Thursday, September 10, 2009

Grammar: Threat or menace?

Grammar Week is going to start Monday in the editing class, so let's have a look at the state of play for grammar in the local blatt. It's going to suggest that whatever is getting the undergarments in a wad downtown, it's the wrong stuff.

Some of these could (and, I expect, do) reflect editing errors. Others are faults or misunderstandings on the writing side that should have been fixed or clarified in the editing process. Either way, you're better served if you think of "grammar" as the process of identifying the parts of the machine in front of you and determining what they do to each other. It isn't about avoiding split verbs, and it certainly isn't about wasting time enforcing the stylebook's absurd claim that you can't refer to countries as "states" (to pick a non-grammar "rule" that happens to annoy Your Editor). Onward:

Stepping into a fray that still threatens to kill plans for national health care overhaul, President Barack Obama declared Wednesday that "the time for bickering is over" and outlined principles for Congress to follow in the debate:

This looks like a desk-induced error -- someone remembering that "reform" is freighted with positive connotations and substituting the purportedly neutral "overhaul" instead.* If that's the case, we have a scalpel-in-the-patient problem, and those look really bad on the X-rays. "Reform" and "overhaul" aren't the same sort of noun. "Overhaul" doesn't come in a noncount sense; you can say "I support reform," but not "I support overhaul." "A national health care overhaul" gets it done in two keystrokes.

Last week, Chrysler said it would show in Frankfurt a new 2010 version of its Dodge Caliber hatchback that will be powered by a 2.2-liter diesel engine supplied by Mercedes-Benz and a freshly designed interior.

Up to a point, this is a straightforward diagramming job. Last week is when Chrysler said something, and we have a long complementized clause explaining what it said; "in Frankfurt" is where it will show (the noun phrase pointing to) "hatchback"; there are some nested relative clauses** describing the car; and there's -- well, apparently there's a "freshly designed interior." Which goes where? Will Chrysler show it, or does it help power the hatchback, or did it help M-B supply the engine? A couple of easy fixes suggest themselves, but they aren't going to make themselves. Somebody needs to bail the writer out.

Ready for another case of random "after"?

A Birmingham mother was arrested on charges of drunken driving as she took her 9-year-old son to school after her blood-alcohol level registered more than three times the legal limit, Ferndale Police said. (They tested her first, and then she took the kid to school, and then they arrested her? Again, if you're sweating bullets over the distinction between "police said" and "Ferndale Police said," you're wasting time on an irrelevant point of house style and letting the writer down.)

The Freep is usually so fearful of split-verb superstitions that you hate to complain when it breaks down and splits an infinitive, but:

In recent years, the CIA has tried to increasingly recruit Arab Americans as the United States has become involved in conflicts across the Arab and Muslim worlds. (The splitter is a good signal that the adverb needs to go with the verb it's allegedly splitting: "to boldly go where no man has gone before." That's not how I read this sentence; I want "increasingly" to go with "tried." Again, the first question shouldn't be "am I following the rule?" The first question ought to be "are you saying what you want to say?")

There's more to look at, and there's a lot of bad writing that's perfectly sound in the world of grammar, but let's start the new season with a clear idea of what we need to concentrate on and what we can happily ignore.

* I wasn't there and don't know, but it's worth noting that "reform" shows up in a lede under the same byline inside.
** This is the bomb that destroyed the hatchback that carried the document that undermined the tape that supported the defendant's claim that lived in the house that Jack built. Try it at home!


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