Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Writing made bad on purpose

It must puzzle lay people — it has certainly puzzled me for years — that professional journalists write so clumsily. I’m going to lead you through a couple of examples before attempting an explanation.

Someone on Calvert Street, it appears, reads this blog. Yesterday’s post identified a misplaced adverb in this sentence:

Kevin P. Callahan was charged with negligent driving, failure to stop at a red signal, and failure to obey a traffic device last week after a two-month investigation of the crash at York and Corbett roads in northern Baltimore County.

Gratifyingly, this morning’s print edition has last week nestled cozily after was charged.

But there is always more to be said, as Cliff Tyllick pointed out in a comment on that post:

Another problem is the writer's positioning of the adverbial prepositional phrase, “after a two-month investigation ... .” Specifically, it was not after a two-month investigation that Callahan drove negligently, failed to stop, and failed to obey; it was after a two-month investigation that he was charged.

Moving the whole bit to the front of the sentence not only makes that clearer but also makes the sentence easier to read and understand:

After a two-month investigation of the crash at York and Corbett roads in northern Baltimore County, Kevin P. Callahan was charged last week with negligent driving, failure to stop at a red signal, and failure to obey a traffic device.

And a 41-word sentence needs every readability improvement the editor can muster.

On Facebook, Pat Myers had this to say:

But DON'T go all the other way around and put the time BEFORE the verb, in that weird newspaperese “He yesterday was charged ...” I tomorrow am going to puke if I see it in the paper then. They even say it out loud on NPR.

I’m afraid that Ms. Myers might suffer gastric distress to read this lead sentence from a Page One article in this morning’s Sun:

The Anne Arundel County Council Monday night approved zoning to allow the state's largest slots parlor to be built at Arundel Mills, both a major victory for Baltimore-based developer David Cordish and a decision that opponents promise to continue fighting.

And it’s another lumbering 40-word sentence.

Let’s think about how such sentences come to be written.

The difficulty with adverbial placement must originate in journalism schools. Putting the day of the action first in the sentence — Yesterday the council approved — is verboten because you want something stronger than a mere adverb of time at the beginning of a sentence. But you also want it early in the sentence to convey “freshness.” Thus the journalistic preference for placing the adverb in a non-idiomatic location between the subject and the verb. Reporters cannot, apparently, be broken of this habit. And once you have lost your bearings about where adverbs should go, they can go anywhere.

Similarly, those thirty- and forty- and fifty-word monstrosities rise from the j-school instruction to cram as much of the story as possible into a single summary paragraph. The slots paragraph might easily have been broken into two, the first recounting the action, the second pointing to the consequences, and the reader would have sailed straight through both of them.*

My favorite example of this tendency — the champion — is a sentence I have lovingly brought out in workshops and editing classes for more than a dozen years:

Women’s rights groups and the American Civil Liberties Union yesterday took the first step toward appealing a ruling that overturned a landmark law denying city liquor licenses to private clubs that discriminate.

Journalism being a craft learned by apprenticeship, it is inevitable that a tyro will look at published sentences and paragraphs like these and think, “Oh, so that’s how it’s done.” Thus turgidity perpetuates itself.

*Or the consequences could have begun the sentence. One problem with an opening like this is that the reader can’t tell what the focus of the story is going to be — how the vote came about, or what comes next. Unfortunately, the story bounces back and forth between the two, suggesting that no one involved was able to decide which was more important.


  1. It's tragic when your vocation is also your avocation. You're gratified that they're doing things right according to your advice, even though they're no longer paying you to get that expertise.

  2. Mr. Tyllick's version is much better, but that passive construction "Callahan was charged" nags me. It throws the reader off the scent of who's doing what to whom. The sentence is really about the police, not Callahan. So how about:

    "After conducting a two-month investigation of the crash at York and Corbett roads in northern Baltimore County, police charged Kevin P. Callahan last week with negligent driving, failure to stop at a red signal, and failure to obey a traffic device."

  3. To my mind, that he was charged is the important thing. Of course the police charged him; who else would have? This is one of those instances, when the action is more important than who performed it, in which the passive voice is perfectly acceptable.

  4. These are the kinds of sentences that cause me to read the sports pages. I am not a sports fan by any stretch of the imagination, but the sports writers are by far the best writers in our local paper.

    When I am exhausted with the effort at deciphering the prose on the news pages, I turn to the sports section and read for fun, even if I don't care very much about the subject matter.

  5. I’m sure that not everyone would agree, but sometimes newspaper journalism confirms the thesis that journalism is to writing what coal mining is to sculpture. Why is there such a concerted J-school effort to make the students write like eight-year-olds?

  6. I see your point. But if the important thing is Callahan being charged (which I agree with), then doesn't the preamble about the investigation just put a drag on the whole sentence? If the investigation is important enough to mention, should it be given a separate paragraph?

    I ask because I want to learn, not -- well, not *just* -- to be argumentative. I love seeing the inner mechanisms of copyediting at work.

  7. To continue the theme of inappropriately placed time indicators, here's an article I spotted recently:


    Apparently, the archaeological discovery described in the article "can be dated back to the time of Jesus, Monday, Dec. 21, 2009."

  8. How would you rework the "Women's rights groups ..." sentence, apart from relocating "yesterday?"
    I guess I would have started by mentioning that the law had been overturned by a court, but it would be necessary to work in some information that's outside the framework of the original sentence, and would probably violate journalistic etiquette by starting with stale information. "X days ago Judge Y issued a ruling overturning a landmark law that ... Yesterday Women's Rights Groups ... took the first step ..."

  9. When did it become fashionable to assign one sentence per paragraph, with so many commas, apositives, etc that if one can make it to the period, one is gasping for breath?

  10. Speaking of misplaced adverbial prepositional phrases (which one should never do at parties), this beauty comes from page A2 of the Dec. 28 Post: "Pakistani nuclear scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan said North Korea opened a second way to build nuclear weapons by the 1990s." That's a cutline, which presumably means it was written by an editor, not a reporter. Last week a Post cutline said a noted jazz pianist would tickle the ivories, the most tired cliche since sings like an angel. Neither reporters nor editors should throw stones. Of course if reporters didn't throw stones at editors, they wouldn't have anything to talk about over beers. Don't know what editors discuss over beers, but it's probably reporters.

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