Saturday, December 31, 2005

Inept hed(s) of the morning

Who spilled about Bush's secret spying?
Inquiry looks for leak; legal experts say use special council

1) This is a grownup story. Could we have a grownup hed, pls? Maybe one that reflects the significant news development that prompted the story?
2) Nothing in the text supports the deck's assertion about what "legal experts" say. The only person offering that view is the ACLU chief, who is presented as an executive, not a lawyer, and whose role in the story is partisan critic, not independent observer. I happen to think he's right, but I also think the paper would have a hard time defending itself should someone accuse it of deliberately distorting the data at hand to reflect its ideology.
3) C-O-U-N-S-E-L, dammit.

Friday, December 30, 2005

Hypercorrect follies

Hypercorrection is the fine art of making a mistake by trying too hard not to make one -- traditionally, something like choosing "whom" over "who" because "whom" seems to have so much more grammar in it. Two examples from a Major Southeastern Daily today point up the dangers of choosing the ornate form when the simpler one is correct:

A 12-year-old boy with a rifle, encouraged by his grandfather, shot and killed a hunter whom they thought was a deer, officials said.

Turn the relative clause, "whom they thought was a deer," into a complete sentence and you'll see the problem: "They thought him was a deer." No, them didn't. Make it "a hunter who they thought was a deer."

If the tree were at fault, it would be the second such case in a week in Charlotte.

Use the subjunctive for conditions contrary to fact: "If I were pope, I would excommunicate anyone who writes a 'Christmas came early' hed" (the storied Gus Harwell makes his classes hum "If I Were a Rich Man"). In this case, as long as we're buying into the whole malignant-anthropomorphic-Christmas-tree thing, stick with the indicative: "If the tree was at fault ..."

Figure the next verb out for yourselves.

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Watch out where The AP goes

People of the High Plains ought to have as many words for wind as the Inuit have for snow.
(from ROADS LESS TRAVELED: A land of quiet dreamers and helping hands unfolds in backroads bicycle journey coast to coast *)

To make a long story short, they probably do (do we get to count "Maria"?).

From the perspective of the jaded rim rat, though, the interesting thing about this instance of the enduring myth about snow vocabulary is that it's been brought forward into the Age of Cultural Sensitivity, and that suggests that some editor somewhere is doing the victory dance for fixing the wrong thing. The problem isn't whether you call the snow-word-rich peoples of the North Eskimos or Inuit or Yupik or whatever; it's the underlying idea that semantic bean-counting provides some useful cultural context rather than ethnocentric hooey.

There is, as there should be, a connection to real life. Suppose you're the leading afternoon daily in town and you're in the habit of running cop briefs containing grafs like this:

Columbia police were dispatched Monday afternoon after residents reported four gunshots had been fired in the 100 block of Benton Street during a dispute between four black males.

Now, the copy editor could be sensitive and change the last object phrase to "four African-American males." Or "four males of color."** Neither one makes a bit of difference to the graver structural flaw: What possible relevance does the ethnicity of the people involved in the argument have to the story about the arrest? The suspect is in custody (so much for the public safety argument), his mug is in the paper (so the yahoos are satisfied) -- is the Tribune feeding racial stereotypes because it thinks that's a good idea, or because it's too stupid to know better?

Surface cluelessness is one thing. Structural cluelessness is quite another. Never assume that fixing the former fixes the latter.

* Tnx to Mike, who had to dig a long way into the original file, for the tippo.
** Or change the preposition to "among." Sheez.

Random acts of punctuation

Let me guess. Some evildoer snuck into the Missourian at night, took all the year's surplus punctuation marks, dumped them in the CD player and hit "randomize"? Or is there some other explanation for ...

