Thursday, September 30, 2004

Who writes the subheds?

Roy Peter Clark thinks reporters should be writing their own subheds. And I can't say I disagree.

His reasoning: This will help reporters better structure their stories.

My reasoning: Too often, copy editors and designers end up putting the subheds not at appropriate story breaks but where they look best on the page. And that can make a story even more difficult to get through.

Position play

Can legs be akimbo? Testy Copy Editors discuss.

Presidential politics on the desk

Ed Sargent's piece about presidential head counts made it into the Dallas Morning News on Sunday, in a slightly different (edited) form.

>Yo-Yo Ma for prez! [Dallas Morning News]
>Presidential endorsement from the United Rim Rats of America [A Capital Idea]

I'll buy the first round

Congratulations to a good friend of mine, Craig Lancaster, whose mad editing skills -- among a few other stellar traits -- have landed him a promotion at the San Jose Mercury News:

We're pleased to announce a big change in the Sports department.

Mike Guersch, our multi-talented sports editor, has decided to step down as sports editor to pursue other opportunities at the paper. After four years as sports editor, Mike has been eager for a new challenge. We begged him to remain in the job until we were confident he'd found an able successor. And he's done that.

Our new sports editor will be Craig Lancaster, who has been Mike's deputy this year. Through his work leading our Balco coverage and his day-to-day oversight of the sports department, Craig has shown an enthusiasm and skill that will serve the paper well.

Craig, whose stepfather was a longtime sportswriter for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, has a passion for sports journalism. He came to the Mercury News in 1998, left for a short stint and returned in 2000. He's been Sunday sports editor, assistant Sports editor and the Raiders beat

As for Mike, he will serve a temporary stint as enterprise editor in Sports. We'll be looking for some bigger opportunities for Mike in the coming months.

As sports editor, Mike has been one of the hardest working men in America. He's overseen a group of people who have done fabulous work amid often-difficult circumstances. Our pro sports coverage has been consistently great; our Olympics coverage has been exceptional. And best of all, Mike has remained well-liked and respected by his staff throughout his tenure.

He started at the Mercury News in 1987 as a sports clerk and worked his way up to Sports editor after doing nearly every job in the department. Readers of the newspaper will know that Mike has many talents and interests, most particularly a strong knowledge and love for opera.

Please congratulate both Craig and Mike. These changes take effect on Oct. 12.

Dave and Susan
Congratulations, Craig. It's a well-deserved promotion, and you'll be great at this job.

Wednesday, September 29, 2004

A truce on the horizon

At last there is an organization that can bridge the hurtful chasm between language prescriptivists and descriptivists: The Original English Movement.
Never again must we argue about whether singular they is an aberration or a useful and much-needed dialectal "innovation", legitimized by a centuries-long history.

Never again will we discuss the logic of the prohibition against splitting infinitives, asking whether "to go boldly" sounds stupid, or whether traditions in translating Biblical Greek and Latin should have any sway over modern usage.

Never again need we fear to ask who the bell tolls for, or for whom the bell tolls, or where prepositions really belong, or whether the case system of English is dead yet.
The Original English Movement seeks to resolve this conflict and end this struggle by fully embracing the notion that English should not change--not now, not in the future, not even in the past.
Hooked? There are several ways you can help:
Informally, you can support The Original English Movement by writing to your representatives in Congress or in Parliament, and to your President or Prime Minister and telling them why they should support The Original English Movement. Tell your friends, your family, your colleagues, and everyone on every mailing list you know. You should also give everyone you discuss the matter with a copy of the poem, Beowulf, to illustrate the beauty and clarity of the language we so cherish and support.

More formally, you can send financial support to our World Headquarters and Main Mead Hall. For reasons of orthographic purity, we prefer to accept donations in Icelandic krona. You can also attend one of our frequent meetings, held on the first moonless night of the thirteenth lunar month of each decade, at Grendel's ex-brother-in-law's cave.
I'm there.

(Link via Languagehat)

Give 'em the business

Language Log has an interesting mention of strange phrasing in a Slate summary of a USA Today story: "USA Today leads with word that one-third of the 1,600 former soldiers who've been ordered back into service are giving the Army the hand and haven't shown up."

