Thursday, October 12, 2006

Just hire me already ...

OK, OK, ripping ESPN is so passe at this point that it's almost retro-cool. But I can't resist taking issue -- a very specific issue -- with this Barrow football story.

The story itself is good, very good, even. The writing is nothing flashy, and that's not a criticism -- Wayne Drehs is smart enough to know when he has a great story, and to get out of its way. The subject matter alone is enough, in this case, to spark and maintain reader interest. What sports fan doesn't want to read about high school football in the Arctic?

My problem is not with Drehs. My question is for the editors: what the fuck are you guys doing over there? Do you own a style guide? Do you have a copy desk? This story brims with fundamental grammar and usage mistakes.

I began to notice these gaffes in the first part, but only started copying and pasting once I got to the second half. A sampling excerpted directly from the story:

A flurry-filled fog fills the air, a cool breeze blows off the Arctic and assorted rocks, twigs and pebbles wash up on the beach.

A flurry-filled fog fills the air? Fills it so much that it necessitates repeating the word "fill" twice in the span of three words? Couldn't you use a synonym there, something more sensical and fitting, something like "clogs" (one of the handy synonyms provided by -- I'm not asking for you to dig out the OED here, fellas). Or how about just going with simplicity, maybe even some alliteration : "Flurries fill the fog..." Maybe crank up the prose in a moment that seems opportune, with something like "A flurry-filled fog thickens the air"? I mean, isn't that what editors are supposed to do?

And that's not all - "assorted" has no reason to be in that sentence, and there should be a comma after "Arctic," since that sentence is a construction of three complete clauses and so doesn't fall under the serial comma rule. I haven't opened an AP style guide in three years and I know this.

Maybe I'm expecting too much; maybe that's nit-picking. But that's just the beginning.

Fewer jobs and greater aggravation manifest in teenagers as drunken act-out crimes such as "ghost riding," where teenagers steal a snowmobile, tie a rubber band to hold the throttle open and push the machine over a gravel cliff to its thunderous and exhilarating death.

The first half of that sentence is an absolute wreck. Beyond the fact that the link between fewer jobs and greater aggravation among teenagers is not made clear, there's a real problem with the way the verb "manifest" is used there. For one, the sentence as is literally places the crime within the teenagers, when actually the crime is an action which they perform. The problem lies in the stringing together of prepositional phrases and conjunctions -- a common culprit in problems of clarity -- such as "in teenagers as drunken act-out crimes such as...". It's exceedingly hard to tell whether "as" is used as a conjunction or as a preposition there -- I can't tell myself -- but in any case, it's easy to tell that the syntax is all fucked up. There's also an entirely different issue regarding the verb "manifest," which is almost exclusively used in the transitive (I actually can't find any definition for the intransitive form, so it may not exist), meaning that the sentence above has misplaced its subject and object -- it should read "Drunken act-out crimes such as ghost riding manifest the teenagers' aggravation..." and so on.

But that's all pretty confusing and esoteric -- not a lot of people understand all of that (although I would argue that editors should). More importantly, it's very easy to fix that sentence: "Greater aggravation among teenagers translates into ..." or "shows itself as..." or whatever. Yes, it takes away the erudition factor of using a word like "manifest," but it also prevents you from looking like an idiot to the small percentage of people who will realize that you're using it improperly.

There's also a serial comma problem there.

Inupiat teenagers who talk with their grandparents about the past hear about a world of sod houses and blocks of ice providing water.

The sod houses are providing water in that sentence, and the second "about" should be changed to "of," in the interest of clarity.

Beyond learning about competition, teamwork and striving toward a common goal, beyond having something to keep kids busy and off the summer streets, Nageak believes there are direct parallels between whaling, the cornerstone of the Inupiat life, and the sport.

Again, this sentence reads sloppily in a few different ways. But most importantly, it contains a dangling or misplaced modifier: literally, the sentence states that Nageak himself is "beyond learning about competition," etc., when in fact it's trying to say ... well, actually, it's not clear at all what or whom those first few phrases are intended to modify.

