Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Lede of the (still-young) day

An N.C. couple wanted on murder charges swindled their way across the country, authorities said Tuesday, claiming they were Hurricane Katrina victims who'd lost everything -- instead of fugitives charged in the slaying of the man's mother.

A lovely example of the misplaced modifier. Be careful not to overcorrect, of course; despite the occasional contention to the contrary, there's nothing wrong with using a predicative participle to modify the subject of a sentence. It's been a feature of good literary English for many centuries:

He went away again the second time, and prayed, saying, O my Father, if this cup may not pass away from me, except I drink it, thy will be done.

And he came and found them asleep again: for their eyes were heavy.

And he left them, and went away again, and prayed the third time, saying the same words.

The problem with the lede in question is that the participle has two subjects to choose from -- "couple" and "authorities," both plural -- and its natural tendency is to glom on to the nearer. Flip the attribution and the participial phrase and you get a usable lede:

An N.C. couple wanted on murder charges swindled their way across the country, claiming they were Hurricane Katrina victims who'd lost everything, authorities said Tuesday.

That still leaves a bit of a libel problem. "Wanted on murder charges" doesn't apply to everybody in the couple; the husband is charged with murder, the wife is charged as an accessory. Move the "charged in the slaying" forward:

An N.C. couple charged in the slaying of the man's mother swindled their way across the country, claiming they were Hurricane Katrina victims who'd lost everything, authorities said Tuesday.

It's not the King James version, but it covers most or all of the bases. And it doesn't raise any of the comic suggestions of the current version:

...claiming they were Hurricane Katrina victims who'd lost everything -- instead of fugitives charged in the slaying of the man's mother.

"Straighten your tie, Clyde. We'll take these rubes for all they're worth."
"You bet. We'll tell 'em we're fugitives charged in the slaying of my mother!"
"No, wait. I've got a better idea. We'll say we're Hurricane Katrina victims who've lost everything."

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Desk notes (a slight return)

Notes and comments from recent edns. Subscriber-only service will resume sometime soon, honest.

13 WEEKS INTO THE SEASON and we're still allowing ledes like The Boone County Sheriff’s Department and the Southern Boone County Fire Protection District responded to a series of fires late Friday night and early Saturday morning in southern Boone County (5A Monday) into the paper? No, no, no. This is not an option. Destroy all "responded to" ledes on sight. Who knows? With a bit of effort, you might even be able to work the likelihood of the fires' having been set into the first few dozen words.

TEAM IS AN ...: The Missouri basketball team didn’t advance to Madison Square Garden for Wednesday and Friday’s NIT games, but if they had, its highly improbable that they would have traveled by train. (1B Sunday) Cue up the band, maestro: "The Missouri basketball team" is an "it." "The Tigers" are a "they." Ray made the T-shirts so y'all would stop this stuff. Please honor your former sports editors. And, for pity's sake, I-T-APOSTROPHE-S. But pronoun antecedence has pride of place because ...

COME BACK, WILE E. COYOTE: Hearing the crack of one body smashing against another, followed by the whoosh of air that escapes the checked hockey player’s lips as they slowly slide face-first down the boards and onto the slush-covered ice is almost too much for some to bear. (4B Tuesday) OK, grammar fans, what's the only plural noun in this whole awful sentence that "they" could possibly refer back to? Correct. "Lips." Sit back and let the picture form in your mind. On second thought, don't.

FORBIDDEN VERB: Kansas State's Jordy Nelson, left, and Allen Webb celebrate after a touchdown in the fourth quarter sealed a victory for the Wildcats in coach Bill Snyder's last game (9B Sunday). Enough said. No C-word in cutlines, ever. On the bright side, though, we were spared another photo of Carl Edwards' backflip.

MORE CUTLINE FOLLIES: Kashmiri earthquake survivors wait at an evacuee camp in Pakistan on Saturday, as nations pledged $3.4 billion more in aid (8A Sunday). Can the kid in the foreground sit down if the aid gets there in the next week? Better yet, can someone explain why "refugee camp" in the original became "evacuee camp" in the Missourian?

SCHUUUUUULTZ! "We were shocked," the German official said. "Mein Gott! We had always told them it was not proven" (8A Sunday). Uh, right. LATimes creditline or no LATimes creditline, one is entitled to one's armchair doubts about whether the BND-nik in question switched so fast into such classic movie German. The ellipsis is your friend. Use it. (And while we're at it, follow the AP's far more sensible practice and make the ex-secretary of state "Colin Powell," not "Colin L. Powell.")