“I have no idea man, ya’ll talk to Coach Q on that one,” Horton said. (1B Thursday)

1) Always separate nouns or pronouns of direct address from the rest of the sentence with a comma. "Let's eat, Roscoe" does not mean the same thing as "Let's eat Roscoe." This rule holds whether the address precedes ("Man, I have no idea") or follows ("I have no idea, man") the main clause.
2) Don't use commas alone to join independent clauses. That fault is called a "comma splice." Since people don't speak punctuation (more on this follows), editors should feel free to keep writers from making their subjects look dumb in this manner.
3) Misplacing the apostrophe in "y'all" is the indelible Mark of the Yankee trying to fake it (more on dialect writing follows, too). The apostrophe in "y'all" behaves the same way as the one in "you're": It replaces the missing letter or letters. There are no missing letters in the "all" part of "y'all." What do you suppose "y'all" stands for, anyway? (Hint: Try the dictionary.)

And speaking of contractions ...

The same day, Missouri also held it's "Futures Bowl", a scrimmage involving first-year or redshirt players that hinted at the future of Tigers football. (1B Thursday)

Right. No apostrophe in "its" here. It's not a contraction -- unlike

"Its pressure you accept, you want to be successful," Duany said. (1B Thursday)

... in which "it's" is a contraction. So even if you completely slept through 105 and 110 and every other class in which the its/it's distinction is discussed, you could have figured these two out. That's so irritating one is tempted to overlook the comma splice here (why not just make it two sentences?) and the misplaced comma after "Futures Bowl" above (and yes, alas, more on that later).

"I just try to lead by example, that's the only way I know how," Smith said. "I'm trying to come out and play fast, make great decisions, and be focused. (4B Thursday)

Yep. Another spoken comma splice. And a nice Oxford comma after "decisions" -- but last I heard, the Missourian still followed AP style, which removes that comma in most such cases.

"So we need a big lift from the bench,” Watkins said, speaking as a starter but acknowledging himself as one of those ‘bench guys’. (3B Thursday)

Commas and periods go inside quotation marks. American English uses double quotes, not single, for "bench guys" and the like. See "slept through," above.

You could get the impression that the sports department is the lead offender in punctuation carelessness, and you'd be right. But it is not the only one:

Das was the second author of Robert’s paper for which he received the acknowledgement. (1A Thursday).

In the lede and throughout the story, he's "Roberts." Why is he "Robert" in this reference?

She will also perform a cover of the Animals' song "House of the Rising Sun," which leads with a reference to "a house in New Orleans." (1A Thursday).

That's an Animals song, not an Animals' song. Don't be fooled by the "s." You can test whether you need the possessive by plugging in any name that doesn't end in "s," same as with sports teams:

* She will also perform the Sinatra's song "Fly Me to the Moon."
She will also perform the Sinatra song "Fly Me to the Moon."

There are several cases in which the possessive is fine:
She will also perform Sinatra's "Fly Me to the Moon."
She will also perform the Animals' first hit, "House of the Rising Sun."

... but that's determined by function, not by the presence or absence of "s."

As you might have gathered, the rules of punctuation aren't the rules of physics (else there wouldn't be the dispute over the Oxford comma, nor would British and American English disagree on single vs. double quotes). What makes a paper like today's especially embarrassing -- and I trust we can agree that it is pretty damn embarrassing -- is not that the whole staff is ignoring your or my or Colonel Blimp's favorite set of rules, but that it's ignoring a different set for just about every story.

Oh, yeah. Dialect:

"This game is different (than other neutral-site games). It's basically split down the middle, and if you're playin' well your fans are cheering, and if they're playing well, their fans are cheering. It kind of goes back and forth."

So the coach actually said playin' in one clause and playing in the next? Time for a reminder of the two basic rules of dialect writing for newspapers:

1) Don't try to mark dialect visually unless you're at the skill level of, say, Roddy Doyle or T.R. Pearson.
2) You aren't.

This doesn't mean "don't use contractions." Contractions are a fine, well-tested, sturdy part of the language, though it'll be nice if you spell them correctly when you use them. It means don't use orthographic tricks to indicate features like g-dropping (so called) or vowel shifts.


Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Revenge of the pig

Hmm. Must be Prescriptivism Week here at HEADSUP-L Manor, because it looks like we've had another visit from Lucy, the Poster Pig of Parallel Scructure.

Lucy's a reminder that Will Strunk and his pig-worshiping acolyte* weren't just whistling Dixie when they reminded us to express coordinate ideas in parallel form, as is distinctly not the case in the model J4400-nee-110 sentence:

There will be a petting zoo, pony rides and children can meet Lucy the pig.

