Weekday verbed

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A few days ago, mild-mannered editor John E. McIntyre let out his inner @GRAMMARHULK ("Chairman Wednesday", You Don't Say 8/8/2010):

Must stay calm. Must not let little things get under one's skin. Must keep a sense of proportion.

And yet, day after day, journalists everywhere keep turning out sentences in which, in defiance of English syntax, they insist on inserting the day of the week between the subject and the verb. Who tells them to write like this? Yesterday, from Reuters:

SEC Chairman Mary Schapiro Wednesday listed some technical areas that
 might yet need rule changes, including the use of market orders, "stub quotes," price
 collars, and self-help rules used by the dozen U.S. exchanges where today's high-speed trading is done.

And searching the COCA corpus for the sequence weekday-name past-tense-verb reveals that this is indeed a journalismism:

In fact, the instances in other genres are mostly also journalistic — thus breaking down the "spoken" category by source reveals that (at least in this case) we're basically talking about talking heads reading news stories on the air:

Furthermore, the distribution is not at all uniform by type of news:

A frequency of 67 per million is considerable — specifically, it's more than twice the overall frequency in the corpus of the word considerable. A hypothesis to explore would be that Reuters house style is a major culprit.

John asked

Who writes these things, guys in their shirtsleeves with their fedoras pushed back and a cigarette dangling from their lips as they type with two fingers on an Underwood?

Actually, there's a small amount of evidence that the frequency of the WEEKDAY VERBED pattern might be increasing:

(Though Mark Davies' sample of sources is not guaranteed to be uniform across time, so this may just be that there's a bigger dose of Reuters in the past few years.)

FYI, the COCA pattern to search for is

monday|tuesday|wednesday|thursday|friday|saturday|sunday [vvd]

[Update — and note John's follow-up, "Heresy compounded" 8/14/2010, where he observes

… putting the day of the event in the first sentence, preferably between the subject and verb, is a point on which generations of journalism instructors and assigning editors have malformed malleable young minds.

This is apparently a strong point of doctrine, and defying it openly could lead to one of those disputes like the fourth-century controversy over whether Jesus could be described as homoousios or homoiousios. All the same, if you can get away with it, write for the reader, and write in English, not journalese.

]



40 Comments

  1. Luis said,

    August 15, 2010 @ 2:52 pm

    See also "today", "yesterday"; to a lesser degree "tomorrow"; maybe similar "this|last week|month|year".

    Yeah, I listen to a lot of NPR news.

  2. Tim said,

    August 15, 2010 @ 3:02 pm

    When I initially read the title of the post, I thought that someone had verbed the word weekday, much the way weekend can be used as a verb.

  3. Richard Littauer said,

    August 15, 2010 @ 3:04 pm

    It's also possible to process these constructions as 'name title verb'. So, "SEC Chairman Mary Schapiro Wednesday", where Wednesday is an extra last name, in the style of GK Chesterton's "The Man Who Was Thursday:. That's how I initially read the example.

    [(myl) That's the implication of John's post title ("Chairman Wednesday"), and also (I think) part of the reason for his antipathy.]

  4. Mr Fnortner said,

    August 15, 2010 @ 3:26 pm

    "On monday|tuesday|wednesday|thursday|friday|saturday|sunday [vvd]" produces considerably fewer results, but the data is directionally the same as myl shows. (I thought maybe eliminating "on" was an aberration, and that I would find more results for the full phrase.)

    Perhaps this form reduces ambiguity in news writing where sentences are sparse or stilted anyway, having become a formula for avoiding placing the adverb of time in whatever clause might follow the past tense, e.g., The president Thursday announced the committee would hold hearings on the matter, versus The president announced the committee would hold hearings on the matter Thursday. This would also avoid beginning with the adverbial, thus keeping the subject in a prominent place in the sentence.

  5. danthelawyer said,

    August 15, 2010 @ 5:00 pm

    I tend to agree with Fnortner: this is a way to avoid the ambiguity of leaving the date till the end. Fnortner's last sentence answers the question of why reporters don't prevent the ambiguity by simply inserting the time descriptor ("On Wednesday") at the beginning of the sentence.

    As a general theory, it appears someone is teaching journalism students that something like "always state the most important part of the sentence first." That would explain why we get statistical results reported in the form "rose to (or fell to) Yfrom X," whereas normal people nearly always put the starting point first: "rose from X to Y."

