Saturday, August 25, 2007

I Can Has E-Mail?

If you tried to send me a message on Friday, Aug. 25, I probably didn't get it. There were troubles. Please try again.

If you're wondering about the odd grammar and syntax in the title of this entry, learn and enjoy.

Friday, August 24, 2007

'It Is I,' Said the Fullback

Sorry, but I never get tired of that line. It was the title of one of my original Sharp Points on The Slot, and that essay became a sidebar in "Lapsing Into a Comma." My little joke almost became reality last month when Clinton Portis of the Washington Redskins, not a fullback but a running back, was quoted once in the Washington Post talking like Clinton Portis and elsewhere in the Washington Post saying the same thing on the same occasion, only like George Will.

The issue of "cleaning up" quotes is one on which journalists are split pretty much 50-50, in my experience. And each side thinks the other is nuts. Post ombudsman Deborah Howell sums up the controversy and argues for using a speaker's actual words here and here. Post humorist Gene Weingarten, an otherwise reasonable fellow, eloquently presents the don't-tell-us-what-people-actually-said viewpoint here (it's not right away; be patient and enjoy the other stuff).

My thoughts are here. And here: We get to say what we want everywhere else; let the speakers say what they want within quotation marks. If it's Clinton Portis, who obviously steers clear of Henry Higgins English on purpose, allow him the courtesy of using his own words. If it's some poor schlub who simply made a mistake because he's human and he's nervous and he doesn't usually get interviewed by newspapers, put the salient words in quotes and correct the subject-verb agreements outside quotes. If he accidentally says, "I has a heck of a dilemma," make it a partial quote and say that he has "a heck of a dilemma."

The ombudsman got plenty of feedback, and one reader made a point I wish I'd thought of: If we clean up quotations to avoid making readers look bad, would we also touch up photographs of them to remove their blemishes?

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Staff Infection

The use of staff as an article-free plural noun -- in place of "the staff" or "staff members" -- is, at least in American English, a hallmark of bureaucratese. It's an established and understandable usage, and so some would tell us to put down the red pencil and slowly back away from the text, perhaps even kneel and build a shrine to yet another example of the language's flexibility, but our job is to avoid jargon. We're not bureaucrats; we don't get as many days off.

NO: The senator instructed committee staff to research the issue.
YES: The senator instructed the committee staff to research the issue.

NO: The report said some hospital staff were untrained.
YES: The report said some hospital staff members were untrained.

(I would even accept staffers, though that word makes some of my fellow tsk-tskers wince.)