“To Grammar’s House” is a regular column by the Boston Globe copy desk on the style and language used in the newspaper.
Copy editors appreciate colorful writing. But they also have to be certain that the attempts at color enhance the story rather than clutter the narrative.
Picture a large vessel churning through the water, leaving small craft bobbing in its wake. Then consider these sentences:
Smith steps into his role in the wake of complaints filed by Jones and her husband, alleging that the committee violated the state Open Meeting Law during several sessions.
The new allegations widen the sexual abuse scandal in sports in the wake of accusations against former coaches Jerry Sandusky at Penn State, Bernie Fine at Syracuse, and Bob Hewitt in professional tennis.
Gary Giordano defended his actions in the wake of Robyn Gardner’s disappearance, criticized his former attorney, and said the Aruban economy was driven by cocaine and human trafficking.
The reader needs none of this bobbing and churning. In each case, the copy editor performs a welcome service by changing “in the wake of” to “following.”
Errant bits of colorful wording can be based on land as well as at sea. For example:
He delivered a laundry list of cases of brutality in the region, saying that police behavior has instilled fear in the community and discouraged young people from coming forward when they witness crimes.
Even in that relatively innocent era, she saw a laundry list of distractions nibbling away at drivers’ focus: conversations, the rearview mirror, landmarks.
With a laundry list of assault and battery and armed robbery convictions on his criminal record, Smith, 47, had lost hope.
Sounds nice, but what is a laundry list, really? Our dictionary tells us that it is a lengthy compilation, often one regarded as unorganized or showing a lack of necessary selectiveness. So our copy editor takes out the laundry. Most of the time when this turn of phrase appears, what is really meant is just plain “list.”