Saturday, March 20, 2010

Sentence of the week

Here's the AP in Saturday papers, describing a storm in Haiti:

One of the heaviest rainfalls since Haiti’s Jan. 12 earth­quake swamped homeless camps Friday, sweeping screaming residents into ed­dies of water, overflowing la­trines and panicking thou­sands.

It's another iteration of the triple-participle AP weather lede (wait for the next big weather event and you'll find another AP lede that has three participial phrases after the main clause), which makes it a cliche but not an error.* The bigger problem is how to read "overflowing latrines"; is it another object (like "eddies of water") that screaming residents were swept into, or is it the second of three participles describing what the rainfall did?

It doesn't help that "overflow" as a verb is out of position; it has transitive uses, but "cause to overflow" isn't one that comes readily to hand. The best answer is to dismantle all AP storm ledes, just on principle; simple elements before complex elements is a good guideline. But when in doubt, grab a pencil and start diagramming those prepositional phrases. Neither of the readings I got from this one is incorrect, but it's the writer's -- and editor's -- job to make clear which one is right.

* The Missouri Group will tell you that the sentence contains an out-and-out grammatical error: because the participial phrase "sweeping screaming residents ..." is closest to "Friday," it's modifying "Friday," so native speakers will naturally assume that Friday is what's doing the sweeping.
Please don't spray beer on the keyboard.


Blogger John Cowan said...

If newspapers didn't reject Oxford commas on principle even when they are essential (c'mon, how much newsprint does it really save?), the triple would be easy to parse: sweeping screaming residents into ed­dies of water, overflowing la­trines, and panicking thou­sands.

I certainly don't have any trouble with overflow 'cause to overflow', and neither does the OED. Its earliest instance of this sense is "1668 W. CHARLETON Ephesian & Cimmerian Matrons 181 What kind of Magique is that, by which the blood is made to overflow the cheeks with crimson waves, at the presence of a dear friend?", and its most recent is "1977 P. KAVANAGH By Night Unstarred iv. 40 He overflowed the shoemaker with enthusiastic greetings and the shoemaker responded with equally dishonest effusions".

1:45 AM, March 21, 2010  
Blogger Becki said...

If you understand parallelism, you know what the writer meant by "overflowing latrines."

1:03 PM, March 21, 2010  
Anonymous thomas said...


Even as an Oxford comma fan, I don't see it helps here.

The comma tells you that "overflowing latrines" and "panicking thousands" are two items in a list, but "eddies of water" could be the first item of the list, with the -ing words acting as adjectives.

That is
sweeping screaming residents into (eddies of water, overflowing latrines, and panicking thousands).

There is more than one reading which is grammatically well-formed and at least semantically coherent. This doesn't mean that the sentence is really ambiguous, but it does mean that higher-level processing is needed. We shouldn't need to go as far as an understanding of parallelism just to parse a sentence in a news report.

10:45 PM, March 21, 2010  
Blogger Brian B said...

thomas is right; there's an unfortunate type of editor who discounts the work the reader must do to understand any given sentence. If the reader only thinks hard enough, the editor believes, the meaning will become clear -- never mind that the reader's opinion on whether the story is worth the effort will invariably differ from the editor's.

4:01 AM, March 22, 2010  
Anonymous raYb said...

Worse still is that I don't think the runoff really swept people into eddies of water. A storm like that unleashes torrents of water that gush down gullies and the like. Eddies are fairly calm pools where water comes around boulders or other land features. Some people may have ended up in eddies, but that description just doesn't wash. It's much like a story that said waves from a hurricane were lapping at storefronts. Hurricane-driven waves do a lot of things. Lap ain't none of them. And eddies is most likely just a word the writer seldom got to use, so it got thrown in because it was bright writing.

8:20 AM, March 23, 2010  

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