Identify a Lucy fault by backing up to the element where the compound begins -- here, the linking verb -- and reading the sentence out for each complement:

There will be a petting zoo.
There will be pony rides.
* There will be children can meet Lucy the pig.

As with most such faults, this one can be fixed in several ways:

Children can visit a petting zoo, ride ponies and meet Lucy the pig. (compound predicate)

There will be a petting zoo, pony rides and a miraculous talking pig for children to meet.** (parallel noun complements)

The reason Lucy comes up today is that she isn't just an ectoplasmic vampire swine who haunts 202 Neff looking for the souls*** of news-ed majors. She's a real-life threat to daily journalism, as in today's obits:

She was a member of the Columbia Altrusa Club, Daughters of the American Revolution and an honorary deacon at First Christian Church.

Applying the Lucy test, we get:
She was a member of the Columbia Altrusa Club.
She was a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution. (don't forget the article****)
* She was a member of the an honorary deacon at First Christian Church.

This one's especially amenable to another sort of fix: Creating two compounds of two, rather than one misshapen compound of three.

She was a member of the Columbia Altrusa Club and the Daughters of the American Revolution and was an honorary deacon at First Christian Church.

Flaws of parallelism get a bit trickier when they dress alike. Here's one that snuck past the Buffalo copydesk (distinctly not the only thing that snuck past in that tale, but it is, after all, a story about job cuts; perhaps there's a subtle message there):

Cartoonists have a history of biting commentary and upsetting readers.

"Biting" and "upsetting" are both perfectly good adjectives:

The cartoon was biting.
The cartoon was upsetting.

They're also both perfectly good gerunds:

Upsetting readers is fun.
Biting readers is fun.

See the problem? They look like the same form, but they switch hats in the middle of the sentence. Hunt these things down ruthlessly, lest you provide further Sow Chow for the readers.

* Coincidence, or what??
** Consult with writer before inserting talking-animal miracles into text, pls.
*** Good luck, porky.
**** Which doesn't apply to the original example because it shifts from singular ("a petting zoo") to plural ("pony rides"). No detail is too small for a parallelism fault.

Take a grammar lap

Ahem, sports department:

Interim coach Mike Hankwitz and CU falls to Clemson in the Champs Sports Bowl.
They does?

The atmosphere surrounding the bowl games — a cacophony of activities, events and meet-and-greets — have seemed to take on a life of their own in recent years.
It have?

Brown’s troubles, scoring six points on 3-of-10 shooting, was more than just one bad game.
They was?

This isn't just a gotcha collection from one week or one section. It's all from the Wednesday front, and (except for the last, which is close), it's all above the fold. Intersession or not, ouch.

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Show and told

It must be wondrous cheap in North Carolina, this newsprint, that we may so haply throw it away on such as these:

Dec. 24
"I've seen people fight over parking spaces and kick cars," Lt. Wayne Embrey told the Observer on Friday, "but never get a gun and start shooting."

Property records list the Charlotte Housing Authority as the home's owner, but Executive Director Charles Woodyard told the Observer he isn't sure the agency owns it.

Dec. 22
Asked for comment, a Wachovia spokeswoman told the Observer, "We don't comment on those types of things."

Residents told the Observer in fall 2003 that suspicious sales, too many absentee owners and a rash of foreclosures had dramatically reduced property values.

Asked what changed, Beaver told the Observer Wednesday that he and minority owner Bill Allen decided they wanted to make the stadium happen.

Dec. 21
In a statement, Mangan told the Observer that he agreed to the settlement in order "to put this matter behind us and move forward with our business."

Earlier this month, Devine told the Observer that he'd give up his position as head football coach if he was offered the athletic director position.

Keith Rudemiller told the Observer on Tuesday that he and his wife had been driving home from visiting friends in Huntersville about 6 p.m. Sunday when they saw two vehicles in front of them swerve to the right.

Dec. 19
"There were a lot of shocked faces around. But I think for Erskine and I, it was not an uncomfortable thing because it was very natural for us to be there," the senator told the Observer.

