Thursday, January 03, 2019

INTERN DIES 8 TIMES - Why Everyone Should Be Familiar With Strunk & White's Elements Of Style

Here's the story headline in the Anchorage Daily News* (ADN) this morning  that got my attention here:

For my blind readers whose equipment can't read words in images, the headline is:


"Lion that killed intern at wildlife center 8 times" - That's one tough intern.

Elements Of Style is one of the most used books on English writing style.  It may be a bit outdated here and there, but its succinct list of rules of grammar and style make it a great way to keep your prose concise and understandable.  It's available free as a PDF on line.  From page 36:

"20. Keep related words together.
The position of the words in a sentence is the principal means of showing their relationship. Confusion and ambiguity result when words are badly placed. The writer must, therefore, bring together the words and groups of words that are related in thought and keep apart those that are not so related."
They then give lots of examples, but this one is as good as any of them why this is important.

So how do we make it clear that the deputies shot the lion eight times, not that the lion killed the intern eight times?   Here's what other headline writers wrote:

Deputies shot lion eight times after it killed intern

Deputies fired 8 gunshots to subdue lion after fatal attack at NC wildlife center

Other papers, like the Miami Herald and the Chicago Tribune used the misleading headline the ADN used.

*I often can't find links to stories like this one that the ADN has rounded up from other sources, that's why I put in the screenshot.

I'd also note that in the 1979 Introduction is this advice on BREAKING rules:
"It is an old observation," he wrote, "that the best writers sometimes disregard the rules of rhetoric. When they do so, however, the reader will usually find in the sentence some compensating merit, attained at the cost of the violation. Unless he is certain of doing as well, he will probably do best to follow the rules."

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