Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Who's On A Shoestring?

There's an excellent opinion piece by Elise Patkotak in today's Alaska Dispatch News.  It's a response to Rep. Tammie Wilson's call for an investigation into why social workers are (allegedly) removing kids unnecessarily from their homes.  Everyone should read it.  (That sounds a bit pretentious of me telling people what they should read.  Let me rephrase that.  People interested in the welfare of kids, or in Wilson's claims, who want to better understand the issue can get a good, quick overview of what social workers face in Alaska.  Patkotak's response, based on her own experience as a social worker, isn't to punish social workers, but to have enough of them and enough backup services so they can do their jobs.)

But I do have an issue with the title (which usually is something an editor adds, not the writer.)  Here
it is:

Social workers can't protect Alaska 
kids on shoestring budget

What's wrong you ask.  Is it poor kids that can't be protected?  Or is it poor social workers who can't do the protecting?

This is a simple style issue that Strunk and White pointed out long ago in Elements of Style. (The link takes you to the book online.)  The specific item I'm quoting is from Section III, Elementary Rules of Composition, number 16 which begins on page 15.
16. Keep related words together. The position of the words in a sentence is the principal means of showing their relationship. The writer must therefore, so far as possible, bring together the words, and groups of words, that are related in thought, and keep apart those which are not so related.

Here's the specific rule of thumb for this case and some examples.

Modifiers should come, if possible next to the word they modify. If several expressions modify the same word, they should be so arranged that no wrong relation is suggested.
  • All the members were not present.
    • Not all the members were present.
  • He only found two mistakes.
    • He found only two mistakes.
  • Major R. E. Joyce will give a lecture on Tuesday evening in Bailey Hall, to which the public is invited, on "My Experiences in Mesopotamia" at eight P. M.
    • On Tuesday evening at eight P. M., Major R. E. Joyce will give in Bailey Hall a lecture on "My Experiences in Mesopotamia." The public is invited.

Let's add one more example here:
  • Social workers can't protect Alaska kids on shoestring budget
    • Social workers on shoestring budget can't protect Alaska kids

To me, the improvements are pretty clear, but if anyone has a question about why the bolded examples are better, leave a comment or email me (email's in right column above blog archive.)

Why does this matter?  Because humans have a lot of trouble communicating ideas from one person to another.  Even when they get everything right, there's miscommunication.  People who write - particularly editors at newspapers - should follow Strunk and White's rules (including their admonition about knowing when to break them) as automatically as they use the turn indicator in their car.  It doesn't solve miscommunication problems, but it doesn't add to the problems either.

Note:  Feedburner's been working reasonably well for the last two weeks, putting links to my posts up on other blogs.  Until yesterday's post.  So if you got here from another blog, here's a link to yesterday's post - The World's Disappearing Wilderness - The Importance of Long Term Thinking.


  1. A few comments, Steve ...
    — I commend you for pulling back, showing essential restraint, regarding your wish that everyone should read Elise's column. You exhibit a fairness & respect for your readers that I don't think is too common on blogs and online columns, comments, etc.
    — I too think Elise's points are well made, and she has the street cred to make them. Also instructive are the many comments from what appear to me to be typical government haters, those wanting no state spending for social programs like the one Elise and others work for.
    — In probably 99 percent of the time, writers/reporters do not compose the headlines to their work. It's almost a certainty that Elise had nothing to do with the header on her column.
    — As a former reporter & editor at ADN (pre-2008), I like your remarks about misplaced modifiers. The most common error in that regard, in my experience as a reader, is misplacement of "only." Happens in the very best publications, too.

    On another note — I'll be unsubscribing to your email notice because I will not be checking emails too often over the next few months and so don't want them to pile up. Will resubscribe after that. Thanks for your work on variety of important topics. — Peter Porco.

  2. Ziba, thanks!

    Peter, appreciate your comments and that you've been a regular reader. It means a lot. I hope the email break means an interesting project or trip and hope I'll have good stuff when you get back online.


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