Combatting Comma Clumsiness
In a May 1 National Review Online story, “The Right Rx,” Republican presidential candidate John McCain asserts that “choice and competition are indispensible [sic] to real reform that brings costs down and broadens access while maintaining quality.”
McCain cites numerous obstacles to an ideal balance of health-care cost, access, and quality. Among them are state-specific insurance regulations and markets that “prevent the best companies, with the best plans and lowest prices, from making their product available to any American who wants it…. We need to break down these barriers to competition, innovation and excellence, with the goal of establishing a national market to make the best practices and lowest prices available to every person in every state.”
The indispensable comma
My goal, as a writer and editor, is clarity. The best writing communicates clearly; it is rhythmic, with a pleasing cadence; and it progresses fluidly from sentence to sentence, paragraph to paragraph, point to point. I don’t want the reader to have to stop and reexamine a phrase, uncertain about its meaning or about how it relates to the context.
If these criteria are met, I don’t grumble about the little things. If I were editing Senator McCain’s text, I might have suggested replacing “making their product available to any American who wants it” with “making their products available to any Americans who want them,” but I wouldn’t have insisted on it.
The final sentence in the second paragraph above, however—the one that begins, “McCain cites numerous obstacles…”—contains a Problematic Parenthetical Phrase that demonstrates the utility of our old friend the Harvard comma.
What’s a parenthetical phrase?
Parenthetical information can be removed from a sentence without making the sentence incomprehensible. Often, parenthetical information is enclosed, logically enough, in parentheses: “I went to a production of Rossini’s Barber of Seville with my family (Granny Hilda and Aunt Suzette), and we left at intermission.”
You can flag parenthetical information in two other ways: with em dashes (the long ones, which take up the same amount of space as a typeset m) and with commas. In all cases—whether you use parentheses, dashes, or commas—the punctuation must set off the parenthetical information by appearing at the beginning and the end.
So the following are, strictly speaking, correct:
1. I went to a movie with my family (Hilda and Suzette), and we left after ten minutes.
2. I went to a movie with my family—Hilda and Suzette—and we left after ten minutes.
3. I went to a movie with my family, Hilda and Suzette, and we left after ten minutes.
The third example is problematic because fewer and fewer writers typically use the so-called Harvard comma—the comma that precedes the last item in a series. So example number 3 could mean one of two things: that the writer was accompanied by his family plus nonfamily members Hilda and Suzette, or that the writer was accompanied by his family, which consisted of Hilda and Suzette.
Similarly, Senator McCain’s imperative about breaking down barriers could be understood in two very different ways: (1) that the senator wants to “break down… barriers to competition” and that these barriers are, parenthetically, “innovation and excellence”; or (2) that he wants to “break down… barriers to competition,” barriers to innovation, and barriers to excellence.
The confusion, such as it is, wouldn’t arise if the senator had inserted, or an editor had not deleted, that small and sadly undervalued Harvard comma. The sentence “We need to break down these barriers to competition, innovation, and excellence…” —note the Harvard comma after innovation—leaves no doubt that competition, innovation, and excellence are fine things, according to Senator McCain, and that the barriers have got to go.
Of course, John McCain graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy, where the esoteric mysteries of punctuation were, at a guess, of minor interest to the future naval aviator. And that, I suppose, is just as well.
Find answers to your writing questions in Write Better Right Now, by Mary Campbell.
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The Democrat presidential candidates seem to be for it. Not Senator McCain, the presumptive Republican candidate. Republicans, some Democrats like to suggest, are uninterested in children’s health. One critic mistakenly said that Republicans are disinterested in children’s health. Disinterested means “unbiased,” as in, “To sort this thing out we need a mediator—a disinterested third party.”
What, exactly, is “universal health care”?
Universal is problematic. The United States is not the universe. It’s not even the center of the universe. But we’ll let that one go for now.
When senators Clinton and Obama talk about universal health care, they really mean universal health insurance. According to the New York Times election guide,
Senator Clinton “[would] require everyone to get health insurance, subsidized by employers and the government; pay for it by rolling back tax cuts for households earning over $250,000 and savings in the existing system.”
Senator Obama “[would] require that all children have health insurance; pay for it by rolling back President Bush’s tax cuts for households earning over $250,000; aims for universal coverage.”
Senator McCain “[is] for free-market, consumer-based system; has pledged affordable health care for every American without a mandate; says universal health care is possible without a tax increase.”
Universal health care is available today
Apart from Medicaid, there are thousands of free or sliding-scale clinics in the U.S. Some are operated by religious and other nonprofit organizations, others by municipalities, counties, states, and, of course, the Veterans’ Administration. The federal Health Resources and Services Administration subsidizes more than a thousand nonprofit health-care facilities for the poor and the uninsured.
I have gone to the same HRSA-subsidized clinic for five years, first when I was broke and uninsured, and then when I had a well-paying job with health insurance. A pharmacy attached to the clinic gives huge discounts on prescription and over-the-counter drugs, but only to the uninsured. With insurance, I paid about twice as much for each doctor visit and prescription.
