Friday, August 24, 2007

Editorial Comma Dummies


The Problem Isn’t Mr. Maliki

Published: August 24, 2007

Blaming the prime minister of Iraq, rather than the president of the United States, for the spectacular failure of American policy, is cynical politics, pure and simple.

What simpleton wrote this? Every one of the commas is wrong. “Rather…United States” is a restrictive prepositional phrase. The commas after “States…policy” cuts off another restrictive prepositional phrase.

If you must use the cliché hiccough “pure and simple,” don’t cut it off with a comma: it’s awful, but it’s restrictive.

One would think newspapers who save newsprint by omitting the standard last comma in items in a series would forgo the plethora of redundant commas that festoon every paragraph in the paper with the editorials leading the redundant-comma daily orgy. But no, doing so would require hauling out your grammar primer and reviewing the chapter on redundant commas instead of strolling hither and yon preening that you are big important editors of the New York Times. That you are comma illiterates you don’t mind.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

M. Dargis Buries Bourne in Adverbs

Still Searching, but With Darker Eyes


Published: August 3, 2007

Jaw clenched, brow knotted, body tight as a secret, Matt Damon hurtles through “The Bourne Ultimatum” like a missile. He’s a man on a mission, our Matt, and so too is his character, Jason Bourne, the near-mystically enhanced superspy who, after losing his memory and all sense of self, has come to realize that he has also lost part of his soul. For Bourne, who rises and rises again in this fantastically kinetic, propulsive film, resurrection is the name of the game, just as it is for franchises. This is the passion of Jason Bourne, with a bullet.

“Our Matt” is cutsey incursion.

“Near-mystically enhanced”: cut this hypertrophied, hyphenated monster to “near mystical.”

“Jason Bourne” gets no commas: it’s a restrictive appositive.

“Fantastically” is a redundant adverb, the kind Strunk & White abjures.

If you insist on using “with a bullet,” precede with no comma: it’s a restrictive adverbial prepositional phrase. It's also dreadful pop prose.

Their sights set far beyond the usual genre coordinates, the three Bourne movies drill into your psyche as well as into your body. They’re unusually smart works of industrial entertainment, with action choreography that’s as well considered as the direction. Doug Liman held the reins on the first movie, with Paul Greengrass taking over for the second and third installments. And while the two men take different approaches to similar material (the more formally bold Mr. Greengrass shatters movie space like glass), each embraces an ethos that’s at odds with the no pain, no gain, no brain mind-set that characterizes too many such flicks. Namely remorse: in these movies, you don’t just feel Bourne’s hurt, you feel the hurt of everyone he kills.

“As well as into your body” is impossible hyperbole. Settle for the psyche drill metaphor. “Unusually” is a redundant adverb. The comma before “with” cuts off a restrictive adverbial prepositional phrase. The comma after “movie” cuts off another restrictive adverbial prepositional phrase. “Greengrass” is possessive before the gerund “taking.” See my argument in a previous post with Jesse Seidlouer on this issue. Jesse needn’t think he will stun us provincial grammarians into silence with his weighty title of Oxford Dictionary editor.

“The Bourne Ultimatum” picks up where “The Bourne Supremacy” left off, with this former black-bag specialist for the C.I.A. grimly, inexorably moving toward final resolution. After a brush with happiness with the German woman (Franka Potente) he met in the first movie (“The Bourne Identity”) and soon lost in the second, he has landed in London. Stripped of his identity, his country and love, Bourne is now very much a man alone, existentially and otherwise. Mr. Damon makes him haunted, brooding and dark. The light seems to have gone out in his eyes, and the skin stretches so tightly across his cantilevered cheekbones that you can see the outline of his skull, its macabre silhouette. He looks like death in more ways than one.

The comma after “off” is redundant: it cuts off a restrictive adverbial prepositional phrase. Both adverbs “grimly” and “inexorably” are redundant. So are “existentially and otherwise.” Redundant adverbs clog a sentence and make the writer appear desperate to pump up his credibility. “In more ways than one” is a cliché: leave it off. “He looks like death” is effective unadorned.

“Very much” is hideous redundant adverbial modifier: dumping it ranks obligatory. “Existentially and otherwise” is adverbial stocking stuffing: cut it. Cut also “its macabre silhouette” as pretentious after-thought. If this reviewer wants to replicate the hurtling speed of the movie, he can’t afford such rhetorical intrusions.

Death becomes the Bourne series, which, in contrast to most big-studio action movies, insists that we pay attention and respect to all the flying, back-flipping and failing bodies. There’s no shortage of pop pleasure here, but the fun of these films never comes from watching men die. It’s easy to make people watch — just blow up a car, slit someone’s throat. The hard part is making them watch while also making them think about what exactly it is that they’re watching. That’s a bit of a trick, because forcing us to look at the unspeakable risks losing us, though in the Bourne series it has made for necessary surprises, like Ms. Potente’s character’s vomiting in the first movie because she has just seen a man fling himself out of a window to his death.

