Monday, September 06, 2010

The preadolescents are alright all right

Here's another of those myths that give editors a bad name: "Kids" means baby goats and nothing else, so you must never use it to refer to little tiny human persons.

True, you might have passed the neighborhood goat corral on your way to school every day*, and that meaning might have had some salience for you. But sight unseen, let's just go ahead and bet that you grew up knowing perfectly well that "kids" means "children."Along with all the other language skills that went into making you a competent hed writer, you also learned that most restrictions on using "kids" come from context. It's fairly informal, so you tend to avoid it in formal situations, and needs some accompaniment -- "college kids," "Comeback Kid" -- if you want to use it for adults.

The problem with the Wichita front here isn't that "kids" is on the list of banned hed words. It's that "kids" is trying to mean too many things at once without attention to its contexts (the stories themselves or the context of the whole page).

I don't speak the Wichita dialect; for all I know, "critters" might be a perfectly common way of saying "small cage- or aquarium-bound* pets." But it's really uninformative use of space. News language tends to use "critters" as an Elongated Yellow Fruit marker: it's how you say "bedbugs" on second or third reference at USA Today, the Strib and Montgomery. So I don't know how to read "critters" here: Dogs and cats? Vet school gone wild? Roscoe the Miracle Hamster? Or is it just a register signal -- the newspaper grabbing me by the elbow and showing me what a regular if slightly archaic guy it is?

That's where "let kids keep critters" seems to be going, except that "kids" is way off base for a bunch of people whom we first meet through a 22-year-old senior. It's more appropriate downpage -- at least for the age group (10- to 14-year-olds) mentioned in the lede. Is it the right register for a Parents' Worst Nightmare story?*** Closer call, but I'd still say no.

The first one's an easy fix: Once you've said that dorms allow pets, you don't have to say that dorms allow dorm residents to have pets. That gives you enough room for "caged pets," "some small pets" or something that transmits information rather than attitude. For the second -- if you say "children's actions," do you need the emphasis of "children's own actions"? It's not wrong (reemphasis isn't redundancy), but could you put the space to better use?

There's no rule against "kids" in heds -- particularly not based on the specious claim that it doesn't have a meaning that the OED calls "frequent in familiar speech" since the 19th century. There are guidelines that suggest both of these heds are bad calls, and I expect they sounded that way to at least someone on the desk.

* Uphill, both ways, in the snow.
** Nice critter you got there, Slim, How many mice you reckon he goes through in a week?
*** Why a day-old feature from the Post is a frontpage story is a different question, but I've given up expecting to find news on the front of America's Newspapers.

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