Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Dunno. What color is they?

Further to the occasional discussion on whether contractions are innately good or bad (or neither) in hed writing, and whether there is or isn't such a rule, and whether (if yes) such a rule is another sin visited by j-schools against the honest craft of editing.

The basic rule on contractions is easy: They're fine when appropriate. That means the hed writer -- surprise, surprise -- actually has to apply judgment in ambiguous or confusing cases. "He's" might technically be a contracted form of "he has," but it's so likely to land weirdly on readers' ears that "technically" isn't going to cut it. (Try doing a Google search for "he's a lot to be thankful for" compared with "he's a rebel.")

Sometimes, contractions are out of tune with the story (this can happen in text, too; it isn't limited to heds). And sometimes they're subject to Whim O'Slot. I used to ban "who're" on grounds that it looks too much like "whore," but that's not an argument from usage so much as an argument from having been an adolescent guy back in the Pleistocene or so.

So the rule comes down to this: Appropriate contractions are fine. Inappropriate ones aren't. When in doubt, use brain.

All of which has nothing to do with the correctness conditions that apply to contractions. "They's" is not a shortened version of "they are." So this one isn't a matter of tone, taste or timing as much as it is a matter of being able to count past one:

What color's my grassroots?

Wow. Hard to say. What color was they when you started?

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