Is proper writing becoming a lost art? Are the heavy hands of journalism so infecting our system that things that used to be “required” in typewritten documents became “optional” to the detriment of sentence clarity? I will give examples, but first, my reasoning.
It goes back to the news, specifically paper media. It was transmitted first by telegram and teletype, which charge by the letter or word. Then the stories were written. But every inch of paper used was precious, so newspaper editors were always on the lookout for ways to shorten articles, use less ink.
I wouldn’t be surprised to discover that that was the reason that several English words are spelled differently and shorter in American, but I find this was mostly the influence of Noah Webster. Words like catalogue/catalog, favour/favor, humour/humor were all shortened because he thought English spelling words unnecessarily complex. He wrote a series of books that became the standard schoolbooks for spelling, grammar, and reading. Later, and after much study, he published the first dictionary which included many words that had never before been included in a dictionary.
But I digress.
Using one fewer comma in one sentence in 100,000 newspapers can save a lot of ink. If it means the sentence doesn’t move to the next line, it means more money is saved. When I was younger, the standard was to have two spaces after every period or colon in a sentence. I don’t know what year this changed, but it is no longer the standard per The Chicago Manual of Style. Likewise with using the last comma in a list of items. [Example: when I was young: “There were apples, pears, and oranges.” New standard: “There were apples, pears and oranges.” Sometimes the lack of this comma doesn’t change the meaning of the sentence as in my example, but there are times it does.
This example is from a proposed piece of legislation in Tennessee [source: http://www.capitol.tn.gov/Bills/107/Bill/HB3621.pdf] on requirements for teaching certain things to school children.
Section 2 (49-6-1301) line (6). “’Family life education’ means an abstinence-centered sex education program that builds a foundation of knowledge and skills relating to character development, human development, decision-making, abstinence, contraception and disease prevention;”
The way this is written, it could be saying they are required to teach contraception PREVENTION. A comma after the word “contraception” completely changes the meaning of this sentence to firmly say they are teaching about “a foundation of knowledge and skills relating to contraception…” Alternatively, swapping the last two items, “disease prevention and contraception,” would have taken away any ambiguity. Mind you, I don’t think it was intentionally written to mean “contraception prevention,” but the ambiguity is there.
Another interesting journalistic way to save ink is to leave important words out of sentences, especially on headlines. It can lead to amusing results when proper sentence structure is not used. When I first read this headline, I thought it was the acquaintance who was still on the loose, which, of course, made no sense at all, “Porn actor suspected of dismembering acquaintance still on the loose.” The fact that the blurb broke before the word “acquaintance” contributed to the confusion putting ” acquaintance still on the loose” all on one line. Here’s the way to make it more clear, but it uses more ink, “Porn actor, suspected of dismembering acquaintance, is still on the loose.” Even leaving out the word “is” and just adding the commas makes this much more clear. Of course, if you want to be contrary, you put the comma here for a completely different meaning, “Porn actor suspected of dismembering, acquaintance still on the loose.”
These are actual poorly worded headlines:
- Eye drops off shelf
- Squad helps dog bite victim
- Dealers will hear car talk at noon
- Enraged cow injures farmer with ax
- Lawmen from Mexico barbecue guests
- Miners refuse to work after death
- Two Soviet ships collide – one dies
- Two sisters reunite after eighteen years at checkout counter
Better grammar could change them to these:
- Eyedrops pulled off shelf
- Squad helps dog-bite victim
- Dealers will hear “car talk” at noon
- Enraged cow injures farmer [or Farmer with ax injured by enraged cow]
- Lawmen from Mexico give barbecue for guests
- Miners refuse to work after death of one
- Two Soviet ships collide – one man dies
- Two sisters reunite at checkout counter after eighteen years
This ends this portion of the rant. There’s more coming on this topic.
Internal jukebox: Quoniam from Poulenc Gloria. I’ll be glad when the concert is over (Sunday, 4 p.m., Georgetown High Performing Arts Center) and I can program my brain for other music.