Throw over the fence the horse some hay…

–Millard Hunsley, veteran copy desk editor

My wife recently spotted the following puzzling first paragraph of a story in our local newspaper:

“A judge dismissed a motion Friday that would’ve held a man accused of shooting at a woman in jail.”

So was the man shooting at the woman while she was in jail? I don’t think so. I think what the writer intended to say was:

“A judge dismissed a motion Friday to hold a man in jail who had been accused of shooting a woman.”

First of all, the use of “would’ve” should not have made it past the copy editor’s desk. Oh wait — there are no longer any copy desks to catch such crude uses of the English language in a newspaper article.

Secondly, it was a curmudgeonly old copy editor at my first journalistic experience — cub reporter at the Albuquerque Journal — who many years ago came up with that language for my blog headline. His name was Millard Hunsley and he used that sentence to demonstrate why cub reporters like me needed to read over our stories for jumbled sentence structure before turning them over to the copy desk. And trust me, the marks a copy editor would make on what you thought was a perfectly crafted story were like daggers to your heart.

I think I got better at avoiding such gaffes, but I still struggled from time to time when I was a writer at United Press International — a now defunct news or “wire” service. At UPI, we had to write radio copy to be inserted into hourly “splits” where the national news feed would stop and we had the opportunity to insert state and local news. Usually, the “splits” came up all too quickly and we would have to write the story under the gun in real time. The only thing that occasionally saved us was the fact that what we typed out on the teletype was delayed by a few seconds before it appeared on the teletype that our subscribers got.

The teletypes were clunky mechanical devices that punched coded holes in yellow three-quarter-inch paper tape that was then fed through a device that read all the holes and printed the words out on paper a few seconds later. In the jargon of the wire service, we used to say we would “punch up” a story when we wrote it.

Teletype with tape reader on left

So when writing in real time during a split, you would occasionally back yourself into a corner on sentence structure. The only thing that would save you was to halt the tape reader in mid-sentence, then manually type in a series of Xs to try to convince any reader that there had been some kind of mechanical or network malfunction that triggered the stoppage.

Then you could trash the error-ridden tape, and start a new sentence to replace the one you screwed up. This time, however, you would take a little more time to think things through for proper sentence structure and make sure you had finished writing the story before sending it through the tape reader.

I know, it’s all pretty esoteric and boring to most people. But the point is that we could sure use some good copy editors these days.

I even saw the improper use of the word “it’s” on one of the crawlers along the bottom of an ABC news feed the other day. The word should have been “its” but I suspect no one but a few of us old English loving curmudgeons would have noticed.

Think before you write — not just about content, but about proper use of the King’s English.

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