Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Not just a dumb question hed, it's ...

... a particularly irrelevant dumb question hed!

Do video games make kids aggressive?

THE CLAIM: Violent video games make young people aggressive
THE FACTS: Republicans and Democrats alike screamed government waste in March when a group of senators suggested spending $90 million to study how video games "and other electronic media" influence children's behavior. Surely an important question, critics of the plan said, but $90 million?
This month, the American Psychological Association called for a reduction of violence in all video games, saying the evidence from 20 years of research on the subject was clear. They based their conclusion largely on the work of Kevin Kieffer, a psychologist at St. Leo University near Tampa, Fla., who prepared an analysis of dozens of relevant studies.

After this one circles the drain for a few paragraphs, it comes to a conclusion that looks strikingly like, er, several decades' worth of research on the effects of media violence on children: There might be some, and there might not, but if there is, it doesn't seem to last long.

Lesson to wire editors: Just because something moves on the New York Times wire doesn't mean it's new. Or news. Judge by content, not by credit line.

Monday, August 29, 2005

Sounding like a journalist (without sounding like a journalist)

Moving rapidly up the list of Phrases I Will Ban Outright When I Become Pope Of Journalism is "shots fired." It's threatening to close in on "Police responded to," and it's on the list for a similar reason: It sounds like a journalist trying to sound like a cop.

Here's the opposition on two apparently unrelated shootings, one of which fell on Missourian time and one on Trib time:

Police received a report of a drive-by shooting at 1:47 p.m. yesterday on Third Avenue near Garth Avenue.

... Police responded just before 2:30 a.m. today to a report of shots fired in the area of Sexton Road and Banks Avenue.

"Receiving reports" and "responding" are part of the cops' job description. In every case I can think of (not just gunplay, though that does sort of underscore the point), what the cops are responding to, or receiving reports about, is more interesting than a sentence that begins by telling me the cops are going about their routine. If this sounds like a suggestion that many, if not most, cop ledes should consider the passive voice over the active, it is:

A drive-by shooting was reported yesterday afternoon ...
Gunshots were reported around 2:30 this morning at ...

Which leads us back to "shots fired" and:

A person inside the truck then began firing shots out the driver’s side.

The nice thing about "shooting" or "gunshots" is that you can get to the point -- gun goes "bam" -- with one word instead of two. And if you've shaken the "shots fired" mentality, you're more likely to write "began firing out the driver's side," rather than "began firing shots out the driver's side."

The Missourian's take is better, but not quite there:
Shortly after the report of shots fired, police stopped a blue car at about 2 p.m. near Providence Road and Switzler Street.

If you're still not comfortable calling it a "shooting" (though both the lede and the hed do), at least make it "shortly after the shooting was reported": It's passive, but it puts "shooting" before "report."

Here's another cop cliche that -- upon reflection and a not-too-deep breath -- can be edited out of every story it appears in:

Police at the scene recovered several shell casings from a handgun.

That's as opposed to what: The cops back at the station? The ones on the other side of town? Any prepositional phrase in a police or fire report whose object is "the scene" -- "Firefighters arrived at the scene," "the suspect fled from the scene" -- should be whacked forthwith unless someone can make a compelling argument for its presence.

One more peeve, and while phrasing of this sort has different values these days in the wake of all the navel-gazing about named and unnamed sources, I'd still argue that tighter is better:

There were no injuries or identifiable damage to any property, according to a release from Sgt. Ken Smith of the Columbia Police Department.

There were no injuries or identifiable damage to any property, police said.

(No one was hurt and no damage was reported, Sgt. Ken Smith said in a release.)

Since the first two words of the lede are "Columbia police," you can save five words in a hurry by lopping off "of the Columbia Police Department." More to the point: Assuming that we're satisfied enough with the official-ness of police press releases to rely on them, what's the actual, end-of-the-day value of identifying the guy who wrote the release? Does it have any real merit, or does it just make newspapers feel better about the WMD thing?

Then there's the strictly mercenary way of looking at it (if you know this part, you can close your eyes and come in on the chorus). In type, version #2 is two lines shorter than version #1. Two lines is a fourth of an inch. Whenever you serve an inch less foam, you're serving an inch more beer.

