Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Another damn word of the year

Every maven and his sisters and his cousins, whom he reckons by the dozens, is pushing a word-of-the-year article or word-of-the-decade article (for that decade that we don’t have a word for, haven’t cared enough about to settle on a word for, and frankly just want to be over).

Even I am not immune to the temptation. So, herewith, my Word of the Year, Word of the Decade:


A portmanteau word, blending crap and fantastic, not in a favorable connotation, it was particularly beloved among some people whom I know in their descriptions of the work of a particular major media concern. (This description, I realize, will make it impossible for you to narrow the field.)

As a description of the level of public discourse to which we have descended in this waning decade, and particularly as a description of the degeneration of the established news media into drivel, gossip, and irrelevance, it does appear to be the signature word.

Merry Christmas.

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.