Sunday, August 24, 2008

Misspent resources

Time is a zero-sum commodity in the world of editing. At the end of your shift, you've always spent the exact amount you started with. And once you spend it, you can't get it back and start over.

So the whole split-verb thing -- nicely discussed last week in both academic and professional circles -- isn't just irritating because it tends to make for worse-sounding writing, or because it gives people a wrong impression of "rules" and what editors do and don't do with them. Time you spend unsplitting an infinitive, or a perfectly healthy auxiliary-adverb-verb sequence, is almost invariably time that doesn't get spent doing something useful.

What do the fingerprints look like? Let's turn again to the Freep, which seems obsessed with the splitter:

New York Sen. Hillary Clinton never was seriously considered, said two officials involved with the search.

Is that what the AP transmitted? Well ...

Hillary Rodham Clinton, who ran so closely to Obama in the primary, was never seriously considered, said two officials involved with the search.

So the Freep desk made a couple of style tweaks (adding the title*, deleting the "Rodham") and tightened out the relative clause (fine; I'm thinking "closely" is a hypercorrection anyway). But the "never was" -- that's a local embellishment that seems to have no justification whatsoever. (How the "seriously" escaped notice, I can't say.)

So what's the big deal? It's a little thing, but it's a little thing done in lieu of other little things, or parts of big things. In the time it took to turn "was never" into "never was," you could have ... oh, thrown a coffee cup at the person who thought it was a good idea to put "begorra" in the 1A reefer to the travel piece about Ireland.

Or should the resources that went into that change have gone into something bigger? Well, let's look at the 1A big type -- say, the deck on the top story: "Obama, Biden speeches chuck punches at McCain, GOP." Take a Google spin with "chuck a punch" and see if that looks like the right idiom to you.**

Downpage: "Ram's strength hoped to crush market woes." Makes sense if it's active, but that doesn't look like what the writer meant with "Chrysler LLC hopes for the same in the once-reliable U.S. pickup market as it launches the redesigned Dodge Ram." So we're supposed to read this as "Ram's strength is hoped to crush market woes," but can "hope" take a direct object and an infinitive? Chrysler hopes the Ram's strength to crush market woes?

So yes, a little more attention to the show-window heds would have been nice. But in an ideal world, I'd really like to see that energy go into the 6A package called "Biden has made more than a few verbal gaffes." Specifically:

"I mean, you got the first mainstream African American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy."

That certainly fits the story line. But Mark Liberman of the Log makes a very convincing case that it's effectively a misquote: Biden isn't saying Obama is the "first African American who is articulate," but that he's the first African American candidate and that he's articulate. Which in political and cultural terms is mind-bendingly tin-eared -- but it's not the sort of insensitivity portrayed in the quote. Mark acknowledges the blunderhood of the blunder and continues:

But there's also a linguistic and a journalistic point here. Senator Biden's word sequence corresponds to two different sentences with very different meanings, and the Observer misquoted him by omitting the comma.

I don't know whether the Observer misrepresented Biden's statement out of ignorance, carelessness, or malice. Maybe Horowitz and his editors don't know the difference between the two types of relative clauses; maybe they didn't bother to think about the difference in interpretation in this case; or maybe they know the difference in general, thought about it in this case, and decided that it would make a better story to present the wrong version.

We need to be ready for the occasional correction from the linguistics camp -- polite, sharp, kindly, blunt, whatever -- on the ignorance front. That's part of the package. But I'd rather not have anybody calling us out for carelessness or malice. Particularly when it looks like they're right.

*Since Biden and Obama were both introduced earlier without titles, I'm not convinced Clinton needs one, but ... hey, not my desk.
** Yes, I'm still tired of the gloves on/gloves off/came out swinging stuff.


Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home