Sunday, November 30, 2008

Grammar vs. secret handshakes

Between the teaching of news editing and the day-to-day practice of editing, we have the makings of a security dilemma. The classroom side is ready to throw overboard some of the loopy style distinctions and grammatical phantasms (the split infinitive, to pick one that draws near-universal agreement), but nobody's going to stop teaching them without some assurance that newsrooms will stop testing for them. The Compass Point State J-faculty might decide the which/that distinction with restrictive clauses is unfounded, but if it's still the gospel at Hidebound U. (and editors still say "they really teach the basics at Hidebound"), CPSU won't be the first to disarm.

Nobody -- at least, nobody I've ever heard of -- wants to stop teaching grammar. And, for the record, nobody thinks there isn't a difference between restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses; that argument is about whether "which" and "that" are interchangeable with restrictive clauses. The question is whether we should spend less time on teaching the whimsical secret handshakes enshrined in the AP Stylebook and more time at the dissecting table, trying to head off sentences like this:

Charlotte-Mecklenburg police are investigating an early-morning shooting death in east Charlotte that included private security for a nightclub exchanging gunfire with homicide suspects.

Thus the topic that has been kicked around at conferences and on discussion boards of late: Which rules can newsrooms and classrooms agree that we can stop teaching (or, more politely, point out as traditional but unfounded and unnecessary)? This is the audience participation part. You're a hiring editor, and a job candidate has left these sentences as-is on your editing test. For each, indicate whether you think it's (a) fine, (b) OK but not preferred, or (c) forbidden.

Everybody took their seats, and the concert began.

Two of the bullets which struck the SUV were found in the upholstery.

Hopefully, that won't happen again this year.

Are there lions on either side of the entrance?

The tradition remains widespread in states like Georgia and Alabama.

Over 100 people were arrested after the concert.

Lawyers have frequently complained about the judge's attitude.

Please feel free to answer in the comments (be polite; this is about data, not persuasion) or at the G-mail addy at right (no identities will be revealed). Anyone can play, but if you're a journalist, I'd appreciate if you'd indicate:
How long at your paper/publication
How large it is
What you do (copy editing, line editing, writing, design, &c; please note if you do any slotting or supervising)
Vaguely, how old you are (under 30 or 30 and up)

Pls feel free to tell your friends.

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9 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Not a journalist, but I do teach in other field.

Everybody took their seats, and the concert began
(b) Fine in speech, logically ok, but seems informal somehow. It's definitely better than changing to "his seat". Perhaps "was seated".


Two of the bullets which struck the SUV were found in the upholstery. (a)

Hopefully, that won't happen again this year. I'd rate it as (a-). I think it's fine, but I also think the candidate should be aware that some otherwise reasonable people don't like it, and query.

Are there lions on either side of the entrance? (c) This one really is ambiguous as to 'either' vs 'both' when it's an isolated sentence. In context it might be ok


The tradition remains widespread in states like Georgia and Alabama. Probably (c) -- while the writer may well actually have meant 'states similar to Georgia and Alabama', that's not the sort of classification that you would want in the newspaper. 'Such as'.

Over 100 people were arrested after the concert. (a)

Lawyers have frequently complained about the judge's attitude.. (a) on grammar. It should prompt "Name three" as a content query.

3:05 PM, November 30, 2008  
Blogger The Ridger, FCD said...

Not a journalist, but the only one that causes me any problem is the "Are there lions on either side of the entrance?" It's not that it's wrong, it's that without context you really don't know which the writer meant. "They stood on either side" means "both sides", but in a question you've got that ambiguity.

Reading the comment above, I see what's wrong with the "states like Georgia and Alabama", but I read right over it. I don't think I'd ever get the "resembling" reading without a relativizer, though.

To be quite honest, I'm not even sure what's objectionable about "Lawyers have frequently complained about the judge's attitude." Maybe I should get an AP guide.

Oh, over 30, definitely.

6:14 PM, November 30, 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Nobody -- at least, nobody I've ever heard of -- wants to stop teaching grammar."

I didn't realize they had started.

9:03 PM, November 30, 2008  
Blogger rhickok1109 said...

I spent 15 years in the newspaper business, as a reporter, feature writer, sports editor, copy editor, Sunday editor and Sunday magazine editor. Papers ranged from about 5,000 to about 60,000 circulation.

Everybody took their seats, and the concert began.
Don't know the context, of course, but my main question about this sentence is, Why is it even there in the first place? Of course people took their seats and of course the concert began. Let's get to the story.

Two of the bullets which struck the SUV were found in the upholstery.
"which" definitely should be "that"

As for the rest, I feel a bit uneasy about that "Over 100," but the other sentences seem okay to me.

I left journalism more than 30 years ago, which is enough about my age, thanks.

9:09 AM, December 01, 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My oldest child is approaching 30, so I'm not a young editor.

I took several linguistics courses as an undergraduate, so my mind has been permanently poisoned toward descriptivism. On the other hand, I edit to standards that are stricter than the usage trends I see and hear.

