Sunday, August 28, 2011

That minx!


Hurricane Irene sloshed and blew her way ashore early Saturday at the southeastern coast, bringing localized flooding, downed trees, power outages and contributing to a possible drowning.

No. Hurricane Irene might have sloshed and blown its way ashore, but it did not blow her way ashore, because tropical cyclones don't have gender, and we have neuter pronouns for the very purpose of describing things like hurricanes without sounding -- well, antediluvian.

Even the AP Stylebook, hardly on the cutting edge of inclusive language, has said so from the outset. This is from 1977, the first year the Stylebook appeared as a full-size guide to normative news language (and two years before Atlantic hurricanes first got male names*):

... Use it and its -- not she, her or hers -- in pronoun references. And do not use the presence of a woman's name as an excuse to attribute sexist images of women's behavior to a storm. Avoid, for example, such sentences as: The fickle Hazel teased the Louisiana coast.**
Good point. The AP won't come right out and say it, but you're pretty much "attributing sexist images" as soon as you use the gendered pronoun. Might as well go ahead and write the way the grownups do.

I don't mean to suggest that AP style is handed down from Sinai, or that it's always better than house style, or that good writers should be broken on the wheel of the stylebook until all the creativity is drained from them. I would suggest that people who mistake knee-jerk sexism for creativity are probably missing the point from the outset.

* I'd be remiss if I didn't point out that I still have an especially delightful Durham Herald hed in my collection from that period: "Floridians Alerted to Eye Lusty Fred"
** Except for the addition of male pronouns to the caution list (not that I can think of any cases of stereotypical male behavior to tropical weather over the past three decades), the entry is basically unchanged since 1977 -- Hurricane Hazel and all. It's sometimes interesting to reflect on how much the AP still lives in the three-channel world.

Labels: , ,

Thursday, August 25, 2011

March of the pronouns

No peeking now -- who did what to whom? And for bonus points, is there a reason you'd be interested?

His job was to protect him from physical harm.

Now, he's potentially shielding him from a $2.5-million lawsuit.

Lucky thing there's a third graf:

Detroit Police Chief Ralph Godbee Jr. has landed in the middle of a civil lawsuit that claims former Detroit Pistons star Allen Iverson instigated a bar brawl that left an Ohio man with a permanent eye injury.

It makes more sense in the online version published the previous day:

Detroit Police Chief Ralph Godbee has come to the defense of former Detroit Pistons star Allen Iverson in a $2.5-million civil lawsuit involving a bar fight.

Sensible enough that -- you know, you wonder why it wasn't in the newspaper, rather than the pronoun feast we got. I think it's the fear of the first-day lede again. The old media are so obsessed with their oldness that they forget something important: News is supposed to be interesting for its own sake. In a procedural event for which the details a day later are identical to the ones in play at the first flush of publication, you might as well get to the point.

For some readers, after all, it's the first time they've seen the story. For others, don't assume that they need the thing dressed up -- especially when fashion design skills are in short supply.


Wednesday, August 24, 2011

And don't do this either

Q: Is it still a forbidden hed if it's in the NYT?
A: Why, is there some reason it wouldn't be?


Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Stop doing this

Tell you what. Let's stop writing this headline now, and then we won't have to write it again every day through Saturday.

To review the bidding, here's the relevant graf from Monday's story:

The National Hurricane Center's official forecast is for Irene to be a 115-mph hurricane when it makes landfall early Saturday near Myrtle Beach, but meteorologists cautioned that much of the coast -- from south Florida up to the Outer Banks -- could be the landfall site.

By Tuesday morning (shown), forecasters had "shifted the bulls-eye of Hurricane Irene northward* to the Wilmington area." And by evening:

The focus of preparations for Hurricane Irene moved up the Carolinas coast Tuesday, with forecasters now saying the worst of the storm will slam into the Outer Banks.

If you're starting to see a pattern, you can guess what follows:

But meteorologists at the National Hurricane Center once again reminded the public that the forecast track of the storm could shift in either direction.

