Friday, May 13, 2005


"Enough commas in this sentence?" asks the HEADSUP-L legal affairs department, presenting the following from today's NYT:

President Bush called the dissenting Republican, Senator George V. Voinovich of Ohio, on Wednesday, the day before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, on which Mr. Voinovich serves, was to take up the nomination, the White House spokesman, Scott McClellan, said.

The answer, unfortunately, is: Yes (the question's sorta rhetorical, there being no comma slouches over in Legal Affairs). Exactly enough commas, and thus a convenient reminder of the difference between correct writing and good writing.

The Times is a pretty good paper, and given the amount of high-quality international and national news it supports and publishes, I'm willing to forgive it almost anything, up to and including Frank Rich (well, maybe not including Frank Rich). But every now and then, as with the sentence above, it seems to be daring its readers: You want our insights? Well, let's see you wade through this set of embedded relative clauses.

There's no obvious one-shot fix. It would help if the Times didn't have an unwritten rule against tight apposition for occupational titles ("spokesman Scott McClellan said" would get rid of two commas) and an unreasoning fear of metonymy (as would "the White House said"). But the only real solution is radical surgery. Voinovich and the committee -- and maybe even the attribution -- could move up to their own setup graf. Then the events can roll out in a series of nice, tight SVOs. Bush can stay at the top of the sequence, though I'd consider moving him to the end for emphasis.

Rules are good, but when they start to overgrow each other this badly, the copyed needs to reach for the machete.


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