Sunday, August 28, 2005

Safire, you schlemiel

Comes now William Safire, soi-disant language maven, with the latest in a series of loopy lexical fabrications. Today's effort (page 12 of today's Times Magazine) contains a list of Top 10 Yiddishisms in English: klutz, glitsch, kosher, bagel, maven, mensch, schlock, schmooze, tush and chutzpah. "If you don't know these words, you will have difficulty being understood in English," our maven proclaims.

That's a rather stiff assertion. Surely Mr. Safire doesn't mean that not knowing from mensch is as harmful to comprehension as, say, positive "anymore." Or not understanding the difference between count nouns and noncount nouns. Or trying to determine case by inflection rather than word order ("give Safire the shark" and "give the shark Safire" are roughly the same sentence in Latin but somewhat different in English). What he probably means is that you'll have trouble understanding English, which is a more than slightly vexed assertion itself. And sort of the opposite of what he said, but hey: English is a flexible language.

I have no problem with the assertion (made by a scholar, not Safire, which helps) that klutz "has largely replaced the English oaf in common usage."* What Safire doesn't seem to get is that elements of a language don't diffuse into another language at the same rate or in the same ways. Everybody** who speaks American English knows what a "taco" is, but those who don't live in an area that has a reasonably high degree of contact with first-language Spanish-speakers are a lot less likely to know Taco Bell from tacos al pastor.

That means we can put bagel in a different category from the start. Unlike klutz, it's not Yiddish for, oh, something the Canterbury pilgrims were throwing at each other at the Tabard Inn. It's the word we have for the concept of "bagel." And if you don't care for bagels, your life isn't that badly hampered by not knowing the word (Repeat after me: No me gustan los doughnuts de cardboard).

The rest of his list underlines the diversity of language diffusion around the country (as recently as 1970, remember, Yiddish could claim more first-language speakers in the U.S. than Swedish and Norwegian combined). I'd put them in three stacks for convenience:

Klutz, glitch ("glitsch"?) and kosher: Near universal.

Schlock and schmooze (knowing sax players whose response to some arrangements is "Melt the chicken fat," HEADSUP-L is tempted to ask: What, no schmaltz?): Great words, extremely handy. Nothing else quite gets it in one syllable. But, again, just because some Greenland Eskimos might need only one "word" for a type of snow that American skiers use three to describe, it doesn't mean anybody's comprehension is at risk.

Maven, mensch, tush,*** chutzpah: Nice but optional. Sorry, but I can't recall any of these playing a major part in my language use. I'm not one to contend that my dialect is better than Safire's, but the other side of the coin is that his is no better, and certainly no more universal, than mine.

I am happy, though, to assert that my proposition, which is grounded and testable, is better than his. And if Safire disagrees, I'll make an offer: I'll crunch the numbers if he'll spring for the traditional slice-and-a-drink that undergraduates get for their contribution to research at this Major Midwestern University.

The only reason this is worth any bandwidth at all on the first Sunday night of a new semester is the wasted-opportunity-osity of it all. Sheez, Bill, you have a weekly language column in the nation's most revered daily, and the best you can do is this? You've got Sol Steinmetz on the line, and you can't ask why a language that's been shedding native speakers for three decades is still such a powerful -- even a growing -- influence? Or if the exhibit on Jewish vernaculars at the Diaspora Museum has any cool new stuff? Or whether Israel Radio is still doing a weekly broadcast in Ladino? Please.

OK, fake science mode off.

* Though one does sort of pine for the day when "oaf" was a common epithet, doesn't one?
** OK, "everybody in the first three standard deviations." Lighten up.
*** You can bring up the ZZ Top song if you want, but you have to explain the vowel variation yourself.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Fact-checking IV: A good science site

From today's edn of Bad Science comes another great resource, Hitting the Headlines. Britain's National Health Service takes a regular look at news reports on sci/med issues, with an eye to pointing out good science and gently chastising sloppily done studies, evil commercial shills, overstated heds and the like. Especially good for getting a handle on how to break a study down into its component parts and weigh its merits piece by piece.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Comma sutra

Punctuation isn't supposed to happen at random; it's supposed to help guide perplexed readers toward the clear light of True Meaning (if you missed the National Punctuation Day festivities on Monday, you can catch up here, thanks to the scholars at Language Hat). Three examples from one of our favorite dailies illustrate the perils of sticking commas between modifiers without first asking the modifiers what it is they're trying to modify.

