Just before wrapping up work Friday night, I found myself editing a little news item about Vaux’s swifts, those birds that roost en masse, in a tornado-like fashion, in chimneys and such.
The brief I was reading was recounting the action at a recent viewing party at a mid-valley location and included the information that “approximately 586″ birds had entered the smokestack at the building where the viewers had assembled.
That kind of phrasing — “approximately 586″ — violates one of my comparatively few hard-and-fast rules of wording: You really can’t use some form of the word approximate or one of its synonyms attached to a very precise number.
It just strikes me as too much of a contradiction: Either your best information is quite specific, or it’s sort of general; it can’t really be both at the same time.
That type of thing has turned up in the cops log a handful of times over the years, most commonly in the form of, “Police said the call came in at about 11:31 a.m.”
To me, that has to read either “at 11:31″ or “about 11:30.” Similarly, I changed the Vaux’s swift sentence to read “approximately 585,” which is almost a contradiction in itself; it could be argued that “nearly 600″ or something else like that would’ve been a better choice, but at least 585 is something of a round number.
While we’re talking about editorial pet peeves, and writers lapse into this way more often than it seems they should, is the practice of referring to something as the “second-highest” or “second-lowest” or “second-best” whatever without saying what No. 1 is.
I don’t know about you, but the No. 1 thing I want to know when I see something referred to as No. 2 is what ranks ahead of No. 2.
It’s simply a question of knowledge and context. Saying that Pete Rose’s 44-game hitting streak is the second-longest on record takes on a much richer meaning when you know that the longest is Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game streak, meaning that the Yankee Clipper’s binge went on for two weeks of games longer than Charlie Hustle’s.
Likewise, the No. 2 reason I am now going to end this post is that I have to devote my attention to putting the cops log on page 2 for Saturday’s paper. The No. 1 reason is I am out of things to say.