Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Hobgoblin of small minds

Some days you just want to take up a collection and buy "Ask the Editor" some reference books:
Q. ...but the theory has never been proven (or is it proved?) Thanks. – from Grand Forks, ND on Fri, Aug 21, 2009
A. proved is the verb, proven the adjective.
As a matter of what is and what isn't, that's nonsense. "Proved" is a verb. So is "proven" ("historically the past participle of preven, in Middle English the usual spelling of what has become prove," as the MWCDEU puts it). Both are fine, and both are in regular use -- by high-end writers and in high-end publications, not just by You Kids with your darn Twitters and Facebooks and all. "Proved" as an adjective is less common (and I think it sounds strange), but it's there too. So as we prepare to launch another semester with the AP Stylebook on the required list, the question arises again: Who are you going to believe, the Wizard Behind The Curtain or your own eyes, ears and book collection?
A better -- certainly a more honest -- answer to the verb question at hand is "Whichever you want." We don't need a style ruling on this one. There's no chance of confusion, there's ample evidence that both are utterly standard, and if you can't find something better to worry about, you aren't looking. Why try to regulate a free choice with a spurious mandate?
I think the AP has confused the need to keep some aspects of usage in line with a Mission From God to regulate everything that moves. That's not just a waste of time; it gives editors (and stylebooks) a bad name, and it reinforces the image of "grammar" as a set of mysterious, unknowable lightning bolts from On High rather than a tool that writers use to make meaning.
Isn't it important to be consistent? Aren't readers going to flee in droves if editors don't enforce style across the board? Yes and no. If you're going to cover the first day of Ramadan, you shouldn't spell the prophet's name "Muhammad" on one page and "Mohammad" on another. But that doesn't mean half a dozen contemporary Mohameds (or Katharines, for that matter) can't prefer half a dozen spellings. Shoehorning them all into one category is what gives "style" its reputation for procrustean nitpicking.

There is a lot to be said for consistency, much of it under the Wheel = Round rule -- as in, you don't need to reinvent the wheel (we have one, it's round, it works) on deadline every night. It's nice to know whether yesterday should be "yesterday" or "Monday" or "August 24th" or "Aug. 24." That means we also need to know which months are abbreviated and when, the circumstances under which we spell a number out or use figures, and how we refer to dates in general. Thus, we get handy principles like the week/year rule: within a week of the date of publication, just use the day ("Monday"); between a week and a year, just use month and date ("Aug. 17"). It's settled a lot of arguments in its day, but at the margins, it leads to some tortured constructions that satisfy the stylebook at the expense of meaning. Try these two sentences:

The study ran from July 11 through Friday.
The study ran from July 11 through Aug. 21.

Which gives you -- the reader, not the editor -- a quicker intuitive idea of how many days the thing lasted?

It's worth asking on several grounds (a full-on examination of the sort of tormented syntax that "style" can produce is a different topic) whether we're getting what we pay for when we turn to the stylebook for rulings on grammar questions. The biggest question, though, remains: Do you really not have anything better to do with your time than worry about whether a perfectly sound bit of grammar meets the AP's standards? Because the evidence very clearly indicates that you do.

Want some "grammar"? OK, let's do some grammar. This one actually does make a difference in how you comprehend the news:
“In his mind,” Larry McClure said, “he was worried they'd be back." His son said he grabbed his gun, got into his dark, green van and guessed the thieves would head toward nearby Ginger Lane. (Who's speaking in the second sentence, and who grabbed whose gun?)

More? Here's one from the Sunday front page:
These efforts don’t stop all crime, but it certainly helps prevent some, officials say. (They does?)*

Cluelessness with quotes? We can do that!
He returned moments later, pulled the revolver from his pocket, pointed it at a female attendant and demanded money. She gave him cash and then he told her and the other employee to lie on the floor. As he left, the man told them that he “would be back.” (It's so Terminator -- "I would be back!")

Enabling partisan spin through gullibility? All in a day's work:
Around 100 people, representing a range of ages and occupations, gathered at noon in front of U.S. Rep. John Spratt's Rock Hill office to show their displeasure toward socialized health care and to urge the 14-term Democrat to address their concerns in a public forum.

Spratt, still recovering from recent foot surgery, did not attend the rally, one of many held across the country Saturday as part of Recess Rally 2009, a grassroots effort to stop government-run health care.

Sigh. Did you wonder why Iraq and the "war on terror" got so badly conflated in the Free And Independent Watchdog Media in 2002-03? Partly, it's mere seniority: Rookies draw the sort of general-assignment shifts that lead you to small-town rallies on Saturdays. Somebody in the crowd says "we're gonna fight terrorism in Iraq before we have to fight it here" (or "we're a grassroots effort stop the socialists from putting government-run health care between me and my doctor"), why shouldn't the reporter write exactly that?

Editors could spend a lot of time on grammar -- even just on diagramming sentences -- and not run out of stuff to do. They can ask whether style is serving the readers' ends or the desk's ends. They could raise substantive points about the logical implications of what sources (and, by not much of an extension at all, reporters) are saying. But they can't do those things if they're spending their time asking irrelevant questions of a dubious source. They need to take some authority on themselves, and the AP needs to stop trying to be the corpse at every wedding.

* There are, of course, legitimate differences on noun-verb and noun-pronoun issues (British English reads collective nouns differently than we do; doesn't mean the British are debasing their own language). This is just an "error."

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Blogger John Cowan said...

In the Ginger Lane example, it also would be unclear in isolation whether "his son" means Larry McClure's son or the son of the "he" of the quote, who turns out to be Larry McClure himself. In context, it's the latter.

But the next example is perfectly fine: the "are" agrees with "(the use of rain barrels to catch rainfall runoff) and (other wa­ter-saving devices). You'd be right if the subject was bracketed "the use of (rain barrels to catch rainfall runoff) and (other wa­ter-saving devices), but I think that's les paulsible.

And do I spot greengrocer's quotation marks in the last sentence, or are they meant to ironically undermine all that went before? The world wonders.

11:52 PM, August 25, 2009  
Blogger fev said...

The cobbler's children have no shoes. Tnx. I have removed the example in question.

By 'greengrocer' quotes, are you talking about 'would be back'?

7:31 AM, August 26, 2009  
Blogger John Cowan said...

No, I meant the word error in last sentence of the post. I was wondering why it's in quotation marks.

I hope you got a chuckle out of the wholly irrelevant reference I slipped in to my last comment....

11:42 AM, August 26, 2009  
Blogger fev said...

Eh, just trying (possibly without success) to underscore the diff between an actual gray area and a goof.

The turkey trots to water.

11:51 AM, August 26, 2009  
Blogger The Ridger, FCD said...

“In his mind,” Larry McClure said, “he was worried they'd be back." His son said he grabbed his gun, got into his dark, green van and guessed the thieves would head toward nearby Ginger Lane. (Who's speaking in the second sentence, and who grabbed whose gun?)

And why was the van dark? Were the interior lights not working?

1:58 PM, August 26, 2009  

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