JOUR 133

When Nikki sent me that cartoon with the comment, "Somebody didn't take Precision Language!" I totally cracked up. But for those of you who were never in Scripps Hall at OU, allow me to explain by reposting some material from other sources:

That summer I unwittingly believed I could handle three classes in a five-week summer session while juggling commuting and home affairs.

One of these classes was Precision Language 133, a required subject for graduation if I were accepted into journalism school and a prerequisite for other journalism classes. The professor was Dru Riley Evarts. She is known as a tough, no-nonsense instructor — "the definitive word" in grammar, punctuation and syntax. But I did not know all of this on that first day, when — with my heart racing — I sat in the front row of her class.

Dr. Evarts has a commanding presence, perhaps partly because her impressive professional and academic credentials have given her the self-esteem to walk tall even though she is short in stature and heavyset. Curly gray hair, glasses and cheerful-colored clothing complete the "Dr. Evarts look."

However, on the first day of class, I felt as if I had fallen down a rabbit hole in which I did not understand the language. Verbals? Clauses? Direct objects? Indirect objects? I didn't know what these terms meant. It had been almost 45 years since I had taken simple sentence structure or grammar classes.

I struggled to hold barely the required "C" for a prospective journalism major in Precision Language. Vocabulary and spelling tests were daily; I had recurring nightmares about failing.

And each morning, tears would stream down my face as I drove the 30 miles to the University. Yet I went, with linking and irregular verbs defining my existence, challenging me.

That was the first sentence thrown on the screen for the first team at the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism's fourth annual Grammar Smackdown last Wednesday, Feb. 21.

Contestants armed with reference books gathered in Scripps Hall early on game night to nosh on pizza and drill teammates in final preparation. Anything in the AP Stylebook, the Precision Language Handbook or Webster's New World Dictionary is fair game for this language-skills contest.

The correct verb for the opening sentence, by the way, is "stanch." "Staunch" is an adjective meaning steadfast in loyalty or firm in principle.)

Contest items, given to the on-deck team at the same time they are flashed on a screen for the audience, can be word choices or spelling challenges. Sometimes these are wrapped in short sentences in which the problem is obvious and a team need only choose the right answer. In other cases, the challenge is buried in paragraph-length material and the team must spot the problem (misplaced modifier, lack of agreement, etc.) and suggest the best fix. . . .

The AP Stylebook is the primary authority. For instance, in the sentence, "The Scalia Lab accurately (forecast / forecasted) last week's storm," the answer is "forecast" because the Stylebook prefers this verb for both present and past tense. There's no point arguing that The New World dictionary allows either verb for past tense. The Stylebook trumps all.

You have to click on the link and check out the photos of the teams dressed in costume (and read the rest of her article).

Other fun facts:

  • Evarts began reporting for the Akron Beacon Journal at the age of 14 and has since edited for the Chicago Tribune, Miami Herald and Scripps Howard News Service, where she substitutes on the universal editing desk every August and December.

  • She was the managing editor of the Journal of Marketing and has edited for The News Media and the Law and also about 25 books for various publishers.

  • During the 1996-97 and 2004-05 school years, Evarts observed the U.S. Supreme Court press corps while on faculty leave.

  • She earned her bachelor’s degree from OU in 1951 and a doctorate in 1977.

  • Journalism prof fills new role as university editor [The Post, 31 March 2006]

Full disclosure:

I didn't have Evarts for JOUR 133, although I did have her textbook. My instructor was the wife of one of the other professors, I think. She didn't have the same ... "commanding presence," and at the time I was glad I didn't have Evarts. The textbook was plenty, thanks.

Precision Language textbook — I wonder what happened to my copy?

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