Dump redundant adverb “exactly.” Delete comma after “trick”: it cuts off a trailing restrictive adverbial clause. No comma after “like”: it cuts off a restrictive adjectival prepositional phrase. Good! You get the possessive-before-gerund right in “Ms. Potente’s character’s vomiting,” although you miss it elsewhere.

That scene quickly established the underlying seriousness of the series, particularly with respect to violence. There’s a similarly significant scene in the new film, which caps a beyond-belief chase sequence in which Bourne runs and runs and runs, leaping from one sun-blasted roof to the next and diving into open windows as the cops hotfoot after him. He’s trying to chase down a man who’s trying to chase down Bourne’s erstwhile colleague, Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles). When Bourne comes fist-to-fist with the other man, Mr. Greengrass throws the camera, and us along with it, smack in the middle. It’s thrilling at first, and then — as the blows continue to fall, the bodies slow down, and a book is slammed, spine out, into one man’s neck — ghastly.

Quickly,” “particularly,” and “similarly” are redundant adverbs that clog and slow momentum. Use “There’s a similar scene….” The comma after “colleague” is redundant: Bourne has had more than one erstwhile colleague. “Commas should go from “and us along with it.” It’s restrictive, not parenthetical.

An intentional buzz kill, this fight succeeds in bringing you down off the roof, where just moments earlier you had been flying so high with Bourne. (Look at the dude go!) Mr. Greengrass knows how to do his job, and there’s no one in Hollywood right now who does action better, who keeps the pace going so relentlessly, without mercy or letup, scene after hard-rocking scene.

Dump adverb “so.” “Look at the dude go!” is comic-book rhetoric. It breaks hurtling cadence to replicate film’s hurtling action and makes Darvis sound like a 14-year-old. He may be. The Times is not above child-labor movie reviews. “So relentlessly” are redundant adverbs. No comma before the restrictive “without…letup: "let-up" should be a hyphenated noun. With “hard-rocking” Dargis is back to acne cliché prose.

But he, along with the writers (here, Tony Gilroy, Scott Z. Burns and George Nolfi), also wants to complicate things, mix some unease in with all the heart-thumping enjoyment. Not because he’s a sadist, or at least not entirely, but because the Bourne series is, finally, about consequences, about chickens coming home to roost.

“Along…) is a restrictive adverbial prepositional phrase: no commas. Not only is “Not…roost” a fragment, but Dargis anoints it with Southern fowl cliché that no city boy can use with verisimilitude. I am expert in these chicken-roosting protocols since I am a Southern farm girl. He should add to the preceding sentence “because the series is about consequences.”

“The Bourne Ultimatum” drives its points home forcefully, making you jump in your seat and twitch, but it’s careful not to leave any bruises. (It’s filmmaking with a rubber hose.) Amid the new and familiar faces (David Strathairn and Joan Allen), it introduces a couple of power-grasping, smooth-talking ghouls and stark reminders of Abu Ghraib that might make you blanch even if you don’t throw up. As Bourne has inched closer to solving the rebus of his identity, he hasn’t always liked what he’s found. He isn’t alone. Movies mostly like to play spy games pretty much for kicks, stoking us with easy brutality and cool gadgets that get us high and get us going, whether our gentlemen callers dress in tuxes or track suits.

Dargis should go on the wagon with redundant adverbs: jettison “forcefully.” I suggest “filmmaking with a rubber hose” is too cute for grown-up-movie-reviews dignity. Get rid of redundant adjective “stark” (Strunk & White hates those too, though not as much as redundant adverbs.) I don’t see how the “rebus” metaphor works here. Where’s the picture?

Oh, lord: dump “mostly.” “Pretty much for kicks”? Isn’t “cool” wild-and-crazy-guy passé slang? Is this “gentleman callers…suits” meant to puzzle the reader and make him or her believe s/he is not smart enough to understand Dargis’s fugitive references? I’m smart, and I say Darvis is not making sense, the number-one duty of a writer.

What’s different about the Bourne movies is the degree to which they have been able to replace the pleasures of cinematic violence with those of movie-made kinetics — action, not just blood. Mr. Greengrass and his superb team do all their dazzling with technique. They take us inside an enormous train station and a cramped room and then, with whipping cameras and shuddering edits, break that space into bits as another bullet finds its mark, another body hits the ground, and the world falls apart just a little bit more. Without fail, Mr. Greengrass always picks up those pieces, reshaping them so that Bourne can move to the next location, the next kill, as he gets closer and closer to the mystery of his terrible existence.

