The sentence with five full stops

We are editors, yes, but we must be writers as well. And sometimes a stylebook ruling or a factual correction conflicts with the goal of presenting prose that sounds as if maybe, just maybe, it was written by a human rather than a machine.

Bill Walsh, a copyeditor by profession, is absolutely right on this point. So what does he do when faced with this sentence? Look at the sentence, see if you can do better, and then I’ll tell you what Walsh’s solution is.

The group, which backed the Supreme Court confirmations of Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., objected to the commentary.

Have you managed to come up with something less convoluted, easier to read, and possibly written by a human? Something like this, perhaps?

The group, which backed the Supreme Court nominations of John Roberts and Samuel Alito, objected to the commentary.

Well, here’s what Walsh came up with:

Oh, wait. That sentence was what Walsh came up with. It was his solution to the problem of saying “Supreme Court Chief Justice Roberts” when in fact Roberts is not the chief justice of the Supreme Court, but rather the Chief Justice of the United States.

Walsh’s sentence is symptomatic of one of my biggest problems with American broadsheet journalism: its pedantry and rules-based verbosity. The formal titles of Roberts and Alito were not relevant to the sentence; they just got in the way. But someone at the Washington Post has decreed that the formal titles of both men must always be used, and so the sentence grows. Certainly there is no sensible reason why we need these men’s middle initials, or need to be told that they share the same names as their respective fathers. The reason for writing “Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr.” can’t possibly be to differentiate him from some other Chief Justice called John Roberts, so why do it?

As a wise man once wrote on the subject of middle initials,

To write “the Kenneth W. Starr investigation of the Monica S. Lewinsky scandal” is akin to writing “Las Vegas, Nev.-style gambling” or “the [Muhammad] Ali [formerly Cassius Clay] shuffle.”

Ah yes, that man was Bill Walsh. Physician, heal thyself!

One sacred cow that Walsh hasn’t dared to attack, to my knowledge, is the American insistence on placing what they call periods and we Brits call full stops in the middle of sentences. I was taught by some very smart English teachers, who explained that the full stop is the most powerful piece of punctuation: it ends a thought, a sentence, an idea. Which is one of the reasons why one-word sentences can be so effective. We’re all taught from a very early age that when you’re reading and you come to a full stop, you come to a full stop.

And yet Walsh manages to have no fewer than five full stops in the course of his one model sentence. What purpose is served by writing “John G. Roberts rather than John G Roberts”? (Obviously John Roberts is better still.) Why make a sentence harder to read by punctuating middle initials and those annoying “Jr.” addenda?

To my knowledge, no other English-speaking country follows these crazy self-imposed rules — which is a reason why newspapers in England or Australia or South Africa are generally easier to read. Newspapers exist to serve their readers, and newspaper readers are ill served by all this pedantry. Bill Walsh, far from perpetuating it, should be trying to drag the Washington Post’s language into the 21st Century.

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