Tuesday, June 20, 2006

In which the New York Times quotes from a blog and trips over the difference between newspaper and blog style

The New York Times ran a story today about Language Log, that quirky, provocative and funny blog that gave birth to the new book, "Far from the Madding Gerund" by the blog’s founders, Mark Liberman and Geoff Pullum. The way they quoted the latter raised an interesting question: Can a blogger be said to “snap”?
They also lay into "The Elements of Style," by William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White, who instructed writers, "Write with nouns and verbs, not with adjectives and adverbs."

"Look, you don't get good at writing by deleting adjectives," Professor Pullum snaps. "Writing is difficult and demanding; you can learn to get moderately good at it through decades of practice writing millions of words and critiquing what you've written or having others critique it. About 6 percent of those words will be adjectives, whether you write novels or news stories."
“Professor Pullum snaps (emphasis added)”? I think not. Maybe in a podcast. This sense of “snap” is normally used to characterize the spoken word. But this is a blog post -- the written word. He would have to “keyboard impatiently,” “write peevishly,” or something like that.

Why interject the phrase “Professor Pullum snaps” at all? Why not let the words speak for themselves, the way they would in a block quote in a blog? Because of newspaper convention: It’s a longish quote, and so it needs to be broken up. The trouble is, this sets in motion a subtle chain of distortions.

To begin with, it would be more accurate to say “Professor Pullum writes.” To the casual reader, the oral connotation of “snaps” suggests that the quote was something Pullum said to an interviewer, rather than just a small part of a longer blog post.

The distortion continues with another aspect of newspaper style. Because space is limited, newspaper quotes are almost totally devoid of context. What context they have is supplied by the reporter or copy editor via descriptive words and conventions. Using “snaps” instead of a more neutral word characterizes the tone of Pullum’s words. Such a qualifier might be fair and necessary with an oral interview, when just a few words are quoted out of what might be a long conversation.

But in this case, the NYT has simply added a screen of someone else’s interpretation between the reader and Pullum’s blog post -- which readers could easily check for themselves, if someone had given them the URL. But the NYT is a newspaper and not a blog, so it is not in the habit of embedding links with their quotes. So here it is. Check it out. Does he sound snappish to you?

I still don’t think so.

UPDATE: I got so caught up in the fine points of NYT journalistic style that I lost track of what originally intrigued me about the story in the first place -- the E. B. White connection. More about White as a writer here (Part 1). And here (Part 2). And here (Part 3).

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