Had I read this on my own, I'm not sure I would have understood the meaning. But Mark Liberman's explanation makes sense:
I guess this is a blend of the idiom "give the finger to " and the catch phrase of a few years ago "talk to the hand", with its associated gesture. There's a stark contrast between giving someone a hand and giving them the hand: not your standard semantics of definiteness.
To me, it sounds like a euphemism for "giving the Army the finger."

Tuesday, September 28, 2004

I heart spelling it out

I'm excited to see the new movie "I Heart Huckabees."

... And to bring this on topic: There's been some debate about how to style this movie name. The logo has a heart instead of the word "heart." But does that mean "heart" or "love"? Well, it means "heart." I know this only because that's how I've heard it pronounced in trailers and that's how I've seen it spelled.

But a columnist at Newsday is bucking the trend, going with "I Love Huckabees" instead. Why?
Russell obviously meant for the title, with its graphic twist, to say "I Love Huckabees" and if we can't scare up a heart logo, we should say so, too. "Heart" is not a verb. It is a human organ - one of the top three, as Woody Allen might say. I'm going to go with "Love" until somebody somewhere stops me.
Somebody somewhere stop him.

And store this in your brain as another reason we should never, ever use logos to render a name in a newspaper. Ridiculous.

But, just in case you need to make the heart for a logo of your own, here are directions, via Low Culture.

There's nothing like the classics

St. Joseph, Mo., high schools are bringing "The Elements of Style" back into the classroom. Why is that more necessary now than ever, they say? You guessed it, the Internet:
There's no "LOL" - computer message-speak for "laughing out loud" - in this book.

"U" is a letter, not a pronoun.

In St. Joseph's public high schools, instructors aren't "JK" - just kidding - about the bad writing habits students pick up from instant messaging, telephone text messaging and computer chat rooms. So they have enlisted the help of grammar heavyweights William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White - or, more properly, of their reference work, "The Elements of Style."
I'm trying to picture a high-schooler -- even a dumb, dumb high-schooler -- writing "LOL" or "JK w/ U" in a term paper, and I'm having trouble. Are kids really losing their writing skills because of text-messaging? Or is this just a way reporters try to put a modern spin on an old story? (You'll notice that no one in the story says the problem has anything to do with e-mail and text-messages, just the reporter.)

I wonder if anyone acted this way when shorthand was developed. "All these women at the secretary school are losing their grip on grammar with this shorthand; they'll never write complete sentences again!"

In any case, you can't be too upset about hundreds of kids reading Strunk and White. But that book was crafting good writers long before the Internet.

>"Elements of Style" now required reading [AP]
>"The Elements of Style" [Strunk and White]

Monday, September 27, 2004

Just tack that on to my job responsibilities

Papers' next big thing seems to be starting an at-a-glance section (The Miami Herald, the St. Paul Pioneer Press and, coming soon, the Dallas Morning News).

Copy editors, make sure you are part of these discussions because it should mean lots of work for your desk. That's not a bad thing, necessarily, because without the responsibility the project wouldn't fly. But it's a lot of work to add to a staff that is already overburdened, as so many in the United States are.

Check out this thread at the Visual Editors board. I learned some fascinating tidbits, such as that copy editors were run through two weeks of training during the recent redesign at the Wall Street Journal. And the items in the second and third columns of the Journal every day take eight-hour shifts for two copy editors.

Please, use the spell check

Headline presented without comment:

Parents want stricker rules on TV

Sunday, September 26, 2004

How to tell if a phrase is overused ...

Can you finish this sentence for me?

The United States launched an airstrike in the restive city of __________.

Surely, surely we can come up with a different adjective here. Does everyone even know what "restive" means? While appropriate definition-wise, I'm not convinced it's the best choice.

Come in prepared

If you're planning on applying for a newspaper copy-editing job, expect to take at least one copy-editing test.

In the few jobs I've angled for, I've faced editing sloppy, libelous copy. I've had to cut stories for length and write headlines and cutlines. I've been quizzed on current events, spelling and grammar.

So how do you bone up? Nothing beats practice. And the American Copy Editors Society makes it a little easier by compiling quizzes on its Web site.

AP Style will be critical. Editing will be a factor. The Supreme Court often comes into play.

You should look at all of the Dow Jones Newspaper Fund's past tests for its summer editing internships.

