John McIntyre, whom James Wolcott calls "the Dave Brubeck of the art and craft of copy editing," writes on language, editing, journalism, and other manifestations of human frailty. Comments welcome. Identifying his errors relieves him of the burden of omniscience. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org, befriend at Facebook, or follow at Twitter: @johnemcintyre. Back 2009-2012 at the original site, http://weblogs.baltimoresun.com/news/mcintyre/blog/ and now at www.baltimoresun.com/news/language-blog/.
Wednesday, May 5, 2010
Let the nagging resume
It was all quips and cranks and wanton wiles, nods and becks and wreathed smiles when I returned to The Baltimore Sun’s newsroom yesterday.
We’ll see how long that honeymoon lasts. For example, this sentence from yesterday’s Sun:
The force of the crash ejected Dankos, 17, from the bed of the truck that struck a set of stone pillars and overturned.
If I were a bookmaker, I would give you highly favorable odds that anyone you ever heard say that someone was ejected, rather than thrown or flung, from a car or truck was either in law enforcement or journalism. Ejected is pure cop jargon, so common in police reports that it infects reporters’ writing.
A subtler point is that dependent clause. A that clause most commonly singles out one person, object, situation from a number of possibilities. It is called variously a restrictive or limiting or essential clause. Which clauses can also be restrictive,* but when they merely add additional or parenthetical information, they are set off with commas.
There was one truck; we don’t need to distinguish it from the other trucks on the road that did not strike the stone pillars. The dependant clause merely adds information about that particular truck. In more conversational English, the sentence would have run thus:
The force of the crash threw Dankos, 17, from the bed of the truck, which struck a set of stone pillars and overturned.
Sticking in ages as appositives is another journalistic tic, but there are limits even to my carping.
*Yes, they can. The Sainted Fowler suggested using that for restrictive clauses and which for non-restrictive, and many usage books have followed his lead. But that has never been any more than advice. Which clauses can be restrictive or non-restrictive, but that clauses are always properly restrictive.
John E. McIntyre, a veteran editor and teacher, is back in harness. He worked for nearly 23 years at The Baltimore Sun, for 14 of those years as head of its copy desk, and, after a one-year hiatus, has returned as night content production editor. He has taught copy editing at Loyola of Maryland since 1995. He was the second president of the American Copy Editors Society, serving two terms, and he has been a consultant on writing and editing at publications in the United States and Canada.