Thursday, June 08, 2006

Style zombies stalk earth

Today's topic is a grammar issue -- not (necessarily) "bad" grammar, but grammar that's so badly marked you can't tell who's supposed to yield and who's supposed to barrel ahead:

911 operators charged after 5-year-old ignored
Two 911 operators who authorities say wrongly assumed it was a prank when a 5-year-old boy called to report that his mother had collapsed have been charged with neglect of duty.

Looks as if the style zombies have come through in search of human flesh and auxiliary verbs. Trouble is, news "style" doesn't require that heds be written without auxiliaries. Indeed, when an auxiliary is the only way to tell what verb goes with what noun, you're sort of duty-bound to use it. Which is exactly the sort of issue we face above. Is "charged" active (the operators charged after the 5-year-old) or passive (the operators were charged)? Who was ignored, the 5-year-old or the operators?

Short version: Be clear. Whenever you think a style rule, or a bit of journalistic custom, or any other form of that's-the-way-we've-always-done-it-ism is causing you to write like a zombie, stop. Back up. Think again. It ain't.

Longer version: Parallel structure extends his sunny beams over elided elements too. The auxiliaries ought to be in different tenses: Operators ARE charged after 6-year-old WAS ignored (would have been hard to charge them BEFORE he was ignored, but that's a different issue).

Best idea: With this many warning lights, it's time to throw out the hed structure and start over. Play with a few ideas that don't require the passive clause object:
911 operators accused of ignoring 5-year-old
911 operators accused after woman's death

One could go on and on, but one has places to go.


Blogger Doug said...

Of course, on first glance, one might also ask "How many operators?"

Yeah, the 911 sort of works after a half second, but Emergency would seem to be better if it didn't take up so much danged real estate.

12:23 AM, June 24, 2006  
Blogger fev said...

Good point. Wonder if we ought to write "9-1-1" into the stylebook as an eye spelling.

8:13 AM, June 24, 2006  

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