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April 14, 2009 Leave a comment
Angel Cabrera, 2009 Masters Champion

Angel Cabrera, 2009 Masters Champion

Three nights ago, following the third round of the Masters golf tournament, I wrote a post with the title Kenny Perry’s Masters? In the post, I described seeing Kenny close up at the 2002 US Open. I also mentioned how various events like Easter dinners have gotten in the way of my watching the final round in recent years. I was going to leave it at that, but now I realize maybe I should answer the question. The answer is in the title. Nope. It wasn’t.

Do I have to say more or can I leave it at that?

I found the closing minutes of the Masters almost unbearably painful. This isn’t unusual. The flip side of watching the most exciting Masters victories is experiencing somebody’s pain. We can go back to 1998 for instance, when Mark O’Meara’s stirring putt to win on 18 came at the expense of David Duval and Fred Couples. Duval had a three-stroke lead just a few holes earlier and was about to make good on his status as the best young American, a year after Tiger’s magnificent first Masters victory. And Freddie also looked like the winner at one point, adding to his 1992 victory. But no, Mark O’Meara won and broke their hearts. That’s how it often is. When I hear the famous CBS Masters theme music, I feel heartbreak. I associate the music with the best televised sporting event of the year, but also with the blue mood I’m in when the music closes out the broadcast every April, late on a Sunday afternoon. Someone won. Greatness achieved. And others had it slip from their grasps.

Here’s what I wrote a couple of hours ago to a friend who wondered what “elegiac prose [I] would pen about its dramatic finish.”

I was too depressed to come up with any prose at all. My habit in recent years during the major championships has been to watch the Golf Channel coverage each evening on Live from the Masters [or US Open or whatever], with all the post-round interviews of key players, analysis by Golf Channel experts, etc. Their conversations are of the highest quality. But I couldn’t bear it Sunday. I didn’t even watch the giving of the green jacket in the Butler Cabin. This may also have had something to do with my having already ignored our Easter guests all afternoon, and my brother-in-law’s presumptuous changing of the channel from golf to the Mariner game the moment Cabrera won, but even if I were home alone, I don’t think I could have watched. I did write a post on my blog Saturday night about Kenny Perry, but I haven’t returned to the subject.

I thought they were overdoing the Woods/Mickelson thing for a while, but by the time Phil got his 6th birdie on the front nine, I thought maybe this really was the story. And then there was that moment when Tiger and Phil were on 15 staring at eagle putts that would have tied Phil for the lead and put Tiger one back. It was amazing how that story disappeared entirely by the time the original leading three came down the stretch, reasserting their positions as the ones to fight it out. A day to remember, if I didn’t feel so bad. And it’s not just that I wanted Perry to win. If Cabrera beat him with birdies, so be it. I just hated how Perry lost. Bogey bogey finish, then the crazy bad luck (for Perry) on the first playoff hole, when Cabrera should have had a bogey or worse, in which case Perry would have won, then another bogey.

Well, it’s hardly news that the golf gods are cruel. We see it every year. That’s what makes the majors so great and painful to watch, as players’ careers are defined in front of our eyes, and theirs. Now Perry has two majors that will torture him forever.

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Categories: Life, Sports

Comma Omission Confusion

April 14, 2009 2 comments

comma

I have long believed that when including a list of nouns in a sentence — planes, trains, and automobiles for example — one should separate them by commas, as I just did. I know there is no agreement on this, nor need there be. And I am reminded of this daily by the New York Times, since their style manual insists that the comma before the word ‘and’ be omitted. My preference for inserting the comma derives from the application of two principles. The first is that sometimes the lack of a comma creates ambiguity, ambiguity that can be resolved by the simple insertion of the comma. Now, one could argue that an appropriate style is to omit the comma except when the possibility of ambiguity arises, in which case the comma can be inserted. This is where my second principle comes in, one that I am no longer as wedded to as I used to be. This is the principle of consistency. Given a stylistic choice, decide on one and stick to it, at least within a given document. The combination of these two principles leads one to insert the comma always, no matter what. Yet, as I say, I have begun to soften on the application of the consistency principle, largely because it can conflict with another worthy principle, the principle of minimalism. In this case, minimalism would dictate that if you don’t need something for clarity, omit it.

With this as prologue, I turn to a post by Geoffrey Pullum at Language Log last week. It gives the most wonderful illustration of the dangers of comma omission. In the example he describes, from the Economist, two different comma omissions occur in the same sentence. One is of the type I just described. The other, well, I’ll let Professor Pullum describe it:

When I write a clause that begins with a clause-containing adjunct, I generally put a comma after the adjunct. The comma in that first sentence illustrates my practice. Some writers studiously avoid such a comma (sometimes my style is known as “heavy” punctuation and the other style as “light”). I also like the so-called “Oxford comma”: I write Oregon and Washington, but I don’t write California, Oregon and Washington. I use an extra comma and write California, Oregon, and Washington.

I couldn’t wish for a better illustration of why I like my own policies than the following sentence, which I saw in The Economist last week (April 4, p. 11). It goes the other way on both of my policies, and it’s disastrously misunderstandable in my opinion:

“Traders and fund managers got huge rewards for speculating with other people’s money, but when they failed the parent company, the client and ultimately the taxpayer had to pay the bill.”

Let’s strip it down to the bare essentials for discussion, reducing the part I’m concerned with to this:

When they failed the parent company, the client and the taxpayer had to pay.

The problem is that I found myself reading the parent company as the direct object of failed (wrong; what was intended was that I should read failed as intransitive), and then that left the client and the taxpayer to be the subject of had to pay (wrong again; the intention was to have the parent company, the client and the taxpayer in that role).

Under the tutelage of Professor Pullum and his colleagues at Language Log, I have become less of a prescriptivist than I once was. But as Pullum notes in concluding his post, sometimes prescribing is a good thing: Read more…

Categories: Language