Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Grammar gripes

Familiar sermon time again: Copyeds don't generally decide what writers are going to say. We help them make sure they're saying it effectively. Sometimes that means walking them through some grammar points -- not whacking them upside the head for inverting subjects and verbs or putting adverbs after auxiliaries, but pointing out what the blocks of meaning in their stories are trying to do to each other. A few examples from today, starting at the top:

Dandridge stepping up
Sophomore’s role could be expanding with the Missouri baskeball team.

Prepositional phrases can modify lots of things, and the one in the deck -- "with the Missouri basketball team" -- is going to look for the closest reasonable target. That's the verb phrase "could be expanding." The result is perfectly good "grammar." The house dictionary gives a bunch of meanings for "with": in the company of, alongside, in the same degree as ("I was learning with my classmates"). Trouble is, they aren't what we want here. We want it to modify the noun "role" and to take the meaning "as a member of," and the right way to do that is to put it directly after the noun:

Sophomore’s role with the Missouri baskeball team could be expanding.

See? The split-infinitive thing is a myth, but there are rules that really do make a difference. On to the story:

Walk into the Missouri Tigers basketball locker room after a game and many trends are noticeable.

Using the second person in the lede, again, isn't our call. Our job is to point out the shift from second-person active ("walk") to third-person linking ("are") and to suggest that once you've decided to use the second person, you should stick to it. The next point is order of cumulative adjectives. The lede isn't describing the Tigers' basketball locker room but the basketball Tigers' locker room. Quick solution: Let the adjectives modify "game":

Walk into the locker room after a Missouri basketball game and you'll notice many trends.

That gets around the Random Sports Apostrophe problem (quick, punctuation fans: Was the possessive correct above?), but it underlines the flabbiness of "many trends." But the writer can work on the fine-tuning; the grammar issues are fixed.

“It was a time to reflect and just think (about what he needs to do to play),” Dandridge said.

First point: This quote is as much the writer's as the source's. Never use an eight-word parenthetical insert to clarify a quote (there isn't a hard and fast rule, but a good cutoff would be three). And that puts the spotlight on the grammar problem: Dandridge appears to be talking about himself, but that's not what third-person pronouns in direct quotes do. We've created a parallelism fault. Borrow some tissue from the preceding graf and turn on the surgery lamp:

Dandridge, who didn't play in four of the Tigers' first seven games, said the postgame time in the lounge is a chance "to reflect and just think" about what he needs to do to play more.

All the ideas are there and we've kept him from referring to himself in the third person. We've had to trim the quote a bit, but better a partial quote that's all his than a full quote that's half yours.

Desk Q&A
Q: Is the sports department still using that random apostrophe generator it got for Christmas?
A: You make the call!
At some point, Kevin Young’s corner of the locker room becomes livelier as reporters’ laugh at another candid response from the Tigers senior center.

Q: Well, how about the New York Times? Is it generating random story links on its diabetes series?
A: See No. 5
Bad Blood: Diabetes and Its Awful Toll Quietly Emerge as a Crisis
An estimated 800,000 adult New Yorkers now have diabetes, and city health officials describe the problem as an epidemic.
1. Bad Blood: Diabetes and Its Awful Toll Quietly Emerge as a Crisis
2. Best-Selling Memoir Draws Scrutiny
3. More Companies Ending Promises for Retirement
4. Bad Blood: Living at an Epicenter of Diabetes, Defiance and Despair
5. Recipe: Crusty Macaroni and Cheese


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Is the misspelling of "basketball" as "baskeball" original to the story? I would have a problem with this as well...

8:34 AM, March 28, 2007  

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