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. 


  1. If his age could be placed anywhere else, I'd be inclined to do so. Not that it's wrong or very unsightly — newspaper-reading eyes get used to these journalistic ways — but it's an awkward interruption of a sentence which is, in its corrected form, otherwise strong and dramatic.

  2. Where were you when I was learning to write?

  3. Thank you John! "That" has always tripped me up! Why do journalists always list everyone's age?

  4. Here's my quibble, and if I'm wrong I'll accept correction. Did the truck strike the pillars before or after the lad was thrown? If it was before, shouldn't it be "had struck"?

  5. Becky HendricksMay 6, 2010 at 2:57 PM

    In conversation, we would say, "The kid was sitting in the bed and was thrown from the truck by the crash. The truck hit some pillars and flipped. He was 17. He should have known better." Including ages in a more conversational way would be OK if we didn't include the ages of every last person we mention. It becomes visual clutter when several people are mentioned in a short piece (such as accident briefs).