Saturday, December 8, 2012

False titles run amok

One of the enduring irritations of clumsy journalese and one we are seeing more often these days is the "false title," a loose string of adjectives preceding a proper name. As in:

"Boston University College of Communication graduate student and aspiring photojournalist Christopher Weigl was killed Thursday when his bicycle collided with a tractor-trailer."

That's a ten-worder, not a world record for a false title but not far from one, either. It is from, of all places, the Jim Romenesko journalism blog, popular with newsies everywhere. He should have known better.

A real title is an official one, such as "Army Pvt. Joe Smith," or "Sen. Dick Durbin." False titles (known by grammarians as an "anarthrous nominal premodifier") are just bogus strings of adjectives, and when they're piled on, as in the foregoing example, the result is decidedly inelegant.

It is much better to begin with the name of the person, then add the descriptive phrase or phrases. As in:

"Christopher Weigl, a Boston University College of Communication graduate student and aspiring photojournalist, was killed . . ."

Better. But there's still a bit of clumsy false-title construction in the improved sentence. Let's try:

"Christopher Weigl, a graduate student in the College of Communication at Boston University and an aspiring photojournalist, was killed . . ."

Much more polished, wouldn't you say?

The false title does have its defenders among journalists. They say it saves space and is OK in newspapers although not in more elevated prose one finds in magazines and novels. That may be so, but a couple of commas don't add much fat to a sentence.

Am I turning into "hateful old grammar Nazi Henry Kisor" in my geezerhood? Not really. I've been one for 47 years, beginning with an apprenticeship on the nightside copy desk at the old Chicago Daily News. There we would get whacked with steel pica poles if we let howlers slide through.

I would not, however, berate uneducated folks for grammatical bloopers. They don't know no better and couldn't hardly care less. They're not professional writers and editors who must serve sophisticated readers. Why insult ordinary Joes with linguistic loftiness?

But if professionals commit such solecisms, they deserve to be steamrollered by a blitzkrieg of contempt. And those who deliver the contumely always should merit the Grammarian's Iron Cross with Oak Leaves, Swords and Diamonds.

1 comment:

  1. A former City Editor at the Honolulu Advertiser, now gone to his reward, insisted on correct grammar from his reporters. On at least once occasion, when encountering a story with an especially egregious error of grammar, he would bellow the reporter's name across the city room. When the offender appeared, the editor would take his copy, march to the window, tear the pages in half, and in half once again, then hurl the pieces out the window. Words were unspoken and unnecessary. And damn few grammatical errors ever appeared in the Honolulu Advertiser.