Marking-up exercise is old habit

Posted April 30, 2010, at 7:21 p.m.

They say old habits die hard, and I may be living proof that “they” know what they are talking about.

With garish fluorescent yellow highlighter in hand, I still mark up the morning newspaper just as in the newsroom back in the day. A big red grease pencil was the weapon of choice then, as we formerly ink-stained wretches circled the glitches in the first edition so the back shop crew could make things right before later editions of the paper were put to bed.

Because I now practice the maneuver a day too late to make a difference, it amounts to locking the barn door after the stock has been run off by cattle rustlers. No matter. I do it because I enjoy discovering the well-turned misplaced modifier and other pitfalls of the English language as much as any nitpicker of the printed or spoken word might. And I do it, as well, in behalf of savvy readers who often alert me to bungled jobs they have seen in type or heard on television newscasts.

A wire service brief in Thursday’s newspaper is an example of the kind of malfunctioning sentence they can be expected to unearth.

The news story datelined Spokane, Wash., told of excited scientists who had discovered two rare Palouse earthworms last month at a site that encompasses parts of Washington and Idaho.

“The worms were considered extinct until 2005, when an Idaho graduate student found a worm after it had been cut nearly in half while digging a hole to sample earthworms and soil,’’ the story reported. This shows what can happen when you send a Palouse earthworm out with pick and shovel to do a scientist’s job.

A wire story out of Mississippi reporting on deaths and destruction caused by a series of tornadoes that ripped through the South last week contained a mangled sentence that I’m guessing the reporter would just as soon have back for a do-over. It told of a county coroner who, after having his storm-related injuries treated at a hospital, “then went out to help identify bodies in his hospital gown.’’

Other candidates for markup by my industrial strength yellow highlight pen run the gamut from political double talk and exotic lawyer-speak to examples of fine writing and overuse of the anonymous source to news stories that show how fast the world is passing me by. A news story about a college student who became lost and disoriented in the puckerbrush while participating in a University of Maine fraternity pledging ritual at Orono illustrates the latter category.

The kid emerged from the incident a bit worse for wear, but the advantages of youth soon helped bring him around, to the relief of all concerned. In commenting on the incident, UMaine Police Chief Noel March, who had been prominently involved in a search for the student, told news reporters that fraternity brothers sending the pledge out without a cell phone was “one of the more irresponsible acts in this whole incident.’’ The entire lashup might have been prevented if someone could have called the lad to determine if he was having problems, the chief suggested, “to say nothing of him calling for help.’’

Considering the gadget-dominated world of the average college kid, the chief’s point may have seemed valid to some readers.

But many readers over a certain age B.C. (Before Cells) may have had questions similar to mine. We’ve made it this far without one of the damn things stuck permanently in our ear, and now we’re irresponsible if we don’t carry one with us? Was it irresponsible of President Thomas Jefferson to send Lewis and Clark off in search of the mythical Northwest Passage without a cell phone in their old kit bags? Should the pioneers have waited for the apparatus to be invented before climbing into their Conestoga wagons to head west to begin the taming of that wild and glorious land?

And, perhaps the more relevant poser — have we become a nation of thumb-sucking weenies and wusses, afraid to venture forth without a cell phone or one of its ubiquitous newborn electronic cousins as a crutch against life’s unpredictability?

There seems something vaguely sacrilegious about climbing Mount Katahdin or hiking the Appalachian Trail accompanied by a cell phone or a global positioning device hooked to the belt. But that could just be my inner troglodyte speaking, I suppose.

BDN columnist Kent Ward lives in Limestone. Readers may reach him by e-mail at olddawg@bangordailynews.com.

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