Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Stopping readers in their tracks

An AP story in my local paper this weekend shows how even when something may be grammatically correct, it's not an invitation for editors to stop working and move on. The story was about six children dying in a Chicago apartment fire:
CHICAGO - A candle in an apartment without electricity was believed to have caused one of the city's deadliest and most heart-breaking fires in years, a blaze Sunday that killed six children ages 3 to 14, some of whom screamed, "We're burning!" as neighbors watched helplessly.

The mother of most of the victims and three siblings were injured.
Now, that second graf is grammatically correct -- yet it stopped me and others I showed it to in their tracks.

The problem is that we initially are set up to parse it as "The mother of most of the victims and three siblings" -- in other words the woman is the mother of the three siblings as well, making it a singular subject. The were then is jarring and makes many readers stop for a second and have to parse it out.

Making the reader work like that is the last thing we want to do in these hectic times. As Barney Kilgore once said, "The easiest thing for the reader to do is quit reading." (Make the reader work because the content is so good that he or she wants to ponder and absorb everything it says, but don't make the person work to actually read it.)

It would be nice had the mother been the mother of everyone here, then it could just be written: The victims' mother and three siblings ...

But, alas, as in most cases there are complications. So how to fix it? A simple swap of positions:
Three siblings and the mother of most of the victims were injured.
Even better, of course, would have been to ditch the word "siblings" and be specific as to how many brothers and sisters, but I'm not sure the way the story was written that information was available.

A good reminder that the editing does not stop with making sure things are grammatically correct.

A few other minor things:
-- No comma after screamed. The quote is integral to the sentence because of the material that follows. Had the quote ended the sentence, the comma would be OK.
-- Why can't we use "thought" instead of "believed"? Yeah, it's my hangup, but it does show that we know the language and what it means. (But kudos to the writer for later writing that a Commonwealth Edison spokesman "wouldn't say" why the electricity was turned off, instead of resorting to the hack "declined to.")

The headline the paper used also had problems:

Candle caused fire
that killed 6 children

Aside from the discrepancy with the lede (believed to have caused) -- but OK, we'll cut some slack there because the story seems fairly certain in its tone -- past tense causes problems here:
  • It just reinforces the "yesterday's news tomorrow" feeling many people have about newspapers
  • It makes it sound as though it were an earlier fire and investigators just now are coming up with a cause.
We use the historic present tense in headlines for a reason (although not all commentators support that):

Candle causes fire
that kills 6 children

We use present tense to convey the sense of immediate past action, partly as a marketing tool so that it does not seem out of date (yes, Virginia, headlines do have a marketing function, too).
We use the present participle (the -ing form) to convey continuing action.
We use past tense to convey action already completed that we are just finding out about.

  • Nixon going to China -- he's in the air. (Or it can be used in some cases for the future. Once plans are in place, they are ongoing, so here "will be" can be inferred as well as "is." Generally, however, we would use the infinitive or the future tense Nixon to go to China.)
  • Nixon goes to China -- he's there already. (Might also be used if he is in the air. This gets a little dicey and depends on when you think your reader will see it. On the Internet, where things are more immediate, the present tense is more likely to be favored.)
  • Nixon went to China -- he's come and gone and we just got our hands on the secret documents about the trip, maybe weeks later (had we gotten our hands on them the next day, we still might use "goes.")


At 9/6/06, 3:19 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Err - unfortunate typo in the third line of your rendition of this very sad story ... (heat-breaking)

At 9/6/06, 6:14 PM, Blogger Doug Fisher said...

Thought I'd taken care of that. Obviously not. But that is why I always appreciate the second looks and notes. You all are my ultimate editors. Thanks.

(I also noticed on my headline examples that it should have been "kills," not "killed" in my revised. That has been updated.)



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