  6. ella said,

    August 15, 2010 @ 5:07 pm

    When I saw the headline of this post I instantly thought it discussed how someone had 'verbed' the word 'weekday' and was frantically trying to imagine what it might mean 'to weekday'

  7. ella said,

    August 15, 2010 @ 5:08 pm

    aaaand glancing upthread I see that someone else posted the exact same comment a few minutes ago. Apologies for the redundancy, carry on, nothing to see here….

  8. Mr Punch said,

    August 15, 2010 @ 5:51 pm

    Look at that sentence – there's really no better place to put "Wednesday." It's going to happen a lot in international news because there are different days going at the same time, so "yesterday," etc., are ambiguous.

  9. Rubrick said,

    August 15, 2010 @ 6:13 pm

    I'd be interested to know in how many of these cases the construction begins a paragraph or an entire news story. My best guess as to why this is used is that the far more natural "On Wednesday, SEC Chairman Mary Schapiro listed…" violates a journalistic rule of thumb that the first words of a story should be its subject.

    (Or rather, I suspect the real reason it's used is that it's been used before, and journalists copy each other stylistically, but that the reason it became adopted in the first place was something like the above.)

  10. Nancy Jane Moore said,

    August 15, 2010 @ 6:35 pm

    Since I am a journalist, I thought I'd let you know that many in-house publication style rules prescribe putting the date in that location. In the publications I work for, we use Aug. 15 instead of Wednesday, but the effect is the same. At least one of our senior editors thinks it is absolutely required and criticizes stories that use other formats for the date.

    In some sentences, it sounds awkward; in others, it works fine. And it does avoid the ambiguity problem, as others have pointed out.

    I must confess I don't understand why Grammarhulk is so upset about it. Perhaps he doesn't understand the journalism rule about packing as much important information as possible in the first sentence.

  11. ed said,

    August 15, 2010 @ 7:09 pm

    I don't get it. Why does McIntyre think that the sentence is in defiance of English syntax? A time adverbial placed between subject and verb is not ungrammatical. Why, I just yesterday saw a sentence of the same sort.

    [(myl) On the other hand, "I Wednesday saw a sentence of the same sort" is at least rather awkward.

    Perhaps John shouldn't have written "in defiance of English syntax" but rather something more nuanced, like "against the grain of idiomatic English sentence-construction". But give the man a break, his skin was turning green and his shirt was tearing itself to ribbons across his explosively massive deltoids.]

  12. GRAMMARHULK said,

    August 15, 2010 @ 7:23 pm

    @Nancy Jane Moore: ORIGINAL POST BY JOHN E. MCINTYRE, NOT BY GRAMMARHULK. HULK CONCUR WITH MCINTYRE IN THIS CASE, THOUGH. IF VERY IMPORTANT TO INCLUDE DATE INFORMATION IN FIRST SENTENCE, HULK PREFER CONSTRUCTION LIKE "On Wednesday, SEC Chairman Mary Schapiro listed…"; FOUR EXTRA CHARACTERS (INCLUDING SPACE) REASONABLE PRICE TO PAY FOR CONSIDERABLE ADDITIONAL CLARITY.

  13. Andrew Dowd said,

    August 15, 2010 @ 7:39 pm

    It would be interesting to see the prosody of this construction in the spoken attestations. Specifically to see how strong of a break there is on either side of the weekday name. There are some ToBi-annotated corpora of spoken journalistic prose out there.

  14. David L said,

    August 15, 2010 @ 7:40 pm

    I must confess I don't understand why Grammarhulk is so upset about it. Perhaps he doesn't understand the journalism rule about packing as much important information as possible in the first sentence.

    Even if this information-packing produces a sentence that's unnatural and hard to parse?

    As an occasional journalist myself, I'm with McIntyre and GRAMMARHULK on this. I despair of journalistic "rules" whose presumed intent is make sentences more appealing to the reader — that is, by stuffing them chock-full of super important information — yet whose actual effect is to generate prose that's obscure and even absurd. Which then repels the very readers who were supposed to be attracted.

  15. Ralph Hickok said,

    August 15, 2010 @ 8:38 pm

    I was taught to do this on my very first day as a reporter for the Green Bay Press-Gazette. That was 57 years ago; I was 14. It was also the style rule at the Harvard News Office, where I worked during my college days, and at all four newspapers that I worked for later. I never liked it particularly, but I could understand the reasoning and I'm quite surprised that McIntyre is suddenly so upset about it, given his newspaper experience.

