Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Carrie Fisher and the one-letter grammar fix

Wow. I didn't even know Blogger had a feature called "Blogs of Note," but I sure do now. Welcome, new readers, and let me address a couple of the issues you raised in the comments on my National Punctuation Day post.

I asked for a one-letter correction to this sentence in the AP version of Eddie Fisher's obituary: "Their daughter Carrie Fisher became a film star herself in the first three 'Star Wars' films as Princess Leia, and later as a best-selling author of 'Postcards From the Edge' and other books."

My problem was that the sentence says Carrie Fisher became "a film star ... as Princess Leia, and later as a best-selling author." But she didn't, in fact, "[become] a film star ... as a best-selling author." (Yes, she played herself, more or less, in the movie version of "Postcards," but her character was an actress, not an author.)* And my one-letter solution was to change as to was: She "became a film star ... and later was a best-selling author."

There were other solutions, of course: JeffScape preferred just to change "later as" to "later became" (though journalists hate to repeat verbs). TheWizard and ImNRtist both wanted to drop "as" entirely, making it "she became a film star ... and later a best-selling author of 'Postcards,'" etc. (But wouldn't that have to be "the best-selling author"?) We could edit forever, but no need; I was just interested to notice that the sentence's faulty grammar (if not its style) could be repaired with just one letter.

Some readers (naturally) found other nits to pick. David said (and Kat~: and Eleanor agreed) that my "was" could be misleading:
Carrie didn't die, her father did, and even if she did die, she still is the author of all her novels. Just as Mark Twain is the author of "Tom Sawyer," Carrie Fisher is the author of "Postcards From the Edge." If she "was" the author, who is the author now?
But our sentence doesn't say Fisher "was the author of x." The obit writer starts her aside about Carrie Fisher at a point in the past: She "became a star"  in "Star Wars," and she "later" became (or "was" -- but not "is") "a best-selling author of x." The writer says nothing of her current stardom or bestsellerdom, but I don't think many readers would conclude from that that she's dead. (Verb tense aside, this is her father's obit -- if Carrie had died before him, the writer would surely note it!)

And on a different punctuation point, Karen, who must be an editor, noted that because Carrie was Eddie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds's only daughter together, her name should be set off with commas: "Their daughter, Carrie Fisher, became a film star herself." She's right, but this is a convention that copy editors tend to follow over a cliff; in fact, I devoted a recent Boston Globe column to this very rule, noting how much editorial time is wasted researching the existence of irrelevant siblings. So I ignored this minor violation. (After all, I am -- as advertised -- a recovering nitpicker.)



* As David points out in the comments below, Carrie Fisher is not in the movie "Postcards From the Edge" -- which I knew perfectly well in some unaccountably dormant part of my brain. I saw the film, in which  Shirley MacLaine plays the mother and Meryl Streep the Carrie-ish daughter.

31 comments:

Jennifer Scavone said...

love the blog! interesting... and congrats on becoming a blog of note! please follow my blog @

http://jenniferscavone.blogspot.com/

Thanks!

Anonymous said...

Not a grammar fix at all, but Meryl Streep starred in "Postcards from the Edge," not Ms. Fisher herself.

Carrie said...

How funny, because the only part that struck me as annoying was the lack of commas around Carrie Fisher's name! I'm also new to the blog (through the Blog of Note link) and I'm so happy I found you! Your posts have been keeping me laughing! Keep it up!

Karen said...

Yes, editor here, as well as a fellow (sister?) recovering nitpicker. I still have plenty of nits I'm willing to pick, and this is one of them. To me those commas are an easy way to be precise.

Drackar said...

Your posts always make my head hurt a little, but they teach me something. And that's usually a good thing.

Kay L. Davies said...

A recovering nitpicker...good for you. I'm still addicted to picking those nits. As a compositor, a proofreader and a sometime journalist, later a freelance copy editor, I alienate people daily.

Meanwhile, I will play with the language to my heart's content, insisting that those of us who know it well are entitled, therefore, to play with it. I invent words with insouciance even as I complain about "Google" being made a verb, probably by those who think "afford" means Henry.

I want to recover from nitpicking, so I think I'll pick a meeting to attend this week.

David said...

The sentence is poorly written from top to bottom, but as you stated, you are concerned with only one aspect of it -- how to make it properly parallel: became-was. My point is that when you have a general or ongoing truth (Mark Twain is the author of..., not was), you express it in the present tense.

