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.


Blogger Matt said...

>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.<

From Strunk & White:

Participle for verbal noun.

[lefthand column] There was little prospect of the Senate accepting even this compromise.
[righthand column] There was little prospect of the Senate’s accepting even this compromise.

In the lefthand column, accepting is a present participle; in the righthand column it is a verbal noun (gerund). The construction shown in the lefthand column is occasionally found, [sic] and has its defenders. Yet it is easy to see that the second sentence has to do not with a prospect of the Senate but with a prospect of accepting.

Any sentence in which the use of the possessive is awkward or impossible should of course be recast.

Lee, do the “sentences” get passive verbs or does the “referring” get passive verbs? Of course “referring” isn’t the subject; the singular “referring” would need a singular verb “gets”.

All sentences … get passive verbs.
All sentences referring to legislative guilt get passive verbs.
All … referring to legislative guilt gets passive verbs.
All sentences’ referring to legislative gets passive verbs.

Ditch that apostrophe or recast.

How’s that comma after “found”? In Strunk & White! Who’d have thought?

2:36 AM  
Blogger Matt said...

>No pungent diction surprises us. No felicitous metaphors delight us. No soaring periodic sentences awe us.<

Those sentences are stumbling blocks.

Strunk & White suggests using a singular verb form after each, either, everyone, everybody, neither, nobody and someone. It also suggests using "none" when the word means "no one" or "not one".

The noun group "no felicitous metaphors" should be construed as singular.

An absence of felicitous metaphors delights us.

A lack of felicitous metaphors delights us.

The one singular thing that delights us is "no felicitious metaphors". It needs a singular verb.

2:52 AM  
Blogger twinkobie said...

"Accepting" is not a participle in "Senate ['s] accepting even this compromise." It's a gerund in this construction. Compare "Joe's accepting this compromise would be a mistake."

If Matt won't listen to reason on this matter, he can meet me in the parking lot to settle the gerund-participle question. lee

6:57 PM  
Blogger Matt said...

I'll see you there, Lee; and I'll exhume Strunk and bring him along with a medium to defend his position magisterially.

When I wrote, "From Strunk & White", I meant that I was quoting from Strunk & White. The Senate example is Strunk's; not mine. This example is in Part IV: Words and Expressions Commonly Misused under Participle for verbal noun (after Partially and before People).

The comma after "found" separating a verb from its subject is not mine either.


Let's get back to your example. The sentences get the passive verbs; the referring does not. You have provided no reason on the matter. I have. No amount of bludgeoning in the parking lot will change the fundamentals of grammar.

10:44 PM  

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