  16. John McIntyre said,

    August 15, 2010 @ 8:46 pm

    I'm not suddenly upset The resentment of seeing idiotic and needlessly awkward constructions over the past thirty years as a working journalist does occasionally break out. This is just one of many, but the particularly irritating thing about it is not merely that it is awkward and non-idiomatic, but that it is taught.

  17. Chris Travers said,

    August 15, 2010 @ 8:54 pm

    When I saw the headline of this post I instantly thought it discussed how someone had 'verbed' the word 'weekday' and was frantically trying to imagine what it might mean 'to weekday'

    We need to weekday our unconventional shift schedules?

  18. Mark P said,

    August 15, 2010 @ 9:54 pm

    It would be easy to eliminate that construction and adhere to journalistic teachings better that the quoted sentence. Under what circumstances did SEC Chairman Mary Schapiro do her listing? Was it in her office? At a conference? At a congressional hearing? Why is that information not worthy of inclusion along with the who, what and when? If the "where" was in another sentence, why not let the date join it there?

  19. a said,

    August 15, 2010 @ 10:04 pm

    Surely there are better things to be mad at than this. I didn't find anything upsetting about this sentence, and I thought it was pretty easy to parse.

  20. Jonathan said,

    August 15, 2010 @ 10:05 pm

    Nancy, what's wrong with "Schapiro on Wednesday listed…" or, better, "Schapiro listed on Wednesday…"?

  21. Peter said,

    August 15, 2010 @ 10:34 pm

    I thought it was verbing the weekday names.E.g., "Let's Friday this thing" or "Why are you always Mondaying me?"

  22. exackerly said,

    August 15, 2010 @ 11:15 pm

    I was taught in journalism class that every story has to include Who What Where When and Why, but the only one you're not allowed to put first is When. Of course that was eighth-grade journalism class…

  23. Laura said,

    August 16, 2010 @ 3:24 am

    I wonder if there is also a trans-Atlantic divide here? To me, this construction sounds like US English, and extra-jarring to British ears. I can't really think of a time when I've heard something like the example in UK news, only in US reports, The version with 'on Wednesday', however, sounds familiar. Though I haven't checked facts or anything.

  24. Alex said,

    August 16, 2010 @ 3:51 am

    This is unrelated, but I found it interesting. I came across a sentence on the Fox News website that was pretty difficult to process.

    "From who you would like to see lead a nation to what's next for the flipped out flight attendant."

    ( Screenshot here: http://www.victorymanual.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/08/screenshot.jpg )

    I'm wondering if this might be considered a crash blossom. At first, it looked like a fragment sentence to me, maybe as a result of "lead a nation to" ("…lead a nation to [disaster]" ). Only after I looked at it a few minutes later did I finally see that it was a "From A to B" construction.

  25. Mr. Fnortner said,

    August 16, 2010 @ 8:52 am

    In spite of the helpful clarifications by the journalists above, I thought (based on our local newspaper serving a city of 5 million people) the purpose of a news story was to get the reader to turn to an inside page where the department store ads are. Our front pages are several inches per story of blather with a "See xxx" reference for the place where the actual contents are printed.

  26. Round-up: J-Franz, Simon, VQR, Turing, Serge, Mericans. « We Who Are About To Die said,

    August 16, 2010 @ 8:55 am

    […] Weekday verbed. […]

  27. Ginger Yellow said,

    August 16, 2010 @ 8:56 am

    "As a general theory, it appears someone is teaching journalism students that something like "always state the most important part of the sentence first.""

    This is very much it (although it's not necessarily students, but also trainee journalists). And it does make sense from a journalistic point of view. Starting the first sentence of a news article with, say, "On Monday…" feels a bit weak and delays the reveal of the news, while leaving "on Monday" to the end of what can be a fairly dense sentence ("who what where when why how") means it can get lost. So to the journalist's ear, it sounds wrong to have the time in either the start or the end position. Admittedly this may not be the case for readers (not the only occasion where style guides are more for the editors' benefit than the readers').

    Officially, my publication disapproves of the artificial placement, but it still appears quite a lot. It's

  28. Russell said,

    August 16, 2010 @ 9:04 am

    I find this amusing, because the distinction between day names and time adverbials like "recently" is often brought up (at least, around me) as a nice example of the distinction between internal and external syntax. That is, for non-journalistic talk, time adverbs pattern with other adverbs like "carefully", while day names and phrases count as preposition (phrases) (neatly laid out by James McCawley).

