Sunday, August 16, 2009

Sock-drawer grammar

Sometimes I'm inclined to suggest that people shouldn't be allowed to open the AP stylebook (or, for that matter, the grammar chapter of any leading journalism textbook) until they can take a sentence apart and put it back together again. That way, we at least have a slight chance of getting words and phrases wired together in a way that means what we had in mind, rather than the current AP method of reaching into the sock drawer and grabbing the first two tubelike things that come to hand.

Today's complaint arises from what ought to be a fairly interesting story (unless people are always going around whacking the mayor with pipes in your neck of the woods):

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett is in the hospital after he was attacked by person using a metal pipe as he was leaving the Wisconsin State Fair. (The tyranny of the news cycle; "Mayor attacked with pipe" is a better story than "Mayor in hospital," but the AP's still in thrall to the idea that newer is better, no matter that the older news is still new to the vast bulk of us.)

The Milwaukee Police Department said in a statement on Sunday that Barrett was in stable condition at a local* hospital and was alert and talking when he arrived on Saturday night.

The statement says Barrett was leaving the state fair when he heard a woman crying out for help in the city of West Allis.

So, did Superman run for mayor of Milwaukee after he got out of the comic business? He left the fair, heard a cry for help in some distant city, leapt into the nearest ... oh, wait. Anyway, if you're not from the area, you can be forgiven for having to look it all up. It appears that the fair's street address is in West Allis, just west of Milwaukee itself. But the poor prepositional phrase can't jump all the way back across the relative clause ("when he heard a woman crying out for help") to reach "the state fair." Instead of putting it where it belongs, the AP reaches for the sock drawer, comes out with blue and orange, and calls it good.

Police say Barrett began called 911 when the suspect who was attacking the woman charged at the mayor and began hitting him with a metal pipe. The suspect then fled the scene.

You can't spell "automatic pilot," on which someone is typing here, without AP.** If nothing else, "at the scene" phrases can be improved out of nearly every cop-and-crime sentence they appear in ("firefighters arrived at the scene of the blaze," etc. ad nauseam).

I know AP's being zealous these days about guarding its work, so let me offer a suggestion. I'll put a big honking AP bug on any AP ledes used as exemplars here if you guys will stop acting like word order doesn't matter in English. All right?

* Ahem. Even the stylebook tells you to "avoid the irrelevant use" of "local," with "local hospital" as an example.
** If you don't remember the grand old days of wire-service competition: You can't spell "cheap" without AP or "stupid" without UPI. (Wire hands, it must be noted, have their own store of tales about newspaper cluelessness.)



Blogger John Cowan said...

It was UPI that talked about "downholding expenses", so surely "cheap" applies to them too?

And the crown jewel of newspaper cluelessness (not without some justification) has to be the Polish-language paper that announced the premature demise of 10,000 fellow-countrymen in a rural district of the state after receiving wire copy about a storm which knocked down a similar number of telephone poles.

4:39 PM, August 16, 2009  

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