And brush up on your math. Know how to figure percentage change.

Saturday, September 25, 2004

'Creative restraint'

From the Charleston Post and Courier:
All news not fit to print

Sports copy editors everywhere will tell you that the best headlines ever written never see print.

Oh, we're often tempted to push the envelope a bit too far from time to time, but this being a family newspaper and all we try to mind our manners, particularly when it comes to stories about the South Carolina Gamecocks.

Creative restraint will be particularly important tonight when writing headlines for stories about tonight's USC football game.

The Gamecocks' opponent? The Troy Trojans.

Headline bloopers

Paula LaRocque, a former writing coach at the Dallas Morning News and author "The Book on Writing," wrote a column on headlines that catch your eye for the wrong reasons.

Some examples:
Wal-Mart CEO: Consumers Affected by Gas
China Sensors 'Cold Mountain' Love Scenes
All Hospitals Aren't Created Equally
Florida May Need Disabled Voting Machines
Crowds Rushing To See Pope Trample Man To Death

In the process, she tucks in some lessons on adverbs vs. adjectives ("The adverb equally modifies the act of creation, while the adjective equal modifies the thing created"), double meanings, and misplaced modifiers.

It's fun reading and ends with a list of erring headlines, sans comment.

Friday, September 24, 2004

A knock on the news

From David Letterman's Late Night show:

Top Ten Ways CBS News Can Improve Its Reputation

10. Stick to stories everyone can agree on, like cookies are delicious.
9. Move nightly "happy hour" to after the broadcast.
8. Stop hiring guys with crazy names like "Morley."
7. Can't figure out if a news story is true? Let Judge Joe Brown decide.
6. Every time Mike Wallace tells a lie he gets a life-threatening electrical shock.
5. Newsroom patrolled by some kind of lovable but strict "truth monkey."
4. If it turns out the story is wrong, give away 276 brand new cars.
3. After delivering a report, correspondent must add, "or maybe not--who knows?"
2. Newscast consists of Dan Rather sitting down to watch Tom Brokaw.
1. Oh, I dunno, stop making up crap?
So, who wants their job description to change to "truth monkey"? Raise your hands.

Changing expressions

Have marketers turned "express" into the new "lite"?

From the Orient Express to Outlook Express, how did we get here? Verbal Energy explains.

Thursday, September 23, 2004

Deteriorating writing skills

Businesses are looking to hire better writers.

I don't doubt that writing skills are lacking, but I'm tired of hearing that it's e-mail's fault:
“E-mail relaxes writing. Students run their thoughts together, don’t punctuate, don’t capitalize or use correct grammar. Quite simply, they don’t change their style for audience,” Scott said.
That's Becca Scott, assistant director of the Virginia Tech Career Services Center.


A correction in the Akron Beacon Journal:
A Monday story about U.S. District Judge James Gwin scolding a Plain Dealer reporter for mistakenly attributing a quote to him should have said that a Plain Dealer copy editor inserted the attribution; the reporter didn't write it. A Beacon Journal reporter confused who made the incorrect attribution.
Correcting the corrections ... it always hurts.

American lawyer or federal prosecutor?

Bill Walsh tackles the misleading nature of the title "U.S. attorney."
Use federal prosecutors when U.S. attorneys could be read to mean American lawyers. Your readers don't necessarily know that you scrupulously observe the distinction between lawyer and attorney.
That's especially true, given that most people don't know of the distinction, let alone scrupulously observe it.

Grammar in the real world

Grammatically incorrect sentences in the space of four paragraphs in one lesson of the Indiana Aware Driver Hoosier EZ Course Online Traffic School

Have some time to kill?

Some fun word games:
Weboggle (play Boggle against others, on a 4x4 or 5x5 board)
Word Mojo (Yahoo, single-player Scrabble-type game)
Word Racer (Yahoo, like multiplayer Boggle on a large board)
Letters (enraging typing fun)
Etymologic (choose the best word origin)
Weekend Edition's Sunday puzzle (Will Shortz's NPR challenge)

Looking for a West Coast job?

If the Pacific Northwest floats your boat more than the South, try this opening:
The News Tribune of Tacoma, Wash., is seeking a copy editor to join its
editing team. We are looking for someone who has strong editing skills, writes bright headlines and works well with editors and reporters. At least three years daily newspaper experience required. The News Tribune, at 127,000 daily, 144,000 Sunday, is a McClatchy newspaper.

