Friday, August 31, 2007

Keep opinion to self

Couple examples Ripped From Today's Headlines -- OK, Wednesday's headlines, but time has been at a premium this week -- to illustrate the damage a stray modifier can do.

This isn't a call to get rid of adjectives. As the good folks at Language Log note, you can't even say "Omit needless words" without 'em. But it is a call to use them carefully. Modifiers are particularly prone, in some cases, to being needless:

She clutches a white coffee cup and twirls a strand of brown hair that has fallen loose from her twisted updo. The gesture makes her appear slightly nervous.

We don't learn much about coffee cups (or the Artisan or Pippa) from this. All we gather is that somewhere, the writer internalized the idea that news writing is turned into feature writing by putting adjectives in front of nouns. But that doesn't mean adjectives themselves are evil.

Other cases are more of a threat to the craft, and those are the ones we're concerned about here. You'll even get a few tips on how to judge the appropriateness of adjectives in news writing (see? your subscription dollars at work).

One way to test whether an adjective is the beast you want is to reverse its valence (notice that's not really a property of "white" in "white coffee cup" or "brown" in "brown hair"). Here's a test case from the AP:

Two weeks before receiving a major assessment of the war in Iraq, President Bush on Tuesday delivered a ringing defense of the war effort.

Let's try it with a less enthusiastic adjective. Based on Mr. Bush's previous speech on the war effort, I'm inclined to suggest -- oh, let's go with "incoherent." President Bush on Tuesday delivered an incoherent defense of the war effort ... hmm, truth value aside, it does sort of suggest why the lede is not the place for the reporter's opinion of the speech, doesn't it?

Ready for another?

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad boldly declared Tuesday that U.S. political influence in Iraq is "collapsing rapidly" and said his government is ready to help fill any power vacuum.

Let's just use a simple semantic differential on this one. Would we say he "timidly" declared that U.S. influence was collapsing? Is the nature of the declaration really at issue here, or is it some sort of AP lese-majeste -- the gall of some damn foreigner, daring to suggest that U.S. influence might be collapsing? !?! Or ?!?!? I mean, how dare he?

Don't bar the door to adjectives and adverbs. Make sure they say something, and make sure it's something appropriate to say. And if you aren't ready to call babbling historical fabrications "incoherent," don't give the guy a pass with "ringing." (I don't know what's worse, the observation that news sites increasingly tend to post AP copy unedited or the clear evidence that both the examples above were seen and approved by editors.)


Blogger The Ridger, FCD said...

This is true. And it's not only adjectives. I remember when AP told us "Iranian president threatens retaliation to any U.S. strike".

Gosh - he "threatens" that if we hit him he'll hit us back, does he? How dare he? The nerve of the man...

2:37 PM, September 01, 2007  

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