotry.

… but that actually understated the level of public support.
The only reason English was never formally denoted the national language before now is that it was generally considered too obvious to need mentioning.

Jacoby says nothing of immigrants’ style in using English. His is clumsy, loaded with redundant adverbs throughout. Strunk & White, Master Jacoby’s style book in freshman English, warns against this practice.

Some years ago John Silber, who was then the president of Boston University, told a congressional committee about his father, who had immigrated from Germany in 1903 to work as a sculptor at the St. Louis World's Fair. After the fair closed, he went to look for work, and saw a building with a sign reading ''Undertaker.''

“Emigrated, ” not "immigrated," is the word in this context. The spell checker flags his error. But Jacoby is so confident of his mastery of language that he doesn’t use the spell checker or know what it means if he does. One supposes immigrants learn the difference between “emigrate” and “immigrate” fast. After they emigrate across the border, under the fence, and across the desert, often perishing from thirst, they are immigrants. They are illegal immigrants but immigrants all the same.

But this jingoistic huffing-and-puffing newspaper columnist does not have to know the difference: he won’t crawl under a fence to do stoop labor to send money back to his family in Mexico so that its members won’t starve. Of course Jacoby uses another redundant comma between compound verbs. This is perquisite for a bloviating columnist--bestrewing redundant commas with a hey nonny nonny.

Jacoby's ignorance of English results in his mauling our language while deploring the English of immigrants. He lives in a country where English gets beat up by native Americans—especially pompous windbags who write newspaper columns.

I’d love to grade the essays of the English-only bigots in the House and Senate. The results would get them deported if we applied Jacoby’s exalted standards to them—and him.

We could round up a language posse to rustle them to the border, push them across as emigrants, and wave bye-bye, trilling, "Goodbye, immigrants. Get cracking on learning the subjunctive mood in Spanish. You must speak the language of Cervantes with precision."

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Don't Change a Comma; Don't Insert a Superfluous One

Don't change a comma
April 12, 2006

There's talk at the State House that Romney plans to veto or amend the section of the bill that guarantees an income stream for the two hospitals, as the state moves their uninsured patients into the health insurance system.

The commas of this piece are impeccable except for the one after “hospitals.” That redundant comma cuts off a trailing restrictive adverbial clause. Normal syntax is subject-verb-adverbial modifier. The modifier can be word, phrase, or clause. 1. We left today. 2. We will leave in the morning. 3. We will leaven when the sun comes out.

These modifiers are usually restrictive and get no commas before them. The one in the “Don’t Change a Comma” editorial is restrictive. The bill guarantees an income stream for the two hospitals as the state moves their uninsured patients into the health insurance business, not, for example, as the state waits to see whether the hospitals can survive the move without state help.

This error of putting a comma before a restrictive adverbial clause in the normal end position is a common one. People who wouldn’t cut off with a comma a one-word adverb or adverbial phrase at the end of a main clause cut off an adverbial clause with a comma. One doesn’t know why. Maybe the urge comes from the adverbial modifier’s being a clause or perhaps because of its length. For whatever reason, doing so is wrong.

Saturday, May 06, 2006

A Founding Concept of Commas at the Boston Globe

Plato in the paddock
May 6, 2006

A FOUNDING concept of Western philosophy, ascribed to Socrates by that peerless ventriloquist Plato, is the distinction between knowledge and opinion.

The past participial phrase "ascribed...Plato" is restrictive, so no commas should enclose it. It modifies "a founding concept." That designation means that there exists more than one founding concept, so the past participial phrase "ascribed..." identifies it.

The present editors carry on the tradition of abuse of commas of former editor Storin, below.
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