Yesterday, I returned from a wonderful week-long retreat with Pema Chodron, noted Buddhist teacher and bestselling author, at the secluded Shambhala Mountain Center, high in the Rocky Mountains, to find that back in the world, things were even worse than I thought: An esteemed mainstream magazine has apparently questioned Barack Obama's legitimacy as president!


Newsweek's September 6 issue, featuring a cover story on Barack Obama titled "THE MAKING OF A TERRORIST-CODDLING, WARMONGERING, WALL-STREET–LOVING, SOCIALISTIC GODLESS MUSLIM PRESIDENT* (who isn't actually any of these things),” has got its en dash in the right place, but O, that asterisk!


As Gawker pointed out, the placement of that asterisk makes the footnote apply to the entire phrase it follows, including the noun "president," making it seem that Obama "Isn't actually any of these things," including president. Of course, the author, Jonathan Alter, intended no such thing. His piece is an examination of the multiple, contradictory projections placed on this particular political figure right now. How much I feel for the poor editor who placed that asterisk if he or she did that by mistake! How much I am irritated by that editor if it was intentional.


Multiple projections on reality could be a great topic for a Buddhist discussion, and it's a pretty good one for a grammar discussion as well. Can one comma mean something to one reader and not another? Can one phrase be acceptable to one editor and entirely ungrammatical to another?


The relativity of meaning is a topic beloved by structural linguists, philosophers, deconstructionists, postmodernists, authors of literary fiction, advertising copywriters, and the like. To writers, readers, and editors of plain old mainstream nonfiction and fiction, it's tricky territory.


Playing with multiple meanings can add richness, depth, strangeness, and resonance to writing, or it can lead to unintended confusion. The key, of course, is intent.


In any writing context, there are generally agreed-upon rules of punctuation, diction, and grammar. The rules can differ by context — even contexts as similar as book publishing and magazine publishing have different generally accepted rules about serial commas — and there is nearly always room for debate.


But as the number of successful grammar books, the popularity of Facebook groups such as "I judge people when they use poor grammar," and the general anxiety about "Is this right?" show, we Americans, for the most part, have both some worry and some sense of what the generally accepted rules are and what they aren't.


Periods mean the end of a sentence. Capital letters indicate proper nouns and the beginning of sentences. Commas indicate division between syntactic elements. (Okay, so most folks wouldn't put it exactly that way, but . . . )


And asterisks indicate that additional information about the preceding unit of meaning, whether it be a word, phrase, or sentence, applies to that information. One of the most famous asterisks was used by Woody Allen in the title of his film based on David Reuben’s book: Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask).


Whether the asterisk in the Newsweek title applied to the whole phrase or only the word it immediately follows, it indicates that the phrase "(who isn't actually any of these things)" applies to the preceding "president." And that is just plain wrong.


What do you think about Newsweek's asterisk?




Ellen Scordato has 25 years' book publishing experience as an editor, copy editor, proofreader, and managing editor. She's now a partner in The Stonesong Press, a nonfiction book producer and agency. In addition to her work at Stonesong, Ellen has taught grammar, punctuation, and style at the New School for more than 12 years in the English Language Studies department and taught English as a Second Language at Cabrini Immigrant Services.

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by on ‎09-03-2010 10:50 AM
Newsweek - One Year Subscription: Magazine Cover
Perhaps, because the title printed in red reads:  The Making of a President (with the asterisk at the end of president) and the rest of the title in white (which is inserted between, The making of, and President), gives the descriptive meaning?
Anyway you look at it, it's offensive!
by Blogger Ellen_Scordato on ‎09-03-2010 03:32 PM

Kathy, yes, thanks for pointing that out. But even if asterisk applied to only the items in red, i still makes "(who isn't actually any of these things)" apply to "president," though.

by on ‎09-03-2010 07:21 PM

Well, you've got me, doesn't define President, but I think, for whomever wrote it, must have thought so....or just wanted to throw out some snide labeling for a lark, and sales....I guess. "who isn't actually any of these things" is so small, I didn't see it in the picture.  An immaterial footnote, more or less....  I don't think I'd read the magazine, even if you gave it to me, with that header!

by Blogger Albert_Rolls on ‎09-04-2010 02:35 AM
I think no one at Newsweek looked up asterisks in a style guide, and everyone assumed that when they are used in titles, they are always put at the end. To put it another way, the format of the headline is made to conform to the format of the title Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (But Were Afraid to Ask). David Reuben’s book seems to have been on the minds of those at Newsweek, as the word sex is red in its title.

By the way, Facebook groups such as "I judge people when they use poor grammar" just make me want to write and speak ungrammatically, to throw away the distinction between your and you’re and do worse. The holier-than-thou attitude really pisses me off. (Don’t take this rant as an attack on you; you never seem holier-than-thou.) I understand the need for “generally agreed-upon rules of punctuation, diction, and grammar” within a context, and I admire people who are great copy editors and proofreaders. I even see the need to criticize such mistakes as the one discussed here, but people who use poor grammar do so because they have different language habits, which are very hard just to give up, not because they are less intelligent than those whose language habits are defined as proper.

by whiteginger on ‎09-07-2010 05:02 PM

The asterisk usage in this headline is an esoteric consideration.  [Perhaps it was a printed Freudian slip(?).]  Most people would have read the cover with their particular biases, no matter how the headline had been punctuated.  Sad, but true. I am glad that we have blogs like this one where we can discuss such matters.


I, like Albert, try never to be critical of those who have not been taught correct grammar. I, personally, however, have problems with those who are too lazy to practice correct grammar in public situations; with those who adopt the "i'm just as good as you are" attitude and simply do not care whether or not they speak correctly; and with those who revel in speaking as they please because they are  "the highly visible ones," replacing old rules with personal idioms.


An older, former English teacher, I have often equated sloppy language with the deteriation of manners and culture.  Then, again, Plato had that same thought over 2,000 years ago, and we have survived!

by Blogger Melissa-Walker on ‎09-09-2010 08:54 AM

Thanks for bringing this up, Ellen! I saw the cover myself and wondered about the asterisk, but didn't trust my grammar enough to say "That's wrong!" Still, a cover we're all talking about, which is what they want, right? 

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