17 February 2008

Sunday Judgment IV

Today's subject: the naked this.

My copy editing habits for any particular usage issue tend to go in cycles:

  1. Depend on logic, intuition, and sound before taking time to do research on the issue or to realize it's even an issue at all.
  2. Research the issue or be told about it by someone else.
  3. Develop or steal a means of explaining the issue and its prescription, and abide by it with dogged consistency.
  4. Chill the hell out and go back to basically doing whatever functions well and sounds best, only this time armed with argumentative material accumulated in steps (2) and (3).
This whole cycle is a pretty good illustration of the common know-the-rules-before-you-break-them phenomenon.

I just arrived at step (4) regarding the "naked this," a subclass of the often deadly ambiguous antecedent. The naked this (and its fraternal twin the "naked that") is a pox on much college writing. It happens when the author doesn't realize he or she has expressed a complex series of ideas and then ambiguously referred to one of them as "this." Often times, "this" idea has never been discretely and explicitly defined at all. I'll refer you to the MIT Online Writing and Communication Center for a couple of examples.

A moment of clarity regarding my overzealous enforcement of the naked this came for me when reading Lance Williams's most recent coverage of the Roger Clemens circus in SI:

The YouTube clip and the 60 Minutes interview, the infamous press conference at which he and his lawyer Rusty Hardin dramatically presented a recorded phone conversation with McNamee that proved maddeningly inconclusive, the statistical analysis of his pitching career that landed with a thud, the tour of congressional offices so he could meet with the politicians who would be posing Wednesday's questions--none of this helped, and much of it hurt, his cause, and to a degree that has yet to be calculated (emphasis added).

When a naked this follows a list, it's assumed that it refers to the items in the list. Williams could certainly have clothed this this, but he needn't fear indecent exposure charges for choosing not to.

Thus, my editorial judgment for today is this: stick with the rule of thumb that most every this or that should be paired with a noun (in the Clemens example, "none of this nonsense" or "none of these boneheaded moves" would work), but there's no need to be too draconian about it in cases where there's no risk of ambiguity.

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