Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Don't Bring a Gun to a Knife Fight?

I a big fan of Josh Marshall's news blog, TPM, but journalism does not always produce the best sentences. Here's an example:

At Obama's town hall there, one man was arrested for having a gun hidden in his car after the Secret Service found him at Portsmouth High School hours before Obama arrived carrying a pocketknife.
Does Obama carry a pocket knife to his town hall meetings? This sentence leaves the strange impression that the issue is the mismatching of weaponry: the unnamed man's crime is to bring a gun to a knife fight. There is also something strange about the unqualified use of the word "hours". While the journalist is no doubt just trying to inform us that the arrest happened well before the president was in the building (and that he was therefore in no danger), writing it this way has the effect of trivializing the whole episode. ("Oh, but that happened hours ago!") That is probably not what was intended.

What this sentence needs is a bit of editing. In fact, the ambiguities in the sentence arise from wanting to do too much in the space of a single sentence. We can fix the problems as we break it into two shorter sentences.

At Obama's town hall there, one man was arrested for having a gun hidden in his car. The Secret Service had found him carrying a pocketknife at Portsmouth High School in the hours before Obama arrived.

That's all this morning. Next week, I'll be drawing my example from the organization studies literature.

1 comment:

Presskorn said...

You'll have enough to do next week... :-)

Take this example from a text on organizational learning[OL]:

"In their view OL is mainly an adaptive process in which goals, attention rules (or standard operating procedures), e.g. which parts of the environment the organization should listen to, and search rules that stir the organization in a particular way to find problem-solutions are adapted to the experiences that are made within the organization."

For a minute or so, I simply believed this sentence to be not only bad but also ungrammatical until I figured out that "search" is not being used as verb but as a part of a compound noun, "search rules"....