Monday, November 29, 2010

the Pentagon Papers Redux: The New York Times is Publishing More Secret Documents

In 1972, The New York Times won a significant victory for freedom of the press when it fought a federal government injunction against publication of the stolen Pentagon Papers (an internal Pentagon history of US involvement in the Vietnam War). That court victory opened the doors for what The Times has announced today it will be doing over the next several weeks: publishing secret documents related to US diplomacy.

Here's the story and The Times's rationale for its publication of these documents.

(Please note: the editing software of this blog does not allow me to format the headline. That means that "The New York Times" above cannot be italicized, but, according to the Chicago Manual of Style, which is what historians use, it should be. Please remember to always italicize titles in your writing. See my blog post from )

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Grammar Goody # whatever (I can't keep track anymore): Ordinals in dates

I am really perplexed by the sudden appearance of this typical mistake: the use of ordinals in dates. This is what I mean:

The tragedy occurred on September 11th, 2001.

That, I'm afraid, is incorrect. Sure, it's correct in spoken English, but not in written English. (The ordinal, by the way, is that "th" after the number--or it could be "rd" with the number 3 or "st" with the number 1.

The only correct way to write out a date is like this:

The tragedy occurred on September 11, 2001.

So, please drop the ordinals! They're just plain wrong.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Free Speech for Middle Schoolers or Lewd Speech?

Here's an interesting controversy brewing over the use of those popular wristbands that say "I (heart) boobies." Do schools have the right to ban these wristbands as lewd speech (which the Supreme Court has allowed schools to do) or is this a violation of students' rights to free expression?

Here's the article.

What do you think? I know some breast cancer survivors who see this entire campaign as frivolous and demeaning. They say it is bringing sex into a campaign meant to deal with a disease (see how I avoided the dreadful word sexualizing?) Yet, it's also brought increasing attention, which is, after all, its point.Or is this the wrong kind of attention?

Grammar Goody #10--Capitalization, part 2

Job titles: this is a tricky one, but it has an easily remembered rule.

Capitalize job titles only if they precede the name of the person who holds that job. If not, don't capitalize.

Here are two examples of the correct form.

Andrew Cuomo will be the new governor of New York State.

Governor David Paterson will be leaving office in January.

So, if you're writing about someone who is the dog catcher in your town, you would say that he is the town's dog catcher. But his official name would be Dog Catcher Francis Fido.

Many, many people get this one wrong and believe that job titles are always capitalized. Sorry, but that is not the case. Even the word president when des

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Grammar Goody #9 Capitalization

Capitalization rule #1

Always capitalize proper nouns. What's a proper noun, you ask?

It, quite simply, is a recognized formal name of something. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People is an actual name; hence, it must be capitalized. But the civil rights movement (of which the NAACP was a part) is not an actual name--it's just what we've come to call a whole bunch of different organizations and people--so it is not capitalized.

So, the correct way to write this would be:

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was a major contributing factor in the success of the civil rights movement.

Another example, consider the words south and South. Why is one capitalized and the other is not?

When you use the word south, you are describing the direction: He headed south toward I-90.

But when you use the word South, you are referring to the geographic entity otherwise known, in this country at least, as Dixie. The South is a recognized geographic name, so it is capitalized. The same goes for the North, the West, the Midwest, and the Northeast. [did you notice that last comma before the word and? I have another grammar goody on that one below.]

So, our always-correct student would write:

He packed up and headed south to get to his home in the South (and do, please, note that the word the is not capitalized before most proper nouns).

More on capitalization tomorrow.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Each and every time....

This may not rank as one of the most important grammar tips you'll ever receive, but if just a few of us start to realize the idiocy of the phrase "each and every," I will feel better.

Think about it: why would anyone say (or write) "each and every" anything? Isn't that one of the world's great redundancies?

Janet Napolitano, head of Homeland Security, was quoted in today's USA Today as saying, "Each and every one of the security measures we implement serves an important goal." Now, that's all very absolute sounding, but wouldn't it have been just as correct (and a whole lot less wordy) if she'd said:
"Each one of the security measure..."
"Every one of the security measures."?

Really, it's the same thing! So why do we Americans persist in saying "each and every"? I leave that question to you...

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Privacy or Security: Are the two necessarily incompatible?

A new opinion piece in the New York Times argues that the old either-privacy-or-security paradigm is dead. With so much information changing hands regularly--credit card transactions, medical data, emails, social networking--this author argues that whether we can have privacy has become a moot point. So, what we need to think is not whether we can have privacy OR security (because that question is now outdated), how can privacy and security be balanced. He argues that we need, as a society, to discuss not how much information can be gathered about us, but how that information will be used. Very interesting reading:

Click here to read the piece.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Grammar Rant--rampant redundancy!

Actually, this is not another grammar rant, but is more correctly a redundancy alert. I don't know why it has become so popular these days, but people keep referring to time periods.

Does  that not strike you as redundant? What else could a period be (used in this fashion) but a period of time?

So, don't use the awful phrase, time period. Use one or the other, either:

She knew the French Revolution occurred during this time


She knew the French Revolution occurred during this period.

