Saturday, October 01, 2011

Why we teach this stuff

People still ask, especially when we're getting ready to take the whole curric- ulum apart and see if we can fit it back together in some plausibly 21st-century way, whether we ought to keep on teaching those annoying grammar terms. (Especially the test.) Isn't there other stuff we ought to be teaching instead, and do you really have to know all that pluperfect stuff to be a journalist anyway?

Well -- no. You don't. Indeed, there are large parts of journalism in which diagramming seems a pretty low-order skill. But if you want to traffic in the written parts, you can't go too long before that pesky grammar comes in handy. You might want to keep someone from doing something boneheaded to your copy, for example. Or you might want to talk one of your writerly friends out of writing him- or herself into a corner -- in a way that keeps you from having to fix the same mistake again and again and again. Or you might find yourself on the receiving end of a rant like this, delivered to the AP Stylebook's Ask The Editor feature:

Q: ... Here's another question: Someone makes comments; the comments don't come or go anywhere, do they? Who teaches this form of formulaic and idiomatic but nonsense writing? It seems to be more prevalent than it was only a few years ago, but it's irritating to this copy editor. (AP story) "Haley's remarks came after the Budget and Control Board, a financial oversight panel she chairs, agreed without discussion to require the Department of Transportation to provide more details of a summer financial meltdown that left contractors with invoices unpaid for months." – from Arlington, Va. on Mon, Sep 26, 2011
A: Point taken. The passive voice and complex structure make the sentence unduly challenging. I suspect we're all guilty of this at times.

No, point not taken. Point apparently not even attended to. The question is complaining about the "came" in the main clause, on grounds that comments can't behave like other nouns. A better answer would be: It's your mud flat, Yertle. You can ban any verbs you want to. You can ban whole parts of speech. But if you want somebody to help you declare a usage like "Haley's remarks came after ..." to be "nonsense," we've got other stuff to do. Consult your physician if the peeve lasts more than four hours, and have
a look at the dictionary.

By extensions ... things are said to come in one's way, to come within one's reach, to come under one's notice, to come within the scope of  a measure, and the like; also to come in a particular position or order with relation to contiguous things, to inclusion in a classification, etc., as to come on such a page of a book, to come before or after other things, to come under a heading, etc.

There's more. Does the passive voice really help make the sentence "unduly challenging"?


Haley's remarks came after the Budget and Control Board, a financial oversight panel she chairs, agreed without discussion to require the Department of Transportation to provide more details of a summer financial meltdown that left contractors with invoices unpaid for months.

Leaving out the infinitives, I get four verbs, none of them passive. If the goal was to reduce complexity, you could start by turning the last relative clause into a passive sentence of its own: "Contractors were left with unpaid invoices for months," but that's piling on.

The original is not a great sentence, but it's hard to open an AP story of any size without finding one that's equally "challenging." If there's anything we're all guilty of, it's writing the occasional (or more than occasional) gloppy, silly, crappy sentence. We have a much better chance of beating those sentences into shape if we're not wasting time on random peeving and fearful genuflections before bloodstained grammar idols we can't even describe.

That's why we still teach this stuff, and that's why the semester begins with how to use references (and why their last name isn't "dot.com"). We need the time.

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