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Heresy compounded

I grew a little warm the other day about journalists’ propensity to put the adverb of time in the most awkward place in a sentence, between the subject and the verb.

Now a reader has asked a perfectly reasonable question: “[I]s it so important that "Wednesday" appear in the first sentence?” My answer is that no, it doesn’t have to.

One can imagine a perfectly acceptable opening sentence along these lines: A federal judge has ruled that California’s Proposition 8, prohibiting gay marriage, is unconstitutional. It could be followed by another perfectly acceptable sentence beginning thus: In a ruling yesterday, Judge Vaughn Walker. …Or Judge Vaughn Walker wrote in a ruling yesterday . …

I have rewritten scores of leads to accomplish the very result described above, and no reader has ever complained. (Neither have any of the writers.)

But putting the day of the event in the first sentence, preferably between the subject and verb, is a point on which generations of journalism instructors and assigning editors have malformed malleable young minds.

This is apparently a strong point of doctrine, and defying it openly could lead to one of those disputes like the fourth-century controversy over whether Jesus could be described as homoousios or homoiousios. All the same, if you can get away with it, write for the reader, and write in English, not journalese.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 9:33 PM | | Comments (3)
        

Comments

Isn't this one of those things they teach in newswriting 101 about how the first sentence has to cover who/when/what/where?

Yes, that is exactly where they teach you to cram all the elements of the story into one incomprehensible clot.

I've been thinking about this more than is good for me recently, and it seems to me that adding Wednesday to the first sentence gives Wednesday too much importance. While who/what/when/where/how may be the fundamental pieces of information you need up front, they aren't necessarily of equal importance. In some cases, perhaps the date is crucial ("Immediately following Tuesday's election, the Vice President elect committed suicide") but in many, I suspect it is not. In the example above, the reader cares about the federal judge and the decision in the case, but it's not so interesting whether it happened Wednesday, or Tuesday, or last week. It can be a little jarring to have the datestamp stuck up front when it's not really key; it makes you wonder if you're missing some significance about Wednesday.

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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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