Dec. 18
"Part of it will really require that we all admit we're part of the problem," she told the Observer.

Assorted headline musings

23 killed after turboprop crashes near Caspian Sea
What'd they do, line the survivors up and shoot them? You could say "23 killed in crash," you could say "23 dead after turboprop crashes," you could say "Plane crashes; 23 dead" -- there's rather a lot you could say. But prepositions mean stuff. Don't fling them around at random.

Worship, fellowship, outreach grace holiday calendars
Amid the hundreds of services and sacred events gracing the calendar this weekend in the area, some Christmas highlights:
Grr. Copyeds, your job is to keep writers' religious biases out of stories -- not to amplify them in big type. No more "gracing the calendar."

’Tis the season for mall mayhem
Every time a "'Tis the season" hed appears, an angel is blindfolded and secretly flown to some country ending in -stan where "cruel and unusual punishment" is not a constitutional no-no but a varsity and club-level sport. Are we listening over there at Vox?

Friday, December 23, 2005

Yonder pedant, who is he?

It's Xpesmas, and never forth should fare a copy editor who hath not a store of gold, an open heart and full of charity.* Though two out of three will still probably get you a few dragons, and in a pinch you can get by with the 9th New Collegiate if your spirit is pure. Thus a few thoughts on how to spread comfort and joy among readers by better sandpapering the work of reporters. Here are a few that are useful (or entertaining) in themselves but illustrate broader principles of grammar and composition as well.

In choosing among competing wire accounts of the same story, the "best version" isn't the one with the most adverbs and adjectives. It's the one with the most substance and the most sensible organization. Not, in other words, this:

Using scathing language, which included descriptions of the defendants as liars and of their actions as "breathtaking inanity," Judge John Jones III rendered what many consider a watershed decision in the culture wars over the teaching of evolution, also ruling that intelligent design is not a scientific theory but a religious belief.

Two closely related violations here: redundancy and backtracking. One, the specific incorporates the general. When you say somebody's 6-6, you don't have to add that he's tall. Don't waste space on "scathing" when you can immediately show exactly how scathing: He called them liars. Point two is a hedge issue. The lede (again, with the modification machine running full out) calls this a "broad and blistering landmark decision," with no "many consider" about it. Don't let writers play it both ways. If their judgment is good, make them stick with it throughout the story; if it isn't, maybe you should find some more cautious adjectives for the lede.

Same story, a bit of out-and-out careless grammar:
Eugenie Scott, director of NCSE, said the Jones decision "will make it more difficult not only to teach intelligent design," but also to "teach the controversy approach," which aims at portraying evolution as a flawed theory in crisis.

Diagramming party to action stations. Subject of the subordinated clause? Jones decision. What will it do? Make it more difficult. Make it more difficult to what? Two things:
"Teach intelligent design" (verb-object)
"Teach the controversy approach" (verb-object)

There's the problem. There isn't a "controversy approach" to teach; there's an approach to intelligent design called "teach the controversy." Grammar doesn't care what the writer meant, which is something along the lines of "make it more difficult to teach intelligent design or use the 'teach the controversy' approach." All it cares about is what she said. If the agency botched a point that's that central to the story, the odds are good this isn't the best version available.

Missourian double attribution heads south:
Steve Bridges, an operations engineer with the N.C. Department of Transportation, said he believes the vehicle was abandoned only for a short time because a camera positioned less than a half-mile from the wreck showed no irregular traffic patterns until after the crash.

Ahem. One, this is probably something he "thinks," rather than something he "believes" (you think it's time to go turn the roast boar, but you believe in Satan Claus -- well, some of you do). Second, before you adopt dubious prescriptions from textbooks: Is this sentence about what he thinks, or is it about whether the car had been abandoned for long? Call the reporters over and propose something like:
Steve Bridges, an operations engineer with the N.C. Department of Transportation, said the car had probably been abandoned for only a short time because a camera less than a half-mile from the wreck showed no irregular traffic patterns until after the crash.

