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McIntyre Friday complains

When English lost most of its inflections, word order became crucial to meaning, and that is why I continue to grumble at a minor but nonetheless irritating quirk of journalese: the placement of the adverb of time.

To a journalist—this must have been taught somewhere in a journalism school, and then the monkey-see, monkey-do mechanism took over—this sentence looks right: President Obama Wednesday announced a new jobs plan. To people whose English has not been corrupted by reading newspapers, the adverb of time, particularly the day of the week used as an adverb, follows the verb: President Obama announced a new jobs plan Wednesday.

I suppose that this unnatural syntax is supposed to suggest freshness and immediacy. Feh.

But the placement of the adverb can also subtly alter meaning (quite part from the impression that the president’s surname is Wednesday). A few days ago I edited an article about a criminal case that referred to the defendant’s “Monday sentencing.” I changed it to his “sentencing Monday.” Do you see why?

“Monday sentencing” could suggest that there is more than one sentencing, and we are reporting the one that will occur Monday. It’s a restrictive sense. “Sentencing Monday” is a non-restrictive sense that there is one sentencing and that it will occur Monday.

I know that no one is likely to misunderstand. I know that the thousands of times I have reworded such sentences may not have been the most efficient use of my time and energy. I know that this looks like the kind of obsession with inconsequential details that I deplore in other editors. But—great Fowler’s ghost!—this kind of willful awkwardness is the grit in the oyster.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 11:09 AM | | Comments (15)
        

Comments

I take it, first of all, that "...announced a new job plan Wednesday.." is an American usage. If you were to use the British English form many of such understanding problems would simply disappear: "... announce a new job plan ON Wednesday.."; a form that even allows for distance between adverb and verb, as in: "ON Wednesday, .... announced a new job plan", without being ungrammatical

A tweet from @MAlexJohnson: At the Charlotte Observer, we once printed: "University of North Carolina System Chancellor William Friday Monday said ..."

What's your view regarding "on" in time references? ("on Wednesday")? Superfluous, useful for readability, case by case?

Right on! And I like the use of 'feh.' You're a mensch, John!

William Friday Monday is even better a name than Obama Wednesday, but I think Tuesday Lobsang Rampa is better still.

This editorial oyster feels the rub of the grit too.

My response on Facebook to a suggestion that inserting "on" before "Wednesday" in that construction solves everything:

‎"President Obama on Wednesday announced" is only mildly less awkward than "President Obama Wednesday announced." In idiomatic English, the "on Wednesday" would appear either at the beginning of the sentence (which journalists rightly deplore as putting less essential information up front) or after the verb.

Actually, what usually works best is to lead with "President Obama has announced" in the opening paragraph and put the time element--"the president said Wednesday" in the second graph. But that would violate the journalistic imperative to create impacted opening sentences.

The "on" would be essential in BrE.


Prof. McI.,

Dare I say that your "girt in the oyster" may, on occasion, lead to pearls of wisdom?

ALEX

P.S.: -----Patricia the T., how's THAT for short and pithy?

Is there anything "un-American" about using "on," as Picky suggests? My ear rather prefers his solution.

Oops......... I did it again!

In my last post I managed to transpose the "r" and "i" in the word "grit", and it unwittingly came out as "girt". "Girt in the pearl"........... say what?

Can you imagine if old John Wayne's last hurrah on the big screen was titled "True Girt"? Didn't think so. Just sayin'.

Spell check didn't kick in, in this instance, 'cause "girt" IS actually a real word, namely an intransitive verb relating to girding, as commonly used re/ one's loins, as one prepares for some formidable challenge, or task, i.e., to girt (or gird) one's loins. Who knew?

A picky point, but nevertheless not unlike w/ the generally honorable game of golf, where one, on rare occasions, is obliged to call a penalty on one's self when the infraction warrants; even if one's golf mates didn't actually witness the rules violation. Honesty is usually the best policy......... on the links and in life, in general. A clear conscience is a good thing.

Now that I've gotten that off my chest, I'm 'girting' the heck out of here pronto, Pilgrim.

Enough said.

ALEX

Alex, your transmogrification of grit into "girt" sent me back to the now defunct food blog, Dining@Large, where Hal VoR posted this:

Thompson's Sea Girt House, which was a door or two or three down from the Swallow at the Hollow and across the street from Jerry's Belvedere. What the heck is a sea girt, anyway? Yeah, yeah, I know, I should just google it. And I probably will soon.

The funny thing about the Sea Girt House is that it was nowhere near the water (at least in its last incarnation). We went there when my mother was in town because she liked their crab cakes.

Not only does adding "on" make many things much clearer, as a sentence adverb its natural place is at the beginning, setting the stage. (On Wednesday at the White House President Obama said...) I do understand that journalists don't like to lead with times, but I've never really understood why.

To indulge in the tangent that seems to have broken off from the main point of the article, the Australian national anthem includes the phrase "Our home is girt by sea," meaning that it is surrounded by it. It's related to the word 'girth' when pertaining to something's perimiter or circumference.

I suspect a sea-girt house would possibly be on a peninsula or isthmus.

(Not to be picky, Alex but "to girt/gird one's loins" would be a transitive use of the verb.)

And, also, being Australian, I would also want to use the construction "on Wednesday". The omission of the preposition sounds just wrong to my colonial ears.

I'm afraid British reporters are just as likely to use the "Prime Minister David Cameron on Monday announced" construction, too. I always want to say to them: "What did you on Monday have for dinner?"

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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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