How to Write Without Really Trying

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A paradox of our times is that, although schools no longer insist that students master standard writing conventions in order to graduate, more people are writing for publication than at any previous time in human history. According to one estimate, more than 152 million blogs populate the Internet, with more joining them every day. And then there are the books: in the years between 2007 and 2012, self-published titles rose 422 percent.

As might be expected, much of this verbal outpouring is rife with nonstandard grammar, sloppy style, and a general lack of respect for the reader. Here, for example, is a notice written by an online purveyor of fan fiction:

Please Note, alot of typoes and grammatical errors will be found. i just posted this recently and have not had a chance to edit yet. so bare with me will be eiditing soon.

Professional journalists, on the other hand, might reasonably be expected to pay attention to the conventions of formal written English. Or so I thought, until I read an article about a spate of burglaries in a residential neighborhood in California. The article appears on the site of an ABC affiliate. Presumably, the writer was paid to write it. Here are a few extracts, with comments:

It [a manhunt] started with a stolen getaway car that the burglars left behind when they took off to hide inside people’s homes.

The expression “to take off” in the sense of “to leave in a hurry” is at best informal usage. I suppose the writer chose “took off” because he’d already used left in “left behind.” By replacing “left behind” with abandoned, he could have used left instead of took off to mean depart.

The three burglary suspects were believed to be holed up in someone’s house.

The expression “to hole up” or “to be holed up” is definitely slang. Conventional usage: “were believed to be hiding in someone’s house.”

Snipers in camouflage climbed on roof tops and officers made sure every inch of the neighborhood was covered, from backyards, to front porches, dogs hunted for the suspects’ scent.

i. The word rooftops is a closed compound.

ii. A comma usually separates independent clauses joined by and: “Snipers in camouflage climbed on rooftops, and officers made sure…”

iii. The sentence is actually two sentences, incorrectly joined by a comma splice. The first sentence should end with “from backyards to front porches.” The next sentence is “Dogs hunted for the suspects’ scent.”

iv. The dog sentence is less than satisfying. Did the dogs really hunt the scent? Or were they following the scent as they hunted the suspects?

Police are praising the woman at the start of the day who called police when she heard the burglars inside her home.

This is an example of a misplaced modifier. The hunt for the burglars began when the woman phoned the police that morning. Better: “Police are praising the woman who called police at the start of the day when she heard the burglars inside her home.”

Shortly after writing this post, I heard about the availability of software applications designed to write articles with a minimum of human input. According to an online advertisement, one such revolutionary application includes templates and phrase lists that will enable a blogger to produce a 500-word article “on any topic in under a minute.”

Who knows? A machine may have written the story about the burglars.

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4 thoughts on “How to Write Without Really Trying”

  1. Television news websites do not hire re-writers or copyeditors (at least, none of the ones I’ve approached), so what you’re getting is the TV reporter’s copy and yes, it reflects the fact that they have never had a stint in print journalism. They might have had a semester of Newswriting 101 freshman year, but that would be it.

  2. It does get discouraging when one hears news anchor folks and on-camera reports say that “I seen the [whatever] . . .

    What’s more discouraging than that, is I live in the city where the Walter Kronkite School of Journalism is located.

  3. Even “professional journalists” might be excused for not following all the “conventions of formal English usage,” at times, particularly when those conventions turn a stirring account of a dramatic event into stilted prose. Three comments:
    * “…took off…” may be informal usage, but in context it does a better job of conveying the frantic nature of what was taking place than the more pedestrian “departed.” In other words, it may be the better journalistic choice in a “breaking news” situation.
    * “Holed up” shares with “hiding” the meaning of being secreted . . . but also carries a connotation of duration and desperation as well. I might be hiding if I were playing hide-and-go-seek, but I wouldn’t be holed up.
    * Scent dogs might follow a scent, if their handlers are lucky. However, if there is no clear trail — or a broken trail — from, say, the car they abandoned, they might very well be questing back and forth, or “hunting” to pick up the trail again. And it should be obvious that, even in this case, the dogs would be hunting the scent, not the suspects — that’s the authorities’ job.

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