A missing period, an ironic semicolon, an apparent libel

Three newsworthy parables on the vicissitudes of writing:

The missing period

Canadian political scientists are fond of contrasting the United States of America’s affinity for individualism with Canada’s tolerance of collective virtues. But now comes an obscure (soon to be less so) professor at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, NJ, suggesting the whole rugged individualism thing might be the result of a typo.

The  New York Times reports that Danielle Allen has discovered what she believes to be a misplaced punctuation mark in the official transcript of the Declaration of Independence, right in the critical passage that begins, “We hold these truths to be self-evident…” and ends (or, if Prof. Allen is correct, does not end) with the phrase, “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

The official version places a period after, “Happiness,” but Ms. Allen contends there was no period in the original parchment, now so faded it’s hard to tell, or in Thomas Jefferson’s rough draft.

Here’s the impugned passage, from the official version published by the US National Archives and Records Administration, including the suspect period:

Declaration period

The distinction is potentially momentous because the period has been taken to signify that inalienable rights end with Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. Ms. Allen’s reading would make that triad the first of what is in effect a bullet list of inalienable rights, the rest of which concern themselves with the essential role of governments in securing those rights.

“The logic of the sentence moves from the value of individual rights to the importance of government as a tool for protecting those rights,” Ms. Allen told the Times. “You lose that connection when the period gets added.”

Welcome, American cousins, to the new (old) collectivism. Someone should tell Stephen Harper.

The ironic semicolon

Mignon_FogartyIn other punctuation news, Mignon Fogarty, aka Grammar Girl, believes she has cracked the geekish conundrum about whether to include a semicolon in the acronym for, “too long; didn’t read” (tl;dr vs. tldr), a snide label applied to web postings (like this one) that ill-mannered readers deem overly prolix.

Some speculate that the semicolon originated with programmers, since lines of code often end with semicolons. But the grammatically inclined can’t help but notice that the semicolon in tl;dr is grammatically correct, since the sentence it abbreviates includes two independent clauses, which are properly separated by a semicolon.

Correct or not, it is certainly an oddity. Fogarty can’t think of another acronym that has one, and neither can I. In fact, acronyms rarely include punctuation marks.

[S]o whoever included the first semicolon in tl;dr was bucking abbreviation conventions. He or she took an abbreviation meant to endorse brevity and made it longer and more complex by adding a semicolon.

And that’s the solution to the riddle, says Fogarty. Whoever first inserted the semicolon was making a little joke.

Semicolons appear in long, complex sentences—they’re a hallmark of writing that would likely earn the tl;dr label…. [I]f you view the semicolon as a symbol of long, perhaps pedantic writing, it would be funny to include the semicolon in the barb you’re directing at writers of such works—ironic because it’s the opposite of what you would expect in an abbreviation.

An apparent libel

I think the first time it dawned on me that we had entered a golden age of television was the first episode I saw of The Wire. Here was show that embraced the chaotic complexity of life’s rights and wrongs in a way I was used to seeing only on the silver screen.

Now comes an academic,  U.C. Berkeley professor Linda Williams, flogging her scholarly book about the show with a piece on Huffington Post contending that the final season of The Wire was series co-creator and author David Simon’s elaborate device for exacting revenge on a Baltimore Sun editor who had fired him a decade earlier.

Simon created a venal, white, patrician senior editor at the Baltimore Sun, Charles Whiting, Jr., who demotes the responsible and hard working black city editor, Gus Haynes. The patrician editor also cancels a planned series of stories on education and instead urges a junior reporter to develop the “Dickensian aspects” of a story about homelessness. This reporter writes a virtuous-victim story about a homeless Iraq vet suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, which is entirely fabricated. On the basis of his “Dickensian” fictions, the reporter will win a Pulitzer Prize. Thus did David Simon have his sweet revenge on the bosses who once fired him from the Baltimore Sun for not himself producing more facile, “Dickensian” stories.

David SimonJust one problem. It seems the Sun never fired Simon. He took a voluntary buyout, along  with 120 other newsroom employees—even, if Simon is to be believed, rebuffing an offer to increase his salary if he would stay. Worse still, Simon pointed out the error to Williams and her publisher, Duke University Press, early in April.

HuffPo punted shamelessly to Williams, contending it has no control over or responsibility for the articles it publishes, a proposition unlikely to find favour with any court. Williams has so far not responded, as far as I can see. Duke is apparently reconsidering its plans to publish Williams’s book.

Read Simon’s piece for the fullness of his wrath and a great yarn about the ethics of publishing. For the purposes of this post about writing, I will quote only this passage:

There is a presumption that the academy — with its research standards and its intellectual rigor — is ever superior to the slapdash, first-draft-of-history half-assedness that is daily journalism.  We made mistakes in print all the time.  Yes, we did.  But if someone sent me corrective material months in advance of publication and I still managed to print a libel without regard to that material, I would have been, well, fired.  And I would not have complained.

Amen, brother.