For this purpose, we need to talk about the difference between coordinate and cumulative adjectives (we'll leave compounds for the first case of egregious overhyphenation of the semester). Coordinate adjectives, which are separated by commas, are of equal weight and apply equal force to their noun. To test whether two adjectives meet these conditions, and thus should be comma-ated, invert them:

Freedonia's feckless, arrogant policy.
Freedonia's arrogant, feckless policy.

or balance them on a conjunction:

Freedonia's policy is feckless and arrogant.

Cumulative adjectives pile on their meaning step by step and aren't separated by commas. They answer a series of "what" (or how, why, &c) questions:

A cold January morning.

What kind of morning? A January morning. What kind of January morning? A cold January morning.

Notice that the cumulative pair fails both the tests of the coordinate adjectives:

A cold January morning.
* A January cold morning.
* The morning was January and cold.
The January morning was cold.

You can infer from the last two that an attributive noun modifier can't coordinate with an adjective. Hold that thought, and let's go to the videotape:

Charlotte transit officials will unveil plans tonight for a long-discussed, $100 million station on West Trade Street that would serve Amtrak, commuter rail, buses, streetcars and taxis.

What sort of adjectives are "long-discussed" and "$100 million"? Test 'em:

* The $100 million long-discussed station.
* The station is $100 million and long discussed.
The long-discussed $100 million station. (What sort of station? $100 million. How has it been discussed? Longly!)
The long-discussed station would cost $100 million.

These, then, are cumulative modifiers and don't take a comma. Put them in the predicative position -- The station has been long discussed. The station would cost $100 million -- and, again, you'll see why they don't coordinate. Verdict: No comma.

Example #2 (from an edpage comment, and you probably don't want the details of this case):

This implies that a mostly white, Southern police force conspired to protect a black, petty burglar with a long police record in order to go after a young, white, wealthy doctor with no record!

A black petty burglar.
* A petty black burglar.
* A black and petty burglar.
(What kind of burglar? A petty burglar. What kind of petty burglar? You get the idea: No comma.)

Example #3:

North Carolina's lawmakers prepared to leave the capital Tuesday night after an overtime, seven-month session that left as many sweeping questions unanswered as it settled.

A seven-month overtime session. (hmm, can't rule it out)
* An overtime and seven-month session.
An overtime seven-month session. (How long did the session last? Seven months? What kind of seven-month session was it -- pretty normal? No, overtime.)

This one's closer to the bubble, but because it fails the conjunction test and passes the accumulative test, lose the comma.

True story. One of this paper's revered wordsmiths once proclaimed that when he'd been a writing teacher, he always taught that the fewer commas you had, the better your style was. That's typical magic-think, and we don't want writers to go away thinking that good writing is supernatural. It ain't. Good writing starts with basic principles of good construction. Hot water doesn't come out of the tap by magic. It comes out because somebody hooked the tap up correctly.

Sunday, August 21, 2005

Sunday morning with the nupes

Ah, a quiet Sunday morning with a pile of newly minted journalism:

Buses keep up with fuel prices?

Would somebody at a certain southeastern daily addicted to this sort of hed please take a whack at explaining what it's supposed to mean? And what language it was meant to be in? Thanks ever so much.

Files portray Roberts in 1980s
The nominee backed stripping the court's school-prayer powers

Here's what the story says:
"His opinion was that Congress had the constitutional power to strip the high court of jurisdiction over school prayer. But he said it was 'bad policy and should be opposed.'"