Their daughter, Carrie Fisher, WAS the best-selling author of "Postcards" and other books.

Their daughter, Carrie Fisher, IS the best-selling author of "Postcards" and other books.

Now you can say she became an author, penning "Postcards" and other books, but when you say she is the author of something, you use the present tense because it is a historical fact. She is the author of that book past, present and future.

Now you can say she was an author and has moved on to other things, but once you name her as the author of a particular novel, you should use "is" to my mind.

Carrie Fisher continues to act, write and perform. She became an actor in her youth, and remains one till this day.

"Star Wars" WAS directed by George Lucas, but he IS the director of "Star Wars," not Was the director.

I don't know, makes sense to me.

Mrs Me Reeves said...

I <3 semantics.

Jason Ryan Arment said...

I work at a student run college newspaper, the Iowa State Daily, and I really appreciate your blog.

You use the word "nit-picking," but I think what would be closer to the truth would be "professionalism."

I enjoy your blog, thank you for posting.

Kate Boone said...

My mother is a retired English teacher and would absolutely love this blog. I must point her in your direction. :-)

The Gilly Billy said...

About time someone had the courage to say what needed to be said! I think people with bad grammar and spelling problems should be put in jail! If'n you can't write, you must of not of been to school! I love three things; God, women, partying, and good punctuation. Keep up the good work! Holla Balla!

farmgirlatheart said...

Could you not change "as" to "a"? As in the fact that she became both an actress and an author?

Also, the way I read it, the obituary was not saying that Ms. Fisher was the actress in the movie "Postcards from the edge," but that she wrote the book. Possibly from which the movie came?

Adobe Flash 5 Pro user said...

I would just take off the a after 'as'. That's the only thing I found wrong with it. "...as best-selling author..."

Ramakant Pradhan said...

I came across your blog through the Blog of Note link and enjoyed going through the posts. Thanks for posting.

jacksofbuxton said...

Thoroughly enjoyed your blog,which I found through the blogs of note link.I'm looking forward to one on the use of the word ironic,which on this side of the pond is used for everything except it's proper purpose.Which is ironic.....

CJL said...

This blog is a great read. I always attempt to make my grammar as precise as possible, and nit-pick at every given opportunity. However, I am not always the most accurate despite my best efforts

Urbane Legend said...

You've missed the point. No, the original sentence doesn't say that Fisher was the bestselling author of "Postcards from the Edge" - but your proposed one-letter correction would say that, and it's incorrect. While it's true that few readers would conclude that Carrie Fisher was dead from reading that sentence, as most would probably know that she was still alive - but that is what the sentence would imply if the as were changed to was, and that would be confusing. You can't count on people's knowledge of the subject to cover up for inaccurate tense choices, simply for the sake of a "one-letter correction".

David said...

After reading this post again, I saw that you stated that repeating "became"
(written or elliptically) is another fix, but that is incorrect. If you repeat became you end up with,

...and later became a/the bestselling author of "Postcards"...

You can become an author, but generally you don't become an author of a particular book. She became an author, writing the best-selling Postcards.... That phrasing is idiomatic, not the former. And then one day Shakespeare became the author of Hamlet. I don't know; I think he put a little more work into it than that.

The writer of the article does a similar thing in the first part of the sentence:

...Carrie Fisher became a film star herself in the first three "Star Wars" films....

You star in a movie, you appear in a movie, but you don't film star in a movie, and you don't become a film star in a movie. It looks like it should be right, but again to me it is not idiomatically expressed.

And I still stand by my is/was distinction. First any artist, dead or living, IS the author of their work, not WAS. Second Carrie Fisher is still alive and continues to write books, so she IS an author not WAS. Carrie Fisher also continues to act: she became an actor in her youth, but is an actor to this day.

Urban Legend makes one aspect of my argument quite well that though everyone might know that she is not dead, writing "was" in this context implies it. There are contexts in which a writer could express Fisher's achievements in the past tense, but the example proffered in this sentence does not appear to be one of them.

Jonathon said...

"She's right, but this is a convention that copy editors tend to follow over a cliff; in fact, I devoted a recent Boston Globe column to this very rule, noting how much editorial time is wasted researching the existence of irrelevant siblings."

And now imagine that you're editing a piece about Mormon polygamists in the 1800s and have to research not only the existence of irrelevant siblings but also irrelevant wives. And what's the benefit? Is it really a help to the reader? Are most readers even aware of the convention?

David said...

