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Obit that spurred Twitter outrage sparks punctuation criticism by law prof

Posted Apr 3, 2013 5:40 AM CDT
By Debra Cassens Weiss

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A New York Times obituary for rocket scientist Yvonne Brill has sparked outrage on Twitter and a defense by a Harvard law academic fellow who nonetheless takes issue with the newspaper’s punctuation.

The Times changed its lede in response to the criticism, according to the New York Times Public Editor’s Journal. The first version said: “She made a mean beef stroganoff, followed her husband from job to job and took eight years off from work to raise three children. ‘The world’s best mom,’ her son Matthew said.

“But Yvonne Brill, who died on Wednesday at 88 in Princeton, N.J., was also a brilliant rocket scientist, who in the early 1970s invented a propulsion system to help keep communications satellites from slipping out of their orbits.”

The new first paragraph now reads: “She was a brilliant rocket scientist who followed her husband from job to job and took eight years off from work to raise three children. ‘The world’s best mom,’ her son Matthew said.”

Blogging at theFaculty Lounge, academic fellow Michelle Meyer of Harvard Law School’s Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology and Bioethics isn’t outraged by the set-up emphasizing Brill’s home life. “To my mind, the most offensive thing about this is the absence of an Oxford comma in the opening sentence,” she writes.

Meyer understands the criticism—that the lede can be interpreted as highlighting Brill’s domestic life over her scientific achievements. But she sees a different point. “It seems clear to me that the point the writer is making—which stretches beyond the first two sentences to include the third—is that Brill became a brilliant scientist despite also facing traditional demands we place on women, and managing to excel at them, too.”

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