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Monday, August 10, 2009

David Brown, Fellow NFL Alum: Very Cool (Unlike Sentence Fragments)

KELO reporter David Brown takes the time to reply by e-mail to my gentle teasing over some word choice in his report on Madison Republicans' embrace of Obama's stimulus and government handouts.

In my "minor quibbles," I committed one grievous oversight: in referring to Brown as "the sports guy," I neglected to note that while David Brown's KELO bio is linked under the Sports section, he covers both news and sports. (Not that we can watch his news reports, since KELO's digital signal still won't come in strong enough! Grrr!) He is also a proud graduate of the powerhouse Apple Valley High School speech and debate program and a fellow veteran of the National Forensic League. My kind of guy... and definitely one deserving of my apology for not reading the bio more closely before blowing blog raspberries his way.

Below are some excerpts from the e-mail I wrote in response to Brown's communication, including some serious grammar discussion. Enjoy!

Without ado, mea culpa... or at least a mea sorta culpa: Occasionally in the heat of blogging, I tease or take an easy poke at a public figure. My commenters do it to me (boy, do they ever!), and I give them grief for it... but then I turn around and dish similar criticism on reporters, politicians, etc. It's all too easy for me to forget that "the sports guy"... is also a neighbor, a fellow South Dakotan, and a real person, just trying to do his job better every day, just like the rest of us. And you face the added challenge of trying to do that job in very public view. If you slip, you have thousands of wiseguys who don't face the cameras or public criticism ready to blow raspberries at you.

Your job is not easy. I do not mean to make it harder, especially not for a fellow National Forensic League alumnus and a graduate of esteemed Apple Valley (Joe Wycoff! a stud!). I hope I can say, "I kid because I love," and we can call it good... but if not, if my words sounded like a more grave indictment of your professionalism (and that happens sometimes -- my words do sound different in my head than they do to other readers), I apologize for any harm done.


That darned sentence fragment: You make reasonable points. There is a difference between the written and spoken word (hey, you did debate: I don't need to tell you this!). When I do classroom lectures and presentations, my language is rich with pauses and structures that sound great but which I would not use on paper (often because I'm extemping and haven't planned where my sentence will end!). Even on the blog, I used to be a grammar Nazi, but I've come to recognize, from practice and from reading some academic research on the blogosphere and Internet social norms, that we are moving quickly, and that putting form over content just isn't good Web 2.0 ethos. (As I said, minor quibble.)

[Deep grammar alert! Skip if not interested!]

However, online or off, orphaned "Which..." clauses are a particular peeve I keep an eye out for, largely because of grim experiences where I find high school and college (!) students not recognizing that a "which" clause absolutely cannot be a sentence of its own. (Please don't think I'm lecturing you now: I'm just making clear where I'm coming from.) This is different from sentences starting with "And..." or "But...." Those coordinating conjunctions are perfectly grammatical as sentence starters (teachers who say otherwise are wrong). But "which" is a different beast: it is a subordinating conjunction, and a subordinate clause cannot be a complete sentence. The only time you can start a complete sentence with "Which" is when you are asking a question (in which case "which" is acting as an interrogative pronoun, not a subordinating conjunction).

Trying to start a non-question sentence with "Which" is thus a pretty serious grammatical flaw, one that I'm trying to stamp out of my students' heads. I seem to see this particular error in news transcripts enough that it has some familiarity. It comes from the natural, lengthy pause reporters take in their reports, cutting from a quote back to their own text. In speech, it feels like a full sentence stop. But in writing, it's still a grievous fragment.

A possible solution: Instead of using a period and a capital letter, perhaps you could use ellipses or an em-dash to represent that big pause without marking in writing a new sentence:
  • According to Draper, "Business is great!" ...which makes everyone in Madison happy.
  • According to Draper, "Business is great!" — which makes everyone in Madison happy.
[End Deep Grammar Alert]


What I really really like about your e-mail... is that you took the time to respond, and did so in the spirit of seeking to explain (politely! thank you!), understand (you invited more input... and you're getting it!), and (the kicker) improve. In the DSU business class I taught last spring, we read and talked a lot about the importance of engaging with customers, listening, and learning what they want. On the blogs, we talk a lot about the importance of participation, breaking down the barriers between producers and consumers, government and citizens, everybody. Whether we look at your response in terms of customer service or in terms of participatory media, you're emitting the right vibe. Keep it up!

[CAH, e-mail to David Brown, 2009.08.09]

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