That's not entirely true. More likely, they "reminded the public" that there's more than one direction a storm can shift in, and over the next four or five days, there's a pretty good chance it will shift in several of them.
Read more »

Labels: , ,

Monday, August 22, 2011

So -- what kind of doctor are you?*

Shurely some kind of comma is still customary between the parts of the compound predicate? (First flagged by JKaufman at TCEs.)

On a related note: The little plot summaries at Netflix frequently make him "Who" on second reference. That seems to be carrying AP style a little too far.

* Worth the wait here.

Labels: , ,

Saturday, August 20, 2011

And the problem with this is ...?

I'm of several minds about the top story in Saturday's Sun-Sentinel.

Naturally, I'm pleased when the long arm of the law reaches out and touches people who make off with other people's money. The paper seems a bit overimpressed with the sheer number of zeroes; on the old comfort-the-afflicted principle, it'd be nice to know that the paper is ready to stand up for people who are scammed out of $20 in the same way it's standing up for people scammed out of $20 million. But there appears to be a bigger problem here, and it's a problem with substance.

I guess we need to spell it out for our friends in Fort Lauderdale: Fraud is what fortune tellers do. It's in the job description. People come to you with a problem, you look at some sheep livers or a spread of cards or the flight of birds, you tell them what to do, you take their money. Nice work if you can get it.

There is, of course, an annoying First Amendment problem. If you advertise readings from sheep livers, spreads of cards and the like and someone comes along with a few dollars, or a few million, and wants to know what the livers and cards and the like say about dear departed Aunt Harriet, you're perfectly entitled to tell them and take their money in return. That pesky lack of correlation between what the livers and cards say and Aunt Harriet's fate in the hereafter doesn't signify. The mark paid for a reading, you provided a reading, and small business is the engine of job creation Amen.

Can you see why the Sun-Sentinel ought to be a little cautious?

Among the victims was a bestselling author who gave an estimated $20 million to the family. The woman, who prosecutors refused to identify, lost her 8-year-old son in a motorcycle accident and was allegedly exploited by at least one of the defendants, Rose Marks, who she considered a friend.

"She was under, for want of a better word, the curse of Rose Marks," Assistant U.S. Attorney Laurence Bardfeld told the judge at the hearing in federal court in West Palm Beach. The fortune teller reportedly told the author that her son was "somewhere between heaven and hell."

Imagine that. A fortune teller facing federal charges for suggesting that a minor child was caught "somewhere between heaven and hell" and that, you know, maybe a little scratch could tip the scales. Hope nobody's thinking about running for office on a Faith 'n' Values platform.

... While some may scoff that people gave cash, gold coins, jewelry and other valuables to the fortune tellers, Bardfeld told the judge the victims were going through very vulnerable phases of their lives.

This is a grammar issue. I can't tell whether "some may scoff" is the reporter's opinion or the prosecutor's opinion. If you want to pin it to someone else, we have some well-established syntactic signals for that. Give them some thought.

"If you understood the severity of what these victims were going through, it makes more sense," Bardfeld said. They were told that if they didn't follow the psychics' advice, terrible things would happen to them or the people they cared about, he said.
"More sense" isn't the problem; everybody knows that people aren't at their decision-making best under stress. The question, I think, is who we're going to haul in for questioning if the threat of terrible supernatural consequences for dead or living relatives is the corpus delicti here.

We could go on. In a sentence like Most of those charged are members of the Marks family, a so-called Romanian gypsy clan whose members were born and grew up in the United States, we can't tell what the writer's problem is. Does she not believe that there's such a thing as a "Romanian gypsy clan," or does she not think the defendants qualify as one?

... "From the people I've interviewed so far, I've found nobody pleased with their services," Stack testified.

Well, there's a challenge. If reading sheep livers is an allowable career choice, it's hard to see how there's -- literally, mind you -- a federal case in complaints about the results of any particular bit of extispicy.

Syntactically, the most interesting thing here might be the pronouns. I count three "who" cases in the story that by prescriptive newsroom standards ought to be "whom." Has the Sun-Sentinel decided to join the Whom Is Dead crowd, or is the desk just getting careless? But the real issues are the social and cultural ones. I'd like to see these clowns in jail, but I'm wary of the old categorical imperative. If every complaint about false claims on the supernatural is a story (or a federal case), whom are we going after next?