Don't pee away space on details that are already covered when there's news to report and stuff to clarify:

In the other weekend wreck involving a stolen vehicle, Kimberly Currie, a 34-year-old woman out shopping with her 5-year-old, was injured when her 1995 Nissan was struck Saturday in eastern Mecklenburg County.

OK. I'm pretty sure that "Kimberley" is of the feminine persuasion (and there's always that telltale feminine pronoun "her"), so "34-year-old woman" is a bit on the gilding-refined-gold side. On the other hand, "5-year-old" has no gender. Sigh. Call the reporters over (right, you can't force them to do 20 pushups for every blunder, but there are other ways to get the point across) and figure out which of the two leading flavors of 5-year-old you have:

Kimberly Currie, a 34-year-old woman out shopping with her 5-year-old
Kimberly Currie, 34, who was out shopping with her 5-year-old daughter

Neat, huh? Same space (even less if it's a boy, Mrs. Walker), more data. You'd think they'd want to teach that in J-school.

She was struck by a group of teenagers, who police said tried to flee the scene. She remained hospitalized in fair condition Tuesday night.

You're making me do a lot of guessing. I'm guessing that the teens were in a car, and that the car was alleged to have been stolen. Did the teens successfully try to flee the scene (I'm trusting "the scene" is in there because otherwise your readers would think they're trying to flee the surly bonds of Earth), or did they fail? Were they arrested? How's the androgynous 5-year-old? Mind filling me in on some of this, in case I overlooked your previous reports?

And don't assume that your readers will know what figurative hed language means:

Stolen car -- suddenly 2 boys' parents are taken

Could you let us in on what "taken" means? Kidnapped? Arrested? Or (if I don't mind hanging on until the third graf) dead?

* And children can meet Lucy the Pig. Name that tune, kids.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Useful dribs and drabs

The unfailingly interesting Language Hat links to a fine scholarly take on the roots of standalone X (chi) for "Christ."

That said, and with visions of positive and significant empirical results dancing in the assembled heads, the TV at HEADSUP-L Manor will be tuned in to Fox News's coverage of the Dover ruling tonight for sure. (Accommodation vs. cognitive dissonance: two theories enter, one theory leaves!) Amateurs study tactics; professionals study neologistics.

Nothing like the occasional low rumble of thunder from the judicial branch, is there?

"The students, parents, and teachers of the Dover Area School District deserved better than to be dragged into this legal maelstrom, with its resulting utter waste of monetary and personal resources. ... It is ironic that several of these individuals, who so staunchly and proudly touted their religious convictions in public, would time and again lie to cover their tracks and disguise the real purpose behind the ID Policy."

And finally, in a bona fide sign of the Apocalypse, Bob Schieffer discusses the role of network TV journalism today: "Probably we can’t tell the viewers any new news, but we can help them put it into context."

Take the baby, Mary; river's rising.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Making list, checking twice

Ho-ho-ho! Some naughty copy editor must have been watching for reindeer instead of cliches:

One of the Carolinas' best-known churches named a new senior pastor Sunday.

You're yanking Santa's chain, kids. And that's a really bad idea a week before Christmas. Get it? I mean ho-ho-ho.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Drop the roscoe, AP

Why do writers keep writing ledes like this?

WASHINGTON - More people than ever are turning their cars into personal phone booths, with a million-and-a-half drivers gabbing on cell phones at any given time. Women and young people are the most common yakkers.

About 10 percent of the people on the road during the day are using cell phones, up from 8 percent in 2004, the government reported Thursday.

Six percent of drivers were holding the phones to their ears, up from 5 percent last year.

Probably because editors keep running them -- a couple hundred nationwide in this case, if a search for the fairly distinctive phrasing is reliable. So editors need to launch the cure: Don't run this sort of stuff, and publicly berate and humiliate the writers who turn it in.

Did the awful writing not get anybody's attention? Did anybody bother to look in a few reference books and see if "gab" and "yak"* are as anachronistic as they sound? So, first question: What's with the 1940s slang in a December 2005 lede?