EXPLAINING TOO MUCH: One or two words is about as large as you want a parenthetical clarification in a quote to get. Beyond that, it starts to look clumsy. Here are two examples from Monday and some ways an editor could tease a better solution out of the writer:

“(The Navy’s culinary specialists) have the experience of feeding 3,000,” said Dan Meyer, one of the MU team. Try tweaking the graf to work in the antecedent; an indirect quote about Navy cooks leads naturally into "They have the experience of feeding 3,000."

“(The parade is about) holiday spirit, being a community, and love, peace and joy,” she said. You can also set up the quote with a question of your own: What does the parade mean to Easton? "Holiday spirit, being a community ..."

If all else fails, fall back on the partial quote. Better that than a full quote that's as much the writer's as the source's.

Thoughts, complaints, huzzahs? Back to hauling up the data on the Xerox line.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Procrastination potpourri

Let's see how long it takes for this bit of foreign correspondence to be noted in the pages of the hometown press:

Cheerleader shame
Nightclub arrests as Carolina TopCats lose their clean-cut image

And on a cheerier -- OK, an almost as cheery but slightly less snarky -- note, pay a visit to Doug and friends at Common Sense Journalism. "Words of wisdom from a newsroom veteran" (Be active in a journalism related organization. You will meet people who can give you jobs if yours goes to crap) is one of the many goodies on offer there. I've never figured out why they do that thing with the mustard in the barbecue sauce,* but it's good to know the resistance is broadcasting from South Carolina too.

* To be fair, ketchup isn't exactly scriptural either. Pride goeth before a fall there, Lexington.

Rein in the localitis, pls

The year 2002 was notorious for goal post destruction and rowdy post-game celebrations. An oft-cited example was The Ohio State University’s defeat of the University of Michigan. The ensuing riots and outdoor fires in Columbus, Ohio, resulted in at least 45 arrests.

MU was no different — fans rushed the field after the Tigers defeated Kansas that season 36-12.

"No different" seems rather a stretch, as the "riots and outdoor fires" should have suggested. As best one can tell at this remove, the MU game resulted in about a dozen arrests of fans who rushed the field. Columbus saw close to 60, along with 20 cars overturned and nine torched; the on-field postgame melee there produced four fractures and a head injury. We have, by any standard, a better J-school, but it's probably time to admit that Old Missouri just isn't up to Big 10 standards in sports rioting.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Y'all still smoke crack before you write?

Couple of quick examples from the missed-opportunities front, but first, welcome to all you new visitors and tnx to all the Usual Suspects who've helped keep things lively. Hope you'll all continue.

[Sermon mode on] One reason for all the complaints about fake rules of grammar, usage or what-have-you is that they take your eye off the ball. Not only do they eat up desk time, which is always limited, but like a sort of carbon monoxide of editing, they keep real oxygen from getting where it needs to go. So whenever somebody's doing the sack dance for turning a "last" into a "this past," or a "said" into a "stated," there's usually a real error sneaking toward open territory. Meaning -- unless somebody has another metaphor to throw in the stew here -- somebody's overlooked an actual structural feature that, for example, makes a sentence say something the writer manifestly doesn't want. [Sermon mode off]

In this case (moved Friday for K-R papers and clients), several common features of news writing -- obsessive variation, careless packing, and brainless attribution -- leave the writers carrying Mr. Bush's water for him:

President Bush on Friday offered his most vigorous defense yet of his decision to invade Iraq, rejecting as "false" and "baseless" accusations that his administration twisted intelligence to support its case for war.

The attempts by Democratic lawmakers and others to rewrite history are demoralizing U.S. troops and encouraging their radical Islamic foes, Bush said.

This is our old friend the fallacy of presupposition, better known as the complex question: Do you still smoke crack before you write your ledes? In the second graf, Bush isn't saying that the Democrats are trying to rewrite history; he's saying that those attempts are demoralizing U.S. troops. The writers have established for him that the Dems are rewriting history.

That comes about, first, because of the elongated yellow fruit syndrome. We can't just say "those accusations"; we need a new name for them. Space is limited, so we need to pack in another indirect quote from the Newsmaker-in-Chief. And attribution is magic; it does whatever the writer wants, without regard to where it fits in the sentence. It happens most often when the attribution or a substitute shows up as the subject of a subordinate clause: "The [noun] [verb] when police [verb]." Here's a related example from the files:

The most recent child’s death occurred in the early morning of June 21, 2004, when Moberly police responded to the Clay home.