That sentence is remarkably bad.

Fotukava now lives with his aunt and uncle in Barrow after his Anchorage-based mother sent him north after several failed attempts to keep him out of trouble. In Barrow, he has spent as much time in the detention room as the classroom.

The first sentence strings together two prepositional phrases -- the "afters" -- in an awkward fashion that could easily be avoided by breaking it into more than one complete sentence -- i.e., "Fotukava now lives with his aunt and uncle. His mother sent him north from Anchorage after several failed attempts...". That construction also avoids the inexcusably bad adjectival construction "Anchorage-based mother" -- companies, not people, are based in cities. Even better, choose a conjunction -- because the first after, though used as a preposition, is probably intended to be a conjunction -- that conveys the link between the two clauses: "Fotuvaka now lives with his aunt and uncle in Barrow, because his mother sent him north from Anchorage after several failed attempts..." and so on.

The second sentence has faulty parallelism. Right now, it suggests that the classroom has spent as much time in the detention room as the boy has. It should say: "In Barrow, he has spent as much time in the detention room as he has in the classroom." Or, to be even more proper, "He has spent as much time in the detention room as he has spent in the classroom." Cutting words doesn't make a sentence better if those words are essential to its meaning.

Like everything else surrounding the topic, it depends who you ask.

No, it doesn't. It depends whom you ask, since the word is the object of the verb "ask," not the subject.

I really find this sort of thing inexcusable. Maybe you journalists and ex-journalists disagree, and think I'm being a pretentious English major (if I had to guess, I'd actually expect Connor to agree, since he's somewhat of a prescriptive grammarian). "As long as it's clear what he means," you might say. "Nobody even knows these rules, anyway, so readers won't notice," you might say (which is a statement addressing an entirely different problem -- the complete disregard for grammar in contemporary print media -- that depresses me).

But again, I'm not faulting Drehs for this. I don't think sportswriters should spend their time poring over the OED, or even the AP style guide (which has an excellent section on grammar and usage). I'm faulting his editors, because editors should know better. That's their job -- they edit. And maybe that's not the reality of contemporary corporate media -- maybe editors spend too much time on administrative tasks to actually care about the prose they edit -- but it should be. Somebody has got to care about the writing itself. Even if it's just the underappreciated and underpaid copy desk. There needs to be somebody on staff who knows something about the standards of prose writing and actually gives enough of a shit.

Because this kind of shit is inexcusable. This isn't some tight-deadline gamer with a missing "the"; this is a front-page (of feature piece that obviously took months to write. The editors had the time to make sure it was tight and flawless. They just didn't do it.

I actually wonder what kind of editorial staff employs. I can't possibly imagine the errors outlined above -- most of which are fundamental, middle school-English issues -- would ever show up in the LA Times, or the Star, or even the Wildcat (actually, maybe the Wildcat...). probably has a readership the size of the ten biggest sports sections combined -- and they can't catch a dangling modifier? What the fuck is going on over there?

Jesus H., just hire me. I'd much rather do that than sit around grading 75 essays on abortion and bitching at Doyle on a blog.

(See how I tied the ending together with the title? I did that just for you, Patrick Finley.)

1 comment:

Diesel said...

Three points:

1) You're quite right that I'd agree. I don't understand why writers are incapable of applying the "know thyself" maxim when they step up to a keyboard. I would always prefer someone write at a comfortable level and give me clean copy than try and ape James Ellroy, fail miserably, and piss me off in the process.

2) My friend, if you think these grammatical issues are covered in middle school, I need to raise my children in Tombstone. The vast majority of your points were covered as part of my TEFL curriculum in Rome, and I was not completely shocked to find out that 95 percent of my classmates didn't even know what a predicate was. The lowest level of education in the course was a girl who is graduating from university this year.

3) I don't care how bored you are, I promise you it's still better than being a copy editor, anywhere. I'd expect you, of anyone on this forum, to understand that.

Remember that course we both took where the teacher spent two classes on the difference between who and whom. I still don't think more than half the class got it.