Sunday, October 03, 2010

Grammar at work and play

Seems like a good time to talk about grammar, doesn't it? Stylebook mavens are up to their usual tricks:

You recently said in an Ask the Editor that "civil rights movement" should not be capitalized. If that's the case, shouldn't "civil rights" be hyphenated? It was not a rights movement that was civil, it was a civil-rights movement.

And Rev. McIntyre, having created an Internet sensation about drawn attention to grammar teaching* at the World's Baddest J-school, has offered some well-observed and pointed thoughts about what we do -- and ought to be doing -- in the introductory editing classroom:

I am not talking about arcana, either. I have to make sure that they understand what a clause is. I ask, and they look blank. So there is a quantity of basic stuff to go over. The students who have studied a foreign language are usually a little quicker to pick this up.

But I also have to help them unlearn things. You can depend on it that several students in every class will have been instructed that ending a sentence with a preposition is wrong, that splitting infinitives is wrong, and that the passive voice has something to do with the verb
to be and is very wicked.

That's a lot to do in a semester -- more precisely, as John notes, in the first few weeks, because we still haven't made room for heds and cutlines and libel and privacy and news services and page design and Twittering and ... well, what do you do when you sit down for the first time to "edit" a story all the way through, anyway?

"Grammar" is the start of it all, though. If you don't know what a relative clause is, you won't understand why heds aren't found in relative clauses -- and, by extension, why those red marks on your hed assignments grow increasingly curt as the semester wears on. If you can't find simple subjects and simple verbs, you're going to confuse "Smith shot Jones" with "Police say Smith shot Jones," and you deserve your nasty, brutish and long day in court. Grammar is the wiring diagram of everything we do: If you can't tell what you're saying, you don't know if you've said it.

Here's the real-life example that got me started this morning. The editor of the dominant local fishwrap is explaining -- anecdotally -- how the upcoming improvements to the Web interface will make your news experience totally, vastly, better:

Forty years ago, when I was reporting for the Paper for Central Wisconsin, there were two ways to get information pub­lished by the newspaper — any newspaper.

Cover up the next line and explain in your own words what he's telling you about.

You could get it delivered at home or buy a copy.

Or read it at the library, or ... -- but wait! Did you get a different reading entirely? So did I. There's a good grammatical explanation for each choice, because they're both perfectly grammatical. What your editing course ought to leave you with (aside from a lot of examples of big-league prepositional confusion** that will make you total date bait at editor parties) is the ability to show the editor -- who has a lot more power and a much bigger salary than you, after all -- where he's gone wrong. Ready?

The editor's relying on your reading a truncated passive relative clause correctly, but he isn't giving you the clues to do it. When he says "information published by a newspaper," he means "information that is published by a newspaper," as in "Information [that is] published by a newspaper is reliable." That's a piece of cake in most cases: Stories [that are] printed in newspapers are usually shorter than stories [that are] printed in magazines.

The problem is the "get" -- where he's meaning "get information," I'm reading "get published," which takes me back (ahem) three decades to my first newspaper*** and the well-meaning novice flacks who would call in and ask to reserve a reporter and photographer for Tuesday, please. They wanted to get stuff published, and getting information published isn't the same thing as getting information. The editor is being ambiguous -- genuinely ambiguous, not in the Barney Fife-like sense of busting "civil rights movement" because it allegedly means "a rights movement that was civil,"**** but in making you wait until the next sentence to figure out which legitimate thing he means.

As a well-armed editor, you can offer him some grammatical choices:
1) Extend the clause, so it talks about getting the information that was published in newspapers.
2) Make it active, so it talks about getting the information newspapers published.

We don't win the argument by saying "I think that sounds funny," because the writer's going to respond with "well, I don't," and the tie goes to the runner. We do win -- meaning better prose, meaning less confusion among the readers, meaning a writer who might have a shade of a clue the next time the situation comes up -- when we can sketch the problem out.

That's why we do grammar, and that's why we distinguish it from the bizarre fictions you find in journalism textbooks. It drives all the other stuff we teach. Really.

* Your Editor should note that he counts Rod Gelatt among the good guys. And being of the broadcast kind, Rod certainly hasn't done as much superstition-spreading as (ahem) a few others.
** What did you leave the in in in in out for? (Hi, Ridge!)
*** Clean Desk Club members, raise your hands.
**** Like "ice cream cone" means "a cream cone that is ice." For God's sake.

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Anonymous Bob L. said...

Amen! The same advice goes double, if not more, for lawyers, and at least triple for those poor wretches who try to write legislation. Anything else I might say would just duplicate what's in the post.

11:23 AM, October 04, 2010  

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