Our writers thought that by tacking a "Bush said" on the end, the attribution would jump the gap. It didn't. Result: Propaganda. Ouch.

And a couple from today's 1A that wanted a touch of sandpaper:

Employees said the 75 tickets sold out in about five minutes.

Whenever you have two numbers in a sentence, do something to them. 75 tix in five minutes, hmm -- 15 tickets a minute, or a ticket every four seconds. Assume each customer's buying two and the Ragtag [indie movie house, for you visitors] is still processing a customer every eight seconds. One has one's doubts.

I'd guess this is a 2+2=22: Ragtag seats 75, somebody guessed that tickets only lasted about five minutes on this day, and nobody wondered how many tickets, say, had been bought in advance.

A few grafs later, the writer gets cart before horse:

“Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price” covers many aspects of what some find wrong with the corporation. It contends that Wal-Mart’s health care plan is too expensive, that the corporation forces out small community businesses, discriminates against women and minorities and doesn’t pay overtime. The format intermingles snippets of Wal-Mart CEO Lee Scott talking about the company with facts and figures about the corporation and vignettes of the experiences of former employees, business owners and community members.

The Ragtag screening was Columbia’s first publicly scheduled viewing of Robert Greenwald’s controversial film, which calls out the corporate giant.

Generally, news writing moves from the general to the specific. Freedonian troops suffered their deadliest day since the invasion of Ruthenia three months ago will be followed by grafs giving a breakdown of the deaths in different parts of occupied Ruthenia. Moving from the specific to the general -- from detailed accusations to "calls out the corporate giant" -- is almost invariably redundant. Here, it looks as if the writer is straining to get in a pet phrase, and the story suffers for it.

There is a practical reason for cutting deadwood too. Considering that an actual accident-with-injury (two grafs, judging from the Web presence) was among the items that didn't make the print edn, a line here and there in each overwritten feature can quickly add up to -- well, news. Or something.

This week's entry in ...

For those just starting to build your collections of real-life illustrations of editing gaffes, here's a textbook example of If You Don't Want To See It In Print, Don't Put It On The Screen. It's a Web-only specimen, but the principle is the same:

Newspaper Apologizes For Offensive Caption On Its Web Site

Associated Press
Published November 11 2005, 5:18 PM EST
DANBURY, Conn. -- The News-Times has apologized and fired a copy editor who put an offensive caption on its Web page under a photo of a girls' high school soccer team

Friday, November 11, 2005

Brie, with a grain of salt

Copyeds, auxiliary forces and other interested parties ought to take a look at NPR ombudsman Jeffrey Dvorkin's take on NPR grammar and pronunciation -- not because they'll learn anything useful about grammar or pronunciation, but because there's a lot in there about how NPR and its listeners see themselves and each other. And, not coincidentally, a lot of indications that how people -- even journalists -- talk about language says a lot about how they view the world.

Elephant-sitting-in-the-avocado-dip-wise, of course, it raises a favorite question: Why do journalists insist on going on and on about a subject when it's clear they don't know anything about it? But that's a research topic for later. Onward through the fog.

It's probably true, as Dvorkin says, that "language and pronunciation are important to many public radio listeners" and that "listeners are quick to point out examples of any perceived lowering of standards" (though anyone who's taken the Irate Schoolteacher call at a small daily knows that public radio does not bear the pedants' wrath alone). But it's hard to see his answers as doing anything but actively subtracting from the sum of human knowledge:

Should we say "Pah-REE" instead of Paris? The former is linguistically correct, but that sounds très pretentious to American ears.
Uh, no. As Language Hat rather patiently points out, those pronuciations are French and English, not right and wrong. And if "linguistically correct" has any meaning at all, it doesn't have it here. That's sort of like asking whether a cat is "zoologically correct"; of course it is, as long as you weren't trying for a dog or a newt or something.

Mr. Everest also raised a question about when to use the plural possessive on the radio.

For example: should we say "John Roberts' confirmation" or "John Roberts's confirmation?" Mr. Everest is advocating the latter.

In print this is a constant issue. My esteemed colleague Ian Mayes is the readers' editor (aka, the Ombudsman) at the Guardian in London. He has referred to this inappropriate use of the apostrophe as a dropping by that mythic creature, the *"Apostrofly."