On a deeper look, though, "gab" is more than just '40s slang. It's a real verb, several centuries old, meaning, per the OED, "to talk much or glibly; to chatter, prate." Thus we have the AP playing All Verbs Are Equal again. I'll be happy to assume that most of what's said on cell phones is prattle -- I'll go the NHTSA** one better and call for public horsewhipping for cell-phone-using drivers -- but the AP's cheating if it thinks it can make an even swap of a flashy verb for an accurate one.

Which gets to the more entertaining point. Any particular reason we should believe any of those figures? Hmm. By the second graf, we find it's a report from "the government," which seems to think this two-point increase is significant. And by the third graf, mirabile dictu, somebody seems to think a change from 5 percent to 6 percent is a change worth reporting.

Must be some pretty serious sampling to yield results that good, huh? Let's check the methodology:

The NHTSA survey was conducted between June 6 and June 25 at 1,200 road sites across the nation. Trained observers watched vehicles go by and charted what the driver was doing. The ages of drivers are estimates based on their observations.

Well, that's a relief. At least it was trained observers, rather than Dimbo the Flying Garden Slug and a couple of his roommates. And at least we admit that the ages are, uh, estimates. Anybody care to hazard a guess on how random the rest of the sampling is?

Again, don't misunderstand. Anything that makes people hang the [really naughty word] up and drive is fine with me, including corporal punishment, sale of offenders' firstborn to oilseed mills, and mandatory first-offense sentences of life without parole watching KOMU intersession news with high school choruses singing Christmas carols at the commercial breaks. But if we're going to campaign, let's campaign. Don't cloak it in fake statistics. Come right out and do it.

Confirmation class
After The New York Times reported, and CNN confirmed, a claim that Bush gave the National Security Agency license to eavesdrop on Americans communicating with people overseas, the president said that his actions were permissible, but that leaking the revelation to the media was illegal.

Well, that's a relief.

* Must admit, it took about four reference books to even find "yak." Sic semper people who keep stuff at the office.
** Is this really an acronym in Washington? Can you say "I'll go NHTSA one better?"

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Eskimos of the desert

The idea of using power to benefit a small circle of friends, relatives and loyalists is so entrenched in the regional culture that there are half a dozen words in Arabic meaning patronage or cronyism.
--Los Angeles Times, as published in the Missourian (3A Wednesday)

It's tempting to think of this as just a checkable fact-claim, which of course is kinda what journalism is all about. So ... hmm, looks like two words for "patronage" in the Concise Oxford, two for "crony" in Elias' Modern (about as many as for "cretinous," if you're scoring along at home and can take a hint) -- sounds as if the author might be on to something.

On the other hand, the claim appears in the sixth graf, by which time we've already mentioned both patronage and influence-peddling. So English is halfway to "half a dozen words meaning patronage and cronyism" before the writer's done unwinding his anecdotal lede. At that rate, we'll surpass the wily Arabs before the jump.

Which is exactly the point. "The Arabs have half a dozen words for patronage" is first cousin to the unstoppable nonsense about the Eskimos and their alleged eighty bazillion words for "snow."* To the extent that they're true, such observations are essentially meaningless; to the extent that they have any meaning, they're almost invariably false. They take an unremarkable phenomenon** and turn it into a machine for cultural generalization -- "the quintessential demonstration of how primitive minds categorize the world so differently from us," says Geoffrey Pullum, and he's just getting warmed up.

It's all the more unfortunate because the article has a lot to offer; the description of the Egyptian and Syrian ruling parties as "basically patronage systems backed by security services" offers some insights into, say, the voter appeal of the Brotherhood in Egypt's elections. Why spoil it by waving the wand of linguistic relativism? Is there even a league table on which languages are scored by number of words for snow, or drunkenness, or political corruption? What would it mean to win?

I suppose, given the dateline, it's worth asking how many words for "cronyism" there are in Sulaymaniyah Kurdish, but the files around HEADSUP-L Manor are a little skimpy. I can't even figure out how many words they have for "snow."***

Moral of story: Whenever you see "they have NNNN words for ..." used to make a point about culture, sound the alarm. English has dozens of words for "bullshit," and those are five of them.

* The short answer is "no." The long answer is "really, not a lot more than English." Or "it's not too late to ask Santa for a copy of The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax."
** Before you get started on how many words English has for "drunk" or "sex," ask yourself: Which English?
*** The word for "basketball," though, is "baskidbol" (Abdulla and Carlos, 1967). Don't say you aren't getting anything for your education dollar.

