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Chairman Wednesday

Must stay calm. Must not let little things get under one’s skin. Must keep a sense of proportion.

And yet, day after day, journalists everywhere keep turning out sentences in which, in defiance of English syntax, they insist on inserting the day of the week between the subject and the verb. Who tells them to write like this? Yesterday, from Reuters:

SEC Chairman Mary Schapiro Wednesday listed some technical areas that
 might yet need rule changes, including the use of market orders, “stub quotes,” price
 collars, and self-help rules used by the dozen U.S. exchanges where today’s high-speed trading is done.

In idiomatic English, the adverb of time comes at the beginning of the sentence—On Wednesday, SEC Chairman Mary Schapiro listed—or after the verb—SEC Chairman Mary Schapiro listed some technical areas Wednesday.

That’s how it’s done. What’s so complicated?

Of course, Reuters could have made it even more journalistic by linking up a trainload of capitalizations to the name. You know. You’ve seen it: Chief Assistant to the Assistant Chief Gordon “Beefeater” Tanqueray Wednesday announced.

And we can’t figure out why no one under the age of forty—hell, fifty—reads our stuff any longer. A couple of weeks ago The Sun published a headline with nixes as the verb. Nixes! Who writes these things, guys in their shirtsleeves with their fedoras pushed back and a cigarette dangling from their lips as they type with two fingers on an Underwood?

It’s not that I’m asking a lot, Lord knows. Could you just PUT THE DAMN ADVERB WHERE IT BELONGS IN THE SENTENCE? Or do I have to call in @GRAMMARHULK from Twitter to SMASH you? DAMMIT, IS ANYBODY OUT THERE LISTENING?

Oh. Sorry.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 10:53 AM | | Comments (17)
        

Comments

It could have been worse; the story could have involved Billy Sunday, Tuesday Weld, Joe Friday...

There, there, John, the over-fifty crowd still loves you and reads your blog.

It's not like Reuters (or any other paper) has to conserve two or three ems (the difference between how it was written, and "On Wednesday, ...") to fit in more advertising. Anymore.

"There, there, John, the over-fifty crowd still loves you and reads your blog."

And the more discerning of the under-fifty crowd.

I understand the frustration, but sometimes it is fun to learn that women and men have married into the calendar.

Maybe Reuters got confused because they were trying to write in a foreign dialect. Saying 'Wednesday' rather than 'on Wednesday' is chiefly North American, not natural in current British English.

Well, if you can't say "on Wednesday," then don't put "Wednesday" in the sentence where it might be confused for a person's name. I would think that would hold true for all English "dialects."

"There, there, John, the over-fifty crowd still loves you and reads your blog."
I'm thirty! Will you cancel my subscription and give my money back?

Some of us who are sensitive to such things might also take issue with her being designated "Chairman."

Nixes! Who writes these things...

I have this overwhelming need to do my swing dance while singing, "Hix nix stix pix." If only Cagney were here...

If you're going to rail at objectionable journalese how about suggesting people start saying "admitted guilt" instead of "claimed responsibility"?

Oh, I don't know... I think "Tanqueray Wednesday" is quite an elegant surname.

Received the following sentence in a business email the other day:

They will have the right to rent for this 6 month period the back room.

Why, Lord?

John, where do you stand on the argument that you have to arrange a sentence based on what's important, even if that means the date goes in an unnatural place?

I ask because being able to start a lede with the date would solve so many of these problems, but so many editors are worried that readers will see "On Wednesday," and say, "Bah! I remember Wednesday! Tell me something I don't know, Sun!"

I would like to echo Tom in asking you to weigh in on on the "how to construct a lede" subject. Just a day or so before reading this post I came across a similar awkward construction and thought, right, they have to put the datestamp in an odd location since they can't put it first - is that really so important? It seems like most people would write that sentence "On Wednesday, whatsherface did somethingorother..." Or, conversely, is it so important that "Wednesday" appear in the first sentence? I know it's one of the Great Questions, but do I care all that much that she did this Wednesday? Could the second sentence start "In a speech given to someoneorother someplace on Wednesday, Shapiro said..."? Or is that Just Wrong?

Language Log displays proof--scientific evidence--that this weird quirk is specific to journalists:

http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=2555

I consider Newswriting: From Lead to “30” a bible (then again, I consider my AP Stylebook a bible, too, and I know your feelings about that). Newswriting author and former journalism professor William Metz would seem to agree with Tom’s editors (in his above comment) in advising against beginning a lead with “On Wednesday,” because, Metz writes, “‘When’ is seldom the most important element of a story....Generally, the ‘when’ should go somewhere inside the lead, not at the beginning of it.”

Metz writes, “A good rule of thumb, I’ve found, is to locate the time element as close to the main verb as possible without sacrificing readability and clarity.” Illustrating his point, however, he quotes a copydesk chief, who admonishes, “Let’s put [the adverb] where it belongs—normally after the object of the verb; i.e: ‘The president gave his approval Wednesday to a plan...’” (seemingly agreeing with your objection to placing the adverb between the subject and verb).

Returning to the original source of your consternation, John, might the following be a slight improvement?

“SEC Chairman Mary Schapiro listed on Wednesday some technical areas that might yet need rule changes....”

Professor Metz also advises—as you do in your follow-up post “Heresy compounded”— that occasionally the time element might be deemed not important enough to include in the lead. In such cases (probably rare), it can be referenced in the next sentence or later in the story.

The placement wouldn't be as big a problem without writers following the old bugaboo that you can never use the word "on" before a date, of course...

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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 john.mcintyre@baltsun.com.
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