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Tuesday, August 7, 2012
Words & Language Toolbox

Back to the basics

By Paula LaRocque

We abandon the basics of good writing at our peril — such basics as sound grammar and structure, logical transition of detail, and the checklist of W’s and H.

Consider this lead:

“The credit ratings of 15 major banks were slashed on Thursday, the latest setback for an industry that is already grappling with global economic turmoil and weak profits.”

What’s the first thing we want to know when reading this lead? We want to know which 15 banks have been downgraded. But in the whole of this story, which includes a sizable jump to another section, only three banks are mentioned: Bank of America, Citi and Morgan Stanley. The editors may have been wary of cluttering the prose with a long list, but why not include a boxed and bulleted list that would answer the reader’s most urgent question?

Answering reader questions: You can hardly get more basic than that.

Let’s look at four sentences excerpted from another front-page, above-the-fold story, same news outlet. The sentences:

1) If this was ever an election just about Wisconsin, it is far more than that now.

3) The outcome of the election on Tuesday will not just decide the state’s leanings on matters of budget, taxes and policy, as well as the ultimate trajectory of Mr. Walker’s fast-rising political prospects. …

7) Mr. Walker’s Democratic opponent, Tom Barrett, the mayor of Milwaukee, who holds the hopes of hundreds of thousands of Wisconsin residents who began seeking Mr. Walker’s recall just a year into the governor’s first term, has trailed in some public polls, though Mr. Walker’s lead has generally fallen within each poll’s margin of sampling error.

9) Mr. Barrett, who ran for governor against Mr. Walker in 2010, again became the Democrats’ nominee a month ago when he won a contested primary — one step in the process, set by Wisconsin law, for calling what amounts to a new election for a sitting governor if at least a quarter of the total number of voters from the last election sign recall petitions.

Let’s consider each of the above sentences:

1) This simple lead is marred by a basic error in grammar. It should read: “If this were ever ...” That’s because its “if” clause expresses both doubt and contradiction: If this election were ever just about Wisconsin (doubt), it’s not now (contradiction). The subjunctive were is needed in such “if” clauses as if I were queen; if she were rich; if he were president. (I’m not queen; she isn’t rich; he isn’t president.) Were is likewise needed in clauses expressing desire or supposition: I wish I were going, but if it were up to them, nobody would go.

Is this arcane pedantry? No. Basic grammar is the business of every media writer.

3) This sentence, as written, is a fragment. It says, in effect: “This election will decide not just A, as well as B.” To be coherent, its “not only but also” structure must be completed: “This election will decide not just A, but also B.” (“Just” here means “only.”) Revised: “The outcome of the election on Tuesday will decide not just the state’s leanings on matters of budget, taxes and policy, but also the ultimate trajectory of Mr. Walker’s fast-rising political prospects.”

If “not only but also” is too challenging, the sentence also could be salvaged by rewriting that the election’s outcome “will decide the ultimate trajectory of Mr. Walker’s fast-rising political prospects as well as the state’s leanings on matters of budget, taxes and policy.” That’s a flatter sentence, but at least it isa sentence.

7) How many consecutive clauses and phrases can a sentence bear? Not many! This fits-and-starts passage is worsened because two consecutive clauses are “who” clauses, and the subjects of those clauses are different subjects. Imagine talking this way: “Walker’s opponent, Tom Barrett, mayor of Milwaukee, who holds the hopes of hundreds of thousands who began seeking a recall, has trailed in the polls, though Walker’s lead has been within the margins of error.”

Further, this jumpy 55-word sentence is too long by half. Good writers use a wide variety of sentence lengths but keep their sentence length average low — seldom exceeding 25 words unless the sentence incorporates a list. Good writers also generally hold to one major idea per sentence. The major idea here? That Walker’s Democratic opponent, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, has trailed in some polls. Why not write that, then, and add the corollary material in subsequent sentences? Or, alternatively:

“Walker’s Democratic opponent is Tom Barrett, the mayor of Milwaukee. Barrett holds the hopes of hundreds of thousands of Wisconsin residents seeking Walker’s recall, but he trails in some polls. Walker’s lead generally falls within those polls’ margins of error, however.”

9) Sentences with more than three prepositions are seldom readable. This busy, herky-jerky sentence has a dozen.

In short, basics are media writers’ best friends. And they can transform dense, rough writing into smooth and interesting stories.

Paula LaRocque is author of “The Book on Writing,” “On Words” and “Championship Writing.” Her first novel, a mystery titled “Chalk Line,” was published by Marion Street Press in September 2011. Email: plarocque@sbcglobal.net. Blog and website: paulalarocque.com

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