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Grammar Moses: When in doubt, write around it

The headline is a window into a story. It's also one of newspapering's most interesting (and fun) challenges. How do you convey the nuance of a story in just a few words? How do you alert people that an Anthropologie store is moving into Schaumburg, all in a one-column hed (which is newspaper jargon for "head," which is short for "headline")?

We have a bunch of award-winning headline writers on staff who constantly amaze me. But sometimes even they get stumped.

Neil Holdway, who heads up our night copy desk operation, wrote me an overnight note about a particular challenge: “So we struggled with my panel headline on the Illinois vaccination rate, where I said ‘1 in 12 Illinoisans have their first dose.’ Looks OK at first, but really, should it be “1 in 12 has …’? And then you have ‘their’ to deal with.”

Depending upon where you fall on the pedantry spectrum, you might argue “their” is just dandy. That’s how people speak, right?

Copy deskers, as a whole, tend to be a pretty pedantic bunch. For the purposes of maintaining consistent style, that’s necessary. They’re not as wedded to syntactic traditions as, say, mathematicians are to Euclidean geometry, but you wouldn’t want to get into an argument with them.

Noted linguist Bryan A. Garner, whose “Modern American Usage” is one of my go-to resources, employs a five-stage Language-Change Index to all manner of definitions, spellings and usages. Stage 1 indicates an emergent variation that’s used by a small number of people. Stage 5 indicates a universally accepted variation.

Garner’s take on the “1 in 12” issue – and mine as well – is “1” is the subject of the sentence – not “12.” So it should take a singular verb.

Garner labels the “1 in 12 have” variation as Stage 2.

So, what did Neil do?

“In the end, I wrote around it,” he said. “First dose done for 1 in 12 Illinoisans.”

When writing headlines on a tight deadline on a night when we’re rolling presses early because of snow in the forecast, it’s important to know when to give up and try something else.

Flattening

When one receives an email whose subject line is “‘Flattening the curve’ voted the most detested pandemic-related phrase among Illinoisans,” one takes notice.

The people at PRPioneer.com, a website that provides public relations resources, said they surveyed 3,700 adults to determine which pandemic-related words or phrases were the most off-putting.

Second only to “flattening the curve” was “outbreak,” followed by “second wave,” “unprecedented” and “bubble.”

I’m at a loss for why anyone would conduct such a survey, unless a purveyor of used surfboards was looking for a business name akin to its gym equipment counterpart “Second Wind.”

Following this logic, “Second Wave” might lose a lot of business to, say, Dookie’s Boards if the two businesses were side by side on a crowded beach.

Euphemism redux

In response to my blurb on automobile-related euphemisms, reader Joel Strassman responded: “Another euphemism in the automobile industry: repair shops that ‘specialize in import and domestic.’ Unless there are interstellar/intergalactic vehicles needing repair, those shops are general repair shops. And don’t get me started on hot water heaters.”

Mea culpa

Thank you, eagle eye readers, for pointing out the error of my ways.

In last weekend’s column, I included the phrase “emails comes in torrents.”

Clearly there is one too many esses in that sentence. But which one is wrong?

I think what happened is I originally wrote “email comes in torrents,” where “email” is a collective noun that takes a singular verb. Think “peace comes in stages.”

But then I changed the sentence to make “emails” a plural: “emails come in torrents,” but I forgot to delete the “s” in “comes.”

Thank you, Maura Kennedy and Cynthia Cwynar, for reading closely.

Write carefully!

By Jim Baumann, vice president/managing editor of the Daily Herald. First published on https://www.dailyherald.com/news/20210206/grammar-moses-when-in-doubt-write-around-it February 6, 2021