Friday, December 26, 2014

They said did!

The trouble with inventing your own grammar is that sometimes it doesn't work -- you plow blithely ahead with your favorite new construction, but your poor readers simply assume that stuff means what it did the previous day. In that sequence, you lose.

We've commented before on Drudge's recent habit of dropping subject pronouns (mostly in  complementized and subordinated clauses), generally because the result just looks weird -- like encountering Timespeak or Tribune spelling for the first time. This one, on the other hand, points directly to a wrong meaning. If your first reading was that there's a kidnapped border agent and some cartel has claimed him or her, good for you. Alas for Drudge, the story intends something different:

A person claiming to be a member of a cartel said they have kidnapped a border agent and threatened the agent's life, according to police.

It's perfectly standard for news language to drop the "that" in a sentence like "Cartel claims it kidnapped border agent," because there's frequently no chance of confusion.* Problems do crop up with time elements ("Smith said after he signed the bill he would go to Disneyland") or when a subject leads you up the garden path: "Police believed Smith [SEE PAGE 8A]" might end up meaning "Police believed Smith was lying." Omitting the subject of the clause is a whole different animal. Much as it apparently makes you sound all cool and tabloidy, here it just makes the hed say something other than what it means.

How quickly Drudge should have declared a state of national bedwetting is a different question. The local TV station has some issues with noun-pronoun agreement, but it's been diligent about keeping up with the official statements on the matter:

As of 10 am local time all on duty RGV sector agents have been accounted for. At this time RGV sector has not been able to corroborate the authenticity of the phone call received by the La Joya Police Department. Nevertheless through an abundance of caution the sector continues to pursue existing protocols to account for all RGV sector agents.

Surely Drudge will keep us up to date on further developments.

* AP style is officially more conservative than many writers let on; in a happy burst if reason, it advises: "When in doubt, include that. Omission can hurt. Inclusion never does."

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