Clarity, one of the resolute goals of journalism, gives way to confusion when two people, bearing the same surname, appear in a story.
Ideally, a newspaper article should keep the reader clearly informed about who is doing or saying what to whom at every point in the story. No Faulknerian jumping back and forth to sort out pronouns and, with the exception of some feature and personality pieces, no set literary devices to create suspense. But identical surnames create problems. Too often the reader has to slow down and hang on.
A Post reader's letter illustrates the point. He had read a December story about a Virginia murder trial involving a couple whose last name is Gregory.
He writes: "I was introduced in the first and second paragraphs to Monique Gregory, a married women whose husband caught her in bed with someone referred to as 'Gregory's lover.'
"Then: 'Gregory, a 26-year-old riding instructor from Middleburg, escaped the violent confrontation with her sestranged husband, Theodore, by fleeing naked across a farm field.' For the balance of the story, we are presented with what must be every Mrs. -avoidance trick in the book. . . . We find such tedious references as 'Monique Gregory' and 'Theodore Gregory' (Monique nine times, Theodore five) as well as a number of just plain 'Gregory' references that require the reader to do a double take."
The letter writer maintains that these are the ludicrous lengths to which The Post now goes in deference to feminist sensibilities.
Feminism is a factor in this awkward writing problem, but it is by no means the whole story. Newspapers are attempting to identify women as individuals rather than with titles that spell out their marital statues; that is, the traditional Miss for singles and Mrs. for marrieds. But that process is still in transition, largely out of respect for women's preferences.
For a while there was Mr., an anonymous mutation that had been around since the '40s but had won its first dictionary recognition in 1972. Ms. burst over the journalistic horizon like a flag of truce. It had promise of refuge for women who were justifiably angered that their names appeared in print only by reference to their relationship to men.
Despite the success of Ms. magazine, the title didn't take in newspapers. It is used only in rare and special cases in The Post. The stylebook for the Associated Press and United Press International is carefully hedged to allow writers a hasty retreat in case of objection. In four paragraphs on the subject, the book says to use Ms. if the woman wants it and then: "It a woman prefers Ms. do not include her marital status in a story unless it is clearly pertinent."
The surname dilemma doesn't stop with feminism. On The Post's front page last Tuesday, there was a different example.
Former State Department spokesman Hodding Carter, in a magazine article, had been harshly critical of Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Carter's national security adviser.
The Post reporter's writing problem was to separate the Carter's making clear that Hodding and not Jimmy was commenting. The solution was to use Hodding Carter -- both names -- until identification was clearly fixed and then to relax and employ the usual surname identification. Out of that, Hodding Carter appeared five times, Carter six -- mostly down in the story.
Whether it happens in identifying husbands and wives or government officials, all this is murky writing, satisfying no one and requiring the reader to re-read until the cast of characters is clearly understood.
The simple solution is unacceptable to most major newspapers and that is to use first names. Jimmy and Hodding simply wouldn't do. Neither would Monique and Theodore. Too personal. Too intimate. Using surnames puts a certain distance between reporter and subject. In fiction, yes. In reporting, no. The confusion will continue.