Taking a Bite at Poor Writing


The story is simple and exciting. The writing is terrible. 

Background

Here’s the story, in brief. An “alligator handler” is showing off how he can “handle” alligators, and he gets bitten on the arm. Onlookers are horrified. He escapes and goes to the hospital. (You can read the story and watch the video here: http://www.wtsp.com/news/topstories/story.aspx?storyid=131699&catid=250

However, once we get past our morbid fascination with the story and look at the writing, we see that the writer has only a loose grasp of punctuation, spelling, and logic. So let’s look at the writing, find the errors, and use this story to point out a few common mistakes. 

Writing Error #1: Commas

Comma errors are the most common type of error we fix. Writers leave them out when they are needed and add them in when not needed. This story has four comma errors. 

The first error comes from the first sentence. “An alligator show . . . went terribly wrong Sunday afternoon, when the show’s star suffered a severe bite . . . .” Why is that comma there? It has no reason to be there. We know the rule that says to put a comma after an introductory adverbial phrase, but when that adverbial phrase is not introductory (i.e., not before the subject of the verb being described), the comma is not needed. For example, we need the comma in “When observers saw the blood, they panicked” but not in “Observers panicked when they saw the blood.” 

The second comma error comes from the beginning of the last paragraph: “Police say Quattrocchi told them, this was his worst encounter yet with a gator.” Again, why is that comma there? We don’t separate a transitive verb from its object with a comma. The transitive verb is “told.” We ask the question “told what?” to find the object, which is “[that] this was his worst encounter yet with a gator.” The writer separated the verb and object with a comma, which is wrong. 

To understand the third error, you need to understand appositives. An appositive is a word or phrase that renames something you just wrote. (This is a simplistic definition, but it works for our purpose. You can read more about appositives and how to punctuate them here: https://preciseedit.wordpress.com/2009/11/19/punctuating-appositives/.) For example, in “I have a great car, a Honda,” the expression “a Honda” renames “a great car.” This leads us to the punctuation rule: Appositives are set off from the rest of the sentence with commas. The writer didn’t do this. The incorrect text is “. . . during the second of three shows Sunday put on by the “Swampmaster” Jeffrey Quattrocchi.” The name of the handler, “Jeffrey Quattrocchi,” is an appositive for “the ‘Swampmaster.’ ” It needs to be set off from the rest of the sentence with a comma, resulting in “the ‘Swampmaster,’ Jeffrey Quattrocchi.” If the writer had removed “the,” then the entire expression would be used as one name, and the sentence would be correct. But he didn’t, so it isn’t. 

The final comma error is in the last sentence. (The first and last sentences of the story both contain comma errors. Neat, huh?) “Bayfront Medical Center had no patient information late Sunday night, but police did not believe his injuries, would be life threatening.” The first comma is correct. The writer put a comma before the conjunction that joins two independent clauses (i.e., complete sentences). The second comma is wrong. We don’t use a comma to separate a subject from its verb. The verb in question is “would be.” The subject of that verb is “injuries.” Subjects and verbs should not be separated by a comma. 

Writing Error #2: Hyphens 

Hyphens are used in a variety of ways. One use is to link modifiers into a single expression in which one word describes the other. For example, in the expression “self-proclaimed genius,” “self” modifies, or describes, “proclaimed,” and the entire expression “self-proclaimed” describes “genius.” This article has two errors related to this concept. 

The first error is in the first sentence (again!). “. . . when the show’s star suffered a severe bite wound from an eight foot alligator.” Here, the expression “eight foot” has two words that, together, describe the alligator; they are linked together. Additionally, the word “eight” describes “foot;” it tells how many feet. Thus, this expression needs a hyphen, resulting in “an eight-foot alligator.” 

The second hyphen error is in the second paragraph: “Home video shot by a person in the crowd shows the 45 year old handler walking . . . .” This one is a bit more complex, though it follows the same principle. The expression “45 year old” is a series of three terms that, together, describe “handler.” “45” tells how many years old, so we need a hyphen between “45” and “year” Then, the expression “45-year” is linked to the word “old,” so we need another hyphen, resulting in “45-year-old handler.” 

Writing Error #3: Spelling 

Whereas the previous types of errors indicate the writer’s lack of understanding about punctuation, the spelling errors indicate sloppiness. Where was the editor for this story? 

Here’s the first spelling error: “. . . you can hear Quattrocchi repeatedly scram as he struggles to free his arm . . . .” Scram? Oh, scream

And here’s the second: “. . . returned to his shows after loosing nearly 35 pounds . . . .” Loosing? Oh, losing

Writing Error #4: Logic 

Only after reading this article several times did I realize that the writer made a logic error. According to this story, the alligator handler was scheduled to perform three shows. He was bitten during the second show. Considering the fact that he was taken to the hospital after the attack, and that he was still at the hospital that night, I assume that the third show never happened. According to the story, though, “the attack happened in front of a crowd during the second of three shows Sunday put on by the “Swampmaster” Jeffrey Quattrocchi.” How did he put on the third show while in the hospital? And what was the third show he put on? The alligators were captured and confined after the attack. Maybe the writer meant the second of three scheduled shows. 

Summary: 

Four comma errors, two hyphen errors, two spelling errors, and one logic error. Who’s to blame? Of course, we can blame the writer. But didn’t someone read and approve this story? Didn’t a copy editor check this? Sure, writers should know how to spell, use grammar, apply punctuation rules, and check their stories for internal logic. Copy editors, on the other hand, are trained and paid to do this. They are supposed to be the experts. That’s their job. When I see an article with so many errors, I place the most blame on the copy editor. 

I wonder whether this story will be corrected?


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3 Comments

Filed under Authors, Editing, Writing

3 responses to “Taking a Bite at Poor Writing

  1. Update on the article discussed in this post: The news agency that released the article corrected the spelling and hyphenation problems. As of this time, though, the comma errors remain. Stay tuned!

  2. Cecily

    The worst error to me, i.e. greatest impediment to understanding, was the phrase “the second of three shows Sunday put on”, which reads as if Sunday is the organiser. That whole sentence needs rewriting, not merely adding a comma and replacing “three” with “two”.

  3. Agreed. As you said, the entire sentence needs work.

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