Monday, July 27, 2009

Adverbs gone wildly

They're cleaning out the files down at the cop shop and they've found a picture of Bonnie Parker ("the female half," we are reminded, "of the murderous Bonnie and Clyde"). How old is it?

The picture was distributed to law-enforcement agencies nationwide soon before Parker was killed on May 23, 1934, in a hail of police gunfire in Louisiana.

Don't think so. We can do "soon after" or "shortly before" with the clause, but "soon before" -- anybody else know this from day-to-day life? (Arnold Zwicky had a post on the topic four years ago, but it seems more interesting to ask about the circumstances under which writers and editors found this unexceptional than to ask whether it's a legitimate innovation. This is, after all, edited prose -- there's that Freep hyphen in "law-enforcement agencies," if nothing else.)

On to Charlotte for more grammar tricks:

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad fired his intelligence minister, and his culture minister resigned under pressure Sunday as further rifts emerged in his camp just days until his controversial inauguration for a second term.

Editing isn't always a visible craft -- reading an item thing closely, deciding "nope, nothing wrong with that" and moving it along might be exactly the right decision, but from the outside, it looks a lot like "not doing anything." That tends to stack the deck in favor of doing something, particularly if it looks as if you're following a rule -- say, "omit needless words" -- in the bargain. Here, we manage to save three words over the Post original:

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad fired his intelligence minister and his culture minister resigned under pressure Sunday as further rifts emerged in his camp with just days to go until his controversial inauguration for a second term.

... at the small price of turning it into utter nonsense! "Just days before" would have done the trick.

Thing is, in almost all cases, if you just wait a few minutes, you'll run across something that really, really needs doing. So here's another from the Freep's local report today:

Champagne, who served for 4 1⁄ 2 years as director, said he was an at-will employee and that White could have simply terminated him without cause, verses firing him for what Champagne called unfounded reasons.

At least, I hope that's an error that went unfixed. The alternative -- a copy editor spelling out "vs." so it conforms to style -- is too dreadful to imagine.

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2 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Is the inauguration controversial or is the second term controversial?

12:45 AM, July 30, 2009  
Blogger fev said...

Hmmm. It's some, or a lot, of both-- so I wonder if 'controversial' isn't another of those ghost sentence adverbs. Maybe we should signal that with brackets at the beginning of the sentence or something: [[controversial!]] means "we think most of the people and events in this graf are suspect."

Or we could assume that anyone who started an Iran story did so with (if not because of) a rough grasp of the election controversy.

11:15 AM, July 30, 2009  

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