Sunday, September 07, 2008

Respect the reader: Inch less foam ...

We trust readers -- at least, apparently --- to process a hed like "U.S. to take over Fannie & Freddie." We trust them to know what a "moniker" is and what a phrase like "Feds nab 2 in heist" means. So why don't we trust them to figure out that what we've just said is ... what we've just said?

“There was no airstrike in Pakistan, or near Miran Shah or in North Waziristan,” Abbas said, referring to Miran Shah, the capital of North Waziristan, a tribal region in Pakistan that borders Afghanistan.

Just this once, let's give him the benefit of the doubt: When he said Miran Shah, he meant --Miran Shah! Not Spinboldak or Miran Shah Pointe or Kannapolis or Upper Arlington but the very place he mentioned on his own.

Once again, we can't say from here how the error occurred. Here's how the sentence looks at the NYT Web site:

“There was no airstrike in Pakistan, or near Miran Shah or in North Waziristan,” General Abbas said. Miran Shah is the capital of North Waziristan, a tribal region in Pakistan that borders Afghanistan.

Much more sensible, eh? Explain the term, but don't waste space noting that he was referring to the thing he referred to.

The title "General" most likely was deleted before the article was put on the NYT wire (most customers are also AP members, so it makes sense for the NYTNS to harmonize its copy with AP style*). The "referring to" could have been an error in the original, cleaned up before it hit the last edition of the Times but not by the wire, or it could have been inserted by the subscriber paper. Either way -- oh, come on. If your readers have the wherewithal to read a Pakistan story, trust 'em to know that the good general meant the town he mentioned, all right?

This is a particularly repellent case of the "said of" phenomenon, an out-of-control technique for trying to explain rogue pronouns or given names that rarely does more good than harm. Here's a sort of least-worst case from the local rag:

"Cindy has hung back a little, she's not out in front, whereas Michelle has been a surrogate on the trail for her husband," Gutin said of Democratic candidate Barack Obama.

See? On the off chance that you hadn't figured out -- in a story about Cindy McCain, in which Michelle Obama was introduced in the preceding graf -- that "her husband" meant Democratic presidential hopeful Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, we're going to spell it out for you! (Even if we mercifully omit the Freep's usual attributive train wreck.)

It can get worse -- usually, because some writer assumes that any reader who begins a story is unable to load any of it into memory for more than a graf or two:

Hours of standing in line and waiting to listen to Sen. Barack Obama ended for thousands with a 9-minute speech Monday from the Democratic presidential candidate. ... "It was too short," Phil Robinson, 64, a truck driver from Oakland Township, said of the speech.

Observant Muslims across Michigan begin the holy month of Ramadan this week with special prayers and the start of 30 days of fasting during daylight hours. For many of them, it's also a time to reflect. ... "It's about purification of your heart and soul," Begg said of the observance.

The Lions kept 11 defensive linemen and four tight ends. ... "Obviously, a lot of factors go into these decisions," coach Rod Marinelli said of keeping 11 linemen.

Often, "said of" is just a clumsy way of introducing information:

"If there was unusually high traffic on Groesbeck and Church, the camera sees that," Adam Merchant, traffic engineer for the road commission, said of the test site in Clinton Township that's displayed on a wide screen inside the traffic center.

Either way, don't. Do what the Times did. If you have to explain what a source said, do it in a separate clause -- not a "said of." You're showing your readers some respect and saving some space in the bargain.

Speaking of which, back to the original topic:
Another local resident, Mahmood Khan, said that pilotless aircraft were seen over Al Must at 9 a.m. Friday morning.

Here's what the Times has:
Another local resident, Mahmood Khan, said that pilotless aircraft were seen over Al Must at 9 a.m. Friday.

Sigh. The reason things like "9 a.m. Friday morning" are perpetual features of editing tests is that they're classic examples of genuinely needless words.** There is no "9 a.m. Friday evening" to get the one in the morning confused with. And with all regard for our S&W-bashing friends over in the linguistics department, omitting needless words is a legitimate and relevant part of the craft.

If you missed this part of the lecture -- well, DTFM. Eight lines of 9-point type is an inch, and on an 11-pica column, a redundant "morning" or extra "referring to" is very likely to make a difference of a line. Eight of those, and all of a sudden you're serving an inch less foam and an inch more beer. Newsprint isn't getting cheaper, budgets aren't getting bigger, newsholes aren't getting more cavernous. Bad editors do evil stuff in the name of "omit needless words," but that's because they're bad editors, not because the principle is wrong.

Geoff Pullum (I hope he doesn't mind standing in for the anti-S&W crowd) doesn't use a lot of needless words, but then again he's a deeply practiced and exceptionally good writer. Just because he was born with a good ear doesn't mean he should begrudge the rest of us our Mel Bays.

* Hence the tales about "Windows ME" becoming "Windows, Maine" -- a Cupertinoid all its own, though I don't know if any of these escaped into the wild or if it's just told around the campfire to scare the younguns.
**The complementizing "that" is also unnecessary with a simple independent clause following. Keeping it is one of those little affectations that make the Times sound like the Times.

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Blogger The Ridger, FCD said...

Yeah. If you must "refer to", why not "referring to the capital of North Waziristan"?

Though without it is better.

And re S&W? Nobody's always wrong.

9:53 PM, September 08, 2008  
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