Labels: ,

Friday, August 19, 2011

Man eating tiger

Well, that had to hurt. Let's see what the AP had to say:

The mayor of Vilnius acknowledged Tuesday distributing a deliberately altered picture to The Associated Press and other news organizations intended to dramatize his anti-parking campaign, an image that then was published in newspapers around world.

The AP withdrew the photo, transmitted on Aug. 3, and notified its customers of the breech* Monday, as soon as it discovered the deception.

And the photo dramatized his anti-parking campaign how? Was he lying in the street, eyeball to eyeball with the offending car, when it went after him? Or was he ...

Vilnius Mayor Arturas Zuokas' office sent a photo showing him riding an armored personnel carrier, from which two other people were erased.

Oh. What Vilnius has is a car-crushing mayor, not a car crushing mayor. As old Fowler put it, there's a difference between a man eating tiger and a man-eating tiger.

Important notice: Fun with hyphens aside, Regret The Error is an invaluable part of the daily news diet. Craig is doing good work over there.

*Shurely "breach"?

Labels: ,

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Thank you, Pope Rupert

Isn't it nice when a reporter goes beyond the "what" to give you the "what next"?

They're going to burn in hell.

Three godless thugs stole a churchgoing Bronx man’s Bible during a vicious beating and robbery captured on chilling surveillance video released by the NYPD yesterday.

Imagine, a newspaper that doesn't just provide coupons; it looks after your immortal soul as well! And not just yours, but souls belonging to those pesky document leakers:

It's whoever leaked the document that bears the burn-in-hell blame.

... and those annoying Democrats:

I pray the president is doing right by this country. But if he is wagging the dog, he will burn in hell.
Read more »


Forbidden ledes: Not your typical

All forms of this lede are permanently barred, under all circumstances:

The masked man who locked a fake bomb to the neck of an Australian millionaire's teenage daughter did not look like your ordinary violent criminal. The gray-haired attacker wielded a baseball bat but wore beige trousers and a light-colored dress shirt, rolled up at the elbows.

Is the AP going to enlighten us on what "your ordinary violent criminal" looks like? I'd be kind of tipped off by the baseball bat and the balaclava, I think, but maybe the gray-haired violent criminals in AP's neck of the woods don't wear light-colored dress shirts before Labor Day or something. I'm trying very hard not to think "did not look like your ordinary violent criminal" is AP-speak for "wasn't black."

AP writers shouldn't leave that impression, of course, but AP editors shouldn't pass it along, either, and AP members can certainly consider calling the control bureau to complain after they spike it themselves. But generally, that's why you avoid proclaiming that anyone is or isn't your typical single mom, college student, crazed Vietnam veteran, party activist or whatever: (a) there is no such thing, and (b) it's a good idea to keep your biases and preconceptions to yourself until you get over them.

Hard to see what makes this pedestrian feature the top news story on the frontpage, even at Lexington, but that's a different rant.

Labels: ,

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

On a hill far away

Say it ain't so, Old Hometown Newspaper!

"We are the cavalry," Ralls said.

Never mind.

The human eye being a willful creature, we tend to see pages in context, so "calvary" gave me a whole different first impression of the light tower in the skybox (right) -- as in, where's the other two?

Labels: , ,

Banana banana banana

Do you think that maybe -- given that the kicker says "BAY OF PIGS" and all -- we could have figured out what the topic is by the time we get to "Bay of Pigs" in the main hed and the c-deck?

Display type is supposed to complement other bits of display type. One way to do this is to address a different "w" in each bit of display type: If the main hed emphasizes "what," the deck can go for "when" and the cutline for "where." The point isn't just avoiding variation; it's using the eye's natural attraction to variations in size, shape and weight to give the poor coffee-deprived reader as many reasons to enter the story as you can.

Even if you're the Miami Herald, after all, not everyone in your audience sat breathlessly by the radio in 1961 -- or grew up in an exile household. The Elongated Yellow Fruit syndrome isn't a ban on variation; it's a caution against Fowler's "elegant variation," which turns bananas into the elongated yellow fruit and sugar beets into the subterranean sweet treat. Try a when or a who to break up the incessant what-what-what.

