Saturday, April 19, 2008

Grammar in real life

The end of the semester looms, so it's a nice time to look back on our favorite saying of the first day of editing class: Pay attention to grammar, because if you don't get grammar, you're not going to get the rest of it either. Not news judgment, not heds, not ethics or fairness or libel -- you won't get any of it if you can't figure out how one chunk of meaning gets wired to another to create a bigger chunk of meaning.*

For example? One of my favorite bits of hed-writing advice is "never write a news hed from a relative clause." Relative clauses can tell you what makes a particular noun important, but news -- stuff happening today that has a claim on your reading time tomorrow morning -- lives in main clauses. You don't write "Man performs heart transplant" atop a lede that says "The man who performed the world's first heart transplant died yesterday." Make sense?

Here's a textbook example from today's news:

Local teen implicated in murder
A Columbia teenager implicated in the July killing of a Colorado Springs, Colo., man was taken into custody Wednesday, months after authorities in that state issued a warrant for his arrest.

"Implicated" was what happened last year. What happened to make this relevant was his arrest. The hed writer should have gone to the independent clause.

Worried that "arrested" makes the line a little short? After we fix the other stuff, that problem will probably be gone too. Since this is a local paper that writes overwhelmingly about local stuff, lose the baleful adjective "local." The location that needs to be distinguished is the distant one, so let's spend our modifying time there. That might leave us a little long, but there's a convenient cure. We know the event was a killing, but whether it was a "murder" is likely to be up to a jury. Thus:

Teen arrested in Colorado killing**

Brush after eating, watch those between-meal treats, and never look for heds in relative clauses.

* Yes, you should infer that many of those ringing admonitions about "grammar" are more appropriately described as "bizarre language whims." If's important to know what they look like, but that's partly because many of them are secret handshakes of the editing craft.
** I'm not crazy about calling a homicide suspect a "teen," but it seems like an OK way to shorthand the weird condition of his being a juvenile at the time of the offense and an adult now.


Blogger The Ridger, FCD said...

That's exactly what I tell my translation students. If you don't follow the grammar you won't understand the article. And how can you translate it if you don't understand it?

7:32 PM, April 19, 2008  

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