Thursday, December 27, 2012

Holiday goodwill and the grammar police -- Dec. 27, 2012 column


Over brunch last weekend, nobody mentioned the political dysfunction in the nation’s capital, the jumpy stock market or the preposterous idea of turning schools into armed camps.
Everybody needed a dose of holiday goodwill.

Our lively conversation ranged from the Olympian who moonlighted as a high-rent call girl to questions of grammar. I know which topic interests you most, so I’ll go straight to pronouns.

No? OK, we’ll detour to track star Suzy Favor Hamilton, the 44-year-old wife and mom who led a secret life as a $600-an-hour escort for a year. She played by her own rules.
“I am not a victim here and knew what I was doing,” she tweeted.

I hope she can beat the depression she says prompted her risky behavior. Let’s leave her story there, although I expect news soon of a big, fat book contract and made-for-TV movie.

Nobody yet has discovered how to make grammar rules sexy and lucrative, but a lot of people care about how we use language, I learned this year.

In April, I wrote about the tweet from the Associated Press Stylebook announcing this update: “We now support modern usage of hopefully: it’s hoped, we hope.”

Granted, this wasn’t an earth-shattering event, but I was disappointed the self-styled “journalist’s bible” caved to popular misuse. Wrong is wrong. Emails started arriving from readers who shared my chagrin.

“I bemoaned your news that the wrong use of hopefully is now accepted,” Susie in Richmond, Va., wrote. “I feel betrayed.”

And Susie pleaded, “Please tell me that pronoun abuse is still a no no!” She couldn’t bring herself to write “between you and I” even as an example.

Well, Susie, “between you and me” is still correct, but people often make the “I” mistake. Even President Obama occasionally slips and says, “between Michelle and I.”
For a “recovering English major” named Dan, the line in the sand is using “none” as a plural subject.  It’s correct to say “none of the students uses this form correctly.” Many people incorrectly think “students” is the subject and say, “None of the students use this form correctly.” No.

Other grammar sticklers weighed in on dangling modifiers and the confusion between it’s and its, they’re, there and their and you’re and your.

If worries about grammar seem out-dated in a world of 140-character tweets, consider Kyle Weins, CEO of iFixIt, an online repair company in California. Weins wrote a blog post in August for the Harvard Business Review titled “I Won’t Hire People Who Use Poor Grammar. Here’s Why.”

“If you think an apostrophe was one of the 12 disciples of Jesus, you will never work for me. If you think a semicolon is a regular colon with an identity crisis, I will not hire you,” wrote Weins, who requires all job applicants to take a grammar test.
Weins is no fossil. He and a friend formed iFixit in their college dorm room in 2003.

“Good grammar is credibility, especially on the internet. In blog posts, on Facebook statuses, in emails, and on company websites, your words are all you have,” Weins wrote.

Yes, but should standards be, well, flexible? E.B. White, the English usage guru, wrote in The New Yorker in 1937, “Usage seems to us peculiarly a matter of ear. Everyone has his own prejudices, his own set of rules, his own list of horribles.”

Did you notice anything about that last sentence? White correctly used “his” three times. “Everyone” takes a singular pronoun. He didn’t even think of using “their.”

At brunch, two men insisted that they use the gender-neutral pronoun intentionally out of respect to women. They know and deliberately break the rule to emphasize equality and inclusiveness.

Thank you, but for me that’s an unwanted present. Hearing someone say “their” instead of “his” or the clunky “his or her” doesn’t warm my heart; it makes me cringe.

Times and language do change, however. Sensitivity in how we talk to each other is important, especially now, and I know other women do appreciate the gesture.
Here’s more wisdom from E.B. White: “English usage is sometimes more than mere taste, judgment, and education – sometimes it’s sheer luck, like getting across the street.”

Here’s to luck getting across the grammar street in 2013.

© 2012 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Why we need more than Obama to stop gun violence -- Dec. 20, 2012 column


About 85 people every day are killed with guns in America, but we’ve become almost accustomed to the casualties.
Only after horrific, high-profile shooting sprees do we talk about tightening gun laws. Typically, politicians in the thrall of the powerful gun lobby simply stall action wait for the outrage to fade.
But perhaps the massacre of 20 innocent children and six adults on a December morning will do more than restart the gun control conversation one more time.
Opponents of gun control say the murder rate is actually going down and no law can stop someone bent on mass destruction. OK, fine, but assault weapons and large capacity magazines – those holding more than 10 rounds of ammunition – make it easier for monsters to carry out their unspeakable plans.

Laws can make it harder. We owe our fellow citizens that much safety.