Alert readers will also notice that the deck violates a basic rule of hed writing. Here's the lede:

Freshly released CIA documents on the Bay of Pigs invasion provide new details on the confusion, mixed messages and last-minute changes in plans that ultimately doomed the mission.

Heds come from main clauses. The core of this story is "documents provide details." The "major confusion and mixed signals" aren't news. That's why they're hanging around a relative clause after a preposition.

Labels: ,

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Dialect: The rule is 'don't'

Can you guess from the hed where this one is going?

GREENLAND, N.H. -- Rick Perry, who entered the 2012 GOP race Saturday, greeted his first crowd of voters here with two words rarely heard in these parts: with a wave, he let out a boisterous “Hi, y’all” to a crowd clad in khakis and button ups gathered around a backyard pool.

Really? People in New Hampshire don't hear "hi" very much? Did we miss last week's Outlook section?

In a CNN debate in New Hampshire this summer, she introduced herself to voters by listing her professional credentials first: "Hi, my name is Michele Bachmann. I'm a former federal tax litigation attorney."

Sorry, that wasn't nice. But anyway, we seem to have a reporter who's obsessed with "y'all," and that can't end well:

There was also this: “Y’all holler outta question” to open up a question and answer* session.
Read more »

Labels: , ,

And their music? It's just noise

Never underestimate the power of journalism to comfort the comfortable, afflict the afflicted and belabor the obvious. Here, the Sunday Freep devotes its 2A commentary space to ... those pesky cell phones*!

Has any product ever grown so fast, changed so many things ... and caused so many problems?

Well, there's radio. (There's printing,** for that matter.) There's powered flight. There's fission, which when loaded into powered flight and dropped on other people changes a lot of things and causes a lot of problems. So these modern problems must be really, really serious:
Read more »

Labels: , ,

Sunday, August 07, 2011

Elongated yellow vegetable

Granted, the main hed* says "spider," so we probably don't want to repeat it if we can help it. But if we must -- it's an arachnid, not an insect.

Nor are we out of the sock drawer yet. Yes, the discovery "could" mean the spider is relocating. On the other hand, since the article acknowledges that "small groups of brown recluse** live in the state" already, maybe it doesn't.

* "Eek factor jumps as rare spider spotted in state."
** Since this isn't the outdoor section, and spiders aren't mooses, let's make it "recluses."


Saturday, August 06, 2011

Time warp

Where's that clue bat when you need it?

I can see how someone might have copied the homepage hed (above) from the story itself without engaging the part of brain that wonders about such things. What strikes me as odd is how the same person who wrote the deck -- "Families gather at the white church where their ancestors, once slaves, were members" -- could also have written the main hed, "Ancestors of slaves and slave masters reunite today at Bethel Presbyterian Church."

Labels: ,

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Scalpel in the patient

This looks like an editing error, producing a cousin of the McCartney preposition, which I suppose we should call the McCartney pronoun: "Including four of whom who had experience running airports."

"Including four who had experience running airports" would have been fine. So would "four of whom had experience running airports." (And either would have left the lede a line shorter.) But somebody apparently couldn't leave well enough alone.

Remember the basic rule of editing: When you undertake surgery on someone else's prose, close things up correctly and count the instruments when you're finished. Don't leave a scalpel in the patient. It looks awful on the X-rays.


Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Bet he didn't

Even if you're The Nation's Newspaper®, you don't get to make up new meanings for established usages.

Sure, it's possible to "jump" a mode of transportation -- as long as you're getting on. You can jump a train. You can jump a turnstile to get there. If you're feeling guilty, you could even jump an unwary tourist for the fare. But when you exit the said conveyance, you jump off -- out of, if you wish, but you need the preposition.

There's a lot more to complain about. The alleged lead "suggests" that Cooper "may well have survived," whether it pans out or not. The verbs in the complement clause should be coordinated better: "may well have survived .... and gone on to live 30 years." And then there's the issue of D.B. Cooper stories in general. I'm tired of them. So tired that I propose a new rule: Henceforth, until Mr. Cooper himself produces his birf certificate, all D.B. Cooper ledes will begin "It's unofficial."

Just to shame the offenders.

Labels: ,