I suppose you could contend that the antecedent of "it" is vague: "jurisdiction over school prayer" (meaning the deck hed is true) or the whole clause beginning with "that" (meaning it's false)? The "but" suggests the latter, and fuller versions of the quote appearing over the past month make the point rather clearly: "such bills were bad policy and should be opposed on policy grounds." BZZZZZZZZZZZZT. The hed's not true.

The trouble with blunders like this is that they leave us with uncomfortably little to say should a caller ask why we run false and inflammatory headlines about Republican judicial nominees. Do we say "Curses! Our liberal bias has been exposed"? Or do we say "No, we put false, inflammatory headlines on stories without regard to the nominee's political views"?

Gaza pullout puts pressure on Palestine

Palestine must confront terrorists, push for peace

And where is this "Palestine" upon which a Midwestern city's top morning daily has conferred statehood?

OK, granted, some news organizations (the Economist for one, if I'm not mistaken) use "Palestine" as a shorthand for "the nascent government that exercises varying degrees of control over some noncontiguous parts of what might eventually be a Palestinian state." Usually they've covered the issue for a long time, know how to ground such a style decision in precedent and enforce it with some consistency. That's fine. News organizations are sovereign on their own pages. But it's a bad style decision when it's executed out of carelessness or sloppiness.

Broken-record-time sermon again: If you don't understand why the distinction between a state and a state of mind is important, you're going to have a hard time writing passable heds about the Middle East problem.

Friday, August 19, 2005

Another 110 lecture wasted

Son denies killing mom
Accused murderer upset he couldn’t attend funeral

Well, that's just swell. What are we going to call him if, say, the charges are dropped or he's acquitted? Is he going to be an "acquitted murderer"?

When you call him an "accused murderer," you're calling him a murderer. That's sort of how the language works. You can't change it by sticking an adjective on the front. Please don't do this again.

The Green Cheese Incident (bogus stories III)

What's with the green cheese again? Apparently some writers (and some international wire services, truth be told) need to be reminded that when a source says "The moon is made of green cheese," the proper response is not

Moon made of green cheese!

Nor is it

Moon made of green cheese, expert says!

The proper response is "No, the moon is a lifeless, airless rock." At which point, as the line goes in the movie, you can tell the source his/her poetry smells and kick him/her downstairs.*

This remains a problem in journalism because, particularly when there appears to be a good cause in the offing, journalists are far too eager to transmit a green-cheese claim and far too reluctant to look one in the eye and ask for some evidence (or some Triscuits). Here is a case in point, from a 1A tale in today's Missourian, contending that the term "minority" has become obsolete:

Harrison [per an earlier graf, he's a demographer at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies] noted that 'minority' refers to more than just numbers.

"The word's origins are that these are populations that once had the status of minors before the law,' Harrison said. "These are populations that, in one way or the other, did not have full legal status or full civil rights."

Hmm. Hard as it is to prove a negative (I mean, we don't know that ammonia beings from the Planet Mxyzptlk aren't hacking the KOMU signal even as we speak), one is inclined to suggest that "the word's origins" are nothing of the sort. The English word "minority" comes from a Latin root, and its first attested meaning is the status short of legal majority. But that's a far cry from establishing that the word's other meanings -- the smaller of two constituent parts, or a group that doesn't share the skin tone, language or religion of the dominant group -- are in any way rooted in "the status of minors before the law." French and Spanish both come from Latin, but that doesn't mean French came from Spanish.

What seems to have happened here: Writer stumbles on possible story. Writer asks expert. Expert proffers self-serving fact invented for the occasion. Writer nods in delight. And newspapers (that'll be the Washington Post, along with the foremost morning daily in Columbia, if it makes you feel better) are happy to run the results, even if they contravene the sort of common sense that might suggest itself at the first opening of a decent dictionary.

For HEADSUP-L's money, the smart money in this unfortunate, misinterpreted, misplayed tale is on Robin Lakoff, a major-league sociolinguist (and no tool of the power structure, either): "Sometimes I think we worry too much about semantic hairsplitting. If I had to fight about something, I might not fight about the term 'minority.'" She's right. Lots of evil is done with the language; we don't have to make things up to find wrongs to be righted.