Resoundingly stupid lede of the morning

3 T's: Think, talk, Tiffany's
Knight Ridder
Holiday presents can pack the emotional wallop of a 1990 Dom Perignon buzz or a three-car wreck.

That's a three-car-wreck lede, all right. I can't stop staring at it. Tell you what, readers: Let's have a contest. Hold it down to 30 words (that's right, two-thirds more verbiage than the Hemingwayesque original) and try to top this for brainless imagery.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Of course. Why do you ask?

If you've been keeping up (of course you have!) with the discussion on the subscribers-only edn about the virtues of "said" and the pitfalls of all other verbs of attribution, you might have had a twinge of cognitive dissonance on seeing this:

Hundreds of carpenters, he explained, had hand-carved thousands of beams from Styrofoam, molded rubber into countless strands of stand-ins for shredded reinforcing bars, and assembled all of this inside a pit erected atop stacks of cargo containers.

in Sunday's NYT. Is it still wrong to use "explained" to attribute a clause if the Times does it?

The answer is yes. Why wouldn't it be? The source can "explain" the decision to shoot the movie in LA rather than New York, or the process of making rubber look like shredded rebar,* but this graf needs "said" for attribution. A bad decision by the Times is the same as a bad decision at the Missourian, only with a few more zeds on the circulation figures.

The hed's not half bad, tho:
A Ground Zero Grows in Los Angeles

* "What's for breakfast, Mom?"

Saturday, December 10, 2005

X's and O's

... which, as any fule kno, is the only sort of plural you should ever form with the apostrophe.

The upshot of which is: When you're caught in a thicket of grammar, diagram your way out. You don't need to memorize which parts of speech go on slanty lines and which ones go above or below the main clause, but if you can figure out which part gloms on to which,* you'll sharply reduce your chance of getting further entangled.

There is, of course, an example:

In the Charlotte region, The Park Ministries is one of a number of faith-based organizations expanding its ministries and facilities in dramatic ways.

This sentence doesn't have a lot of "grammar" (neither does English, but that's another sermon), but it has a lot of grammatical parts**. That's probably why the writer latched onto the wrong pronoun for the truncated clause at the end. When in doubt, sketch it out:

Subject: Park Ministries
Linking verb: is
Predicate noun: one

Good so far? Now: What's it one of? A number of organizations. What are the organizations doing? Expanding THEIR ministries. Ta-da. Just put your head down and follow the bread crumbs. Add one egg, a couple more metaphors and you have a cure for disagreement.

It wouldn't be Saturday without a few more complaints, though, so ...

Local religious leaders and consultants who have been through the process say that raising even big sums of money can be achieved.

"Raising even big sums of money can be achieved"? Why not "even big sums of money can be raised"? Oh. Because that would make clear that we need to stop spinning the semantic wheels and find something specific to talk about.

In a fast-growing metropolitan area with an estimated 700 houses of worship, it's probably no surprise that churches routinely expand or move to accommodate new members. A recent Charlotte Observer/WCNC News Carolina poll found that 48 percent of those living in the eight-county Mecklenburg region said they attend a house of worship very often.

"Non sequitur" is Latin for "What the hell does any of this have to do with any of the rest of this?" Is 700 too many or too few? Where's the evidence that churches "routinely expand or move"? Why should or shouldn't it be a surprise if they do or don't? And what's the point in disinterring this misbegotten poll again? Stick to your topic. Don't drag in the irrelevant to show me the paper's been paying attention. (And yes, for readers of the subscribers-only edition: "Told the Observer" is on the Forbidden Attribution List too.)

* Part of the Grammar Is Nothing But Legos Theory, forthcoming someday in the Official HEADSUP-L Grammar Book.
** Misuse of the adjective "dramatic," of course, isn't a matter of "grammar." It's a matter of random noisy word selection, so stop it.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Please don't feed the yahoos

To the barricades, little comrades. Time for journalism to get off its arse and start playing a useful role in the so-called "culture wars." And the best way for it to start is -- surprise! -- applying basic principles of Real Journalism, thus starving the arsonist yahoos of the Oxygen of Publicity (thank you, Dame Magon) and keeping the number of false alarms down to a dull roar.

