Thursday, December 14, 2006

Of clauses -- and a few other editing nits

My morning paper brings several instructive points in the art of copy editing. None is of the oh-so-obvious variety, but all deal with taking the art to its higher level:

Confusing clause
Clauses beginning with "which" and "that" should have proper structure to clearly modify what they are intended to modify. Exhibit A of our problems:

The money would go toward maintenance for the building, which the county is set to give a $12 million renovation in the coming year.

Huh? The simplest way to fix: to which the county is set to give ...
Yet that is still a bit ungainly. Try: which will get a $12 million, county-financed renovation in the coming year. Or you can come up with your own combination. It's bound to be better than the original.

Pronoun hell
Don't make the reader fill in the blanks when it comes to pronouns. An extra word or two won't kill ya. Exhibit B:

A Columbia man shook his 13-month-old cousin after he would not sit in the bathtub, a sheriff's investigator said during a bail hearing Wednesday.


Sure, given an extra couple of milliseconds, the reader will parse it out. But our job is to make those milliseconds and any confusion go away. The pronoun he wants to be attracted back to the only male noun previously flagged in our brain -- man. Don't make the reader guess that the 13-month-old child is a boy. Just say it:

A Columbia man shook his 13-month-old cousin after the boy would not sit in the bathtub, a sheriff's investigator said during a bail hearing Wednesday.


Help this verb (part 1)
Some verbs in our culture idiomatically take particles, and not using them can change the meaning (think "lined" vs. "lined up"). At other times, the verb could stand alone, but the idiomatic usage is so widely known with the particle that to drop it is odd. Such is the case with divvy and mull. You mull cider, for instance, but you more commonly mull over decisions. Headline writers like to drop the particle for space, and I suppose they can be excused, if not forgiven {grin}, but as to divvy, consider Exhibit C from today:

Individual council members said they want to find ways to divvy the $6 million so each of those kinds of roads benefits.

Well, yes, divvy is a verb, and it theoretically can stand on its own. But it is jarring without "up" (check most dictionaries and you will see (up) generally displayed in the sense intended here -- divvy up:to divide). Why use the slangish term if it's going to have that little problem?

Individual council members said they want to find ways to divide the $6 million so each of those kinds of roads benefits.


Problem solved clearly and neatly. (For the strict grammarians among us, "so" also should more properly be "so that" each of those kinds ..., known as a "clause of purpose." But that's for another day.)

Help this verb (part 2)
The word that is much-maligned, and in 90 percent of the cases I'm not a fan and think it's overused. But in some special cases it provides a strong arm to help an unsteady verb get across Meaning Street (that's our quota of one tortured metaphor for the day). The most widely cited, of course, is to clarify time element: The governor said Sunday that he would do so and so (he said it Sunday) or The governor said that Sunday he would do so and so (he'll do it on Sunday).
But another, less-obvious case also crops up with verbs that are transitive (they take objects for their action) or switch between transitive and intransitive and need the "that" marker to help you navigate. Warn may be the most widely confused of the switchers. (Prosecutors warned the fugitive was dangerous -- did they warn the fugitive? No, they warned the rest of us, so the verb is intransitive and Prosecutors warned that the fugitive was dangerous.)
But in our zeal to compress, sometimes we also smash verbs that clearly are transitive up against nouns not designed to be their objects. Our final exhibit from today:

There's no mistaking a science teacher occupies room A-106 at Chapin Middle School.


Again, just a momentary thing (there's no mistaking a science teacher), but that's why we're here, to smooth out those momentary things. Mistaking is a transitive verb. Smashing "a science teacher" up against it makes that the object (there's no mistaking a science teacher; he's got the pocket protector). The real object here is the entire clause "a science teacher occupies ..." Use the conjunctive that to clarify:

There's no mistaking that a science teacher occupies room A-106 at Chapin Middle School.


And yes, if you are playing along at home with your AP stylebooks, "Room" should be capitalized.

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2 Comments:

At 12/14/06, 11:55 AM, Blogger fev said...

Me too! Me too! This topic has a lot of truth to it! Whenever I see somebody leaving out conjunctive "that" because "we never use 'that' in news writing," I reach for All Major Medications right away!

 
At 12/22/06, 7:42 PM, Blogger iamnasra said...

This is really a nice blog and many thanks for the tips

 

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