Monday, May 22, 2006

Tripping over the words

This weekend we were treated to this bit of mash in a Wall Street Journal story about the indictment of class-action law firm Milberg Weiss Bershad & Schulman:

Earlier this past week, before the indictment was handed down but had been publicized ...

A small problem: Propositions, adverbs and the like have this nasty tendency to want to glom onto anything that follows. It's a consequence of the Amercan tendency, especially, toward elliptic writing and speech.

So here, before wants to glom onto not only "was handed" but also "but had," as in: Earlier this past week, before the indictment was handed down but (before it) had been publicized ...

Because of "but," the mind's ear wants to put in another adverb. Since none is readily available, the mind substitutes the nearest one and tries to puzzle it out.

We could try putting "when" in the second position, but that produces an awkward mental syntax -- putting the cart before the horse, so to speak. (One could also question how you can "publicize" something that does not yet exist. And is that "past" really needed when we already were into the weekend?)

So let's try this option: Earlier this week, when the indictment had been expected but before it was handed up, ...

One more word (15), but lots more clarity.

Also, notice the correct term: Indictments are handed up. Think of where the judge sits (up on the bench) relative to the jurors. So the grand jurors used to, literally, file into the courtroom and hand indictments up to the judge.

That same sentence noted that a Delaware judge had "voiced doubts" that the law firm could serve in a case. Let's ditch that overworked word "voiced" when we can. Here, the judge just as clearly expressed his thoughts. Or, "voiced doubts about Milberg's fitness" = "wondered whether Milberg was fit."

That same story also treated us to this construction: Mr. Bershad owns 17% of the firm and his share of its profits from 1983 to 2005 were more than $160 million, the grand jury found.

His share ... was. And a comma after "firm" probably wouldn't hurt, although the Journal is not alone in the ill-advised style of eschewing many of them between independent clauses. (Some debate here: If the whole thing is attributed, is it independent? Yes, treat it as such when the attribution is at the end. When the attribution is at the beginning, use and that without commas in most cases: The grand jury found that Mr. Bershad owns 17% of the firm and that his ...)

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