May 9:  Turn Off the TV Day

Today is the anniversary of a memorable speech by Newton Minow, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, to the National Association of Broadcasters. The year was 1961, and Minow did not have many good things to say about commercial television. His speech, where he called television “a vast wasteland,” sparked a national debate about the quality, or lack thereof, of television programming.

Newton Minow 2006.jpgSince Minow’s speech, television has been called the idiot box and the boob tube. Television viewers have become couch potatoes (1979), and the number of channels has grown to more than 500, but “nothing is on.”

Here’s an excerpt from Minow’s indictment:

But when television is bad, nothing is worse. I invite you to sit down in front of your television set when your station goes on the air and stay there without a book, magazine, newspaper, profit and loss sheet or rating book to distract you — and keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that you will observe a vast wasteland.

You will see a procession of game shows, violence, audience participation shows, formula comedies about totally unbelievable families, blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, murder, western bad men, western good men, private eyes, gangsters, more violence, and cartoons. And, endlessly, commercials — many screaming, cajoling, and offending. And most of all, boredom. True, you will see a few things you will enjoy. But they will be very, very few. And if you think I exaggerate, try it. (1)

While Minow’s phrase “a vast wasteland” caught on, his speech certainly did not discourage the growth of television sets in American homes. In an age of reality television, satellite television, and 24-hour sports and cable news stations, television is more popular than ever.

One question that has been asked by educators since the advent of commercial television is: What is the relationship between television viewing and reading? One particularly interesting answer to this question was given by Norman Mailer in the January 23, 2005 edition of Parade Magazine. In the article, Mailer says that the one thing that he would do to change America for the better would be to get rid of television commercials. Mailer argues that the constant interruptions of commercials disrupt our children’s ability to read effectively by denying them something that is necessary for reading: concentration.

Here is an excerpt from Mailer’s Parade essay:

When children become interested in an activity, their concentration is firm—until it is interrupted. Sixty years ago, children would read for hours. Their powers of concentration developed as naturally as breathing. Good readers became very good readers, even as men and women who go in for weight-lifting will bulk up . . . . Each of the four major networks now offers 52 minutes of commercials in the three hours from 8 p.m. to 11 p.m. every day. It is equal to saying that every seven, 10 or 12 minutes, our attention to what is happening on the tube is cut into by a commercial. It is as bad for most children’s shows. Soon enough, children develop a fail-safe. Since the child knows that any interesting story will soon be amputated by a kaleidoscope of toys, food, dolls, clowns, new colors and the clutter of six or seven wholly different products all following one another in 10-, 20- and 30-second spots all the way through a three-minute break, the child also comes to recognize that concentration is not one’s friend but is treacherous. (2)

Today’s Challenge:  Boob Tube Best or Worst

What are some of the television programs of the past or present that you would argue represent the best and worst television programs of all time?  Brainstorm a list of the best and worst television programs of all time.  Select one program that you know well, and make your argument for why this program is either the best or worst program.  Don’t assume your audience is familiar with the program. In addition to making your argument, give some background describing the program and its genre. (Common Core Writing 1 – Argument)

Quotation of the Day: Television is a new medium. It’s called a medium because nothing is well-done. –Fred Allen




May 8:  Comma Day

On this day in 1884, a New York City newspaper featured a story on Irish writer Oscar Wilde (1854-1900).  The story, published in The Daily Graphic, is the source of one of the best-known quotations concerning the vagaries of English punctuation:

I have spent most of the day putting in a comma and the rest of the day taking it out.

The source of this frequently cited Wilde quotation is an anecdote recounted by the newspaper article: Once on a trip to an English country house, Wilde was annoyed by the uncultured pronouncements of a fellow guest, who loudly proclaimed that artistic pursuits were a waste of time.  As the two shared lunch, the Philistine guest asked Wilde what he had been up to all morning. Wilde replied saying, “I’ve been very busy all morning editing my book of poems.”

The fellow guest followed up asking, “So have you made much progress?”

Wilde responded, “Yes, I took out a comma.”

“Is that all you accomplished?” the guest inquired with disbelief and disgust.  

“No, not at all,” retorted Wilde, “After careful consideration, I put the comma back.”  (1)

As the anecdote and Wilde’s quotation shows, even great writers have struggled with the most common and most vexing of all punctuation marks:  the comma.

The problem is that commas are used in so many different situations that writers become overwhelmed.  One solution to this problem is to specify each of the most frequently used applications of the comma and to name each of these applications as a distinct type of comma.

Nine Types of Commas

Introductory Comma:  A comma that separates a word or phrase at the beginning of a sentence from the sentence’s main clause:   

On a dark and stormy night, John sat in the library reading.

Coordinating (FANBOYS) Comma:  A comma that precedes a coordinating conjunction that connects two independent clauses:

John sat in the library reading, but he should have been doing his math homework.

Serial Comma (Oxford or Harvard) Comma:  A comma that is used to separate items in a series (See March 21:  Serial Comma Day):

John bought some paper clips, pencils, and rubber bands.

Adjective Comma:  A comma that separates two (coordinating) adjectives that equally modify a noun

It was a dark, stormy night in Pittsburgh.

Appositive Comma:  Twin commas that set off an appositive phrase from the rest of a sentence.  Typically, the appositive phrase comes directly after the noun it modifies:

Mary, a junior in college, hopes to get a summer job.

Adjective Clause Comma:  Twin commas that set off a restrictive adjective clause from the rest of a sentence:

Mary, who is a junior in college, hopes to get a summer job.

Subordinating Comma:  A comma that follows a dependent (adverb) clause, separating an opening dependent clause from an independent clause.

After he spent three hours reading in the library, John went to math class.

Quotation Comma:  A comma that precedes a quotation when the speaker of the quotation is introduced:

My mother always said, “Make sure you wear a warm coat.”

Participial Comma:  A comma that separates a participial phrase (or absolute phrase) from the rest of a sentence.  

Embarrassed to be wearing his Batman pajamas, Bill refused to answer the knock at the door.

Today’s Challenge: Comma, Comma, Chameleon

How many different rules are there for using commas?  What are some examples of specific times that a comma should be used in writing? Read the explanations above of Nine Types of Commas.  Then, write nine original sentences of your own, using all nine different types.  (Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

Quotation of the Day:  What’s the difference between a cat and comma?

One has its claws at the end of its paws, and one is a pause at the end of a clause. -An old joke