Wordy: “have been able to replace” equals “have replaced.” The sentence in which Dargis embeds the redundant “little’ is a good sentence. Sacrifice “without fail” or “always”: I vote for dumping “always.” The comma after “kill” cuts off a restrictive trailing adverbial clause. Jettison one: “closers” and “terrible.”

Dargis’s strengths: rhetorical zest is the principal one. He uses no passive verbs to slow rhetorical momentum. Absence of passive verbs (he doesn’t have one) gives his text a thrusting feel that carries the reader along. Diction is vivid. He falters when he retreats to kid argot. Dargis’s interpretation of the material is astute. Mood in this piece ranks psychological plus: it gives impression that the reviewer is the age and vigor of Bourne and speaks to readers Bourne’s age. The young feel folded in; the not-so-young want to be in that magical loop of youth.

Weaknesses: overmodifying; redundant adverbs (far gone in those); a tendency to lapse into comic-book clichés that demean the review. In reaching for representation of his intuition, Dargis is not exempt from adding a phrase that makes no sense.

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Saturday, August 11, 2007

Dr. Roy Peter Clark of Poynter Institute Takes a Bow


Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, satellite of the St. Petersburg Times, has the nerve to assume standing to dish out ethical advice to journalists in its drive-by ethics racket despite rampant sexism in Poynter's employment figures. Go to its home page and look. Three women in 9 directors are on the board, which calls its head "chairman." This outfit deals with words, so linguistic shut-out of women from the term not only reflects Poynter's reality but perpetuates it.

There are two women of 8 in administration with black woman Dr. Karen Dunlap as putative head of Poynter. Three of 14 faculty are women. The last-named is Dr. Roy Peter Clark's power perch.

Category: Ethics & Diversity: Poynter home page blazons this entry. It requires ease with hypocrisy to mount seminars on diversity, given the
y-chromosome dominance of Poynter employment roster.

Ancient practice of rhetorical tool afflicts Dr. Roy Peter Clark's writing. Dr. Clark should heed Wilson Follett in his book on American usage.

“One [comma protocol], the loose or open system corresponds to the natural pauses in the voice in speaking or in reading aloud; it may be called the oratorical or even rhetorical principle…. The second code of punctuation is the tight, closed, and structural; it depends…on the grammatical--which is to say the logical—relation of the parts (page 417).

“The historical trend for the past three or four hundred years has been away from the rhetorical style of punctuation…. The drive toward lean punctuation is such that even if we still wrote the complex, periodic sentences of Johnson and Macaulay, we should punctuate them much less heavily (page 418).

Let's see whether male bias in choosing faculty reflects in Le Clark's punctuation.

Tool 31 in the book "Writing Tools" says to "build your work around a key question."

Commas should enclose the non-restrictive adjectival prepositional phrase “in…Tools.” It modifies “Tool 31,” not
Tool 30.

For a current example, take the popular HBO production, "The Sopranos." Down to the final few episodes, many questions remain unanswered, but the most powerful, the engine, is: "What will happen to crime boss/family man Tony?"

Clark puts a superfluous comma after “production.” There are other popular HBO productions. "The Sopranos" is a restrictive appositive: no comma before it.

The colon is dead wrong. It separates the subject “powerful” [question] from its predicate nominative “What…Tony?” A colon should not separate the base elements of a sentence.

A person who has never done this work would naturally have a more delicate sensibility about it.

“Naturally” is the redundant adverb against which Strunk & White inveighs. Graham Greene hated adverbs and didn’t use them. This refusal contributed to his spare style that would have won him a Nobel if a guy on the committee hadn't had it in for him.

…against the phrase by my old Poynter pal, Dr. Ink.

Clark has been at Poynter a long time and has more than one old pal. “Dr. Ink” is restrictive appositive preceded by no comma..

Silly love songs, and all that.

One allows Clark an artful fragment but not a redundant comma after “songs.” It separates a compound element in an elliptical clause that may read "[We don't tolerate] silly verbs and all that."

It's a lovely monologue, revealing that songwriters and prose writers have much in common.

The present participial phrase is restrictive, so Le Clark shouldn’t cut it off with a comma. This phrase modifies “a lovely monologue.” The indefinite “a” shows its one of multiple monologues.

I remember a piece from long ago that started something like: "To understand the relative size of the planet to its sun, think of the sun as the size of the whole front page, and the planet as smaller than the period that ends this sentence."

Clark needs to haul out his grammar primer and review colons. A “this” after “like” above would make the Clark colon legitimate. A complete sentence almost always precedes the colon.

Colons are equivalent in strength to semicolons. Both are second only to the period in power. You never go wrong if you follow a complete sentence with a colon followed by an explanatory word, phrase, clause, or list. A colon precedes a set-off quote. Within the paragraph, it may come before a quote for which the writer wants to emphasize formality.

