Friday, September 09, 2016

editor's note

From an article advocating the use of paper ballots in the upcoming presidential election:

It's 2016 and the county is facing one of the most contentious and in some ways historical elections in our history.

I think the word the author is looking for is historic (i.e., significant), not historical (i.e., relating to history). I'd also go Old School and make the phrase "and in some ways historic" a parenthetical expression by surrounding it with commas or em dashes. But that's just how I roll. Oh, and I'd put another comma after "2016": normally, we separate two independent clauses with either a comma-conjunction locution or a semicolon. Two other problems: "county" should almost certainly be "country," and there's something almost like a pronoun-shift error when we move from the third-person singular "the country is facing" to the first-person plural "in our history." Bad form, that. My reworked version of the sentence:

It's 2016, and the country is facing one of the most contentious—and in some ways historic—elections in its history.

See? Much better.

But this gives me the chance to rant a bit about the state of journalism these days. There's been plenty of commentary about journalistic bias, so I won't go there, but I do want to say that the quality of the English I see in most online articles these days is severely lacking. Are there no editors? Are there no proofreaders? How does so much garbage end up getting published, and why? Actually, I think I know the how and the why: it's due to the increasing demands of an ever-accelerating news cycle. Still, it's a shame to watch a once-respected, once-respectable medium wither and die. User-created commentary (blogs, etc.) is rising to fill the quality vacuum that "legacy" media are leaving behind, although the variation in quality among bloggers is probably more extreme than it is among mainstream-media outlets. Private users won't totally fill that vacuum, though, because most user-created output isn't journalism so much as it's commentary on journalism. Until private users shrug off the "meta" aspect of what they're doing by getting out there and performing their own investigations and research, traditional journalism won't be supplanted.

In a just universe, custodians of language would be considered important and would be paid well to maintain rhetorical quality. We don't live in such a universe.


  1. It would certainly help if Blogger allowed readers to edit their comments, so that they could fix typos and other mistakes that often are a result of microscopic fonts on tiny screens. (Evidently Blogger is unaware that the smartphone revolution even happened, and is still stuck in 2005.) I also feel that sometimes commas slow down online readers, and in many cases can be left out to improve flow and ease of reading. But that's just a stylistic choice, I suppose.

    Investigative journalism is very costly and demands huge investments of time. If, for example, you need to spend just three weeks researching a story and another week to fact check and write it, you're going to need a month's living expenses at the very least, to say nothing of travel expanses and other associated costs. Often, however, investigative stories can take months or even years to do properly, so you quickly enter into five-figure territory and even beyond.

    That's why the preening hubris of many bloggers and online "commentators" is so unseemly, in my opinion. Their opinions tend to be based not on actual reality, but rather on the hard labor of others who have made an effort to get out into the real world and take a close-up look at it. It's easy to sit in front of a computer screen in your pajamas and tell us all what's wrong with the world, but if you haven't actually seen very much of the world, your opinion ain't going to be worth very much, more often than not.

  2. *expenses (not "expanses")

    And then there's the issue of Autocorrect, which is often helpful but just as often not. Grrr.

    OK, it's official now: Blogger's lack of an edit function for comments just plain sucks, and may even be by design. Does Google hope that Blogger slowly dies off, so that more traffic is driven to the ad-rich environment of YouTube and elsewhere? Could very well be.

  3. "Blogger's lack of an edit function for comments just plain sucks"

    I agree.

  4. I agree with the King about the commas. I fill my sentences with commas and notice when good writers omit them. Whatever you might say about Richard Dawkins, his writing is wonderful. I often read a sentence of his and think, 'he missed a comma'. I go back and see it wasn't needed.

    Of course I agree with you on the wrong word choices and pronoun disagreement.

  5. Brian,

    Comma hatred is more of a UK-English thing than a US-English thing (I've blogged on this before), but there are many North Americans who side with the Brits; the latter will often omit commas even when they're grammatically necessary. Eventually, because usage rules all, this trend will result in changes in the grammar books.

  6. I tend to err on the side of natural flow over too-strict grammar orthodoxy. For example, I was told in my youth that split infinitives were a gauche faux pax, and yet primly policed infinitives have often made my prose seem awkward and stiff and so I no longer adhere to the rule except in those rare cases when it actually sounds better. (Note the consciously omitted comma in the previous sentence!) I also think using "they" instead of "he or she" is an acceptable transgression, simply because the latter construction feels wordy and unwieldy. Language is always evolving, and naturalness of flow is always a worthy aim to strive for.

    OK, I'll rewrite that last sentence for Kevin's sake: Language is always evolving, and naturalness of flow is always a worthy aim for which to strive.

    Which sounds better? I vote for the former, since the latter just sounds so uptight and archaic, and therefore likely to be a turn-off for most modern-day readers.

  7. Scott,

    No arguments, really. I try to be as Buddhist as possible about language: on the one hand, there's no absolute, graven-in-the-cosmos right or wrong about how we express ourselves. Language is processual and bound up in interrelationships. We can see it, to some extent, as a system of agreements into which we're born. On the other hand, it would be absurd to claim that language is simply whatever we want it to be—like Outback Steakhouse: "No rules! Just right!" Precisely because it's a system of agreements (e.g., Americans agree to call bread "bread"; I can't ask for bread by saying "Pass me a slice of walrus"), it actually has a quasi-objective reality—"objective" in the sense of "independent of my own existence." So there is indeed a right and wrong to language (ask anyone learning to conjugate French verbs), but those notions of right and wrong are constantly evolving, which is why dictionaries always need updating.

    Anyway, I hope you're not taking my rants to mean I'm some hardcore prescriptivist. Others have made that mistake. I've studied too much Buddhism to think of language as somehow unchanging and absolute, but at the same time, I think it's legitimate to speak of right and wrong in language, as long as the subtext is "right or wrong for now."

    Yeah—split infinitives haven't been an issue since the 1960s. And I consider the injunctions "Don't start a sentence with a conjunction" and "Don't end a sentence with a preposition" to be pious myths bandied about by people trying to sound smart—the Overcorrectors' Club. A proper grammar Nazi is not an overcorrector. In linguistics class, we learned about "petrified expressions," i.e., expressions whose word order can't be changed. The classic example is "put up with," which is why it's stilted to say, "That is not something up with which I will put." That, right there, is enough justification for ending sentences with prepositions.

    So your sentences are safe from my Sauron-ish eye. And I doubt I'd ever have a bone to pick with your writing, anyway. Thank you, by the way, for properly using your hyphens. Some people don't get that thing about hyphenated compounds and phrasal adjectives that precede nouns.

    Aside: Steven Pinker occasionally writes in defense of less-formal locutions like the "singular they" and "between you and I." I find these defenses abstruse, convoluted, and a bit hypocritical, given that Pinker's own veddy proper English always fits within the boundaries of Strunk and White. I've never seen him write "between you and I" unless he was quoting the locution. I'll take his defenses more seriously once he relaxes his own prose style.

  8. The thing about online discourse, especially in the social-media sphere, is that it tends to be more oral or conversational in form, even if it is literally written, of course. Most people write online as they speak, in other words, so Internet language is becoming more casual and colloquial by the day. So while I agree with Orwell, who wrote that proper English was essential to think clearly, we must also consider the particular needs of an online readership. If one writes too well or carefully, the online reader's attention is liable to soon wander. Meanwhile, the most popular comments on YouTube are often the roughest and the rawest. Effective triangulation here is certainly a tough trick to pull off!

    Regarding the silly-sad state of "journalism" today, this piece may be of some interest.



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