Tacoma is situated on Puget Sound with stunning views of Mount Rainier and the Olympic Mountains. If you like hiking, skiing or boating, you'll like living here. And if you want to work with others interested in good journalism, you'll like working here.

Send cover letter, resume and work samples to: Karen Peterson, Senior editor, The News Tribune, P.O. Box 11000, Tacoma, WA 98411.
Find out more about the paper here.

Looking for a job?

How does Charleston, S.C., sound?
The Post and Courier, a family-owned daily newspaper with a circulation of 100,000, is seeking an experienced copy editor to live and work in beautiful, historic, seaside Charleston, S.C., which has (mostly) escaped the ravages of recent hurricanes.

Responsibilities include editing copy that's possibly more Byzantine than the first sentence of this e-mail; writing accurate, attention-grabbing display type; ensuring that stories are fair, accurate, balanced, clear, grammatically correct, in style and complete.

The copy editor must have excellent writing ability and a solid command of grammar and style. Must possess strong news judgment in areas of editing and packaging. Must be able to work well and quickly under deadline pressure and respond appropriately to changing news situations.

Knowledge of Quark, Photoshop and Word helpful.

Please respond with your resume to: Marsha Guerard, deputy managing editor,
It's owned by the Evening Post Publishing Co. Find out more here.

Tuesday, September 21, 2004

Watch your back

Campaign Desk takes a look at how speechwriters manipulate headline writers: "Apparently, all it takes is a rhyme that even a third-grader might find childish."

More than one

A new Verbal Energy deals with how Latin words fit into English usage. Why millenniums over millennia? And stadiums over stadia? Is media singular or plural? And is there any rhyme or reason?

Not really, she says. Each word has worked its way into the language in its own way, and we've adopted different rules for each.
A number of these Latin-derived terms have escaped from the groves of academe and the mills of bureaucracy to join everyday speech: words like "data" and "agenda" and "memorandum" and "media." Once they are out in the real world, their special plurals get banged up a bit. People tend to go with the more familiar "s" plurals – or forget that there ever was a singular.
"Data" throws people into fits. It's the plural of "datum," which has become obsolete. And sticklers are ready to wag their fingers at anyone who dares use a singular verb with it: The data overwhelmingly favors moving. They'd require "favor." But I'd say "data" has morphed into a collective noun and needs that singular.

Then there's "media." It's plural for medium, a noun in wide use. And when you're talking about more than one medium, go ahead and use "media" as a plural: She uses mixed media in her artwork. (Unless you're talking about more than one psychic; then you should use "mediums.") But when it comes to the media, as in journalists, I think this has become a collective noun, too: The media always blows this out of proportion. As Bill Walsh puts it in "The Elephants of Style":
Use the "mediums" test: If you can't find a medium in the media that is/are being mentioned, media cannot be a plural. ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox are part of the media, but neither ABC nor CBS nor NBC nor Fox is a medium. Peter Jennings, Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw and Brit Hume are part of the media, but not one of them is a medium (though Sam Donaldson might be).
Now, be careful with these thoughts. I believe in them, but your publication may not.

The Dallas Morning News, for example, says this about media: "The plural of medium. Avoid media is or was. Use media are or were." On data: "Historically a plural noun that’s becoming singular through common use. Acceptable as both plural and singular. Avoid datum except in quotations."

And AP says this about media: "In the sense of mass communication, such as magazines, newspapers, the news services, radio and television, the word is plural: The news media are resisting attempts to limit their freedom." On data: "A plural noun, it normally takes plural verbs and pronouns." And in its collective noun section, AP gives the "single unit" exception. Examples:
Right: The data is sound. (A unit.)
Right: The data have been carefully collected. (Individual items.)
Make up your own mind, and make sure your publication's rules make sense.

Too possessive

ABC's pre-Emmy show could have used help from a copy editor, if not a writer; the program's title credit glittered on screen as "Countdown to the Emmy's 2004."

Monday, September 20, 2004

Linguists vs. copy editors

You might think linguists and copy editors would get along. They share a love of the language. They're curious about words.

But editors, beware: The linguists at Language Log don't feel so chummy.

