Saturday, December 29, 2007

How to:
Beat a crippled and finish off a dead man

This is a good example of what I deal with as a copy editor at Florida Today (without overstepping the bounds, of course).

And it's the first post about grammar, word usage, news story content, etc., in which I will show you "How to:" really mess up.

These paragraphs were taken from a story written in late November by a Gannett reporter at the Tallahassee bureau. The passages made it into several Gannett newspapers.

The first paragraph made it onto the USA Today Web site. That is linked here.

The first and second paragraphs are on The News-Press (Fort Myers) Web site. That is linked here.

They did not, however, make it into the pages of Florida Today.

It's a great example of how poor word choice can come off as insensitive and, when boiled down, can be quite inaccurate.

The story is about the role Florida has played in past primary elections:

"The state's primary was crucial for the first - and probably last - time four years later, when Jimmy Carter beat the crippled Alabamian, effectively ending Wallace's national career."
Isn't it a horrible image: Jimmy Carter beating an already crippled person? The Alabamian, of course, was then-Gov. George Wallace, who was paralyzed when he was shot on the campaign trail in Maryland in 1972. The juxtaposition of "beat" and "crippled" is unfortunate, at the least. I would fix this by simply removing "crippled" from the sentence. It's not important information.
"The state had a blip of importance in 1992, when Bill Clinton got 51 percent of the primary vote to finish off the late Sen. Paul Tsongas, D-Mass., and Californian Jerry Brown."
Now, here we have an example similar to the first paragraph. Instead of being a crippled governor, however, this senator is already dead when Bill Clinton makes him even deader by finishing him off.

For one thing, Paul Tsongas was not dead when he lost to Clinton (he died five years later). Therefore, to say "the late Sen. Paul Tsongas," which means he was dead at the time of the election, would be inaccurate. Take it out.

Secondly, it's another unfortunate juxtaposition to use "finish off" with someone who is already dead.

The moral of the story: Don't beat a man - or shoot him - when he's already down.

These errors are quite amusing to copy editors, but I'm sure many readers would find them loathsome.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Andrew --

I cringed at the use of "crippled" and "finished off" you mentioned. As a fellow copy editor I also can relate to the near-obsessive self-checking when it comes to typos and other whoops.

I've been sick to my stomach for the last week after we let a column go through in which it appears someone used the "replace" button instead of the "skip" button on a bunch of proper nouns in a column. The results were unspeakably bad.