Friday, May 01, 2009

Adverbs gone wild

Since we seem to have a nice influx (hi, Logsters!) of visitors interested in ghost adverbs and such, here's a "when" clause to sink your teeth into:

Eddie Hatcher, an American Indian activist, who was convicted of murder and attracted worldwide attention when he and an accomplice took hostages at The Robesonian newspaper, died of natural causes in prison. He was 51.

Quick, what happened during the Robesonian siege?
a) Murder
b) Hostage-taking
c) Both of the above
d) None of the above

It kinda depends on how you diagram the relative clause (which, by the way, strikes me as integrative, not supplemental, so I'd lose the comma after "activist"):

who ((was convicted of murder) and (attracted worldwide attention) when he and an accomplice took hostages at The Robesonian) ...

who (was convicted of murder) and (attracted worldwide attention when he and an accomplice took hostages at The Robesonian) ...

Which one do you like intuitively?* I bet it's the first one. It ain't Shakespeare, but it makes sense: two short verb phrases with the long subordinate clause explaining when it all happened. But the Robesonian siege was in 1988 (it ended without injuries), and the killing -- as the story on Hatcher's death** notes -- was in 1999.

Is it going to sound like a broken record if we count this as another Death of Editing story? One thing that sets newspapers apart from the garden-variety blog is institutional memory. Editors remember stuff that was a big deal a decade, or two decades, ago. Then they apply "grammar" -- not the unearthly admonitions of the "News Reporting and Writing" textbook, but the kind that lets you wire phrases into clauses and compare the different sorts of meaning you can get by doing the wiring differently. Then they ask you if you'd rather say what you mean or what you said, apply a headline, and move on to the next disaster. Lather, rinse, repeat.

There's an anecdote about a bag of hamburgers that goes here too, but I have a pile of grading to do. Please go to the blogroll at right and welcome John McIntyre back to the blogging world.

* I am so not calling on RayB, Strayhorn, Jane and anybody else who was committing journalism in that neck of the woods in those days. If you know the answer, don't spoil it for the rest of the class.
** "When did that happen?" is one of those "W" elements that -- you'd like to think -- might have aroused the curiosity of an editor, but the story doesn't mention it. Nor does the version at the originating paper, which appears to be the updated version from the pen of a staff writer (the wire coverage at the N&O Web site has "1988" in the hed)


Blogger The Ridger, FCD said...

I think they're treating "an American Indian activist" as an apposite to his name, so the commas are setting of it and not the relative, which is integrative.

But it could go either way.

9:31 PM, May 01, 2009  
Anonymous Ed said...

Actually, I think the sentence is (just barely) correct as it stands, isn't it? It seems like only the second reading makes sense. If you read the 'and' conjunctively, it would suggest that he was actually convicted of a murder at the very moment he took the hostages.
But Shakespeare it ain't, either way.

10:44 AM, May 02, 2009  
Blogger The Ridger, FCD said...

Though it does make it sound like the murder conviction happened before the hostage-taking and attention-getting ... possibly even caused them.

11:45 AM, May 02, 2009  
Blogger fev said...

I'm going to suggest (without a lot of documentary evidence at this point) that "when" is another of those journalistic adverbs that doesn't always have a literal meaning. Like the "after" in "after police said," it can mean "more or less in connection with this, sorta."

Another one that works like that is "how." "He testified how he was surprised to find ..." doesn't deal with the manner in which his surprise came about; it means he said he was surprised.

I may play with this in Lexis sometime today, but ... gotta go procrastinate at the farmers market before it closes.

11:54 AM, May 02, 2009  
Blogger Doug said...

I agree an "earlier had" before "attracted" would be nice, I strangely pretty much parsed it the second way from the beginning. It just seemed to me the two couldn't have happened together.

I wonder if readers would stumble over it that much.

Having said that and reflecting on the above, even "earlier had" might not be a good solution because it then might make readers think the two things were connected. Probably need to go with "and in a separate incident had attracted."

Back to the grading.

1:59 PM, May 02, 2009  

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