Friday, January 09, 2009

Talking back to the stylebook

This quote from the front of yesterday's Freep landed oddly on the ear. It comes from the last story in a series about the sexual abuse of female inmates; it's "just another day in July," until the protagonist is taken aside by the warden:

"Gov. Jennifer Granholm," the warden said, "signed your commutation yesterday."

I wasn't there, and neither was the reporter, but -- really? Because that sounds a lot more like a stylebook talking than an actual human person. It's hard to imagine any of the people in that room (or, to be fair, anybody between here and the tunnel to Canada) producing a first reference to "Gov. Jennifer Granholm" in that sort of sentence. But it does follow the Freep stylebook, which specifies that style on title abbreviations is followed in quotes.* That suggests that the quote was reconstructed with an eye on style, rather than impact on the eye or ear, and I wonder if that isn't another "rule" we ought to think about scrapping, or at least toning down.

That's reinforced a little farther into the issue (it's Thursday, one of the editions that will survive the looming end of home delivery, so there's room for a scrap of international news):

“We are very much applauding the efforts of a number of states, particularly the effort that President" Hosni "Mubarak has undertaken on behalf of Egypt,” Rice said. “We’re supporting that initiative.”

Stumble a bit on "President" Hosni "Mubarak"?** That's Freep style too: Avoid parenthetical inserts in quotations, such as: "She (Salome) said it was in (her) best interest."*** Here's how the statement looks at the State Department Web site:

Of course, we are very much applauding the efforts of a number of states, particularly the effort that President Mubarak has undertaken on behalf of Egypt.

And in the AP, before the Freep got hold of it:
"We are very much applauding the efforts of a number of states, particularly the effort that President (Hosni) Mubarak has undertaken on behalf of Egypt," Rice said.

But here's how the IHT handled the AP story:
"We are very much applauding the efforts of a number of states, particularly the effort that President Mubarak has undertaken on behalf of Egypt," Rice said.

Wow. Some news organization out there figures that anyone who has paid 50 cents for a newspaper and gotten this far into a Near East story is going to know that the "President Mubarak" acting on behalf of Egypt is Hosni Mubarak, not his half brother Elvis Mubarak or Joe "The Plumber" Mubarak or Israeli Prime Minister J.D. "Lightning" Mubarak? I'm impressed.

I'm not suggesting we throw the stylebook out the window. I like stylebooks.**** But I also think it's time to acknowledge that following a rule into the ground is a stupid idea. I can't imagine anyone in the Freep's circulation area who couldn't have followed the inmate story without a first name for "Gov. Granholm," who's barely even a walk-on in this installment. And I'm at a loss to demonstrate what we've genuinely gained by inserting (Hosni) into the Rice comment -- much less so if we throw in the supreme distraction of the busted quote. If our goal is to prove that editors are central to the foundering enterprise we call "professional journalism," we can likely find a dozen better ways to prove it before tomorrow's A section is through.

* The stylebook also says: "If you are reconstructing dialogue, make it clear to the reader you are doing so." I deeply dislike reconstructed dialogue as it is, but if we're not going to bar it outright, at least we could send the requisite signals.
** And no, dear cousins who program the freep.com search engine, I did not mean to search for "President Hosanna Mubarak."
*** Which looks like a really poor choice of example for the rule. What's the second parenthetical doing there? Was the original supposed to be "She said it was in her best interest" or "She said it was in my best interest"? Is the rule supposed to be "don't clarify pronouns" or "don't replace pronouns"? When a stylebook is confusing, it's also likely to be ignored.
**** Everybody has a hobby.

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2 Comments:

Blogger The Ridger, FCD said...

"She (Salome) said it was in (her) best interest." is very confusing. It would seem to me that if you're converting

Salome said, "It is in my best interest."

then "her" would not require (). The example reads as if "her" is not Salome.

As for “We are very much applauding the efforts of a number of states, particularly the effort that President" Hosni "Mubarak has undertaken on behalf of Egypt,” Rice said.

That immediately made me wonder what had been omitted between "President" and "Mubarak" rather than understand that "Hosni" had been inserted.

10:32 AM, January 10, 2009  
Blogger fev said...

I'm not the gambling sort, but I'd be happy to bet that "clarity" would be among the first things you heard if you asked why "Hosni" was inserted in that way. Alas.

11:21 AM, January 10, 2009  

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