Saturday, February 17, 2007

Let No Presidential Speech Writer Be Left Behind

Let No Presidential Speech Writer Be Left Behind

English teachers across the country shuddered when they read the press release of the President’s 2007 State of the Union address.

Presidential speech writers made errors that English teachers see in students who enter college not able to punctuate, much less write a paragraph.

The speech writers committed some of the most frequent punctuation errors remedial English students must overcome, especially superfluous commas. Here follow samples:

“We enter the year 2007 with large endeavors underway, and others that are ours to begin.” Unneeded comma splits compound dependent clauses.

“Yet he refused medical attention, and stayed in the fight.” Superfluous comma divides compound verb.

…and that will leave border agents free to chase down drug smugglers, and criminals, and terrorists… These items in a series have conjunctions between them that replace commas.

“And Hezbollah terrorists, with support from Syria and Iran, sowed conflict….” Commas cut off a restrictive prepositional phrase.

“an epic battle between Shia extremists backed by Iran, and Sunni extremists aided by al Qaeda…” Redundant comma divides compound object of preposition “between.”

Punctuation rules say dashes signal sudden interruptions. Ellipses signal words omitted or those that dwindle to trail-off without finishing a sentence. Presidential speechwriters ignore these rules and use dashes and ellipses as exotic semiotics to decorate text, not punctuate it.

So many dashes and ellipses do the speech-writers scatter throughout the speech that the president appears to vacillate between explosive dash outbursts and dwindling ellipsis trail-offs of absent-minded spaciness: “to terrorists – who could cause huge disruptions of oil shipments ... raise the price of oil ... and do great harm to our economy.”

Presidential speech writers abuse grammar:

“A thinking enemy watched all of these scenes, adjusted their tactics, and in 2006 they struck back…. `` “Their” and “they,” both plural, refer to collective singular noun “enemy” to create pronoun-antecedent errors. A cure of the breakdown in parallelism would be “…and in 2006 struck back.”

Speech style features template affliction of passive verbs that English teachers harangue students to strip from their writing: “The lives of citizens across our Nation are affected by the outcome of cases pending in our federal courts” instead of Cases in the federal courts affect lives of citizens across our Nation. (Capital “N’ gets a pass in this patriotic moment.)

The president delivered with a knowing smirk his sole witticism: “These special interest items are often slipped into bills at the last hour – when not even C-SPAN is watching.” All sentences’ referring to legislative guilt get passive verbs from cautious speech writers to hide slippery legislator perpetrators whom it is not safe for speech writers or even the president to offend.

Dreary bureaucratic wordiness abounds.

“Next, there is the matter of earmarks.” Edit: Next come earmarks.”

“We set a goal of cutting the deficit in half by 2009. Edit: “We will halve the deficit by 2009.” “What we need to do is impose spending discipline.” Edit: We must cut spending.

Redundant adverbs that Strunk & White condemns appear.

“My fellow citizens, our military commanders and I have carefully weighed the options.” Strunk & White inveighs against redundant adverbs such as “carefully”; celebrated stylist Graham Green cut adverbs from his writing to achieve its lean, direct effect.

Most grievous: These presidential speech writers fail to summon the resources of the great English language to reflect the grandeur of our nation. No pungent diction surprises us. No felicitous metaphors delight us. No soaring periodic sentences awe us.

A nation needs more than fuel efficiency and border patrols. It needs a president who invokes in the State of the Union address the resources of our language to enchant and inspire—or speech writers who can do it for him.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Maureen Dowd's Misplaced Modifier

This One’s for You, Joe


Published: February 7, 2007

Only kick people when they’re up, not when they’re down.

Ms. Down misplaces the modifier “only.” “Only” is number one in misplaced modifiers. It should go before the word or phrase it modifies. That place in Dowd’s sentence is before “when they’re up.”

Aren’t Americans going to be angry at a Senate that’s bending itself into a procedural pretzel, rather than seriously tackling the future of Iraq?

Redundant commas are the most frequent punctuation error. The comma before “pretzel” is redundant. The “rather” phrase is restrictive because Dowd talks about Iraq, not Iran, Turkey, or Timbucktoo. “Seriously” is one of those redundant adverbs that Strunk & White deplored and that Graham Green refused to use.

“He’s concluded that this administration’s policy can’t succeed in Iraq and he’s handing it off to the next guy.”

Here a comma goes after “Iraq” to fulfill the easiest comma rule: two independent clauses joined by a coordinationg conjunction.

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