Myths about language seem to have a particular resonance, though. They're very potent ways of asserting authority (the Eskimos and snow words, the "rule of thumb") or superiority (the batty contention that Arabs have an innately poor sense of time because their verb tenses are so weird). And they often go unchallenged because it's easy to make them sound expert, scientific or "official."

Journalists in particular need to remember that expertise isn't always transferable. A demographer might have a degree from Harvard, but that doesn't make him a word expert, any more than it makes him a brain surgeon. "Communication" is a big, squishy field, but it doesn't spend much time in etymology. Let experts be experts in their fields. When they start domain-hopping, be suspicious. And pass the Triscuits.

* OK, youngsters: Name the movie.

Monday, August 15, 2005

Second-person ledes: Tool of the clueless

Bad science collides with bad writing like a Reese's Cup with a Bud Light. Numbers in the text refer to notes below:

Can you rub hippo sweat on my back?
Fresno Bee(1)

FRESNO, Calif. - Someday, you might smear gooey hippo sweat all over your body.(2)

You'll be using a sunscreen with the chemically manufactured sweat of a hippopotamus. Not only will it prevent sunburn, but it will ward off bugs and protect you from skin infection.

As creepy (3) as it sounds, slippery(4) hippo sweat could become the toast of the skin care industry.(5)

But first science must unlock the secret of this massive mammal's(6) secretions: What makes them work?

In that vein, research on hippo sweat marches forward at the University of California, Merced. (7)Professor Christopher Viney soon will publish what could be(8) a key study on the molecular structure of the secretions.

He studied samples of the reddish fluid(9) over the past year after gathering samples from Bulgy, the venerable hippo at Fresno's Chaffee Zoo.

1) Tank-town paper alert! Why publish other folks' bad writing when you produce so much of your own?
2) Think so, eh?
3) Random adjective alert.
4) What, "gooey" wasn't enough for you?
5) And then again ...
6) Elongated Yellow Fruit alert.
7) Dive! Dive! Localitis alert.
8) And then again ...
9) Elongated Yellow Fruit alert II.

There's a reason this is more than just another chunk of grate-your-back-teeth-awful feature writing from America's Newspapers. Look again at the fifth graf: "Soon will publish" has all the journalistic value of "plans to sue." Does this mean he has an article under review? Accepted for publication? What journal? What's the acceptance rate? What does the hippo-sweat-research community think about his work?

Those are the questions that help us start to determine whether this "could be a key study" -- not the reporter's opinion, not the researcher's sharing a Zip code with the paper, not the adjective overload. If the article doesn't include at least some of the evidence, the odds are good that it's blowing smoke.

Surely something out there had a better claim on your newshole than this slippery reddish fluid.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

All-Sports HEADSUP-L!

It's the first all-sports edition of HEADSUP-L Online, your home for slow-motion replays of the nightly game tape. There's a bit of everything to talk about here, so let's dive in:

CUTLINE/PHOTO UNITY: The core function of the cutline is to tell the reader something that the photo doesn't. Identity is usually one of those somethings, and the photo itself is the only way to tell whether you've provided too little or too much identification. Here are three examples from Thursday's 3B:

Royals catcher John Buck, right, talks with starting pitcher Zack Greinke during the second inning against the Indians.
As a rule, the guy wearing the catcher's mitt, the mask and the chest protector is the catcher. No need for the directional identifier here.

Chicago's Juan Uribe, right, slides in to score the winning run, beating the throw to New York's Jorge Posada on Wednesday.
Again, since only one guy in this picture is sliding (and the vertical one is clearly wearing the Tools of Ignorance), no need to say who's on the right.

Rafael Palmeiro returns today from his 10-day suspension for steroid use.
Two recognizable faces in this picture. Which one is Palmeiro? If you're expecting your readers to know, you're expecting too much.

Don't use identifiers at random. Don't use them by formula. Use them by function.

ONE FOR THE COLLECTION: Always nice to add another "gets shot" hed to the J110 slide show: "Marshall Maverick gets shot at spotlight" (1B Thursday). To make clear whether "shot" is a noun or a verb, either modify it ("his shot" or "a shot") or use a different verb ("given shot").