But, please, don't use both. And those of you who are intending to become teachers (I applaud you all), please don't let your high school or middle school students write about time periods.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Grammar Rant

Occasionally, along with the Grammar Goodies,  I will feel compelled to throw in a Grammar Rant. These will appear randomly, usually when something outrageously wrong crops up in my inbox. Today's Grammar Rant stems from a mass of student emails requesting permission numbers. Now, I am perfectly happy to hand out permission numbers whenever I can, and I have no problem with students sending me permission number requests. And I am THRILLED when students write back after hearing from me (most do not).

Anyway, here's what's getting my back up today.

There is no such word as ALRIGHT.

I can't tell you how many times polite students will respond to my response with the following:

"Alright, I understand. Thanks anyway."

The correct form is ALL RIGHT.

Really, trust me--there is no such word as ALRIGHT.

There, now I feel better...

Grammar Goody #8--Comma Rules, part II

Yippee! Another comma rule.

Put a comma after an introductory phrase or clause. To wit:

Although she never put on her shoes before taking out the garbage, her toes managed to survive nicely without breaks or sprains. 

Without that comma after garbage and before her toes, you'd have a really weird couple of words there:

...garbage her toes...

That clearly would not be good or clear.

This rule used to be hard and fast. Now it's softening somewhat so you will see this type of comma not used sometimes when the introductory clause or phrase is short. But I advise you to ALWAYS put it in. It's never going to be wrong if you do.

So, I would write a sentence like this next one WITH the comma (even though it's not considered wrong to do so without it in some circles):

Although short, the clause was effectively placed and had maximum impact.

The bottom line on introductory clauses or phrases, always set them off from the rest of the sentence with a comma.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Grammar Goody #7-- When to use commas, part 1

You're stumped on how and when to use commas, right? That's because if you were taught it at all, no one  held your feet to the fire and actually made you do it. So, gradually you forgot.

Fortunately for you, commas are among the easiest of punctuation marks to learn the proper placement of.

This last sentence reminds me of an old story about Winston Churchill, the great British prime minister during World War II. He was once scolded for ending a sentence with a preposition (as I just did above when I wrote the "proper placement of"). Churchill had enough of such pedantry, and he replied saying something like "that is a criticism up with which I will not put....)

But I digress. Back to commas. We'll start with rule #1 today and continue with others in succeeding days (I know, I know, but you'll just have to wait for the others...)

1. Put a comma before and if the and is connecting two independent clauses, as in this:

She decided to go to the wedding, and she knew exactly what she would wear. 

So, what's an independent clause? It is a part of a sentence that can stand on its own as an independent sentence. In our example above, we have two independent clauses.

(1) She decided to go to the wedding (could stand as a complete sentence on its own)
(2) she knew exactly what she would wear (also could stand as a complete sentence on its own).

Now, that comma may seem unnecessary, but it it's not. It's required in good writing. 

This rule is also cool with or, but, or nor--not just and. 

Going back to my lame example sentence above, the comma placement would be the same if we substituted but for the and. 

She decided to go to the wedding, but she had no idea what to wear. 

Monday, November 1, 2010

Grammar Goody #5-- How to use semicolons (or, when in doubt, don't)

Sometimes students throw semicolons around, hoping it will make their writing look more erudite. My daughter used to love to throw in a semicolon whenever she thought it might look good. But, appearances aside, that's not a good reason to use this most misunderstood of punctuation marks.

So, here's my advice--only use semicolons in two instances.

1. To join two independent clauses that do not have but, or, nor or and.
So, it would be like this
Jim wanted to go; Jan said she didn't.

Now, you could always break that up into two sentences:
Jim wanted to go. Jan said she didn't.

And that would be fine, but it's also good to leave it as one sentence since the clauses are so short and so closely related.

And now the second time to use a semicolon?

2. To set of items in a series that have internal commas. 

He ordered the steak; the potatoes, the kind with the garlic mashed in; and the vegetable of the day.

See why the semicolon is necessary here? It's because "potatoes, the kind with the garlic mashed in" has an internal comma and yet it functions as one of the things in the list, not two. So, if the sentence was punctuated like this:
He ordered the steak, the potatoes, the kind with the garlic mashed in, and the vegetable of the day

then "the kind with the garlic mashed in" would be one of his menu selections, and that's not what you mean.

So, be precise in your punctuation, lest you get  garlic mashed in somewhere you don't want it.

Last remaining Kennedy insider is gone

Today's New York Times contains an obituary for Ted Sorensen, JFK's principal speechwriter--and the speechwriter responsible for some of Kennedy's most famous lines, such as "ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country." He was more than just a speechwriter, though. He was also a confidant and adviser.

There's a marvelous 22-minute video interview included on the obituary page. I recommend it highly. We Americans tend to focus on our presidents, ignoring key Congressional representatives and presidential staff members who are immensely influential. Sorensen is such a person.\

Ted Sorensen obituary, 1 November 2010

And there's another article that we should all read: it shows that Kennedy was not the knee-jerk cold warrior he is often made out to be. With Sorensen's influence, Kennedy delivered a speech in 1963 that sounds nothing like cold war saber rattling --rather, it calls for toning down the rhetoric and international acceptance of diversity. Here's the link to the article in the Boston Globe about that speech.