It is time, once again, for propounding a paean to the period. Heavenly dot! Divine orb! Precious pea of punctuation! Let us pray for thy unceasing employment!
Why this unseemly ruckus? I shall explain - regretfully explain. On Oct. 4, the New Yorker magazine carried 1,500 words of truly abominable editing. The piece was a think-piece of little thought. It started nowhere, went nowhere and arrived at no interesting destination. Even so, the content was not improved by the style. All of us may learn something here.
The author opened with a metaphor. With Dan Rather at the helm, she reported, CBS had "plowed into an iceberg." What a thought!
Her account mushed on: "The sorry episode, in which the authenticity of documents used to buttress a story about the president's National Guard service three decades ago was called into question, enjoyed only a brief life as a flap - when it looked as though CBS had the goods to back its story and the attacks were anti-big media gun spray from the trigger-happy right - before becoming a scandal, when, last week, it came to light that CBS could not authenticate this document after all."
In the next two sentences of segue, the writer asked if there is any longer a place for a 22-minute news show. Then she took a breath: "This time the Internet - blogs in particular, many of which are part-time enterprises, written and compiled by guys sitting at home waiting to pounce on the mainstream (excuse me, elite) media - played a more important and more active role in the story, by immediately questioning the validity of the means that Dan Rather, the correspondent of the "60 Minutes' piece, used to support the well-established claim that Bush received preferential treatment during his now-you-see-him, now-you-don't service in the Texas National Guard."
The writer noted that "CBS and Rather dug in their heels," a metaphor of blinding originality, and then apologized 12 days after the show.
"The next day, it was reported that Mapes had put in a call to Joe Lockhart, a Kerry campaign adviser (and a former press secretary of President Clinton's), asking him to call Bill Burkett, a retired Texas National Guard lieutenant colonel and Democratic activist who had provided the documents in the first place, and who wanted to get in touch with the campaign. Ouch!" The "Ouch!" was a painful touch.
It may be that some of my irk stems from the New Yorker's peculiar animosity to the paragraph. The editors historically have regarded the paragraph's indentation as a loathsome interruption. Never mind that columns of good gray type tend to stupefy the wandering eye. This is New Yorker style: 1,500 words, six grafs.
Another of the New Yorker's little dog tricks of style soon loses its casual charm. This is the practice of tucking an afterthought into a sentence like a pimiento into an olive. We wrap it in parenthesis or fence it in dashes. For example, the writer reports David Letterman's monologue on Dan Rather's show:
"(A transcript of the monologue is available on - where else? - a blog.) We've all become empowered by the choices at our fingertips, but we - bloggers, TV viewers - don't necessarily have the skill and depth of experience that news organizations draw upon. Speed isn't everything - as Rather himself painfully found out."
Nothing is wrong with ellipses, parentheses or dashes. Of course not. Less is not necessarily more. But one element of a successful style lies in knowing when to plug in a plain old period and start the thing anew.
Readers may send dated citations of usage to James J. Kilpatrick at The Buffalo News, P.O. Box 100, Buffalo, N.Y. 14240. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.