One's ears are tempted to steam.
* First off, the apostrofly Ian describes is a cousin of the "greengrocer's apostrophe": random use of the apostrophe to create plurals, for example, as in "The Smith's are coming." It is not used to mark possession.
* Second, you don't pronounce punctuation. "Roberts' confirmation" is not an "inappropriate use" of the apostrophe. It isn't any righter or wronger than "Rehnquist's confirmation" because the apostrophe isn't a sound. The complainant isn't "technically right," no matter what the NPR reference librarian thinks. Mr. Everest (along with Strunk & White and the NYT) favors one way of forming the possessive of singular proper nouns ending in "s"; the AP uses another.
* Which brings us to the most painfully obvious point: "Roberts'" is not a plural possessive because "Roberts" is not a forgodsake plural noun. Obviously, there are exceptions -- "my 4400 class has two Roberts, three Staycees and a Lucifer" -- but this is not any of them. AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAARGH.
Use the plural possessive on the radio exactly as you do in real life, in other words: To make possessive nouns plural. Thank you.

NPR is considered by many to be the standard bearer for Standard American English.

Sometimes you just want to pull out your "Elements of Style" and pound the radio into pieces with it. Did ever a sentence cry louder to be in the active voice? Who exactly is it that considers NPR the bearer of that standard -- people whose power goes off whenever Carl Kasell is on?

I don't mean to single Kasell out as an exemplar of anything in particular, least of all bad speech (Frank DeFord, on the other hand, violates several of the Geneva conventions and probably the Law of the Sea Treaty as well). Just because I'd rather listen to Eleanor Beardsley doesn't mean I think she's closer to some mythical American Received Pronunciation. I would suggest, though, that casting oneself as the source of elite speech for elite listeners runs a fairly high risk of reinforcing impressions of ... well, brie-eating elitism.

NPR, after all, is just like any other news organization, only more so. It can go from hypercorrection ("overcharged the government and therefore we taxpayers") to worn-down slang ("46 bucks an hour") in less time -- and probably fewer words -- than it takes to type this. That's the sort of stuff journalism does.* More interesting are its fact-claims about language, as in this correction broadcast during the refugee-evacuee flap. In line with Reagan's "I've been told the Russian language doesn't even have a word for freedom," it's a convenient way of putting the Other Guys in their place, whether it's true or not.

That makes this reader's normative plaint particularly interesting:

Why do I hear NPR announcers pronouncing some foreign names (including their own) and place names with a foreign accent, but others without? It's jolting to hear a story that's mostly in broadcast English but peppered with foreign-accented words.

As well, there seems to be an implicit racism, or "lingualism," or "culturalism" in the odd, inconsistent practice. I can only assume that foreign-accented pronunciations are done in the spirit of respect. But if pronouncing foreign words with a foreign accent is respectful to that culture and its language, doesn't it then follow that there's an implied disrespect to cultures (that) are not given the same treatment?

Cheap shots at people's names aside, isn't that an interesting idea? A universal foreign accent you can apply to foreign words as a mark of respect? Which NPR does all the time with "Iraq" -- too bad it's a French accent rather than an Arabic one, but it's the thought that counts.**

I'm not sure what the cure for any of this is, because I'm not entirely sure what the disease is. But I think it has something to do with why American public broadcasting is never going to be a mass-audience medium. That's a shame; for all its faults, NPR is a remarkable resource (leaving aside how far it stands above the generally fetid state of American broadcast journalism). I wonder if there's something in the For Elites By Elites navelgazing that somebody might want to address.

* Doncha love it?
** One suspects NPR would cringe at the non-elite pronunciation "eye-RACK," but at least it gets one of the vowels.

Hed of the (still-young) day

President of Paris addresses riots (3A Friday)

That country is called "France." Please make a note of it.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Misallocation of editing resources

An interesting contrast from this week's Vox suggests, again, that the hardest thing to learn in the editing dodge is how to spend your time wisely.

The building’s ice-cream parlor, complete with red and white stools that looked like peppermints, served scoops to those who wanted a sweet treat. p. 3)

So here in the broad sunny uplands of 2005, somebody still thought it was necessary -- meaning that otherwise, some idiot reader would read "ice cream parlor" as "a cream parlor that is ice" -- to hyphenate "ice-cream" as a preposed compound modifier? Tell me you're kidding, please. Or, better yet, tell me why that burst of copyed energy wasn't instead applied to this lede:

The Marines of the first Gulf War were better known as jarheads — a slang term for a Marine that refers to his hollow head, an empty vessel. (p. 9)

If we hadn't been wasting our time on obsessive hyphenation, we might have, oh, opened a dictionary (if you're an MU student, you have free access to the OED online; what are you waiting for?) or two and noticed that "jarhead" dates at least to World War II -- significantly before the "first Gulf War" (the writer appears to be referring to the second Gulf War, rather than the first one, which Iran and Iraq spend eight years fighting at the cost of some 650,000 lives). Whether Marines have ever been "better known" as "jarheads" is a bit of a vexed concept; "jarhead" is one of those ingroup terms that outgroup members shouldn't expect to use with impunity. Regardless, I've never known one who thought the term referred to a hollow head. It's generally considered a reference to the haircut.

