Friday, December 23, 2005

Yonder pedant, who is he?

It's Xpesmas, and never forth should fare a copy editor who hath not a store of gold, an open heart and full of charity.* Though two out of three will still probably get you a few dragons, and in a pinch you can get by with the 9th New Collegiate if your spirit is pure. Thus a few thoughts on how to spread comfort and joy among readers by better sandpapering the work of reporters. Here are a few that are useful (or entertaining) in themselves but illustrate broader principles of grammar and composition as well.

In choosing among competing wire accounts of the same story, the "best version" isn't the one with the most adverbs and adjectives. It's the one with the most substance and the most sensible organization. Not, in other words, this:

Using scathing language, which included descriptions of the defendants as liars and of their actions as "breathtaking inanity," Judge John Jones III rendered what many consider a watershed decision in the culture wars over the teaching of evolution, also ruling that intelligent design is not a scientific theory but a religious belief.

Two closely related violations here: redundancy and backtracking. One, the specific incorporates the general. When you say somebody's 6-6, you don't have to add that he's tall. Don't waste space on "scathing" when you can immediately show exactly how scathing: He called them liars. Point two is a hedge issue. The lede (again, with the modification machine running full out) calls this a "broad and blistering landmark decision," with no "many consider" about it. Don't let writers play it both ways. If their judgment is good, make them stick with it throughout the story; if it isn't, maybe you should find some more cautious adjectives for the lede.

Same story, a bit of out-and-out careless grammar:
Eugenie Scott, director of NCSE, said the Jones decision "will make it more difficult not only to teach intelligent design," but also to "teach the controversy approach," which aims at portraying evolution as a flawed theory in crisis.

Diagramming party to action stations. Subject of the subordinated clause? Jones decision. What will it do? Make it more difficult. Make it more difficult to what? Two things:
"Teach intelligent design" (verb-object)
"Teach the controversy approach" (verb-object)

There's the problem. There isn't a "controversy approach" to teach; there's an approach to intelligent design called "teach the controversy." Grammar doesn't care what the writer meant, which is something along the lines of "make it more difficult to teach intelligent design or use the 'teach the controversy' approach." All it cares about is what she said. If the agency botched a point that's that central to the story, the odds are good this isn't the best version available.

Missourian double attribution heads south:
Steve Bridges, an operations engineer with the N.C. Department of Transportation, said he believes the vehicle was abandoned only for a short time because a camera positioned less than a half-mile from the wreck showed no irregular traffic patterns until after the crash.

Ahem. One, this is probably something he "thinks," rather than something he "believes" (you think it's time to go turn the roast boar, but you believe in Satan Claus -- well, some of you do). Second, before you adopt dubious prescriptions from textbooks: Is this sentence about what he thinks, or is it about whether the car had been abandoned for long? Call the reporters over and propose something like:
Steve Bridges, an operations engineer with the N.C. Department of Transportation, said the car had probably been abandoned for only a short time because a camera less than a half-mile from the wreck showed no irregular traffic patterns until after the crash.

Don't pee away space on details that are already covered when there's news to report and stuff to clarify:

In the other weekend wreck involving a stolen vehicle, Kimberly Currie, a 34-year-old woman out shopping with her 5-year-old, was injured when her 1995 Nissan was struck Saturday in eastern Mecklenburg County.

OK. I'm pretty sure that "Kimberley" is of the feminine persuasion (and there's always that telltale feminine pronoun "her"), so "34-year-old woman" is a bit on the gilding-refined-gold side. On the other hand, "5-year-old" has no gender. Sigh. Call the reporters over (right, you can't force them to do 20 pushups for every blunder, but there are other ways to get the point across) and figure out which of the two leading flavors of 5-year-old you have:

Kimberly Currie, a 34-year-old woman out shopping with her 5-year-old
Kimberly Currie, 34, who was out shopping with her 5-year-old daughter

Neat, huh? Same space (even less if it's a boy, Mrs. Walker), more data. You'd think they'd want to teach that in J-school.

She was struck by a group of teenagers, who police said tried to flee the scene. She remained hospitalized in fair condition Tuesday night.

You're making me do a lot of guessing. I'm guessing that the teens were in a car, and that the car was alleged to have been stolen. Did the teens successfully try to flee the scene (I'm trusting "the scene" is in there because otherwise your readers would think they're trying to flee the surly bonds of Earth), or did they fail? Were they arrested? How's the androgynous 5-year-old? Mind filling me in on some of this, in case I overlooked your previous reports?

And don't assume that your readers will know what figurative hed language means:

Stolen car -- suddenly 2 boys' parents are taken

Could you let us in on what "taken" means? Kidnapped? Arrested? Or (if I don't mind hanging on until the third graf) dead?

* And children can meet Lucy the Pig. Name that tune, kids.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Am I crazy, or is Lucy the pig from a 110 exercise on parallel construction?

3:41 PM, December 24, 2005  
Blogger fev said...

Lucy is the J110 poster pig of parallel construction (though I borrowed her from the collection of Becky Kuhn, who found her in one of the Observer's regional tabs long ago). Very good.

There are still a few points on the table for the song, though. Hint: 32.

4:22 PM, December 24, 2005  

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