Janet Maslin’s Teaching Moment

I used to teach writing. Don’t talk to me about sentences that are not sentences; I’ve seen sentences that are not sentences. These days, since switching from being a teacher to a book editor, I see fewer than I used to.
But they’re still there, and for once I think I can alert readers to an instance of a major media writer correctly calling out some real live sentence errors--errors that no self-respecting copy editor would let pass unnoticed. These are errors that should cause any reader to stop and say, “Wait a minute. This isn’t just some fake error like using singular ‘they.’ This error stops me dead in my tracks and makes me wonder what the author is trying to say.”

The book is Pearl Harbor: A Novel of December 8th. The authors are Newt Gingrich and William R. Forstchen. The asleep-at-the-switch publisher is St. Martin’s Press. Janet Maslin, erstwhile best movie reviewer at the New York Times turned best book reviewer at the New York Times, is the scold who gets it right about this sentence:
One would have to be dead, very stupid Fuchida thought, not to realize they were sallying forth to war.
Janet helpfully explains that the authors do not intend to impugn Fuchida’s intelligence; it’s just a matter of a dropped comma or a missed opportunity for a couple of em dashes. Do not be confused.
Elsewhere Ms. Maslin cites some more egregious sentences--very stupid sentences--that bring back many memories for me, memories of poring over student papers till late in the evening, wondering what those students are actually trying to say:
James nodded his thanks, opened the wax paper and looked a bit suspiciously at the offering, it looked to be a day or two old and suddenly he had a real longing for the faculty dining room on campus, always a good selection of Western and Asian food to choose from, darn good conversations to be found, and here he now sat with a disheveled captain who, with the added realization, due to the direction of the wind, was in serious need of a good shower.
Had enough?
I thought not:
The boys had money in their pockets to burn and fresh in from the West Coast the obligatory photos with hula girls, sentimental silk pillows for moms and girlfriends, and ridiculous-printed shirts had sold like crazy.
Janet also cites these zingers: the authors confuse “incredulous” with “incredible” and substitute “wretching” for “retching” (note to Newt: Just because the New Yorker can’t get it right doesn’t mean you can’t, either).

When you’re done having a laugh at Newt and William’s expense, you may proceed.

Now, let’s back up for a moment and consider the kind of thing that passes for grammatical analysis in the popular press: we’re told not to confuse that and which, to be precise in our word selection, never to leave modifiers out there hanging loosely (in truth, you may not be in trouble if you make any number of commonly cited errors). Some of this type of advice can be put to use selectively, I suppose, but what ever do we do when we come across the truly inept, uncategorizable errors in communication such as we find in the prose of Messrs. Gingrich & Forstchen? Hint: Don’t look to Strunk & White.

No, I’m afraid Newt, like fellow Republican, Rudy Giuliani, might be in serious need of a reading list. I offer two William, James & Co. titles, plus one well-known-to-writing-teachers classic:
  1. Common Errors in English Usage, by Paul Brians. Because no two grown men plus a copy editor should ever confuse retch with wretch, incredulous with incredible.
  2. Far from the Madding Gerund and other dispatches from Language Log, by Mark Liberman and Geoffrey Pullum. Newt, William--just read this book. My advice: Don’t do it like Dan.
  3. “The Syntax of Error,” by Valerie Krishna [essay]. There is not, as far as I know, a better explanation of how to revise and correct sentences for meaning. You may have to work to find a copy of this one; it’s 32 years old and was first published in the Journal of Basic Writing. Here’s a start for you, Newt, since I know you’re in DC at least some of the time: Head over to the American University Library and check out one of their copies of Rhetoric and Composition by Richard L. Graves. Or you could just order to have it delivered by post. Krishna’s essay is on pages 128-132. It’s short, yes, but it’s packed with useful strategies for revising remedial writing. Right up your alley.
So congratulations to Janet Maslin for alerting us so accurately to the problems we may find in the first book of Newt and William’s planned trilogy. And good luck to Newt, William, and the unknown St. Martin’s Press copy editor as they make it through their assigned reading list in time to get their prose all cleaned up for the second book. I think I speak for everyone when I say we cannot wait to see their improvement.

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