The comma after "page" is redundant. It splits compound adverbial prepositional phrases "of the sun" and "[of] the planet."

One of my favorites, George Herbert, used this method to create such poems as "Easter Wings."

The name of this device Dr. Clarke refers to is "rebus."

Clark has more than one favorite, so “George Herbert” is a restrictive appositive and merits no commas.

So, you might ask, can you actually use such visual techniques....

“Actually” is a redundant adverb.

Now consider the story by Dan Barry, discussed recently here in another context, which describes the fortunate descent of a young child out of a sixth story window.

No commas surround the "discussed" past participial phrase. Barry has written more than one story. So the participial phrase is restrictive.

To use such a strategy requires the writer to occupy the text as if it were a landscape, to imagine words arranged on a page, to almost feel the letters

The redundant comma cuts off a restrictive trailing adverbial clause. Normal syntax is subject-verb-object-adverbial modifiers. Adverbial modifiers are almost always restrictive anywhere in the sentence. You use commas with adverbial modifiers if you disturb syntax by relocating them from the end to the beginning or the middle of the sentence.

The switch from third- to second-person point-of-view jars.

A person who has never done this work would naturally have a more delicate sensibility about it.

The redundant adverb pops up again.

Silly love songs, and all that.

We will pass over the fragment, but not the redundant comma between a compound element. This elliptical clause might read this way: "[We will pass over] silly love songs and all that."

So, you might ask, can you actually use such visual techniques…

"Actually" is redundant adverb.

Redundant adverbs are insidious. They weaken your argument and make you sound as if you are desperate to pump it up by adverbial props.

Dr. Clark’s errors rank basic stuff--the kind a teacher encounters in freshman English.

Dr. Clark's feeble performance illustrates the decline of language, This fellow writes books on how to write and sells them to dummies. The dummies praise them unless Dr. Roy and his buddies are sending puff reviews to Amazon.

Given Dr. Clark's lack of competence in basic punctuation, I consider his marketing writing-advice books a hustle on the ignorant. The practice needs the scrutiny of a Poynter seminar on physician-heal-thyself ethics.


I got into a fight with Dr. Clark at Tiger Bay about the sexist Poynter employment figures. He called me a racist because, he huffed, the outfit has a black woman as its head.

It must be Poynter party line to cite Dr. Dunlap as smokescreen for its ripping off women. Dr. Dunlap ranks bigots' most valuable asset: the twofer to cite to the EEOC as evidence of equal employment opportunity because she is both a woman and also black.

Poynter strategizes black-woman director as camouflage to immunize it to charges of sexism and racism despite its employment figures. Whom should we believe: Poynter or our lying eyes? And it has the cheek to front seminars on diversity. Poynter must have taken spin lessons from Goebbels, Atwater, and Rove and added a few fillips on its own.

I told Le Roy he was hiding behind a black woman’s skirts to disguise sexism. I was about to invite him to meet me in the parking lot before my husband dragged me away, saying not to be litigious.

Women learned to be litigious in their struggle to get a fair deal in the patriarchal shakedown that has obtained since cave days.

Men and Aunt Toms call our litigious behavior unladylike.

Boo hoo.

Ladylike begging, pleading, simpering, and cajoling represent two-millennia failed strategies to which only right-wing Patient Griseldas adhere today.

It's time for new rules.

I shall continue in litigious mode until Cerberus stands aside to admit me to Hades. There I shall challenge any male-shades' locker-room exclusivity off the bat.

I'll sail right by dingbat centerfold Helen of Troy and tap Medea's and Dido's shades on the shoulder.

"Listen, girlfriend shades," I shall say, "what about giving me some muscle to clean out that nest of sexists over there in the prime-space sweat lodge that they won't let us women shades join?'

"You mean Ajax, Aeneas, and Ulysses lolling at their ease while those two skinny varlets polish Ajax's armor?" asks Medea.

"Right. Who are those skinny guys?"

"The shades of Nelson Poynter, sexist in his heyday, and Roy Peter Clark, Nelson-Poynter acolyte of sex discrimination and misused commas at the Poyter institute," says Medea.

"What's with the three names of Roy?" I ask.

"The usual performance-anxiety problem," says Medea. "Andrea Dworkin and Circe both wrote about it."

"Viagra has set us free to twit fellows' pretense of permanent erectile power," says Dido.

"Well said, Shady Sister Dido," say I. "Are you ready?"

"Lock and load, my dear," quoth Medea.

"What will we do when we get admitted like we did to the Tampa University Club?" asks Dido.

"Teach the boys grammar and punctuation," say I. "Then serve them a luncheon of quiche."

"Let's use Brunhillde's war cry 'Ho jo to ho,'" said Dido.

"Great idea! Foreward, ladies,"I said.

"Ho jo to ho!"

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