Painful contractions: Another sign of age

It was a horrible, haunting story in the newspaper. One repeated way too often.

A woman “trying to leave an abusive relationship was shot and killed in western Bexar County” on December 27, 2012.

The first paragraph of the story torn out of the San Antonio Express-News remains on my desk by the keyboard two weeks later.

Not because the words make me recoil at the thought of her husband dragging the screaming woman inside the house by her hair. And not because the reporter failed to make the tale compelling. The reporter’s sincere concern about the woman’s fate was underscored by her follow-up tweets on her day off from work:

Last pm, I exclusively reported a woman killed had sought a divorce and TRO from suspected killer the day before.

Sorry for tooting (tweeting) my own horn. Story is buried online but just as important (at least) as longhorns accused of rape, IMHO.

Man accused of killing wife has bought a new car, @BexarCounty sheriff’s office says. Now in 2013 Nissan, LP 39K6495

And two days later:

Officials confirm slain woman was pregnant; husband (accused killer) bought cigars, a car, after Thurs homicide

But instead of focusing on the tragedy, this aging boomer was distracted by the reporter’s use of a contraction in the first sentence of the printed newspaper story.

I make errors all the time. Frequently, in fact, on this blog. My tone is casual. I employ contractions, and many of my sentences simply are not sentences.

But maybe I’m too old (Age, unfortunately, is an incurable disease.) to accept “who’d” in a serious news story. Particularly when “who’d,” which can mean who would or who had, was linked by “and” to “was trying” later in the sentence.

A woman who’d just filed for divorce and was trying to leave an abusive relationship was shot and killed in western Bexar County on Thursday, and officials suspect her husband is to blame.

Proofreader please. The introductory sentence sent me to wondering just who’d read the story before it went to press. As newspapers continue to scale back, have editors vanished or is this the road down which the AP Stylebook has led us?

Of course, this concern over painful contractions arises from someone who thinks about commas often but tends to make up her own rules for the grammar game every time she writes.

To modernize my thinking and make newspaper-reading more palatable, I need to cure myself of this contraction distraction disorder. Part of my efforts for the new year is to try to heal myself of punctuation obsessiveness through music therapy.

The first prescription calls for a dose of Vampire Weekend’s “Oxford Comma.”

Who’d have thought I’d be calling for a rousing chorus of “Who gives a f*** about an Oxford comma?”

February 1, 2013: Not over my contraction distraction disorder yet. Had to come back for another dosage of Vampire Weekend’s song.

The same daily newspaper did me in once again. The paper published an otherwise great story about the Mission Improvements Project on the San Antonio River on page 1. Great coverage, except the nonprofit foundation – the San Antonio River Foundation – supporting enhancements with millions of dollars in contributions was misidentified.

The online story was corrected, but the informal use of a contraction and the assignment of blame to “it,” the story itself, made the apology seem insincere:

An earlier version of this story credited the Confluence Park project on the Mission Reach to the San Antonio Parks Foundation. It should’ve credited the San Antonio River Foundation.

“Oxford Comma” time again.

Cinematic Overload Ahead

poster designed by Rigoberto Luna

An admission-free screening of films on Main Plaza from 8 to 10 p.m. on Saturday, June 19, will launch the 16th annual San Antonio Film Festival.    

The first of seven films of varying length to be shown on the outdoor screen that night is “Recuerdo,” the second video piece by San Antonio artist Vincent Valdez.  Produced by the Federal Art Project and the Southwest School of Art and Craft with production supervision by Luis Guizar, the work consists of a San Antonio cityscape and portraits of San Antonians from various backgrounds.  

The film festival will continue from June 23 to 27 at Instituto Cultural de México in HemisFair Park , showcasing independent filmmakers and featuring more than 120 films on three screens over the five-day span.   The offerings come from all over the map and include all types of filmsTickets range from $10 to a $69 package.  

Running less than two minutes, Yoni Goodman’s Closed Zone is among the shortest of the shorts.  

Having spent much time recently with Lynnell Burkett discussing commas (actually the common colon proved our most challenging deviation about punctuation) as we try to get Last Farm Standing on Buttermilk Hill to press, I was drawn to Ken Kimmelman’s animated film, Thomas Comma.   Based on a story by poet Martha Baird, the film is the adventure of a lonely comma, drawn by hand and then “painted” on computer.  According to Baird:  

We’re all of us like commas looking for the right sentence.  

Ode to the Comma

I am used to editing other people’s work, which means I determine the punctuation rules applied.  Through the years, I decided consistency in application trumps any changes in grammar rules with which I disagree – primarily in regard to the comma. 

My two years in high school under the strict tutelage of Mrs. Masterson ingrained her comma rules in my writing, and no arbitrary changes in fashion can alter them.  I tend to prefer my commas in tidy pairs, married for life, no matter that The New Yorker now leaves one hanging alone like a recent divorcee.

But what happens when I am not the editor?  As I prepare to turn the manuscript for The Last Farm Standing on Buttermilk Hill over to Lynnell Burkett for editing, I realize my comma standards could be endangered species.   She taught journalism for years; she edited the editorial page at the San Antonio Light and Express-News.  I will have no leg on which to stand when Lynnell brandishes the most recent version of the Associated Press Stylebook.  Lynnell probably has never even heard of Mrs. Masterson of Norfolk Academy.

I decided, prior to suffering the loss of any of my commas or the insertion of unwanted ones, to pen an ode to the comma.  Checking online to make sure no one else had devoted effort to praise this punctuation point, I naturally found someone had.   

“The Grammar Girl,” whose link appears broken (found it), conducted a poetry contest in honor of National Punctuation Day (Yes, you were not alone in missing the celebration of this and the related baking contest on September 24).  Fortunately, Textbroker Blog preserved the winning entries in Grammar Girl’s contest, including the following:

Ode to the Comma

The female body part of punctuation,
So tiny, yet able to arouse such aggravation.
The comma slips in under the quotation,
Tells you when to pause for reflection,
Then plunge ahead to the period’s conclusion.
Neglect it at your peril: accusations,
law suits, wars. Nations
fall. Pretend it doesn’t exist at all? Risk condemnation.
Treat it right for absolution.
That’s right, put it there: Yes, oh, yes . . . satisfaction.

– Stacey Harwood
Stacey Harwood is a policy analyst with the New York State Department of Public Service. She is a freelance writer and managing editor of The Best American Poetry blog.

Lynnell, I am warning you now.  I might not be able to muster a strong case against the AP Stylebook, but, touch my commas, and the ghost of Mrs. Masterson could render your nights sleepless.

Update on Wednesday, February 29, 2012: On, no. This post provides indisputable evidence. I am a pilkunnussija.

In Nine Foreign Words English Definitely Needs, Cole Gamble and Cathal Logue define this useful Finnish word as:

A person who believes it is their destiny to stamp out all spelling and punctuation mistakes at the cost of popularity, self-esteem and mental well-being.

I feel no need to supplement this definition with their literal translation of the compound word, but I wish they had included a pronunciation guide.

In the same column, the authors also reference the existence of the Apostrophe Protection Society.

Note Added on August 28, 2012: Stumbled across this profile of Patty Masterson….

Note Added on October 23, 2012: Tom Gething interviews the endangered semicolon….