I'd noticed some disparaging remarks about copy editors here and there. But when the last two posts I read there both made potshots, I thought I'd take a deeper look.

So, wanna see smart people's gripes about copy editors? Here's a look:
  • "Copy-editors' strictures against using which in integrated relatives are an invention -- what in ordinary life we would call a lie -- with no basis in the facts of the English language." (Sept. 20)
  • Under the headline "More timewasting garbage, another copy-editing moron" comes a discussion of an author "being subjected to that bane of the author's life, the copy editing phase." This example is given: "Ian Fleming's title You Only Live Twice was not copy-edited to You Live Only Twice. Why not? Because he knows how to write, and he didn't let an idiot copy-editor change his writing into mush, that's why." And this: "Do these copy editors think their writing wisdom is greater than that of the author of Dracula? Huh? They are morons, and they are wasting Mark Pilgrim's time with their fiddling." Wait, there's more: "The things mentioned above are not debatable, they are facts about English that can easily be checked, and it is about time copy editors were told to stop wasting millions of hours on pointlessly correcting them when they were correct in the first place." Whew. (May 17)
  • "Everyone who writes English needs to understand what 'preposition stranding' is, if only for self-defense against misguided copy editors." (April 11)
  • "Maybe now ... we can get on with jailing copy editors for the right reasons." (April 5)
  • In the post "Jail copy editors for the right reasons: "I'm all in favor of sending copy editors to jail; but I think it should be for their actual practices: changing which to that in a bid to impose the (completely mythical) generalization that which is not used in what The Cambridge Grammar calls integrated relatives (the kind without the commas); altering the position of adjuncts in phrases like willing to at least consider it because of a belief in the (again, completely mythical) view that there something called an 'infinitive' in English and it should not be 'split'; and so on." (March 4)
  • "In my experience it's a good rule of thumb to blame the journalist -- or the journalistic process, including the editor(s) and the headline writer -- before blaming the scientist." (Feb. 4)
You can learn a lot from intelligent criticism. And though I disagree with some of the points, I'm no linguist; I'm just a journalist with a love of language. So I'll keep reading Language Log. But it's not for the faint of heart.

AP Stylebook update

An entry has been added on Swift boat:
Use a cap S for this particular type of Navy boat.
See this post for more discussion.

Angling for the perfect verb

James J. Kilpatrick begins his language column this week with a quote to make headline writers envious:
"Time had no special significance for a certain juvenile and incorrigible fisher of words who thought nothing of fishing for two weeks to catch a stanza, or even a line, that he would not throw back into a squirming sea of language where there was every word but the one he wanted.

"There were strange and iridescent and impossible words that would seize the bait and swallow the hook and all but drag the excited angler in after them, but like that famous catch of Hiawatha's, they were generally not the fish he wanted. He wanted fish that were smooth and shining and subtle, and very much alive, and not too strange, and presently, after long patience and many rejections, they began to bite."
It's fun to imagine in a copy-editing blog the headlines we could create had we two weeks to fish. But most of the time we are lucky to get two minutes.

An update on CanWest's "terrorists"

The New York Times reports that Reuters is now asking CanWest Global Newspapers to remove Reuters bylines from some stories.

Reuters is uncomfortable with the Canadian chain's policy to insert the word "terrorist" into stories to replace some "insurgents" and "rebels."

David Schlesinger, global managing editor of Retuers, says subscribing newspapers have the right to do what they like with the news service's stories.
"But if a paper wants to change our copy that way, we would be more comfortable if they remove the byline."
The story also reveals that the Ottawa Citizen has had to run another correction because of the policy, only a week after its last. This time, the paper changed an AP story to say that six of 10 Palestinians killed in a blast were terrorists. Their correction called this an editing error and said the story should have called them "militants.

>Reuters Asks a Chain to Remove Its Bylines [New York Times]
>When editing goes too far? [A Capital Idea]

Saturday, September 18, 2004

So there!

A point-by-point refutation of Sidney Goldberg's treatise against New York Times copy editors. [Language Log]

>Paper of Record Mistakes [National Review]
>Cheap Shot [A Capital Idea]

Friday, September 17, 2004

Biased headlines

I didn't hear much hubbub in copy-editing cirlces when the American Enterprise Institute released a report on bias in newspaper coverage earlier this week.

