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Home > Publications > Quill > Don't start the year wrong


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Tuesday, March 3, 2009
Don't start the year wrong

Paula LaRocque

The rush of news that seems to accompany a new year can create a bumper crop of weak, weird and wrong writing. Maybe it has to do with holiday overload or short staffs, or maybe we’re hung over, figuratively speaking, from the year that just passed and aren’t thinking clearly.

Here are a couple of photo captions that helped start out this new year wrong:

“President-elect Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle Obama, arrive at ‘We Are One: Opening Inaugural Celebration at the Lincoln Memorial’ as Vice President-elect Joe Biden and his wife, Jill Biden, look ok at left, Sunday, Jan. 18, 2009, in Washington.”

Biden and Biden look OK? Well, yes, they do, in fact. But the oddity of “look ok” is doubtless a typo for “look on,” an antique favorite of caption writers who have nothing more descriptive to say.

But wait! Let’s look at that photo again. Hmm! Not only are Biden and Biden not looking OK, they’re not looking at all; they’re not even in the photo. This caption is a grim reminder that when we crop a photograph, we might also have to crop the cutline.

There’s another problem here: the mixed tense. The convention is to describe action in a photo in present tense to make it more immediate. That’s worth doing, but it doesn’t work when the sentence also contains a past time element.

In English, consistency of tense is necessary, and mixing tenses is unacceptable. We don’t say: We greet the mayor last week. Or: He attends a meeting yesterday. Or, as in this caption: They arrive Sunday. Anyone proficient in basic English would write that we greeted the mayor Friday, attended a meeting yesterday, arrived Sunday. (Check The New York Times’ captions to see cutline tense handled correctly.)

The following caption is so clotted with prepositions that it’s unreadable. Most sentences can bear only about three prepositional phrases before they fall apart, but this sentence bristles with three times that number:

“New York City police officers look OVER part OF the US Airways Airbus 320 that crashed INTO the Hudson River ON Thursday AS it sticks OUT OF the water AFTER it had been towed there FOR further inspection IN New York, Friday, Jan. 16, 2009.” (Caps added.)

The story accompanying that Airbus photo has its own share of gaffes. The worst is in this sentence: “Temperatures at the time of the crash in the city were just about 20 degrees, with the water temperature likely much colder.”

Why blithely surmise the water would be colder than the air? In fact, it would be warmer. Other, more responsible reports set the water temperature at 40 degrees.

Here’s a story that presents both caption and headline problems. The photo shows a smiling fellow with a trendy haircut, auburn mustache and goatee, and small gold earrings in both ears. The caption reads: “Toadfish ... key to speech?”

That caption does get your attention, especially if you’ve been wondering what a toadfish looks like. From the story, though, we find that the photo is of a Cornell University professor who is researching the toadfish but is not, himself, a toadfish. (The professor’s name, however — and I’m not making this up — is “Bass.”)

But hold on, here’s the headline: “Toadfish sex hum stirs boffins.”

If headlines and captions meant only to capture attention, those would succeed.

Here’s a headline on a story about celebrities that refers to “Marquis” names, instead of “marquee” names. Another about an athletic field that refers to “sewn” grass. Another that declares: “Frost Belt Unthawing.” Unthawing? When something frozen thaws, it unfreezes. So if it’s unthawing, is it re-freezing?

This two-faced head reads more like an ad than a headline: “Israeli wanted to spy for Iran.” The following headline misspells the word “sleight,” yielding an unintended meaning: “Official’s slight-of-hand reputation enhanced.” The official is reputed to have small hands?

The following headline also yields an unintended meaning by misusing the word “afghani”: “Obama raises hope for Afghanis.” The afghani is Afghanistan’s basic monetary unit and, as a generic noun, is lowercase: The afghani plummeted during years of civil war. The proper noun “Afghan” identifies the country’s people, while the adjective “Afghan” applies to the country’s culture, language and so forth.

January is over. Let’s take a deep breath and hope to do better in February and March.

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