Tuesday, April 29, 2008

WTF editing

Here's the lede from today's entry in the Strange Editing Contest, just to set the scene:

New research challenges the notion that you can be fat and fit, finding that being active can lower but not eliminate heart risks faced by heavy women.

And here's the fourth graf:

The new study involving nearly 39,000 women helps sort out the effects of physical activity and body mass on women's chances of developing heart disease, said Gulati, not involved in the research.

Strike you as a little strange? Here's the AP original, as run by ... well, almost everybody who ran the story:

The new study involving nearly 39,000 women helps sort out the combined effects of physical activity and body mass on women's chances of developing heart disease, said Gulati, who wasn't involved in the research.

So what happened? At a guess, somebody forgot that relative clauses aren't exempt from the general principle that "omit needless words" is not just an excessively wordy way of saying "omit words." Lots of reduced relative clauses are perfectly innocent -- for example, the one in the second graf:

"It doesn't take away the risk entirely. Weight still matters," said Dr. Martha Gulati, a heart specialist at Northwestern Memorial Hospital.

Only the New York Times would insist on "... who is a heart specialist at Northwestern Memorial Hospital." So predicate nouns are generally safe. Passive verbs are a lot riskier, as in "The horse raced past the barn fell."* It's the adjective that makes this a tricky case. I think it sounds really, deeply weird, and it'd sound even weirder if it hadn't been negated: said Gulati, involved in the research. But I can't say (and can't find a reference to support, not for want of trying) that you could never reduce a relative clause with a linking verb and an adverb: said Gulati, happy to be involved in the research. If anybody out there can document the point, pls jump in.

I'm inclined to chalk it all up to generalized WTF editing: not necessarily wrong, but strange enough to make the reader stop and puzzle at this odd new thing newspapers have inflicted on an otherwise fairly sensible language. All to pick up a single word in a wire story? Hardly seems to be worth it, considering the vast amount of genuine silliness that crosses the desk in an average shift.

* I think this is properly attributable to Steven Pinker; gratefullest a correction if that assumption is wrong.

2 Comments:

Blogger The Ridger, FCD said...

It actually belongs to TG Bever. (Bever, T. G. (1970). The cognitive basis for linguistic structure. In J. R. Hayes (Ed.). Cognitive development of language. New York: Wiley.)

And here T-Rex and Utahraptor discuss the sentence...

11:02 PM, April 30, 2008  
Blogger fev said...

Tnx for the correction. I'm thinking T. Rex and Utahraptor ought to get really good evals this semester (but I always think that).

12:51 PM, May 02, 2008  

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