Fewer copy editors after staff cuts means more grammar errors

Many readers complain about grammar mistakes in The Miami Herald, so I decided to submit the newspaper for grading to the ultimate judge: a veteran teacher.

Elaine Kenzel is the sort of teacher we all remember for having a sharp pen and no-nonsense style, though Ms. Kenzel uses a green pen to communicate that she is trying to help you grow. She was a teacher and administrator in Miami-Dade schools for 35 years and now works part-time as an editor for several companies.

I sent her the Monday, Jan. 18 edition. It came back marked up with — get this — 133 errors. I was astounded, but she was surprised that there weren’t more mistakes, given the tremendous amount of copy, much of which is written and edited quickly on deadline.

Some of the errors, moreover, were stylistic, such as beginning a sentence with “but” or “and.” Her acceptance of them may be rule No. 1 in grammar: “A journalist’s style and level of word choice (and that of everyone who communicates) must take into consideration the audience, and the `flavor’ of the writer must be maintained.”

Some of the mistakes, however, were more serious and may reflect what inevitably happens as The Herald — like newspapers across the country — has cut copy editors to save costs. The Herald’s night news editor and copy desk chief, Jeff Kleinman, oversees some 20 copy editors and estimates that whereas most stories were once edited two to three times, they now are edited once or twice.

Today’s copy editors are multitaskers who design pages, pick wire stories and process them for the Web — all in addition to the traditional duties of line-editing, trimming to perfectly fill space and writing headlines.

Kleinman, a veteran newsman of 25 years who remains passionate about his craft, was pained by the Kenzel report but notes that mistakes have always slipped through. “We’re basically putting out a small book in a few hours,” he said. “Still, nothing hurts more than getting up in the morning, getting the paper and finding some glaring mistake that you should have found the previous night.”

What readers don’t see is the state of some articles before they get to the copy editor. Kleinman said that the qualities he most looks for in hiring copy editors are clear thinking and attention to detail.

To be fair, as Ms. Kenzel notes, grammar is often subjective. She supports putting commas before the last word in a series, for example, because she thinks it adds clarity. This is not The Herald’s style, so she didn’t include that as an error. Paradoxically, however, she found an overuse of commas throughout the rest of the text — it was the most common error she listed.

Nearly 30 of the mistakes she found were unclear statements or missing words that universally would be considered wrong. Take this passage from an article on a visit by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates to India:

“The Indian and U.S. militaries had little interaction in the Cold War years, when India was neutral and had close relations with the Soviet Union, but now conduct joint military exercises and regular exchanges.”

The last phrase of this sentence should read, “but they now conduct joint military exercises . . .” Without “they,” Ms. Kenzel said, it is unclear whether India is conducting joint military exercises with the former Soviet Union or the United States — a substantive difference.

And there was this passage in an article about Haiti: “Hundreds formed and shadowed the vehicles, jostling and pushing to the edge of one truck.” This reads awkwardly, she said, as people do not “form.” They “form a line” or “form a crowd.”

Misplaced modifiers also cause confusion and were common. “Reporters said at least one looter was killed by police, a bullet to his head,” said one story. Was the bullet to the head of the shooter or the police? Ms. Kenzel recommended this rewrite: “Reporters said that police killed at least one looter with a bullet to his head.”

Here is another misplaced modifier she found: “As he was making change, police said, the masked teens climbed into the truck, armed with guns.” This implies that the truck was armed with guns. It was an ice cream truck. The sentence should read: “As he was making change, police said, the masked teens, armed with guns, climbed into the truck.”

Most readers probably figure out the correct meaning, but it is jarring to have to reread a sentence several times.

Quotes are sometimes confusing. In the past, journalists corrected a speaker’s grammar, but they stopped doing so because of ethical concerns. If someone says something unintelligible, however, it should be paraphrased. Instead, Ms. Kenzel found this among several examples: ” ‘He’s in good condition, but mental condition, to be able to fight back after fatigue and keep on focusing and concentrating and playing hard.’ ”

Ms. Kenzel took issue with how journalists too often put attributions at the end of sentences. An example: “His license to practice psychology already had been suspended indefinitely after he was accused of overdosing on cocaine and heroin while his school-age children were visiting him, state records show.” It would be less awkward, she said, to put the “state records show” at the beginning of the sentence or near the specific information that is from the state records.

Ms. Kenzel was especially critical of two listings: “Martin Luther King Jr. Observances” and “Business Happenings.” The sentences included with them are not in parallel structure — for clarity, they should be either all complete or all fragments, she said.

“Some sections of the paper were better than others,” Ms. Kenzel said, but in a note of levity, added: “Sports wasn’t one of the bad ones, as some people might think.” Even tough teachers can be soft touches.

This column was originally published in The Miami Herald on February 1, 2010.

Comments are closed.