Thursday, July 23, 2009

Grammar vs. grammar

Here's a ripped-from-today's-headlines reminder that not all rules are equal. See any grammatical problems with this lede?

The field of Democrats seeking to succeed Gov. Jennifer Granholm is expanding, as former Oakland County legislator and party activist John Freeman told supporters Wednesday he is an official candidate and needs money.

I don't like the random "as" (specifically, I don't like using it to join the present "is expanding" with the past "told"), and AP style -- yes, really -- calls for "that" when a time element, like "Wednesday," comes between "said" and the complement clause. But the big lump here is the adjective "former." Should it take a "narrow" or a "distributed" reading: Is our candidate a party activist and former legislator, or is he a former legislator and former party activist?

That's not a trick question, or at least not an idle question. Compare these two phrases, both captured in the wild:

former Republican Gov. Jim Martin
former Republican Sen. Arlen Specter

As long as you already know the players, it's not a problem. Jim Martin is a Republican who used to be a governor; Arlen Specter is a senator who used to be a Republican. The question is why -- given that we're supposed to be guardians of the language and all -- we leave coffee-deprived readers to figure it out for themselves.

It's not as if no one's paying attention to "grammar" in the story. Here's the last graf:

His wife, Amy Chapman, also is a Democratic Party activist, serving as Michigan campaign director for now-President Barack Obama in 2008.

The split-verb superstition is alive and well downtown. This sentence doesn't have a splittable verb, but burnt hands dread cold water: It has an adverb and an "is," so might as well look like we're following the rules. And there's an interesting news routine at work in "now-President Barack Obama"; at a guess, someone heard a ghostly editor saying "she couldn't have been campaign director for President Obama, because he wasn't president while he was campaigning." Whether you think that's technically true or not, it's pragmatically clueless. You're expecting me to know that the story's main character is a former legislator but a current activist, but you don't trust me to know that the guy who held an hourlong press conference on TV last night didn't become president until after the election? Please.

Moral: Saying "that's not a rule" isn't the same thing as saying "there are no rules." Edit for meaning, not for the vengeful ghost of the stylebook.

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Blogger Faldone said...

My major problem with the original sentence is that it is a garden-path sentence.

"The field of Democrats seeking to succeed Gov. Jennifer Granholm is expanding, as former Oakland County legislator and party activist John Freeman told supporters Wednesday ..."

Up until this point I was reading it as John Freeman telling his supporters that the field of Democrats was expanding. I stumbled through the rest of the sentence and had to read your commentary before I got the intended meaning.

4:41 PM, July 23, 2009  
Blogger fev said...

Nice point. I was having such fun (remember, this is the Brave New World, so Thursday is the first weekday paper we actually get in print) that I clean missed that reading. It certainly does make the "as" go easier.

8:31 PM, July 23, 2009  
Blogger The Ridger, FCD said...

Ditto on the reading.

And wouldn't "for then-candidate Obama" be more usual?

12:04 AM, July 24, 2009  
Anonymous TB said...

Ditto on the reading. I lost your point entirely while I tried to sort that sentence out.

2:02 PM, July 24, 2009  
Anonymous BobL said...

I spotted the garden-path nature of the sentence immediately, because it garden-pathed me.

I'd also like to offer a comment on "serving" in the sentence about Ms. Chapman. Using a present participle to describe past events is misleading. "Having served" would be clearer.

Pitfalls, pitfalls everywhere

2:02 PM, July 24, 2009  

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