Monday, April 30, 2012

Of petite men and low-pitched voices

An attractive, petite woman with what might be called a high-pitched voice, she testified that she tried at least once to leave the inside-the-beltway politics into which her husband, Andrew, pulled their family when John Edwards was a U.S. senator from North Carolina.

Just a few questions, Your Honor:

1) What might it be called if you didn't call it a high-pitched voice?
2) If you're not confident in your ability to judge the comparative pitch of her voice, why are you confident in your judgment of her attractiveness and waist size?
3) What sorts of adjectival delights will we be treated to when the menfolk testify? A glowering, swarthy ruin of an Adonis with a voice like John Duffey pleasuring an F/A-18 ...

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Sunday, April 29, 2012

Parcel is expecting of receiving

Hmm. Wonder what's in this official-looking email from "USPS"?


We couldn’t deliver your parcel at your address.
Status\It’s not right specified size and the weight of parcel.

Pesky parcel! How can I reclaim it?

... Label is enclosed to the letter. You should print the label and show it in the nearest post office to get a parcel.

What a relief! Unless ...

An additional information
If the parcel isn’t received within 30 working days our company will have the right to claim compensation from you for it's keeping in the amount of $15.43 for each day of keeping.

Kids, I know it isn't always clear that J-school has a great claim on your education dollar. But if email scamming is your career goal, you can at least count on us to explain why "
it’s not right specified size and the weight of parcel" will fail to separate you from the pack, first-job-application-wise.

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Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Of female nurses and male drivers

It does cause one to wonder what circumstances would have to obtain for our friends at the Fair 'n' Balanced Network to write a hed saying "male zookeeper," doesn't it?

We have cliches like "man bites dog," after all, because news is about the unusual, and to have an unusual, you have to have a usual -- a natural state of things in which women don't tend large animals or operate heavy machinery and men don't do girly stuff like teach primary school. Hence the persistence of double-marked ledes like this one, in which the pronoun makes the modifying "male" unnecessary:
A male nurse who exposed himself and a fondled a female colleague at an old folks home faces being struck off.

Or this:
Prosecutors are reviewing a case against a 17-year-old suspected female drunken driver who crashed in September, killing her passenger.

Those are more extreme than the case at hand, but they're still reminders that how we portray the world says a lot about how we view the world. Readers can't tell what you meant from your choice of modifiers, but they're likely to have a pretty clear idea of what you said.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

When nouns collide

Perfectly normal hed -- until you get to the lede beneath:

A Canton woman who smelled smoke while baking a cake for her grandson's first birthday Friday said she and her mother ran out to find a neighbor in flames on the deck of the house next door.

By standard news logic, "a Canton woman" in the lede should be the "Canton woman" in the hed. Shortly after the relative clause, you can conclude that they're neighbors, rather than being the same person, but that's really not soon enough for the coffee-deprived brain.

Because the editor bats after the writer, this one is a desk fault; reporters can't go back and straighten out the ambiguity if they don't know it's there. It's nice to know the obsessive house style on hyphens is followed in "burning lawn-furniture cushions," but on the whole, I'd rather that time went into making a good -- or at least a not-misleading -- first impression.

I'd also wonder where the bar is set for random-seeming gossip in news stories these days:

"What I heard is, her husband had stayed home from work today to be with her, and she had sent him to the store" before setting herself ablaze, Young said.

... but that's a different discussion at a different pay grade.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Step right up, step right up

Here's a case of Fox being -- not evil, in the sense of lying about quanti- tative evidence to serve the purposes of its satanic masters, but clueless, in the sense of being unable to tell when it's being spun by made-up data. Since that could happen to any who stray from the path of righteousness, let's have a look:

What’s the difference between the office and a singles bar? Well, nothing for some millennials.

According to a study by employee benefits provider Workplace Options, 84% of employees aged 18 to 29 say they would date a co-worker, and 71% say they think workplace romance is a positive thing that improves performance and morale.

OMG those kids!

Their older colleagues disagree, as only 29% of those aged 46 to 65 say they’d consider dating someone they worked with, and 90% say it could do more harm than good.

Let's stop the tape for a moment (and if this sounds like what we were talking about in New Orleans last week, it is). Have we asked yet what's in the sample drawn on by "employee benefits provider Workplace Options" and how that sample was selected? If we haven't, or if we have and the answer is the occasional hem-hem, the story is over. We can't make any generalizations about those crazy millennials, because we don't have any tools that would allow us to do so. And if we don't have a few other competently done surveys that point us toward a positive and significant change in 18-29s' involvement in office shenanigans, we should kill the story on the spot and make sport of the buffoon who suggested it, because the premise is entirely fictional.

That means it's not really relevant to ask about question design -- for example, whether "positive thing" and "could do more harm than good" are poles on the same scale, or whether the variance in "would you date a co-worker" is so soaked up by marital status as to be meaningless.* There is no "on the rise." There is no "study." There is no story.

The tradeoff here isn't especially good. Fox gets to run a bogus headline and a stock photo of young people looking like office workers, and in return, people who have titles like "career coach" get to promote themselves in something that looks like a news story. I don't think the news outlet is getting the better of that deal.

Aw, can't Your Editor*** take a joke? Yes, if it's funny. But news stories are known by the company they keep. If your barriers for made-up social generalizations are set so low as to allow this one over, you shouldn't expect me to believe the ones you do take seriously.