PHOTO PLAY: Nice balance of photo sizes on 1B Friday, and a good aggressive crop on the Mavs-Grizzlies horizontal. The Cards-Cubs pic at the bottom, though, isn't the sort that reads well in a single column. The out-of-focus Cubbie in the foreground takes up too much space. Save this size for simpler compositions, like the pitchers on 1B Wednesday.

STYLE REMINDER: When you add a parenthetical clarification to a direct quote (which, of course, you only do very, very sparingly), be sure you follow style. That means referring to adults by family name, not given name, on second and later references:
“It definitely makes you better having someone like (Marcus) pushing you everyday,” Temple says. ("A running candidacy," 1B Wednesday)
The reference to Marcus Woods needs to be (Woods), not (Marcus). And "everyday" is an adjective meaning "ordinary"; this quote needs "every day." Never (never, never, never) change a quote to correct the source, but do correct errors by the writer.

MORE STYLE REMINDERS: Plenty of other style errors slipped by in that story too:
* Generally, set relative clauses and modifiers off with commas, not parentheses, which should be rare in news writing:
... the door is suddenly wide open for either Marcus Woods or Tony Temple (both sophomores) to step into a starting role. Commas, not parens.
He displayed an ability to both run and catch (which will likely be crucial in the Tigers’ offensive scheme this season) ... Commas, not parens.
Woods missed much of the spring with a strained lateral collateral (knee) ligament. Hard to see the need for either commas or parens.

* The parens are correct in But Temple (5-foot-10, 195 lbs.) enters this season with momentum on his side, but don't abbreviate units of measure: Make it "pounds," not "lbs."

* “It’s very intense,” said head coach Gary Pinkel, following Tuesday morning’s practice. Here's a case for judging word order -- verb-subject vs. subject-verb by context rather than by textbook fiat.

Subject-verb should be the default: Pinkel said.

Verb-subject is often a good option when introducing an actor in a story (more preferable with longer titles, less preferable with shorter ones). Head coach Gary Pinkel said is fine. So is said head coach Gary Pinkel, but I'd prefer the first.

Related parts of speech are usually happier when they're closer together. So adding the adverbial phrase at the end gives an edge to subject-verb, which keeps verb and adverb next to each other: “It’s very intense,” head coach Gary Pinkel said after Tuesday morning’s practice.

There isn't a "rule" for this. There are good ways of figuring out the best answer from the context. Use them.

* Tense shift. Present-tense and past-tense attribution are both OK for the feature story. What's not OK is mixing them at random. When the writer switches from
Says Woods: “He deserves to play and I think I deserve to play too."
“It doesn’t matter to me one way or the other,” Temple said.
two grafs later, the desk needs to put the question to the writer: Which one would you like?

All in all, this tale appears to have reached the desk as about a B -- maybe a B+, given grade inflation -- on the style-o-meter. The desk's job is to make sure B stories leave as A stories. I can't see what you caught; all I can see is what you missed.

ANYTHING NICE TO SAY? Sure. I don't see any possessive-vs-plural errors in attributive modifiers in these three issues. Huzzah, sports desk.

Oh, stop it

Has it occurred to anybody at a certain southeastern fount o'knowledge that I might not feel up to a game of Twenty Questions at this hour of the morning?

Are base-closing savings inflated?
Review panel members say Pentagon overstated benefits by up to 50%

Did Roberts believe in clients' cases?
Maybe yes, maybe no; lawyers say goal is good argument, not opinion

In the first case, it seems as if we have a pretty good story on our hands: Most people on this board say the claimed savings ain't entirely there. Let's see if we can't get that into the big type, rather than being coy. In the second, we're practicing the sort of intellectual dishonesty that small minds are happy to take as proof of our liberal bias. This tale isn't about whether Roberts in particular had his fingers crossed as much as whether that's common among lawyers.

The bottom line, again and again and again: I'm paying for some insights here. Why are you asking me?

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Feeling possessive? Another free tip

Here's a quick (and nearly infallible) way to tell whether a preposed sports noun modifying another sports noun ought to be possessive. We seem to have spent the summer deciding this one by coin toss, and it'd be nice to be consistent.