The conclusion of the conservative think tank was not surprising: Economic reporters slant the news to favor Democrats.

But the method the two economists used to come to this conclusion did catch me off guard (emphasis mine):
The two economists combed through 389 newspapers and A.P. reports contained in the LexisNexis database from January 1991 through May 2004, during the administrations of George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. They picked out headlines about gross domestic product growth, unemployment, retail sales and orders of durable goods and classified the headlines' depiction of the economy as either positive, negative, neutral or mixed. Then they crunched some numbers.
They looked only at headlines.

Is this fair? Of course, not. "A headline is not coverage," as Slate's Jack Shafer put it.

But does it matter that it's fair? Not so much. The whole job of a headline is to sum up the stories, to draw readers in. I'd say it's even worse for headlines to be found biased than for stories.

So, write off the study for its partisan overtones if you'd like. But don't write it off because it looked at headlines instead of articles. Readers don't see the difference.

>Do Newspapers Make Good News Look Bad? [The New York Times]
>To analyze articles, you must read them [Baltimore Sun]
>Headline bust [Testy Copy Editors]

When editing goes too far?

Reuters is pissed off at the CanWest Global newspaper chain in Canada. It says the chain is inserting too much opinion into its stories on the Iraq and Israeli-Palestinian conflicts.

For example, a Reuters sentence:
... the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, which has been involved in a four-year-old revolt against Israeli occupation in Gaza and the West Bank.
CanWest's National Post printed:
... the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, a terrorist group that has been involved in a four-year-old campaign of violence against Israel.
The editor of the Ottawa Citizen, another CanWest paper, says the chain does have a policy to relabel some groups, primarily Arab, as terrorists.
"We're editing for style," he said. "We're editing so that we have clear consistent language to describe what's going on in the world. And if we've made a mistake we should correct that. And we will."
Mistakes? Why, yes.

The Citizen inserted "terrorist" into an AP story about Fallujah last week seven times. The problem? The fighters weren't terrorists. The paper ran a correction:
The changes to the Associated Press story do not reflect Citizen policy, which is to use the term 'terrorist' to describe someone who deliberately targets civilians. As such, the changes to the Associated Press story were made in error."

>Reuters upset by CanWest's use of 'terrorist' [CBC Ottawa]
>"Terrorist" as Euphemism [Testy Copy Editors]

'The s is not a toy'

Damage or damages? Abuse or abuses?

Bill Walsh makes it clear in this entry at Blogslot.
Abuse means abuse. Ten people get abused? It's still just abuse. "Abuses" are instances of people taking improper advantage of a rule or a law or a situation.

Damage means damage. Ten things get damaged? It's still just damage. "Damages" means money sought in a lawsuit.

The s is not a toy.
A friend once remarked that the increasing misuse of "damages" for "damage" was a reflection on just how litigious our society had become.

And be sure to check out the comments at Bill's site, too. There is usually a good conversation going on there. One on this post wonders at what point "money" turns into the pretentious "moneys."

And I've also been wondering why "tensions" rise in a crisis, "services" are held before someone's burial, and companies always report "revenues."

Thursday, September 16, 2004

Try harder

I know the folks at 123Greetings were trying, but these are not appropriate greeting cards for Be Kind to Writers and Editors Month.

Job security

Another article out of India (this one at the Economic Times) mentions the increasing outsourcing of copy-editing work.

>Improving Economy? Don't forget to factor this in [A Capital Idea]
>Office of Tomorrow Has an Address in India [LA Times]
>India emerging as BPO hub in publishing [The Times of India]

Cheap shot

Sidney Goldberg has a bone to pick with New York Times copy editors. And I'd say he's picked it clean in this National Review column.

In an article titled "Paper of Record Mistakes: The Times's copy editors are either illiterate or asleep," he writes:
The Times's corrections box, on page 2, has become one of the most-read features in the newspaper. All the Stevens can write in that their name is spelled Stephen, and the Stephens can write in that their name is spelled Steven. But inanimate objects cannot write in, and so the numerous spelling and grammatical errors concerning places and things go uncorrected.
But wait, there's more!
These are not in the category of everyday typos, inevitable in every newspaper. No, these are errors that display an ignorance of orthography and grammar.
He then goes on to cite a list of everyday errors that irk him: lead vs. led, that vs. which, which vs. what.