  29. linda seebach said,

    August 16, 2010 @ 10:10 am

    I agree with McIntyre that putting Wednesday in that position is awkward, but also feel that opening a news story with "(On) Wednesday . . ." is far from ideal; it has next to no predictive value. Anything could have happened Wednesday. But note that part of the problem is the choice of "listed" for the verb, which sounds itself like something you'd see only in journalistic prose. "SEC Chairman Mary Schapiro said (on) Wednesday that some technical areas might yet need . . ." would be unexceptional.

  30. Charles said,

    August 16, 2010 @ 11:41 am

    I sympathize with the journalists who are told, repeatedly, that they MUST cram all important information into the first two lines of a story. However, nothing in this story suggests that the date the statement was made is "important information." Does it really matter that much whether Shapiro spoke on Monday or Tuesday, in the morning or afternoon? Probably not.

    Certainly there are many stories where the time and date are important details and must be set forth in the first sentence or two. This just isn't one of them.

  31. mollymooly said,

    August 16, 2010 @ 12:53 pm

    I thought that American news reports started with something called a "dateline" which gives the place and date it was filed; and that, in specifying the time of occurrence of the event being reported, the word would usually be "today" or "yesterday" (relative to the dateline date, which might be earlier than the publication date).

    Are reports explicitly naming the day more often nowadays than thenadays? If so, is this because datelines are no longer used or because reporters are less prompt about filing reports?

  32. Ginger Yellow said,

    August 16, 2010 @ 1:07 pm

    "I thought that American news reports started with something called a "dateline" which gives the place and date it was filed; and that, in specifying the time of occurrence of the event being reported, the word would usually be "today" or "yesterday" (relative to the dateline date, which might be earlier than the publication date). "

    That's doesn't help much when the news is that something is going to happen at some future date. That's not the case here, but Reuters, being a syndicated wire, can't know that its pieces will always be read with a date attached.

  33. Bob C said,

    August 16, 2010 @ 2:31 pm

    Are we sure the name of the SEC chairman isn't Mary Schapiro Wednesday?

  34. Boris said,

    August 16, 2010 @ 3:28 pm

    I think these days the dateline does not include the date most of the time.

  35. Joyce Melton said,

    August 16, 2010 @ 5:56 pm

    Adverbing a proper noun is just business as usual. Lots of stylistic constructions occur in print that never occur in casual spoken language, context is important. By now, it's traditional usage if it's been going on for forty years. I don't remember that construction being taught in my journalism classes but they were MORE than forty years ago.

    It's perfectly understandable to me. though putting the preposition back in might be better; which it seems to me is how the BBC does this sort of thing.

  36. Ginger Yellow said,

    August 16, 2010 @ 8:15 pm

    Oh yes. I should add that it was the positioning of the adverbial phrase I was explaining, not the lack of "on". Certainly we would write "on Wednesday" rather than "Wednesday".

  37. David Walker said,

    August 17, 2010 @ 12:36 pm

    Don't forget about Wednesday Addams, of the Addams Family. Suppose the headline was about her! It could get very confusing (although generally headlines use the person's last name, not their first, but still…).

  38. chris said,

    August 19, 2010 @ 2:07 pm

    My best guess as to why this is used is that the far more natural "On Wednesday, SEC Chairman Mary Schapiro listed…" violates a journalistic rule of thumb that the first words of a story should be its subject.

    But Schapiro isn't the subject of the story, the rule changes are. Schapiro's identity is incidental, almost as much as the announcement taking place on Wednesday is. If you're going to fool around with the full name and title of a spokesperson before you get down to the substance of the story, a prepositional phrase is not much of an extra cost (especially when you're going to throw in the Wednesday anyway, in a position that imposes extra understanding cost on readers).

  39. Terry Collmann said,

    August 22, 2010 @ 7:35 pm

    I'm with John McIntyre on this: it's a journalistic tick that irritates me intensely as well, because it's entirely unnecessary and unnatural to put the time between the verb and the subject. Here's a genuine example from a newspaper today:

    "A lawyer for the family of murder victim Kerry Winter yesterday reiterated a call for the defendant to be given the maximum penalty."

    "Yesterday reiterated"? I always want to ask reporters who write sentences like that: "What did you yesterday have for lunch?"

  40. Jake Nelson said,

    August 23, 2010 @ 2:31 pm

    "Wednesday listed" does indeed seem wrong to me; "listed Wednesday" sounds fine, however, and the same transposition on all the examples I've seen works for me.

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