Universal coverage isn’t the answer
America’s “health-care crisis” has a lot less to do with access than it does with the managed-care “delivery” model. Strictly speaking, the term managed care describes any health-care system that, by placing intermediaries between providers and patients, controls services and costs. At the same time, Medicare and private insurance companies impose tremendous burdens on hospitals and clinics in the form of convoluted reporting and coding requirements. One estimate of the annual cost of coding errors, accidental or deliberate, is just under $200 billion.
I’m not an expert on health care or public policy, but I do know a thing or two about manipulating language in order to mislead. What’s more, I can add. Once upon a time, when patients paid their own medical bills, the doctors got their money. Now patients are paying insurance companies, and the doctors are still getting their money. Do the math.
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This evening I examined one speech from each of the three leading presidential candidates’ websites. I compared the three documents for style, readability, substance, and other, more subtle, characteristics.
The evaluation was far from scientific or conclusive. For one thing, the speeches were presented to different types of audiences for different purposes. For another, my judgment is clouded by my strong preference for one of the candidates. And plucking one speech, more or less at random, off each candidate’s website can hardly be considered a fair basis for comparison.
Nevertheless, for what it’s worth, here’s my assessment:
And to those who think that the decline in American manufacturing is inevitable; or that manufacturing has no place in a 21st century economy; we say right here and right now that the fight for manufacturing’s future is the fight for America’s future. And that’s why we’ll modernize our steel industry, strengthen our entire domestic manufacturing base, and open as many markets as we can to American manufactured goods when I’m President.
Grade for substance: B
Grade for style: A
Grade for readability: A (2,760 words, 5% passive voice, 63 Flesch reading ease, 9th-grade reading level)
Overall, Senator Obama’s speech is the best of the three, hands down—and my approval doesn’t reflect my bias. Senator Obama is not my candidate of choice. Even so, there’s no denying that the speech is articulate, energetic, and upbeat. It’s well structured, with plenty of meat on its bones, and it contains very little opponent-bashing.
In fact, philosophy and politics aside, I have only one criticism of Senator Obama as a speaker. I had originally chosen another of the senator’s speeches to critique. In that speech, and to a lesser extent in the one selected, he refers to himself in the plural: “We say right here and now that the fight for manufacturing’s future is the fight for America’s future.”
Richard Nixon used to refer to himself as “Richard Nixon” and as “we” or “us,” as though there were several of him. Why do public figures do that? Inflated ego? Reluctance to assume individual responsibility? I don’t know, but I don’t quite trust the arrogance that use of the “royal we” suggests.
On the other hand, I have to give Senator Obama points for minimal use of the passive voice. Not only do passive-voice constructions lack clarity, they also imply evasion of responsibility, as in “Mistakes were made.”
If that authority is entrusted to me, I will use the veto as needed, and as the Founders intended. I will veto every bill with earmarks, until the Congress stops sending bills with earmarks. I will seek a constitutionally valid line-item veto to end the practice once and for all. I will lead across-the-board reforms in the federal tax code, removing myriad corporate tax loopholes that are costly, unfair, and inconsistent with a free-market economy.
Grade for substance: A
Grade for style: B
Grade for readability: B (4,137 words, 17% passive voice, 53 Flesch reading ease, 11th-grade reading level)
I chose the excerpt above because it illustrates the specificity of Senator McCain’s positions on the issues. Although the excerpt is a litany of “I wills,” the speech as a whole is not egocentric. (Senator Clinton actually wins the “me, me, me” championship, referring to herself more often than do either of her opponents.) Senator McCain mentions his opponents numerous times, generally to show how their views differ from his, not to chew them up and spit them out.
I believe in the power of the presidency to set big goals for America and to solve the problems of Americans, to ensure that our people have the tools they need to turn challenges into opportunities, to fulfill their God-given potential, and to build better lives for themselves and their children. That’s the kind of president I will be every day in the White House, whether the issue is health care or child care, foreign policy, or the future of our economy…. I am running for president because I believe in the promise of America and I believe in the power of the presidency to help fulfill that promise…. It’s what I have learned, experienced and intended, as best I could, throughout my life. I’ve had many opportunities. I’ve been blessed. And I understand that those blessings came from the hard work of my parents, my teachers, others in the village that surrounded and helped to nurture and raise me; my church, which helped to guide me; and, of course, the positive actions of my government that directly affected my life.
Grade for substance: B-
Grade for style: B-
Grade for readability: B- (4,013 words, 8% passive voice, 49 Flesch reading ease, 12th-grade reading level)
Senator Clinton’s speech has an off-the-cuff feel to it, and, if it was indeed extemporaneous, the senator deserves higher grades. I doubt, however, that there is much left to chance at this point in her campaign.
To her credit, Senator Clinton doesn’t even mention her opponents. Of course, that might be because she’s too busy talking about herself.
Strategically, Senator Clinton being the media-designated Nanny-State Candidate, it might be injudicious for her to make such a point of using “the power of the presidency… to solve the problems of Americans.” Just a few sentences later, she again refers to “the power of the presidency.” Unfortunately, she has just finished berating George W. Bush for abusing the power of the presidency, which raises doubts about her grasp of such nuances and their implications.
Senator Obama’s is the best speech, followed by Senator McCain’s and then by Senator Clinton’s. I’d rank their websites in the same order. Visiting Senator Clinton’s site, in particular, is a bit like going through an obstacle course where you have to jump through, climb over, and veer around all the solicitations for funds before you can get any actual information.
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