When you're confronted with a sentence like "We're very happy to see Pete move up," Mavericks' manager Jim Gentile said, simply replace the team name with one that doesn't end in "s." This is often called the NBA test, after the rash of stupid noncount team names that came into the NBA (like Heat and Magic) with expansion in the late '80s. If you wouldn't make Heat possessive, don't make Mavericks -- or Cardinals, or Tigers, or anybody -- possessive:

* "We're very happy to see Pete move up," Heat's manager Jim Gentile said.
"We're very happy to see Pete move up," Heat manager Jim Gentile said.
"We're very happy to see Pete move up," the Heat's manager, Jim Gentile, said.

The usage marked with the asterisk is the incorrect one.

The wrong usage can make a real difference in meaning too:

* The diminutive St. Louis Cardinals' leadoff hitter ... (1B Monday)
The St. Louis Cardinals' diminutive, high-energy shortstop ... (1B Tuesday)

In the first example, "diminutive" modifies "Cardinals"; in the second, it modifies "shortstop." (The first would have been correct, but pretty clumsy, if the apostrophe had been removed.)

And, of course, "plural possessive" means exactly that: PLURAL possessive. It's "the Tigers' six home games," not "the Tiger's six home games" (8A Tuesday).

Sunday, August 07, 2005

It could. But then again ...

A major southeastern fount of knowledge is at it again:

Could find be biblical David's palace?
Scholars doubt claim but say discovery is rare and important

When your own sodding deck hed knocks down the main hed, maybe you should, you know, sort of consider another approach besides the question.

The heck of it is (and this is often the case), there's a fairly good and illuminating story lurking beneath the step-right-up-suckers tone of the hed. People have been finding what they wanted to find in Jerusalem since -- well, since at least Emperor Constantine's mom, whom we have to thank for the scrum at the Holy Sepulchre, among other things. As the article notes, what people are looking for and what they claim says as much as (or more than) any particular vast and trunkless legs of stone that actually turn up.

Let's stick, as a rule, to what's known, rather than what might be.

Saturday, August 06, 2005

Stopping errors, part deux: The superlative

Today's entry under How To Keep Errors Out Of The Paper is "The Superlative: Enemy of Freedom."

Superlative and absolute -- first-biggest-only -- constructions threaten to introduce errors in two ways. One is the traditional, correctible form: We said X, X is false, time to run a correction. The second is more insidious because, even though it doesn't produce corrections, it tells people a lot about how our judgment processes work.

That's not always a pretty sight. Readers might decide, for example, that we're inept storytellers: We can't tell when an event is important enough to stand on its own without our dressing it up in adjectives. Worse, readers might infer that our commitment to diversity is lacking: Events don't happen unless they happen to white Americans. Or readers might suspect that we can't keep our opinions to ourselves. Or they might simply conclude we're dumb as a six-pack of flatworms.

Needless to say, there are times when we need to recognize a first-biggest-only or progress toward one. We could hardly have sports pages without records, after all. So here are some ways to start thinking about the difference between an opinion and a report: Think "baseball's greatest player" vs. "all-time American League home run leader."

The copy editor who encounters a story declaring some event to be the biggest, worst, greatest, onliest or whatever of its type is justified in requiring three bits of information from the originating desk:

1) A description of the data set involved: Career batting record of everyone who played a game in the American League, or anything done by everybody who ever played organized baseball (step forward, Cool Papa Bell)?

2) A description of the current mark and the scoring method.

3) The three current leading candidates (the ones that will be second, third and fourth in the scoring if the assertion is true).

If these can't be provided, the superlative should be removed from the story. The burden of proof for restoring it is on the writer.

Three events of the past month make clear the dangers of the superlative and the benefits of raising consistent, data-based complaints about them. (Right, this is the sermon part: Copyeds can save the world by following these rules!)

Here's the LATimes, talking about the July 7 bombings in London: By comparison, after the worst terrorist attack ever on British soil, this country's response has been almost preternaturally calm and measured, almost serene.