The cause for this week's peroration is the annual journalistic rush to give aid and comfort to the inventors of the War On Christmas, as demonstrated by papers that ought to know better and the usual cockroaches that, well, can't be bothered. The direct inspiration is a specific paper that once again compounds cluelessness with pseudo-poll logical fallacies in an apparent effort to endear itself to certain disgruntled parts of its readership.

War? On Christmas? Bah, humbug. As the Official HEADSUP-L Mom used to put it, there ain't no such animal. Christmas is doing fine, thanks. Indeed, considering that the poor thing works overtime from October through January, it's holding up remarkably well. All it needs is a little help from copy editors so it isn't kicked around in its off hours.

That means we're going to start with a basic, normative, non-objective prescription. Time to get off the sidelines the way we did with, oh, seatbelts. Ever see a traffic accident story anymore that doesn't mention whether the guests of honor were wearing their seatbelts? Exactly. And it's among a number of factors that appear to have done some good, seatbeltly. Imagine if we'd gotten to the point about tobacco a bit sooner.

Thus it is mandated that any story that includes a graf along these lines:

The debate is rooted in the 1950s, when ministers and others launched "Put Christ Back in Christmas" campaigns after the abbreviation Xmas became widely used by an increasingly secular society.

must henceforth contain a graf nearby to this effect:

"The X in 'Xmas' stands for the first Greek character in 'Christ.' The Christian use of abbreviations like 'Xtian' (for 'Christian') and 'Xmas' ('Christmas') dates to at least the 12th century."

I'm suggesting we solve this by direct action because I'm getting tired of saying it year after year. "Xmas" is not a secular plot. It doesn't take Christ out of anything. It leaves him right where he always was (assuming he doesn't mind when his friends call him "X," even though it probably sounds like they're clearing their throats). If we say it often enough, maybe the general level of mouth-foaming out there will calm down a little and we can get back to shopping and drinking.

Now for the other inexcusables:

Whose season 'tis it?
Many bristle over renaming traditions

Unclean! 'Tis is short for it is; did you really mean "Whose season it is it?" You might get away with "'Tis whose season," but this one's a failure (before you ask: Yes, I can take a joke, but I prefer ones that work).

Why has Christ been taken out of Christmas?
Respect for other religions
Political correctness
Who cares, just give me my present

Remember our old friend the fallacy of many questions? Well, good. Just as "Have you stopped smoking crack before writing ledes?" assumes the truth of the underlying question, this hed assumes that Christ has been taken out of Christmas. If that's your view, fine, but you probably should save it for the editorial page.

Friday, December 02, 2005

That's why we have the rule

Court acquits accused abusers
6 people convicted of pedophilia despite false accusations, errors
PARIS -- A Paris appeals court overturned the pedophilia convictions of six people Thursday, in a case the French justice minister called a "disaster" in which they had been falsely accused and jailed for up to three years.

Let's see. The convictions are overturned; the justice minister calls the case a disaster and apologizes to the defendants. Shouldn't the hed call them "acquitted abusers"?

Right. If it hasn't sunk in yet, whether the hed says "accused abusers" or "acquitted abusers," it's declaring them some kind of "abusers." (drug? child? self? who knows?) When the case is still open, that's unfair and openly slanted*; if you want to work for the prosecutor's office, get a law degree and apply to the prosecutor's office. When the convictions are overturned, it's all that and libelous too.

The deck deserves a moment's attention too. This might be the first case in recorded history in which defendants were convicted "despite" false accusations and procedural errors. Start by dropping the "people" (on the sensible grounds that that's what pedophilia charges are filed against). Try something on the order of "Top official apologizes to 6 falsely accused of pedophilia." It's not one you'd submit to a hed contest, but considering that the original gets almost nothing right but the number, anything's an improvement.

* Yes, in case you were wondering, this applies to local stories that refer to a suspect as an "accused killer." Why wouldn't it?