I just want to make sure of something, Jan. "Postcards from the Edge" is a semi-autobiographical novel. It is fiction supported by some truths or perceived truths. In the movie based on the novel, Meryl Streep plays Suzanne Vale, the daughter to Shirley Maclaine's, Doris Mann. Carrie Fisher wrote the screen play, but does not appear in the film.

The AP writer is comparing Carrie to her parents, one, her father, who was mostly known for singing and the other, her mother, who was an actress and singer, giving them the blanket description of being film stars. The second part of the sentence goes on to report what Carrie achieved later in her life: she became a best-selling author; she wrote "Postcards from the Edge" and other books, but unfortunately the AP writer expressed that information confusedly and ungrammatically.

I am getting the sense that you believe the author is speaking about two roles, one in the Star Wars movies and another in "Postcards from the Edge." That reading would be incorrect. That said perhaps now my argument for the present tense verb may make a little more sense.

Eleanor said...

Oh, my... the commas-around-Carrie-Fisher issue is a tricky one, and I appreciated your column about it, Jan (which I read in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette).

I once proofread a book about Italian Americans of Western Pennsylvania and drove myself -- and a few others! -- nuts with trying to determine if so-and-so was the only child or only brother or only second cousin once removed. I'm rarely one to choose dispensing with tried-and-true rules of good grammar and punctuation, but this one I can do without -- in my estimation, it can't always be tried, which means that it can't always be true. Even so, I appreciate that others noticed the absence of those commas -- does my heart good to know that we're all out here, doing our best to uphold even the finer points of our written language. And with humor, too!

Jan said...

David! Yes, thanks -- you are an excellent reader, and I do say WRONGLY that Carrie Fisher was in the movie. Even though I saw the movie and knew perfectly well that Shirley MacLaine and Meryl Streep played mother and daughter. Let me footnote that earlier post with a correction.

I don't yet agree that the "was" is misleading (don't think this fact bears on it at all) -- and look at all the readers who (like me) thought of "was" as the obvious correction. Clearly, not all readers think "was" implies "death."

But that seems like a larger discussion about the ambiguity built into natural languages and the degree to which we always rely on context (I think of the "only" discussion as the stereotypical argument about this). So why don't you e-mail me your next installment, and we'll see where it goes?

Thanks again!

Jan said...

Oops, I mean "let me correct this post." I'm obviously not ready for blog prime time yet...

HER ON THE HILL said...

Ah yes, how nice to find a fellow language pedant! I have been intending to do entries on my blog whenever I get enraged by appalling grammar on TV or in the National Press, but do not sit nit-pickingly enough to record every blunder in a notebook, so forget what it is that has enraged me!

Congratulations on becoming blog of note. I was drawn to click on you (if you'll excuse the phraseology) because of the title - it is so rare to find people these days who care about these things. I also love the film it refers to...but that's another matter!

Jude Sheerin said...

Hi Throw Grammar from the Train!

Thought you might be interested in our recent blog post

Emma Thompson's been ranting about slang - whatevs! http://bit.ly/bM8fGO

You can also follow us on Twitter, covering all the best of the news agencies' corrections.

http://twitter.com/Write_Well_

Take it easy!

M Kathy Brown said...

Knowing English grammar fairly well, I truly enjoyed your comebacks to all the various comments. I too find it rather interesting that the obit can actually be "fixed" with only one letter, in spite of the varying ways editors could choose to go with it. First time I've read anything of yours; it was well worth my time. Thank you!

Caroline Starr Rose said...

Where have you been all my life?? And why do I keep thinking about Owen and his Mama?

Brian Bedell said...

I love any blog having to do with English, grammar and giving people the bird. Great looking blog. Seriously, keep up the good work and you are sure to get more accolades than just blog of note! I bow to you and commend you on your accomplishment.

Brian Bedell
http://AnAlternateTruth.blogspot.com/

LissBirds said...

Is "became a film star herself" a proper use of a reflexive pronoun? Somehow that seems off to me.

The lack of commas were what I noticed instanty...though why does it matter that she is their only daughter? Shouldn't there be a comma anyway?

Thanks!

aynzan said...

'Carrie Fisher used to be in the movies..'. Will this fix? Interesting post..

Mohammed UK said...

A comma added, something removed, something moved:

"Their daughter Carrie Fisher, a film star herself in the first three 'Star Wars' films as Princess Leia, later became a best-selling author of 'Postcards From the Edge' and other books."