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Grammar isn't everything

Much as this blog is devoted to grammar — which in the public mind is a term that encompasses grammar proper, syntax and usage — many posts have attempted to clarify that editing involves more than those elements of language.

There is a sentence that I’ve used in workshops for several years [See Digression 1 below] that compactly illustrates the editing issues that go beyond grammar, syntax and usage:

Women’s rights groups and the American Civil Liberties Union yesterday took the first step toward appealing a ruling that overturned a landmark law denying city liquor licenses to private clubs that discriminate.

First, this sentence is factually accurate. Second, it is grammatical, despite the awkward and unidiomatic placement of the adverb [See Digression 2 below]. Third, this sentence was not carelessly or casually flung together; it was constructed. And fourth, as you will already have noticed, it is opaque.

This sort of thing happens when the reporter, preoccupied with the subject of the article and determined to jam every morsel of the sausage into the casing, completely forgets that the text is meant to be read by human beings. Nothing less could explain so complete a disregard for the reader. Even worse, these monstrous constructions often pass unchallenged by the assigning desk and copy desk [See Digression 3 below].

The point of having editors is to engage someone on the premises to remember that we have readers and represent their interests and concerns. The reader’s interest in being supplied with sentences that can be comprehended in a single reading is paramount. And representing the reader’s interests has the happy collateral effect of protecting the writer from the consequences of bad judgments.


Digression 1 If you’re going to disparage work that comes out of your own shop, it’s best to use examples from a fairly remote past, better still if the author has since left. You’ll still be thought an insufferable pedant, but you will be less likely to trigger direct animosity.

Digression 2 Like the unfounded but pervasive journalistic belief that adverbs must not fall between the auxiliary and the main verb, there is an equally pervasive practice of putting an adverb of time between the subject and the verb, even though idiomatic English would put that yesterday at the beginning of the sentence or somewhere after the verb. It is probably imagined that this tic conveys immediacy. Yeah.

Digression 3 This example was the lead paragraph of an article, and by long-standing newspaper convention, no lowly copy editor may touch a lead, the meticulously crafted artifact of the reporter’s craft and the very vehicle of the reporter’s voice — a Faberge egg made for the Tsar — without first undergoing certain ritual prostrations and purifications. Often to no avail. Maybe that explains why this paragraph passed untouched through the hands of at least four editors.

Reader, we published it.



Posted by John McIntyre at 9:32 AM | | Comments (4)


Wow. That headline is a stunner. I'm trying to figure out how to make it better -- readable by humans.

How would you have crafted it?

Although the sentence is somewhat convoluted, it does fulfill the Journalism 101 requirement that the lead include the who, what, when and where of the event. In much of today's journalism, that unimportant information is often buried in paragraph 4.

Susan has identified the core problem. That opening paragraph satisfies a journalistic formula or convention in complete disregard of how it will look to the reader.

Not that I am fond either of some self-indulgent opening that takes six, eight, a dozen paragraphs to disclose the point of the article.

A great example of the value editors and copy editors can bring to the final product! I often think that many of my colleagues see me as the keeper of commas and semi colons, unaware of the substantial editing that I do on a daily basis, often saving their clients (and thus ourselves) from embarrassment. Working in the higher education market, it continually amazes me how many people cannot write a coherent sentence; I'm forever having to decipher what people really meant.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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