Sunday, May 01, 2005

desk notes

HOO HAH! It's the online edition of HEADSUP-L, so bear with any technological disasters.

CUTLINE REVISIONISM: "Christian Orthodox worshippers pass candles around the tomb where Jesus Christ is traditionally believed to be buried in Jerusalem on Saturday" (7A Sunday). As a rule, folks who believe that this is where Jesus was buried also believe that it's where he got up a couple days later. "Is traditionally believed to have been buried" would have acknowledged that fairly significant element.

Now for some fine-tuning. For this sort of event, you need to identify the Church of the Holy Sepulchre by name. It's not the only such site; the Garden Tomb, just down Nablus Road from the Old City, is also claimed as the site of Jesus' tomb. And when you take a semantic shortcut, take the right one. We say "pass candles around the tomb," suggesting that the candles are circling the thing. The original said "pass candles TO fellow worshippers AROUND the tomb": The candles are being passed to people, and "around the tomb" is where the people are standing. The prepositional phrases aren't interchangeable. They rarely are.

COLLECTIVE UNCONSCIOUS: The confusion over what to do with collective nouns is getting out of hand. The AP's entry has some good advice, but it leaves out the prime offenders here in collegetown, "faculty" and "staff," and misses a few other important points. So stick with these simple rules and you'll never go wrong.

Nouns that denote a unit -- the AP's examples include "class," "committee" and "crowd," but we can add "faculty" and "staff" -- are singular and take singular verbs, but like most singular nouns, they usually take a "determiner": an article or a demonstrative adjective, for example. The other main way for them to appear is as attributive modifiers with plural nouns. So with "faculty," there would be two equally correct forms:
The faculty was ranked fifth in the nation (singular noun, singular verb).
Faculty members were told they wouldn't get raises (noun modifying plural noun, with plural verb; you could also use "Members of the faculty were told ...").

Those are the only two correct ways to use "faculty." You can't say "Faculty is expected to administer grades that best reflect student performance" (5A April 22) or "Faculty are not expected to use the whole scale" (ibid, and whoever let those contradictory uses in consecutive paragraphs go by was either tossing coins or sleeping at the switch). And by all means don't do anything as bizarre as "Syrian military leave Lebanon" (1A Wednesday).

This one is going to take some work. Academics and administrators are notoriously bad writers, and we need to work extra hard to avoid sounding like our sources. But we have the justification of being, well, right.

Bottom line: When you see "faculty," "staff" or the like, it needs either a determiner and a singular verb:
The faculty approved the measure.
This committee is in the pay of Satan.
or a plural noun to govern a plural verb:
Members of the committee were executed at dawn.
Staff members took the money and burned the rezoning proposal anyway.
Any questions?

THE "THAT" ISSUE: In the ongoing campaign to stamp out robot writing and bad J105 habits, a few guidelines for when to use "that" after attribution.

You can almost always delete "that" when a simple independent clause follows "said." In "Norm Reubling, MO-X owner, said that he recognized those economic impacts" (1A Friday), the "that" can come out with no harm done.

You always need "that" when a subordinate or relative clause follows "said." HINT: Whenever you see "if," "when," "although" or the like, be sure there's a "that" introducing the next clause.
"He said if two students fail the same course taught by two different professors, one could fail whole the other student receives no grade" (5A April 22). Needs "that" before "if."

Always use "that" if a time element follows the verb of attribution. Always use "that" with verbs like "explain," "estimate," "point out" and the like. Yes, being a good editor requires that you be able to tell an independent clause from a subordinate clause. That's why you're here and not in the advertising sequence, right?

KEEP IT SIMPLE: Let's start reining in the epidemic of using "explained" as a verb of attribution. "Explained" is all right as a transitive verb: "More than 75 students participated, remaining silent even in their classes and handing out flyers that explained their silence" (7A Wednesday). But each of these examples would have been better with "said":
"He explained that if markets aren't found for dried milk, the U.S. government will use taxpayer dollars to buy it" (11A Sunday).
"She explained that belly dancing is an ancient dance about 'birth and life'" (April 25).
"She explained that some dangers to raptors include being hit by cars and losing their habitats" (April 25).
"He also explained that every time a weapon is fired, the officer must file a report" (April 26).

Questions, comments, offers of technical assistance? I'm going to try to put a picture up, so if the Kremlin explodes or something, you know why.

2 Comments:

Anonymous kirk a. said...

good luck on getting people to use the words "faculty" and "staff" correctly. i haven't given up, either, but it's maddening. where does shit like that get started?

10:20 AM, May 10, 2005  
Blogger fev said...

I'm still trying to figure out a way to measure how stuff like that gets into the system. I think part of it's the sound-like-your-sources syndrome, but I'm open to other theories.

5:30 PM, May 10, 2005  

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