This is in the it-only-takes-one category, so: Lockerbie. To which the critic might respond: That wasn't on British "soil." To which the copyed responds: It damn sure landed on British soil, didn't it? And on some Britons in the bargain? One of those arguments is distinctly weaker than the other, but there's a bigger point: If readers are arguing about your judgment (or your memory; Lockerbie wasn't even 20 years ago) they aren't paying attention to your story. Bad sign.

A San Francisco Chronicle piece underlines a different sort of problem: The death toll rose to at least 88, with at least 119 wounded, in Egypt's worst terrorist attack. The issue here is measuring best and worst -- or safest and least safe, to name another scale where this crops up frequently -- by the death toll alone. That's a good way of measuring the "deadliest" attack but a bad way of summing up the elements that go into the broader impact of an event. Look at it this way: Which is "worse," an earthquake that kills 200 people or an earthquake that kills 20 people but knocks the water-purification system out for eight months?

Bear that argument in mind whenever you see a report about "safest" and "most dangerous" cities based on homicide rates. Not only is the risk of homicide unevenly distributed in the population (see fallacy of distribution, below), but homicide is only a small part of your overall safety. A ban on large-capacity ammo magazines, in short, doesn't do much for your safety if you live downwind from a nuclear plant with Chernobyl-style operating procedures.

Those cases are pretty clear: Know what you're writing about. Write only about what you're writing about (sounds like journalism, doesn't it?). Now let's look at a couple that show why sticking to measurable stuff, and stuff you have the measurements for, is so important. These are from the same writer, same issue and same topic, but two different stories:

They survived "pikadon," a rhythmic word the Japanese used to describe the "flash-boom" of history's two most cataclysmic acts.

You'd be hard-pressed to find any disagreement from the surviving U.S. soldiers, sailors and Marines who in mid-1945 were preparing to take part in what would have been history's greatest battle -- Operation Olympic, code-named Downfall, the invasion of the Japanese homeland.

See what happens when you rely on limitless sets -- the whole of history -- and nonspecific measurements? If Hiroshima is one act, how many actors are involved: Bombardier only? Bombardier and pilot? Whole crew? Truman? FDR? Everybody in the Manhattan Project? Or, as one of the scientists in the chase plane suggested, everybody in the country? If Nagasaki was an act, what was Wannsee? Or Barbarossa? How are we measuring "cataclysmic"?

It's sort of a cheap shot to say "Same way we measure 'great,'" but that's exactly the issue: What would the "greatest" battle be? Longest? Shortest? Deadliest? Least deadly? Unseated most rulers for fewest casualties? Has most namesake geographical features?

These are, in short, profoundly dumb sentences. But "That's a dumb sentence" doesn't tend to win a lot of battles for the copydesk. Put it in a specific, quantifiable way -- "How do we measure greatness, and when are we going to know we're done with 'history'?" -- and you have a better chance of winning.

There are (*ahem*) a few other issues to deal with in these stories too. The copyed's task is never done. Let's see:

* "Pikadon," a rhythmic word the Japanese used ... What particular function does this adjective have? More directly, what's "rhythmic" about this word that isn't rhythmic about any other three-syllable word (gullible, ludicrous, overwrought, lachrymose, saccharine)? Or pretty much any word, for that matter? This is not a call for a ban on adjectives; it's a plea that adjectives be chosen because they mean something, not because the dictionary fell open at that page.

* Operation Olympic, code-named Downfall, the invasion of the Japanese homeland. Did it seem unusual to anybody that a code name would be code-named something else? It should have. "Downfall" was the overall invasion plan; "Olympic" was the part that dealt with Kyushu.

* Japan laid down arms on Aug. 14 -- five days after Nagasaki -- and a peace treaty was signed Sept. 2 on board the aircraft carrier USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay. The Missouri is a battleship, not a carrier. Which might seem a small point, but if a writer can't tell a battleship from an aircraft carrier, and can't stop short of calling everything in sight the greatest in history, why should we trust anything he says between those extremes?

I was going to go on and on about the Bushido bit too, but I'm tired. Somebody go read John Dower and take that one on.