Monday, January 28, 2008

Grammar gone wild

Listen and attend as One Of America's Dailies precedes the State O'Union address:

If you're a businessperson, don't expect corporate tax cuts in 2008. Ditto if you're a manufacturer looking for an aggressive federal fair trade policy or a change in the course of the Iraq war.

Which kind of "grammar purist" do you want to be? You can go hunting for rogue adverbs between auxiliaries and main verbs, or you can get out the diagramming sticks and hook some clauses and phrases onto some presuppositions and what-all. Let's play with "ditto" and "or" a bit:

If you're a businessperson, don't expect corporate tax cuts in 2008.

If you're a manufacturer looking for an aggressive federal fair trade policy, don't expect corporate tax cuts in 2008. (OK, if you say so.)

If you're a manufacturer looking for a change in the course of the Iraq war, don't expect corporate tax cuts in 2008. (What if I want to Stay The Course and reach The Way Forward? Can I have some then?)

Wasn't that fun? On to the next graf!

The last year of the Bush administration is unlikely to be much different than the next-to-last year, with Democrats running Congress and a Republican White House butting heads on most major issues.

How do you want to break down the "with ..." phrase?

... with [Democrats running Congress] and [a Republican White House butting heads on most major issues].
Democrats run Congress, White House butts heads. For you international visitors there, that's what we call the "separation of powers."

... with [Democrats (running Congress)] and [a Republican White House] butting heads on most major issues.
Which sort of makes sense, but it's a lot to make people go through before that first cup of coffee, isn't it?

In the good old days, copy editors took (and had) the time to work their way through sentences like that. With any luck, they could convince writers of the error of their ways*:

But last week, a pair of excellent Free Press reporters revealed that in a series of text messages, the mayor was, to use a legal term, "lying his butt off."

Well, no. If I recall it correctly -- and it's been a little hard to miss, given the live report on the noon news that all the curtains on the ground floor of the mayoral mansion were drawn (but a shutter appeared to be open upstairs!) -- there's been no indication that the mayor was lying any major bodily part off in the text messages. The problem is with what he said in court, which is sort of at variance with the highly credible stuff he said in the text messages.

Does that mean bad editors? More likely, it means good editors spread too thin -- moving too much copy, digging out too many gimmick quotes for too many over-formatted briefs columns, doing too much decorating and not enough organizing. Guess what? People notice.

* If you haven't already, see John McIntyre's gently barbed look at a piece of sorry prose that shook off a commonsense challenge last week.

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