* "Face validity" is a different question. Not only does every generation** think it invented sex, every generation thinks it invented office romance.
** And their music? It's just noise.
*** Who, disclosure-wise, met the totally hot grammar bomb Language Czarina at a newspaper back when he still had the accursed 1976 Fiat.

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Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Annual cat picture

How embarrassing. We missed the little guys' homecoming day, which was Sunday. So here's a belated anniversary picture: Woodward (right) and Bernstein settling into their new home, seven years ago Tuesday.

Bernie's still kind of suspicious, and Woodchuck is still sort of a marshmallow, but in all, they're doing pretty well. Please accept their best regards.


Hot tub fed clams up

I'm not suggesting this one's an authentic crash blossom, but it has enough collisions of different types of hed dialect to warrant a moment's amusement.

My first reaction to "fed clams up," alas, is "fed clams up the what?" I've gotten pretty used to "feds," which even in the broadsheets more or less means any federal agency, but the singular form is a little jarring. (And evidently it's not the Federal Reserve.) And "hot tub fed," 823G or not, is the sort of thing I'd expect in a redtop, not a US tabloid.*

Just making sure no one's blood goes below a rolling boil before Election Day, I guess.

* Given their red-blooded patriotism, it's always fun to see the Murdoch products slipping into the jargon of the motherland.

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Monday, April 16, 2012

Life among the tabloids

And this is the World's Most Super-Important Story because ... OK, it has to be the "as," right? Scandal rocks summit, and where's the feckless chief diplomat?

Having a beer. Or, as the Daily Mail put it with its firm grasp on American bar dialect, "swigging back" a beer. (It's "slugged back" in the Post story itself.)

Now, granted, the "brewing Secret Service prostitution story" is a fairly interesting tale. So interesting, perhaps, that it might be worth a little content on the front page along with some adult having a beer.

That minor problem may be why the narrative runs out of steam so fast. However quickly she might have guzzled or swigged or slugged it down or back or up, nobody seems able to far to pin more than one beer on Secretary Clinton herself, even if she was "swilling ... straight from the bottle." (The Post, which seems to be putting things together from a distance, credits the whole party -- "a dozen pals and her State Department security detail" -- with "a dozen beers, two shots and bottles of water," which sounds like everyone had a drink, notwithstanding the Mail's "partied the night away.")
Read more »

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Sunday, April 15, 2012

Everything from soup to hay

For a newspaper that ((back in the days of plush staffing) used to have a "Southern editor" -- shouldn't y'all find the punctuation in the hed a little embarrassing?

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Saturday, April 14, 2012

We hardly knew ... wait, what?

It's ACES 2012 and heds are in the air, so let's start getting through some of the backlog that's piled up over the past few weeks.

What is CBS up to here -- listing its story topics (remembering Wallace, Cardinal Dolan) or listing the people you ought to remember (Wallace and Dolan)?

 As with the never-ending dispute about hyphenating compound modifiers, this isn't a case in which I'd say the the possible second reading (remembering Wallace and Dolan) is the one that's definitively "created" by grammar. I would say that at a quick, coffee-deprived read, it's ambiguous enough to merit rewriting. One solution is to put the longer or more complex element at the end of the compound. You can't have two potential objects if you're the last thing in the sequence: "Cardinal Timothy Dolan, Remembering Mike Wallace and more."

Having wondeful time, wish you were here, and if you are here, see you shortly.


Friday, April 06, 2012

Just stop it

The short answer is yes, they're pretty much interchangeable.

The slightly longer answer is -- no, "grammarians" don't pass judgment on what is or isn't sufficiently laid back for formal writing. (They don't even rule on whether "laid back" is too laid back for formal writing, but I digress.) Grammar doesn't have categories for measuring the laid-backedness of the sundry parts of speech.  Like, I mean, dude.

People who complain about replacing "because of" with "due to" aren't complaining about register, though. They're saying it's grammatically wrong. That judgment doesn't have much (if any) basis in evidence, leading to a longer-still answer:

1) If the "due to" thing is the favorite peeve of the person who signs your paycheck, you should memorize it and then enthusiastically seek out similar peeves. Many of them will be sillier, but it's nice to pay the rent.
2) Otherwise, you have better things to do. Seriously. If you edit for a living, the odds are far higher that in the next 24 hours, you'll come across a genuine grammatical problem -- a booted negation, a bollixed boundary thing, a dangler that goes beyond the bounds of discourtesy into outright nonsense -- than that you will knock the earth off its axis by allowing some writer to use the perfectly acceptable "due to" to mean "because of." And that's not counting the likelihood that the new hire, fluent in HTML but blithely ignorant of how nouns and verbs go together to make up "libel," has defamed eight or 10 people before lunch.

If the Ask The Stylebook folks would like my advice (which I point out is easily worth twice what they've paid for it so far), I'd suggest that most answers should go more like this:

  • Did you look it up?
  • No, really. We put the thing in alphabetical order for your convenience.
  • Do you have a real problem with the idea of owning a dictionary? 
  • Please sharpen my pica pole and hold it steady while I run at it.
  • No, dammit, "steady" is an adjective referring to the state in which I want the sharpened pica pole to be held. I do not care if you hold it steadily as long as it is steady.
  • Please tell me where you went to journalism school so I can have this added to your permanent record.
  • Oh, for God's sake.

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