Sunday, January 08, 2012

I'll have the chicken tartare

Even at the Nation's Newspaper of Record, idle hands are Satan's maracas:

Because of an editing error, a review in some editions last Sunday about Polpettina, a restaurant in Eastchester, N.Y., described a chicken entree incorrectly. It is half of a roasted chicken, not a “half-roasted” chicken.

Here's the offending sentence from the original lede:

It's a pizzeria at heart, but what turns heads are the sparkling salads, the way-above-average pasta dishes, a profoundly good half-roasted chicken, and trimly tailored desserts.

... and the perfectly good substitute you see today:

It’s a pizzeria at heart, but what turns heads are the sparkling salads, the way-above-average pasta dishes, a profoundly good roasted chicken half, and trimly tailored desserts.

Allow us a guess here: The writer turned in a lede that used the fairly common (and hardly ungrammatical) menu and cooking term "half roasted chicken." Working on autopilot, some editor saw two modifiers together and assumed they were a compound, rather than a sequence, and our review is suddenly much more interesting to the Health Department than once it was.

This isn't a case of too many rules or too few rules. (There really is a difference between a man eating blancmange and a man-eating blancmange.) Over and above sheer carelessness, it's a case of misusing time by misreading potential ambiguity; did this clause really need the editor's intervention? On the one hand, you can argue that any reader who's ready to wade into the adjectival thicket of a Times restaurant review knows full well what a "half roasted chicken" is; on the other, that the occasional daywalking civilian bystander might still be confused by the elliptical construction, so better to make it "roasted half chicken" or "roasted chicken half."

Editors still need to start by asking what the prose says. Having found a potential fault, though, a reasonable follow-on question is "how ambiguous is ambiguous?" As John McIntyre pointed out last week, English ain't algebra; relying on math tricks to settle questions of grammar is a dangerous game. (But see especially Ed Latham's contribution in the comments on how legal writing addresses the potential ambiguity of "which" and "that" in relative clauses.) One of the first editing rules we'll cover this semester is "Sit on your hands until you know what the writer is trying to do."

Cases like this aren't casualties of the War on Editing, but the war reminds us that we work in an environment where the value of editing is no longer assumed but often actively challenged. We don't help matters when the customer orders roast chicken and we substitute chicken tartare.

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2 Comments:

Blogger MJF said...

Hyphenitis, swelling of the hyphen, is a horrible disease, but it can be controlled.

11:18 AM, January 08, 2012  
Blogger MJF said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

11:19 AM, January 08, 2012  

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