Everybody took their seats, and the concert began.
Bryan Garner explains the problems with "everyone" and "everybody" clearly for those who want to look it up. (a) fine

Two of the bullets which struck the SUV were found in the upholstery.
Substitute "that" for "which," and the sentence flows more smoothly. Yes, it's that pesky restrictive clause rule again. The original sentence is (b) OK, but not preferred. But when I edit or write, I'm (c) -- I make the distinction between "that" and "which."

Hopefully, that won't happen again this year.
This construction is so widespread, it gets a grade of (b); try to avoid it. People will call the newspaper to tell writers "hopefully" is "wrong," so students need to know, as Garner says, that it's a "skunked term."

Are there lions on either side of the entrance?
This sentence is ambiguous. Go with "Is there a lion on each side of the entrance?" or "Are there lions on each side of the entrance?" instead of worying about whether there should be a singular or plural verb with "either." (The either issue is a b).

The tradition remains widespread in states like Georgia and Alabama.
Many people seem to be genuinely baffled about objections to "like" in this case. I change it, but not always by substituting "such as." If appropriate for the context, I might change it to "The tradition remains widespread in several states, including Georgia and Alabama." (b)

Over 100 people were arrested after the concert.
I've changed "over" to "more than" more times than I can count. I don't think it matters. (a)

Lawyers have frequently complained about the judge's attitude. Don't waste time changing this to "Lawyers frequently have complained ..." or "Lawyers have complained frequently ..." (a)

Good luck with getting some teachers and textbook authors to drop popular shibboleths, such as the "over" vs. "more than." If you succeed, can we progress to the banishment of the 5-sentence paragraph formula?

-- Barbara Phillips Long

1:42 AM, December 02, 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think these are all fine, and they would only annoy people who deserve to be annoyed (or worse).

I am way over 30 and am a retired technical writer. I fought a long time ago to allow "data" to be singular, to ignore arguments over "that" and "which," and to allow "access" to take its natural course as a verb.

_Hopefully_, editors will get over nitpicking uselessly before their profession dies from lack of funding.

11:39 AM, December 02, 2008  
Anonymous Ed said...

News sub (ie rim rat) and business revise sub (ie slot) on a UK national Sunday paper. (I know that puts me outside the AP stylebook corral, so what follows should be taken in that context.) Still not 40 for another two weeks.

Everybody took their seats, and the concert began.
(a). 'Their' isn't always elegant as a replacement for 'his or her', but it's fine here. 'His or her seat' is just going to annoy people.

Two of the bullets which struck the SUV were found in the upholstery.
(c). It's not disastrous in this sentence, but I'm a bit of a stickler for the 'that'/', which' distinction between restrictive and non-restrictive clauses. The view aired on Language Log and elsewhere that a comma is more than adequate to indicate the distinction, regardless of the word used, seems high-risk to me, given some of the strange places reporters put commas. Let's maintain the that/which distinction and have an abundance of clarity.

Hopefully, that won't happen again this year.
(a). Fine. It'll be in the dictionary soon, meaning 'it is hoped that'.

Are there lions on either side of the entrance?
(a). How could you seriously get confused? If you wanted to ask whether there was one lion, you'd use the singular ('Is there a lion on one side of the entrance?')

The tradition remains widespread in states like Georgia and Alabama.
(b). I'd reflexively change it to 'such as', but I couldn't really defend my position with passion.

Over 100 people were arrested after the concert.
(a). 'Over' in this sense never causes confusion.

Lawyers have frequently complained about the judge's attitude.
(a) Fine. Your ear is generally the best guide for adverb position.

On the wider subject of what J-schools should teach, though, I think you'd like the candidates to be made aware that these classic nit-picking issues exist. The question is not so much whether they should be taught - I think they should, if only to prepare graduates for their first encounter with the newsroom curmudgeon - as whether they should be enforced in practice. Perhaps the best J-schools ought not just to teach the rules, but also encourage a measure of independent thinking about their application, and make candidates aware of descriptivist criticisms of rule enforcement.

Ed

10:49 PM, December 06, 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm a 28-year-old copy editor at a mid-sized paper in the Pacific Northwest. This is my first real job out of journalism school (I have a bachelor's in communication studies and a master's in news-editorial journalism). I started out hoping to be a reporter but decided to pursue copy editing after I earned a Dow-Jones internship in the summer of 2007.

Everybody took their seats, and the concert began.
(a) I don't really like it, but I'd let it go.


Two of the bullets which struck the SUV were found in the upholstery.
(c)

Hopefully, that won't happen again this year.
(b) I understand why people don't like this, but it's such a common usage that I'd let it go.

Are there lions on either side of the entrance?
(b) If I were taking a text and this were on it, my answer would be that whether it's OK depends on the context.

The tradition remains widespread in states like Georgia and Alabama.
(c)

Over 100 people were arrested after the concert.
(c) MORE THAN

Lawyers have frequently complained about the judge's attitude.
(a). I'm OK with the construction of this sentence. However, depending on the context, I might be inclined to change "lawyers" to "attorneys."

11:38 PM, December 29, 2008  
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