Friday, May 26, 2006

Hit ball! Throw ball! Catch ball!

We're a week into a new season, and apparently it's time for the This Is A Simple Game rant. So here goes. Grammar is a simple game! You take the red Lego(1)! You hook it to the blue Lego! You get a unit of meaning!

So this isn't a complaint about style, tone or news judgment (though today's paper has some instructive shortcomings in those areas as well). It's about grammar, and it has three main points:

1) Grammar is about how stuff goes together to make meaning. It has nothing to do with irrelevant matters of form, like split infinitives. Don't get false rules mixed up with real ones.
2) Too many decisions about "grammar" in news writing are based on the occurrence of particular forms rather than the mechanics of what those forms are doing. Be careful of false cues.
3) The right answer is the right answer -- not the one that looks as if it has more "grammar" in it.

Examples? Why, yes:
At Lay’s request, the chair was renamed The Kenneth L. Lay Chair in 2002 and has remained vacant since its creation. (1A)

There's nothing grammatically "wrong" with this sentence. It's unimpeachably clear in what it says, which is exactly the problem. The way English puts its Legos(2) together, "at Lay's request" modifies both verbs:
At Lay’s request, the chair was renamed The Kenneth L. Lay Chair in 2002.
At Lay’s request, the chair has remained vacant since its creation.

Make the second part of the predicate a separate clause and the problem is solved. That's how "rules" work. Use them, lest they use you.

Second point: Misread grammatical signals. The false subjunctive is a common one: “You would have gone straight through the window” if this were a real crash and you weren’t buckled in, said Missouri State Highway Patrol Capt. Chris Ricks. (5A)

Writer sees "if," writer hears Zero Mostel singing in the background, writer opts for "were." Bad idea. The point of the "If I Were a Rich Man" example is that it's counterfactual. Teyve is never going to be a rich man. And in this case, whether you read it as a pure hypothetical or a statement about a possibility,(3) it'd take the past perfect: "... if this had been a real crash and you hadn't been buckled in." Evans and Evans, descriptive though they be, remind us that "subjunctive were should not be used in speaking about a past event."

Not quite off-topic: The first-person viewpoint in this story isn't the copydesk's call, but that doesn't mean it's anything-goes on the pronoun front. When the direct "you" quote ends, the pronoun needs to shift back to the story's main point of view. Try a third-person example:
He got out of the car. "You're under arrest," the officer told him.
* He got out of the car. "You're under arrest," the officer told you.

So this one should have been "if I hadn't been buckled in." But with a quote that strong, I'd suggest letting it stand and moving all the qualifiers to another sentence. (Have a look, by the way, at Bill Walsh's fine post today on interpreting the scriptures.)

Point the third, and a cousin of the one above: Avoid "hypercorrection," or the tendency to use a particular form because it looks more like grammar:
Her husband, whom she told police was also in the bathroom, faces trial on the same four charges next Wednesday. (5A)

Him was? We don't have a lot of case inflection left in English, but pronouns have it big time. The easiest test is just to un-transform the relative clause: start reading after the relative pronoun and plug it back in as a personal pronoun where appropriate:
She told police he was also in the bathroom
* She told police him was also in the bathroom

See? Hit ball, throw ball, catch ball! Ignore fake rules. Respect real ones.


1 For our trademark-obsessed readers: "You take the red Lego® brand plastic child health peril! You hook it to ..."
2 Want to see the dimmest trademark sentence of the day? One of the hottest topics on the water these day are(4) the use of jet skies,(5) or "personal watercraft," as they are sometimes called. (... legos, or "plastic toy blocks" as they are sometimes called.)
3 There's some debate about what the statement actually is, or at least there was some around the HEADSUP-L library this morning. (Usually, that means "the first author was wrong.")
4 One are?
5 Ski, skis. Sky, skies. AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAARGH.
(Anybody out there know how to do superscripts on this thing?)

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