Friday, March 27, 2009

Madonna, grammar, and picky, picky people!

After I aced the "Jumble" in today's "Trib pm," I read a wire story in the same publication from the Associated Press/New York Daily News that Madonna is planning to adopt a second child from Malawi, a southern Africa country. Typically I don't read stories about Madonna; she's so 80's. And, it's not because I don't like Madonna; we just have so little in common.

Anyway, the newspaper story, which talks about how 50-year-old Madonna, who hasn't led what you might call a stable family life (what with Alex and Jesus and Guy), wants to have more children. The story ends with this sentence: "Madonna was hoping to bring home a 3-year-old girl named Mercy, authorities were reticent to send children into 'a broken home,' one official said."

Well, this is one sentence where you want to pull out your grammar penalty flag and throw it at the newspaper. Those of you who have any interest in these things will see that the writer has misused a comma and created what we English teachers call a "comma splice." In other words, the writer split two sentences with a comma instead of joining them with a semi-colon.

OK, so you shout, "Big Deal! It's just a comma!" I'm all right with that. However, I am bothered because the writer used the word "reticent." This word primarily means "quiet, unwilling to talk, uncommunicative." It doesn't fit in the context of the sentence. I'm guessing the writer meant to use the word "reluctant," which means "unwilling, disinclined, averse." In that case, the writer would have written, "...authorities were reluctant (or unwilling, averse, disinclined) to send children into 'a broken home,' one official said."

Do you think I'm being picky?? I don't think I am. All my life I've been told to "choose the right word." Mark Twain said, "The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.” I agree!

We use words to build sentences, sentences to build paragraphs and paragraphs to build messages. If we use one wrong word in constructing that edifice, the whole thing can collapse. Yes, one word can make all the difference. If you don't believe me, ask David Howard of Washington, DC.

In January, 1999, David Howard, a white aide to Anthony Williams, the African-American mayor of Washington, used the word, "niggardly," in reference to a budget. This upset one of Howard's African-American colleagues who interpreted it as a racial slur and lodged a complaint. As a result of the uproar Howard resigned and Williams accepted the resignation. Howard's friends in the gay community stepped in and insisted on a review. After the review, the mayor offered Howard the chance to return to his position. Howard refused but accepted another position with the mayor.

Does one word matter? Obviously. One word caused David Howard plenty of discomfort, many sleepless nights and much notoriety. It could have been avoided if he had used a more common word or had some inkling of the sensitivities to "niggardly." Or, maybe Julien Bond, who was then the chair of the NAACP, was right when he said, "David Howard should not have quit. Mayor Williams should bring him back — and order dictionaries issued to all staff who need them. Seems to me the mayor has been niggardly in his judgment on the issue."

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