Monday, October 31, 2022

Just the facts, in English, please

 My former colleague Bob Erlandson has forwarded a specimen from the Associated Press, about the Pelosi assault, as an example of what passes for police reporting: "The San Francisco Police Department responded to a report of a home break-in at about 2:27 a.m. Friday, a spokesman for. ..."

It's a sentence that combines a false precision with imprecision. They could have responded, as Bob remarks, at 2:27 a.m. or about 2:25 a.m. or about 2:30 a.m. but not at about 2:27 a.m. And you may be excused for supposing that it was the report that was received at precisely 2:27 a.m., with the police response coming some minutes afterward. 

This fudging of the time of the event and the time of the response is one of many irritations that crop up in police reporting. 

There is, for example, the misuse of the word suspect, which means in common English "a person suspected of a crime," that is, an identified person who is under suspicion. When the name of the person being sought is announced, that person is a suspect. But in the copspeak of police reports, suspect means "the person who did it," though the person's identity is unknown to the police. They could write gunman, driver, assailant, perpetrator, or any number of other serviceable nouns, but they always resort to suspect. I wonder whether the increasing use of person of interest is a way of getting around the confusion their usage has created. 

Let me add my lack of enthusiasm for the reporter, evidently subject to echolalia, who merely repeats the stock jargon of the police report, in which people bail out of the vehicle rather than abandon the car and flee on foot instead of running away. Guns are discharged rather than fired. Victims of shootings and stabbings seem never to be found in houses or apartments, but inside a dwelling.  

I understand that police officers are trained to write in this jargon, for uniform practice in giving evidence. What I do not understand is the inability of reporters to convey this information in the ordinary English that their readers speak.  

Tuesday, October 25, 2022

We've been had

My eminent colleague Karen Conlin posted this morning an awkward sentence published by a Chicago television station: "A man killed in a shooting outside a Chicago Greyhound bus terminal in the West Loop on Harrison Street has had his identity released." It presents two issues, one grammatical and one journalistic. 

For the first, the verb "had" commonly suggests agency: "She had the leak in the roof fixed." "They had their wills and powers of attorney drawn up." But journalists frequently use "had" to indicate merely that something has happened, as in the specimen sentence, which suggests that the dead man released his identity posthumously. The examples of "had" meaning "happened" aren't always this ludicrous, but they always strike a false note. 

The reason journalists use this construction is to make sure they have something up front in the sentence to draw the reader's attention. It would have been easy to write "Police released yesterday the identify of a man killed. ..." But "Police released ..." is a yawn. "Man killed in shooting outside Greyhound bus station" is the most interesting thing the writer can offer, particularly since this looks like a second-day story with the identification the only new element. 

And the identity isn't in the opening sentence, likely because the victim was not anyone notable.

This specimen sentence has not had itself edited. 

Friday, October 14, 2022

Maybe it's time to let go of it

I posted this a couple of days ago: What long-held usage distinction/rule/shibboleth have you just given up as an editor, reluctantly or not? I was happy to drop the bogus "over/more than" and no longer see any utility in "comprise/compose" and "compare with/compare to."

Many of the responses were instructive. 

Dave Nelsen replied, "There was a time when I gave a lot more thought to singular 'they,' carefully considering the context and audience every time I’d come across it. Now I just allow it anywhere and everywhere, which is so much easier.."

Wendalyn Nichols was succinct: "I welcomed the moment that being a fan of singular 'they' no longer felt like a dirty secret."

Inevitably, one gentleman replied: "actually, right is right and wrong is wrong, and as the ink-on-paper world dies it should do so with some fidelity to the language. also, 'they' and 'their' as references to an individual are always grammatically wrong. precision exists for a reason."

"They" has been in use as a singular in English as long as there has been an English, antedating the singular use of "you." Even the Chicago Manual of Style and the Associated Press Stylebook have grudgingly accepted reality. Language Log has multiple posts on the subject, for those willing to be informed. 

As it happens, today is the anniversary of the Battle of Hastings, after which the damned Normans destroyed English, collaborating with illiterate peasants to drop inflections and junk the genders of nouns, and to illustrate how a language is an evolving consensus among its users. 

Thomas Consolo says that he is "still not giving up on 'comprises' vs. 'is comprised of.' " Ah, the years I've spent changing "is comprised of" to "is composed of." The rule, for civilians, is that "comprise" can only mean "includes," not "is made up of." The other day I made a quick check at the Corpus of Contemporary American English (limited access because I no longer have university faculty status) and found 2,537 citations for "comprises" and 3,229 citations for "comprised of." When the language moves on, think about moving with it. 

Someone else asked about "farther/further." In the 2011 edition of the American Heritage Dictionary, 62% of the since-disbanded usage panel favored the traditional distinction that "farther" should be restricted to physical distance, not "to a greater degree or extent." In the 11th edition of Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary (2014), the first definition of "further" is given as "farther." 

"Farther/further" is a prime example of what I have called dog-whistle editing: insisting on distinctions of usage that only other copy editors hear. Another is the journalistic "over/more than" rule, developed by 19th-century U.S. newspaper editors to restrict "over" to physical distance. It is a rule that does not actually exist in English outside of newspapers. Look that up in Merriam-Webster's

Of course, there was a tweet saying, "So, taken together, the thread respondents uphold no standards at all. Depressing."

I spent forty years as a copy editor enforcing standards, and still do as a retirement side-hustle. Some of the standards I used to enforce I no longer do, having recognized that the language has changed and that some of them  ("farther/further," "over/more than," "since/because") were bogus. If you want to be a serious editor, you must continually examine what you are doing and make an effort to keep informed. 

And there is this. There is not enough time for editing, even in the places that still place a value on it. All editing involves triage, and if you are still spending your time changing "further" to "farther" or "over" to "more than" out of a misplaced sense of precision, you may well be overlooking some error of fact, some jumble of organization, or some piece of slack writing that begs to be tightened. 

Try to keep up.

Sunday, October 2, 2022

Hilary Mantel on royals and pandas

 From "Royal bodies: From Anne Boleyn to Kate Middleton"

"Our current royal family doesn't have the difficulties in breeding that pandas do, but pandas and royal persons alike are expensive to conserve and ill-adapted to any modern environment. But aren't they interesting? Aren't they nice to look at? Some people find them endearing; some pity them for their precarious situation; everybody stares at them, and however airy the enclosure they inhabit, it's still a cage."