In the abstract, this would be just another dumb Missourian/Vox lede, fit for a bit of eyerolling and perhaps a spot in some editing teacher's file. But since credibility has been the Magic Word in J8000 this week, it's worth a bit more attention. Credibility starts with, well, knowing stuff -- not making it up. And copyeds' role in the great process starts with opening the reference books and insisting that writers be ready to back up every word they turn in. And if you're patting yourself on the back for hyphenating "ice-cream parlor," you're part of the problem, not part of the solution.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Sort of pregnant, slightly dead

This combination of absolutes and hedges is too good not to share with you wordheads:

"WorldNetDaily and I both were absolutely a little shocked on Saturday evening when we got an e-mail from Joe Wilson's lawyers in Washington really asking us to 100 percent retract our statements that were made on the radio show," Vallely told Fox.

Apply political coloration according to your own lights. Now get back to work on the hed quiz below.

Hed quiz!

Two approaches to a story Ripped From Today's Headlines:

Coffee found to help women's blood pressure, study says

Coffee found unlikely to raise blood pressure in women

Which is a better hed for your newspaper to use, and why?

For bonus points, suggest alternate approaches and bring up any concerns you have with your preferred hed. Or discuss whatever your own paper chose, such as this one:

Java blood pressure hazard discounted

Tnx and kudos to one of the alert East Coast chiefs of station who raised this idea. If you get any phone calls from the White House looking for operatives' identities, we want to hear about it.

Monday, November 07, 2005

How long, O ... you get the idea

Just when you thought (on second thought, why would you ever have thought that?) it was safe to check out the recycled-lede count in a major Southeastern daily again:

Fifty years after starting in Harvey Morris' old dairy barn, one of the nation's largest houses of worship celebrated its anniversary Sunday morning.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

Briefest of updates

Just a couple notes before we see if that SPSS file really is 17,000 lines deep. Y'all can, of course, feel entirely free to kick off major debates and stuff while I'm away.

* Why it's fun to be a little prescriptive sometimes:
Represented by a legal team assembled by the American Civil Liberties Union and Americans United for Separation of Church and State, plaintiffs' lawyers on Friday concentrated on linking ID to creationism.
See what happens when you genuflect so hard in front of the Mighty Creditline that you forget to RTFSentence? Introductory participial phrase modifies subject of main clause. So for some reason the lawyers had their own legal team. Certain copydesks must have been in a real hurry to get to that Friday night high school foopball copy. (OK, if you don't like the looks of "Friday night high," that Friday-night-high-school-foopball copy. If you're going to be obsessive, be obsessive thoroughly.)

The AP's take on the story offers another favorite J110 bugbear, faulty parallelism:
The statement says Charles Darwin’s theory is "not a fact," has inexplicable "gaps" and refers students to a textbook for more information.
The test for this is to back the compound up to the point where it starts branching, in this case the linking (naughty grammar word of the day: "copulative") verb, and read it as three separate sentences:
The statement says Charles Darwin’s theory is "not a fact."
The statement says Charles Darwin’s theory has inexplicable "gaps."
The statement says Charles Darwin’s theory refers students to a textbook for more information.
We'd like to say two out of three ain't bad, but two out of three is too bad.

As long as we're being promiscuous with "quotation" "marks," I would have put some around "textbook" too. But to each his/her/its own.

* Onward and upward with scholarship: Hoo hah, an actual journal wants to publish some output from the HEADSUP-L Research Centre. Which, of course, means that along with two lit reviews, a research design (see 17K-line SPSS file supra), a short paper and a presentation, the weekend needs to yield some progress toward significant revisions in the said article.

Copyeds know that one of the reasons we harp on RTFS and its cognates is that it's absolutely the square root of zero fun to call somebody at midnight with a question and hear in response: "Did you read the next graf?" Let's just say that RTFNG is not a truth universally acknowledged among peer reviewers and leave it at that.

Now back to the democratic peace and its discontents.