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.