Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Engage brain before editing

Some before-and-after editing examples of stuff never to do with copy. The first makes a grammatical change; the result isn't "bad grammar" but perfectly correct grammar that happens to mean something entirely distinct from what the author meant. Hence the basic rule we know of as RTFS, one subset of which is: Don't "correct" what the author is saying until you (a) know what the author is saying and (b) know it's wrong.

Here's the AP:
More traditionally moderate to left-leaning media have also criticized Harvard's faculty.

And the Missourian:
Traditionally, moderate to left-leaning media have also criticized Harvard's faculty.

This is why we go over the grammar stuff in J4400. Adverbs can modify lots of things: verbs, adjectives, other adverbs, whole sentences. In the AP original, "traditionally" is modifying the adjective phrase "moderate to left-leaning," and the meaning is that the media in question are traditionally moderate to left-leaning.

In the Missourian version, "traditionally" has become what's called a "sentence adverb." It modifies the whole sentence, as in the classic Anchorman Adverb: "Fortunately, no one was hurt," meaning "(it is fortunate that) no one was hurt."

See the change? The AP was talking about the political position of the media outlets that are now attacking the Harvard faculty: They're traditionally liberal-ish. In the Missourian, it's become a longstanding habit : (It is traditional that) Librul Media bash on the Harvard faculty. Is there some evidence to support that? Is it something like the Hasty Pudding celebration?

The relevance of the AP's opinion about the political stance of these media (the Washington Post and the New Republic, in the full version) is open to debate. So is its accuracy; has nobody at the AP read TNR since it became a six-legged zombie robot of the neocons in the late 1980s? But those are beside the point. Little Sir Comma changed the meaning of the graf in a particularly weird way. Let's not do that anymore, OK?

The second is actual stone-cold wrong grammar (by which I mean not only prescriptive but constitutive; the result is not a sentence in English).

Original: Fisher says the contention Summers was the victim of thought police is a red herring.

Missourian: Fisher says Summers was the victim of thought police is a red herring.

Even without the two conjunctive "that"s (no problem dropping the one after "says," but the one after "contention" should have stayed), the original is a perfectly adequate sentence. "Contention" is the simple subject of the subordinated clause. "Summers" is the simple subject of the embedded "that"-less subordinate within that clause. English can do that sort of stuff almost indefinitely ("This is the cat that killed the rat ..."). But in the edited version, an independent clause becomes the subject of another independent clause, and that doesn't work:

* I am going to the store is a good idea.

You can do it if the subject is a title or a quote:

"Take the A train" is my favorite song.

but otherwise, no. We took a sentence and, for some incomprehensible reason, turned it into a nonsentence. Even if we had gained a line, it would have been a bad edit (the mandate is "omit needless words," not "omit words").

You could, I suppose, on some planet with multiple suns, contend that "Summers was a victim of the thought police" can too be the sort of unit that could act as a subject. If so, though, which clause is the object? One gets a headache thinking about it.

Yeah, yeah, yeah: Last few grafs of a wire story on an inside page in the Monday paper. That's not an excuse for turning news into nonsense. Please don't.

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