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Wednesday, October 3, 2012
Words and Language Toolbox

Don’t depend on copy editors for the basics

By Paula LaRocque

Staff cutbacks have greatly affected media editing as well as writing and reporting — and we see the unfortunate consequence everywhere. The mistakes range from grammar to structure to the more challenging areas of organization, logic and reason.

The best defense against embarrassing errors in language basics — grammar, spelling, punctuation — is for writers and reporters to submit more polished and professional work, at least in terms of simple mechanics. (I think it was John McPhee who once said of his immaculate copy: "I try to submit something finished, not merely begun.") If writers would do that, then hardpressed copy editors wouldn't waste time chasing typos and could instead address the more challenging issues of content.

Look at a couple of sentences from the Colorado theater shooting stories — coverage of such national importance and wide audience that you'd expect it to be both written and edited with the greatest care:

• "He (Holmes) ... opened fire as people screamed and dove for cover."

• "Holmes enrolled last year in a neuroscience doctorate program at the University of Colorado."

Even mediocre copy editors would know that the past tense of dive is dived, and that doctorate is a noun and doctoral the adjective. But so should the reporter. No professional writer should depend upon an editor to correct mistakes so basic they're covered in grammar school.

A further example:

• "A Harkins official said in a statement that the theater will 'continue to monitor the situation and adjust our security procedures as necessary.'"

This simple sentence is packed with problems — with journalese as well as mismatches in tense and noun/pronoun:

"Said in a statement" is journalese, used when reporters are quoting material from a handout rather than from an interview. But to the audience it can seem a silly redundancy, because "statements" can be spoken as well as written. One clarifying word would fix the problem: said in a written statement.

"Said" places the sentence in past tense, which demands the conditional would rather than the future tense verb will.

"The theater" is an it and therefore demands the possessive pronoun its in the fragmented quotation. Pronouns must agree in text and quote. Mixing them is a common journalistic mistake, however, that leads to such ungrammatical structures as "he said he would 'do it myself.'" One simple way to fix this problem is to remove the quotation marks and paraphrase. And sometimes, as in the following revision, changing lackluster quote fragments to narrative presents other options for polished writing:

A written statement from Harkins said theater officials would continue to monitor the situation and adjust security procedures as necessary.

All that is basic stuff — simple mechanics that should pose no challenge to any decent writer. Here, however, are more demanding passages that would benefit from the sharp eye of a good editor as well:

• "The very fact that the Romneys so adamantly refuse to disclose those tax returns begs the question: What do they have to hide?"

The trendy copycat term "beg the question" does not mean to raise or bring up a question. But even if it did, wouldn't "raise the question" still be better? At least that phrasing would be clear and sensible, linguistically.

"Beg the question" is a specialized term in argumentation. It has a specific and elegant definition. It means to assume as true the very point under discussion — in other words, to take for granted the very thing one is trying to prove. Begging the question is also sometimes called a circular argument, tautology, logical fallacy or petitio principii.

More:

• "Mrs. Romney's explanation that they're withholding this vital information because releasing it would give opponents more reason to criticize is revealing, prima facie."

Maybe we should conquer English before taking on Latin. Prima facie means at first blush, first sight or first encounter, and it's inappropriate and gratuitous here.

• "Then, tout a fait, we were swept into the grand ballroom."

Also, let's conquer English before taking on French. "Tout a fait" means exactly or absolutely. Hard to say how the expression fits here. The writer may have meant "tout a coup," which means all of a sudden. But then, why not just say that — in English?

• "As Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice reminds us: 'All that glitters is not gold.'"

Finally, let's conquer English before taking on Elizabethan. Best to verify quotations before attributing them in print or broadcast. Shakespeare actually wrote: "All that glisters is not gold." Glisters is a 17th-century synonym for "glitters." Nothing wrong with using the commonplace "all that glitters," however — just drop the attribution.

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