Saturday, November 06, 2010

The strange syntax of news

We've talked about this before, right? The unholy collision of attribution -- which we like, because it helps keep us from being sued,  amen -- with time prepositions, in such a way that the attribution gets in the way of the action? Like these?

A would-be carjacker is dead after police said he was shot and killed by the person whose car he was trying to take on Detroit's west side.

A Canton man is facing charges after police said he fired two rounds from a high-powered rifle into a fireplace in his home in the 2300 block of Amber Street on Monday, prompting his two roommates to flee.

Two Detroit youths — one a student at Ferndale’s alternative high school for troubled youths — face preliminary exams Thursday after police said school officials followed them from campus to see them break into a home and steal two large televisions.

Daniel Ray Aderhold was arraigned this afternoon in 19th District Court on the charge after police said he allegedly* fatally attacked Perry Lee Beaubien by beating him in the head after the two had an argument.

None of these things happened "after" the cops said something, strictly put. They happened after someone did something criminal, and "police said" is there because ... attribution! We're not reporting something we witnessed; we're reporting what we were told. Conveniently, if we note that "police said" it, we're also wrapping ourselves in the blanket of privilege, which allows us to repeat a defamatory statement with impunity, owing to the circumstances in which it was made. "Smith hit Jones upside the head with a 2x4, police said" is protected in a way that "Smith hit Jones, a perpetually irritated neighbor tells EyeWitlessNews."

So "after" and "police said" don't have the same sort of syntactic relationship that preposition and clause do in "after the ball was over" or "after you've gone." "After police said" is a craft routine. It's short for "something happened after something else in more or less the order we're telling you, but for safety's sake, we're going to stick the attribution** in the middle." It's pretty harmless when you get used to it, but every now and then you get one that's actually ambiguous:

A Melvindale teen said she consumed Four Loko*** before she said she was sexu­ally assaulted last month.

"She said" is there for a good reason. We weren't there, and we don't know what happened, so we're going to signal our uncertainty. But grammar has us in a bit of a trap here. "Before" could reasonably go with "said," suggesting that the accuser was drunk when she made the assertion, or with the sexual assault.

This would have been a nice chance for an editor to step in and untangle the robotic writing. We're asking a lot when we expect readers to infer all the coded signals we send.

* Sigh. As a rule, the cops don't say someone "allegedly" did it; they say he did it, leaving it to the reporters to throw in "allegedly" in the vain hope that it might guard them from a lawsuit or make them look old and wise.
Why don't writers simply set the attribution off with commas? ("Smith was arrested after, police said, she emptied a magazine into her former employer's trailer"). Too much work, and it isn't the way we've always done it, so there.
*** It'd be more complete to note that the accuser testified that she had been mixing it first with rum and later with cognac, but that doesn't go as well with the narrative of this story.

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Blogger John Cowan said...

I'd just set off these attributions with paired commas, and then they are fine as-is:

A would-be carjacker is dead after, police said, he was shot and killed by the person whose car he was trying to take on Detroit's west side.

Of course, that might not be the very best place for such a parenthentical, and if you have time you can move it around the sentence to somewhere more perspicuous.

10:50 AM, November 06, 2010  
Blogger The Ridger, FCD said...

Rum and cognac? The Four Loko might have gone undrunk then, without substantially affecting the events. But then, as you say, that doesn't help this story's actual purpose.

Could "police say" move in front of "after"? I suppose not. It does need to come early, so you know it's not flat fact while you're reading it. Commas seem called for.

5:33 PM, November 06, 2010  
Blogger The Ridger, FCD said...

Or you could ditch the 'after' and use a semicolon!

5:34 PM, November 06, 2010  
Blogger fev said...

It's a puzzle, isn't it? There are a lot of "correct," and for many purposes almost interchangeable, ways of getting the attribution with the right clause. (I mean, you don't need to attribute "Smith is dead," certainly not at the expense of "after Jones shot him.") But some of them aren't acceptable. How that got worked into the machinery is what makes it all fun to look at.

11:20 PM, November 07, 2010  

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