Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Dumb modification funnies

Sometimes in our haste to cram in those mandatory signature modifiers -- your "controversial," your "war-torn," your "saffron-robed," your "flamboyant" -- we risk forgetting that they're supposed to get along with all the words they talk to. Here are a couple from today's browse:*

Former embattled congressman requests passport
An overseas golf trip ruined his career and landed him to prison. But former Ohio Congressman Bob Ney appears ready to resume his travels.

Well, sorta. He's a former congressman, and we can't strictly call him "embattled" now that he's out of the clink and has his passport back, and if he was no longer embattled but still a congressman he'd be a formerly embattled congressman, but it still seems we're missing the point a bit. At the least, "embattled" should have had the decency to be overtaken by "disgraced" or "convicted" or something.

Here's one that looks like another Secret Handshake of the AP style cult gone awry:
As people headed inside St. Paul AME Church in east Macon to hear controversial the Rev. Jeremiah Wright deliver a revival sermon Monday, a band of nearly 20 people, led by a local radio talk show host, protested the visit.

That's to distinguish him from all the ordinary the Rev. Jeremiah Wrights who were sermonizing in Macon's AME churches at the weekend. (Though you need to be really careful here, lest you confuse the reader: "Oh, I thought you meant incendiary the Rev. Jeremiah Wright!") What's interesting, though, is the way the desk chose to read the style rule about always using the article with "reverend" (I'm guessing it's the desk, because writers -- even bad ones -- don't usually do that sort of stuff to their own prose).

That rule is rooted in the idea that "reverend" is an adjective, like "honorable," so it shouldn't be mistaken for a noun title -- General, Marchioness or Doctor, for example. It's the sort of rule that raises a lot of questions: why some people get adjectives on first reference and others don't, and whether "reverend" is indeed a noun used for clerics (yes, since early in the 17th century**), and why -- since educated native speakers have no problem producing or comprehending "Rev. Jeremiah Wright" -- we keep insisting that it isn't grammatical to drop the article. But it's much more fun to ask what sort of adjective "reverend" must be if it fits in "controversial the Rev. Jeremiah Wright."

If they're coordinate adjectives, we ought to be able to swap them around. So he could be either "controversial, Rev. Jeremiah Wright" or "Rev., controversial Jeremiah Wright," right? No, that's not going to work. But if they're cumulative, the determiner still has to come first; you can say "the full English breakfast" but not "full the English breakfast." And let's not even get into compounds.

I'd like to put the "the Rev." rule up for abandonment if we ever get around the the Great Style Summit. It doesn't really support a grammatical principle, it goes against a widely accepted standard for no good reason, and it's inherently unequal: Why does AP grant cool titles to people who graduate from seminaries but not to people who graduate from doctoral programs? But until then, we should at least keep people from doing dumb stuff with adjectives in print.

* To be precise, guilty-pleasure-wise, from consecutive items over to the Wonkette. News language is everywhere.
** Much longer than "blog," which the AP has no problem with.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

At least for some British titles there is actually a distinction being made with the "the". No such luck here.

1:35 AM, December 17, 2008  
Blogger GJ said...

That's an unusual phrasing: "landed him to prison", I'd have expected to see "landed him in prison".

Only a handful of examples turn up on Google.

Whaddya reckon, regional colloquialism, incipient neologism or just a typo?

6:37 AM, December 17, 2008  
Blogger Strayhorn said...

Speaking of which, remember "blind sheik" Omar Abdel-Rahman, also sometimes prefixed as "radical Egyptian cleric" in da nooze?

I guess you could string them all together as "blind sheik radical Egyptian cleric" and then you'd only have to wonder whether all those needed to be capitalized.

7:58 AM, December 17, 2008  
Blogger fev said...

"Landed him to prison" was a new one on me -- I'm thinking it's just a one-off, but maybe the assorted correspondents of central Ohio can shed some light.

I'm actually kind of surprised that the Googles don't turn up at least one case of "radical Egyptian cleric blind sheik." A few more rounds of buyouts and I expect we'll get there.

10:23 PM, December 17, 2008  

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