Thursday, February 15, 2007

Calling Lynne Truss....

Lynne Truss is my hero. In case you missed her marvelous book, Eats, Shoots, and Leaves, Truss is a British writer who does her best to encourage us to maintain some semblance of rules and order when it comes to grammar and using our language properly, whether writing it or speaking it. I happen to be one of those people who admires those who use language correctly and can't help but feel a little less kindly toward those who don't, especially those who should know better.

I'm by no means an expert on language but I'd like to think that writers who get their bylines published in The New York Times are. I'll go you one better than that and say that even if the writers themselves aren't perfect grammarians, certainly the copy editors and people who literally make a living correcting the grammar and spelling of others should be perfect.

I'd be wrong about that, too. I read this just today and had to reread the first paragraph three times to figure out who on earth wrote the letter being discussed. Turns out it was Otto Frank, Anne Frank's father. Except that's not what the article indicated. Here's the opening paragraph. My notes and questions follow:

"On April 30, 1941, just days after a Gestapo courier may have threatened to denounce Anne Frank’s father, Otto, to the Nazis, he wrote to his close college friend Nathan Straus Jr. begging for help in getting his family out of Amsterdam and into America."

What? A Gestapo courier wrote a letter to a close college friend about escaping Amsterdam? Why would a Nazi officer want to...wait a minute, I think I read that wrong....[re-read], it definitely states that the Gestapo officer wrote a letter to a friend just days after he possibly threatened Otto Frank....wait a minute; let me see this....[re-read again]...Oh, I get it. Otto Frank wrote the letter to his college friend looking for help for his escape to America. Except it doesn't say that.

Here's how I think the opening paragraph of this interesting story should read:

On April 30, 1941, just days after a Gestapo courier may have threatened to denounce him to the Nazis, Anne Frank’s father, Otto, wrote to his close college friend Nathan Straus Jr. begging for help in getting his family out of Amsterdam and into America.

Or even better:
On April 30, 1941, just days after a Gestapo courier may have threatened to denounce him to the Nazis, Otto Frank, Anne Frank’s father, wrote to his close college friend Nathan Straus Jr. begging for help in getting his family out of Amsterdam and into America.

Again, I'm not some kind of grammar freak or grammar goddess but this is just wrong and it appears in what is arguably the number one newspaper in the country, if not the world. Any misused grammar bugs me but it bugs me even more that it appears on the front page of the NYT.

In this particular case, the problem stems from using antecedents and making them represent the correct noun (or something like that.) I told you I wasn't an expert. According to the Guide to Grammar and Writing website,

"Generally (but not always) pronouns stand for (pro + noun) or refer to a noun, an individual or individuals or thing or things (the pronoun's antecedent) whose identity is made clear earlier in the text." This particular antecedent was about as far from 'made clear' as you can get.

I ask you: Where does it leave us if The New York Times publishes incorrect grammar? I know this isn't nearly the first time this has happened and sadly, it won't be the last. Yes, I'm accustomed to having to read through stories to ferret out the "spin," the agenda, the bias behind a particular story. But having to read the same sentence more than twice to understand the content is asking just a little too much, even for me.

Soon -

Thursday, February 08, 2007

And another thing....

We have another day or two before the wacky crazy female astronaut story leaves our national consciousness. Before it does, her's one more comment on one of the most predictable aspects of this (or any) news story.

According to reporters, Lisa Nowak's neighbors were stunned and shocked to learn of her behavior. That's always the case when it becomes evident that someone in your daily life turns out to be quite different than you imagine them to be. I'm not surprised that this was the reaction of her neighbors.

But here's my larger question, totally separate from the headline du jour: what does anyone really know about the people living up the street? What do any of us really know about each other? Here's the answer, in case you're thinking up a list of things you know. You ready? Nothing. You really don't know anything of substance. People are tricky animals and can hide much much more than we ever give each other credit for.

I'm not saying that we don't open up, we don't trust, we don't tell those closest to us our deepest thoughts. I'm just saying that even at that, there are some things in each one of us that will never be expressed to anyone. Even to a therapist, a priest or a rabbi. And if we have secrets from each other, why in the world would we ever expect our neighbors would know more about us?

I'm guessing if the press spoke to Nowak's husband, he'd agree that there were signs that something wasn't quite right these days. In fact, the couple had recently separated. But I'm guessing even he wouldn't have said it was so she could take her cross-state drive to destiny and the national headlines.

See? Even her husband for god's sake had no idea what she was thinking. And we think it's interesting or newsworthy that her neighbors didn't know?


Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Well, she was no rocket scientist...except she was.

What on God's green earth was she thinking? How do you make a living as a rocket scientist for god's sake and then develop some kind of maniacal plan to murder someone because of a love triangle?

I'm trying to understand this. Astronaut Lisa Nowak drives some 900 + miles (say from here to South Carolina) to catch up with her rival, Air Force Captain Colleen Shipman. She wasn't looking for a friendly chat about their mutual friend, astronaut Bill Oefelein. It doesn't appear she was, anyway, since she carried pepper spray, a knife, a mallet and a BB gun with her. But the truth is, I don't want to get into the details of the case against Nowak or the state of her marriage or her disintegrating romance.

The case itself - your classic love triangle - isn't all that surprising. People have battled romantic rivals for thousands of years, often with tragic results. I guess the astonishing part of this story for me is the fact that Nowak is without a doubt one very intelligent woman. She is the cliche: she's a rocket scientist!!! How could she ever imagine this was a good plan, worth following through, and possibly risking the rest of her life as a free woman should she get caught? How could she imagine causing harm to Captain Shipman was a reasonable idea, that would ultimately gain the affection her lover? Hasn't she ever seen an episode of CSI? You can't get away with anything if you're a criminal. The CSI team would find just a single blade of grass indiginous to Texas underneath Shipman's unconscious body and one hour later someone would be knocking on Nowak's door. Plus, she was no career criminal, just a woman with (sick, twisted) love in her heart.

Most of all, here's a question that's bothering me: is this the kind of person we're sending into space? I mean, if this story were about a banker from Baltimore or an accountant from Albany, we'd think it was strange and erratic and that she was evidently disturbed, but Nowak isn't any of those things. She's a rocket scientist!! NASA claims her state of mind showed no signs that she was "troubled" and perhaps contemplating an attempt on another woman's life that would require her to drive almost one thousand miles to accost her, and wear adult diapers during the entire trip so she didn't have to stop for bathroom breaks. Then again, I don't know what kinds of signs one would exhibit to indicate this behavior was in the offing. Clipping coupons for Depends? Choosing "quickest" when given a choice of routes from Houston to Orlando on Mapquest?

But what exactly was NASA going to say? "We knew she was a whack job but boy, could she manipulate that robotic arm. All in all, we thought she was worth the risk." Doubt it. What's going on up there in all that weightlessness? Is it party party party? The ultimate out of town trip for the married astronauts?

Now of course, NASA is going to review all of their policies regarding personnel and screening and how they can keep knife-carrying, pepper-spraying, diaper-wearing astronauts on the second or third tier lists for the next shuttle flight. Good idea. The problem is, your can't write HR rules when it comes to passion. Passion is passion is passion. And if NASA can figure out how to regulate their hiring practices to account for passion among the ranks, I want to read that report.

Certainly Nowak has some problems. But despite her status as an elite scientist, a shuttle astronaut and an employee of NASA, she is still a human being. A flawed human being who went way beyond the pale in terms of saving her romance and her relationship.

The only thing that will complete this story for me is when the press somehow links it all back to President Bush and how some policy he put into place contributed somehow to NASA's shame. It's coming.

More soon -