“This time,” the president finally said, “the words have to lead to action.”
Obama appointed Vice President Joe Biden to bring a set of concrete proposals within a month.  
“I will use all the powers of this office to help advance efforts aimed at preventing more tragedies like this,” Obama told reporters. “It won’t be easy – but that can’t be an excuse not to try.”

Even those who wish Obama had stepped up earlier or that he’d given Biden less time should recognize this as a major step forward. We can hope Biden’s proposals will lead to meaningful legislation, not laws riddled with loopholes.

In the Senate, Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., vows to introduce next month a ban on assault weapons. A military-style rifle was the weapon of choice for Adam Lanza in Connecticut and other mass murderers in shooting rampages.

And then there’s the House.

Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., incoming chairman of the House Judiciary committee, which has responsibility for gun laws, flatly said he won’t move any gun control legislation through his committee, despite what happened in Newtown, Conn.

“We’re going to take a look at what happened there and what can be done to help avoid it in the future, but gun control is not going to be something that I would support,” Goodlatte told CQ Roll Call newspaper. Goodlatte has an A rating from the National Rifle Association, which endorsed him for re-election.

Goodlatte later said in a written statement that he’ll “listen to and carefully review suggestions made by the president’s task force and other groups to see what we can do to prevent a terrible tragedy like this in the future.”

We’re accustomed to this same old standoff—the gun rights people in their corner and the gun control folks in theirs.
For the president to make good on his pledge, though, he needs to move Goodlatte and other House Republicans. The NRA says it wants to be part of the conversation and will offer “meaningful contributions to help make sure this never happens again.” We’ll see.

Now comes Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-NY, with the outline of a compromise. A 2008 Supreme Court ruling that disappointed gun control advocates could pave the way for gun control legislation.  

The Supreme Court in D.C. v. Heller struck down the District of Columbia’s handgun ban, saying the right to bear arms is constitutionally protected. But the court also said that reasonable limits can be imposed. The Supreme Court has upheld laws that prohibit possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill and that regulate gun sales.

Schumer, who grew up in Brooklyn and went on his first hunting trip only three years ago, says pro-gun groups should be more flexible, knowing that the court has affirmed the right to bear arms. Progressives, he says, should stop hoping a future court will overturn Heller and work within the ruling to enact gun control laws.

“The truth is, it was bad strategy to ever deny an individual right to bear arms and, similarly, the special place that guns hold in our culture,” Schumer wrote in an op-ed in Thursday’s Washington Post.

We’ll need more than the president and a senator from New York to change minds on this most polarizing issue, but Obama is onboard at last and Schumer has found a possible starting point. As Obama says, passing gun control won’t be easy, but that’s no excuse not to try. 

Nobody wants to see so many tiny white coffins ever again.

(c) 2012 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

The triumph of one woman who cares about words -- Dec. 13, 2012 column


Even in an age when loose talk bombards us, one woman’s voice can change what’s literally etched in stone. 
Were it not for Maya Angelou, the renowned poet and author, the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial on the National Mall would always need an asterisk, a footnote of explanation.

I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness, it says on the north face of the granite memorial. But not for long. 

“The quote makes Dr. Martin Luther King look like an arrogant twit,” Angelou, then 83, complained after the memorial opened in August 2011.

Starting the 10 words with I makes it sound like a quote, but it’s a paraphrase, an unfortunate one that raises questions about what kind of man King was. Angelou insisted that King was anything but arrogant, and that he was always careful with his words.

“Some say speech is the mirror of a man’s soul, and it certainly was for Martin Luther King,” she told CNN in 2011.

The 10 words are a shortened version of four sentences from a sermon King delivered at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta just two months before he was assassinated in 1968.

In what sounded like his own eulogy, King said: “Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter.”

The memorial’s designers originally intended to have the full drum major quote on the memorial’s south face, which visitors see first. But the designers belatedly decided Out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope – a line from the “I Have a Dream” speech -- better introduces the theme of the 30-foot statue, according to Washington Post.

Sculptor Lei Yixin had already prepared the north face for the shorter passage and the complete drum major quotation would not fit there, the Post reported. So the designers whittled the 47-word drum major passage down to 10 words. Nobody consulted Angelou, who was on the memorial’s advisory committee.

 “In the case of the statement on the sculpture as it stands, it is not an apt reportage of what King said,” Angelou said on CNN.

Angelou knew and worked for King. Long before Bill Clinton asked her to read a poem at his first presidential inauguration in 1993, long before she published 30 titles, Angelou accepted King’s offer to be Northern Coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. She was devastated when he was assassinated on her birthday, the biography on her website says.

“He had no arrogance at all…it makes him seem an egotist,” she said of the slain civil rights leader.
Her words moved the federal bureaucracy.

Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar announced in a news release Tuesday that the 10 words would be removed “by carving striations over the lettering to match the existing scratch marks” on the south face. The sculptor recommended removing the words instead of replacing them as the safest way to ensure the structural integrity of the memorial, Salazar said.

The King family says it would have preferred the entire drum major quotation but appreciates the care the government took to get the memorial right.

The memorial will remain open when the work begins in February or March, after Obama’s inauguration and the commemoration of King’s birthday. The $700,000 to $900,000 cost reportedly will be paid from a maintenance fund raised by the MLK memorial foundation and given to the National Park Service.

In August 2011, when I first visited the memorial, a National Park Service guide standing nearby explained that the drum major words were a paraphrase. But a memorial for the ages shouldn’t need an asterisk or an explanation. Angelou was right to speak up, and the government was right to correct the problem in a way that doesn’t jeopardize the memorial.

Words and context count. Thanks to one woman who cares about words, this time what’s written in stone isn’t forever.

© 2012 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Why the GOP is a minority party -- Dec. 6, 2012 column


Four weeks after the GOP lost the White House and seats in both the U.S. Senate and House, Senate Republicans thumbed their noses at virtually every veterans group in the country.

They ignored the pleas of many disabled Americans and prominent war heroes in order to appease home schoolers, the Christian right and Tea Party types worried that “unelected foreign bureaucrats” are poised to push American parents around.    

The Senate’s vote Tuesday rejecting the United Nations disabilities treaty crystallized why the GOP is the minority party and why, if it keeps on its current path, it’s likely to remain so.    

All the Senate’s Democrats and eight courageous Republicans voted to approve the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, but 38 Republicans said no. The 61 to 38 vote was five votes shy of the two-thirds needed to ratify a treaty.

What made the vote shocking is that the treaty was based on the long-established Americans with Disabilities Act. The vote should have been non-controversial.

Here’s Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass:  “What this treaty says is very simple: It just says that people can’t discriminate against the disabled.

“It says other countries have to do what we did 22 years ago when we set the example for the world and passed the Americans with Disabilities Act,” Kerry said.

The treaty was a rare bipartisan effort -- endorsed by George H.W. Bush, negotiated by George W. Bush and signed by Barack Obama in 2009. The Chamber of Commerce and 328 groups representing the disabled and veterans supported it.

And yet it became a casualty in the American culture war.    

Former senator and Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum brought his daughter Bella, who was born in 2008 with a rare genetic disorder, as a prop to a Washington news conference. He claimed the United Nations would tell parents of disabled children what they could and couldn’t do.   

“He either simply hasn’t read the treaty or doesn’t understand it or he was just not factual in what he said,” Kerry shot back on CNN.

Former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, R-Kansas, 89, released from a hospital just a week earlier, made a special trip to Capitol Hill to appeal for the treaty. Former Sen. Elizabeth Dole, R-N.C., pushed her husband’s wheelchair into the Senate chamber so he could talk to senators peronally. 

Bob Dole is an authentic war hero. He suffered serious injuries in Italy in World War II and lost the use of his right arm. Senate approval of the treaty would have capped his lifetime crusade for the rights of the disabled.

Treaty critics were polite but unfazed. Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., claimed the treaty would undermine United States sovereignty and allow “unelected foreign bureaucrats” to interfere with parents’ rights to decide what’s in the best interests of their disabled children.

 “This would especially affect those parents who home-school,” Inhofe charged, although he conceded later it would not.    

Opponents flooded their senators with emails. Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., said his office received 1,000 letters against and only 40 for the treaty. He warned that “international hypocrites will soon demand that the United States do this or that. Many other mischievous actions will certainly arise to bedevil our country.”  

Kerry and other supporters insisted the treaty would not change American law or obligate the United States to do anything differently. Nor would it open the doors to federal courts.  One thing it would do is improve conditions for disabled veterans and other disabled Americans who travel overseas.

Dan Berschinski, a West Point graduate whose legs were blown off in Afghanistan, wrote a moving op-ed in The Washington Post, urging the Senate to ratify the treaty to “improve the lives of our 56.7 million disabled U.S. citizens, including 5.5 million disabled veterans like me, when we travel and work abroad.”

Only by voting for the treaty, Berschinski wrote, can the Senate “truly honor the sacrifice of those disabled while answering this nation’s call.”

In the end, a minority of the Senate kept the United States from improving the lives of our disabled citizens or honoring our veterans’ sacrifices.    

But, vowed Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who was injured as a POW in Vietnam, “This issue is not going away.”

Will the Senate do its duty by veterans and the disabled or will the GOP stay a minority party?   

© 2012 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.