Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Say, Say, Say


You can't say something outrageous. Well, you can, but that would mean something else. You can say something is outrageous, or you can call something outrageous. Or, in the headline shortcut that someone at Reuters or Google or somewhere abused, Iraq bombings can be 'outrageous,' Obama says.

And as for the pirate headline, well, that degree of "says" abuse is a new one on me.

As we tweet and RSS and SMS and MMS and try to broadcast news to ever-tinier devices, of course, every character is sacred, but there is a baseline of literacy below which reputable publishers should not stoop, and the proper use of to say is part of it.

As you know if you've been a copy editor any length of time, and stared at an impossible headline order at some point in the night only to see by deadline time that it was, indeed, possible, there's always a way. I'm not sure whether there was a character to spare in the format for the Gmail news clips from which I took my examples, but observe:

Obama says Iraq bombings 'outrageous'
Obama calls Iraq bombings 'outrageous'
Obama calls Iraq attacks 'outrageous'
Obama calls Iraq bombings outrageous

Somali pirates say holding British couple
Somali pirates claim to hold British pair
Somali pirates claim to hold 2 Britons


I used to think that the wrongness of President says bill bad and the like was obvious to any decent copy editor, but I was wrong. I've met some very good copy editors in my quarter-century of doing this for whom this was a blind spot. If you have the blind spot, perhaps the following excerpt from the Washington Post stylebook's entry on headlines can help.

Auxiliary verbs and forms of the verb to be may usually be omitted, but they are required in the progressive and after says:

Acceptable:

Budget deficit intolerable, candidate says

Candidate calls budget deficit intolerable

Driver held blameless in Beltway crash


Unacceptable:

Candidate says budget deficit intolerable

Budget deficit said intolerable

Driver said blameless in Beltway crash


Acceptable:

Farmers fear river is rising

Farmers fear rising river

Israelis feared PLO was infiltrating


Unacceptable:

Farmers fear river rising

Israelis feared PLO infiltrating

The verb must be used in an independent clause after a conjunction.

Acceptable:

SE mother charged after girl is found stabbed and wandering

Unacceptable:

SE mother charged after girl found stabbed and wandering

6 comments:

jfruh said...

How about the trusty colon?

Obama: Iraq bombings "outrageous"

Bill said...

Sure, though I consider the colon thing a last resort.

Mike Baehr said...

I read "Farmers fear river rising" with "rising" as a gerund and "river" is an adjective, which seems acceptable -- they fear the rising.

Bill said...

But clearly that wouldn't have been the intent -- "rising river" is the same character count, and the grammatically correct version would be "river's rising."

Dominic said...

I'm somehow uncomfortable with the idea of stooping below a baseline. The idea in my mind when someone says baseline is either something painted on the ground, or something altogether more abstract than that. Stooping is such a physical metaphor that the baseline you have in mind must be in mid-air. Not that I'd comment on this if it weren't your stock in trade.

daniel said...

http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=2063