And all of this seems to be wrapped around an old beef: that the Times was too hard on Dan Quayle's potato vs. potatoe gaffe. (I think he got a bad rap there, just as I think Al Gore endures too many Internet-invention jokes. But that's beside the point.)

It's more partisan wrangling being taken out on copy editors. (Of course, it is the National Review; I'm certainly not surprised. But pick a partisan target! This is plain silly.)

Then again, I guess they haven't heard about the Rim Rats endorsement.

Wednesday, September 15, 2004

And that's how editors were born

Ever wonder how little readers understand about the day-to-day operations of a newspaper? Read this ombud column from the Sacramento Bee.

When Tony Marcano got some grief from readers about story edits, he was dumbfounded at the cause: Readers couldn't believe that what made it into the paper was not the mirror image of what came over on the wires.

Readers were upset to learn that editors were taking words, even sentences out. One wrote:
When did it become acceptable to split a sentence in such a manner, even for space concerns? Granted, it's a small change, but it leads to another key point in the article. ...

"Given that trust in the media is fragile enough, why doesn't The Bee flag print articles that are edited for space? At a minimum, it would be true disclosure. This 'flag' could point the user to The Bee's website for the full, unedited version.
Flag every story that has been edited down? I mean, have you ever read any story that you didn't pare down some? Remove some obfuscation? End a sentence a tad earlier?

The national editor at the Bee came up with some good explanations of why we do what we do. It's just remarkable that people find subterfuge in everything.

It's easy to get carried away

An amusing error here:
Ticket sales again were disappointing for the Elvis Presley Festival, held in the Missississippi town where the King of Rock ’n’ Roll was born, putting the future of the event in jeopardy.

What's my line?

Languagehat discovers that a child in kindergarten is a kindergartner.
It would never have occurred to me to say anything but "kindergartener," but I looked it up in Webster's Collegiate and sure enough, the one preserving German morphology is the preferred spelling.
The blog takes the opportunity to remind readers that someone who runs a restaurant is a restaurateur. Someone who runs a restoration business is a restorator. And the art of being a midwife is pronounced mid-WIFF-ery. I did not know that.

Tuesday, September 14, 2004

On corrections

The Akron Beacon Journal has an interesting phrasing in its correction here:
Hudson native Donald Patrick MacDonald enlisted in the Army in 2001 at the age of 32. A headline in Saturday's Local section was incorrect. A copy editor erred.
And check out this doozy of an error about elephant hunting pictures from National Geographic, pointed out by Mike.

Check it out

The Plain English Campaign

Monday, September 13, 2004

It's like work at home, but more fun

Here's another book with a copy editing character, a "sassy" one no less: "Foul Matter," by Martha Grimes. It's a crime novel about the New York publishing world that came out a year ago.

A book note in the Knoxville News Sentinel says this:
"Does laughing uncontrollably on a subway train constitute legitimate literary criticism? If it does, then Foul Matter (New American Library, $13.95), Martha Grimes's evil-minded satire of the venal, not to say murderous, practices of the New York publishing industry, gets a great review from me."

Wow. A New York Times literary critic actually laughing? Out loud? Those words were enough to get me going on this witty and clever tale set in the cutthroat world of literary New York's power lunches and editorial mayhem. So far, I've met a weird editor, a stuffy author and a sassy copy editor, and I'm only on Page 10.

The origin of the izzle

Kathleen Miller covers a fun topic in this week's On Language column: the izzle phenomenon, after she saw it in a New York Times headline recently.
Some clever Times copy editor, for a June article about Chrysler's new 300C sedan, created the headline, "Fo' Shizzle, That Big Bad Chrysler Really Does Sizzle."

The phrase made the headline because the person inquiring about the car was none other than the rapper Snoop Dogg, himself the creator of the izzle phenomenon and the man MTV calls the "slanguistic sensei" of the hip-hop generation.
Miller then launches into a history of the Z infixes, from the names at the end of "Double Dutch Bus"(1981) -- "Bilzarbra, Mitzery, Milzetty ... Titzommy, Kitzerrance, Kilzommy" -- to Another Bad Creation's "Playground" (1991) -- "Into the Mizzark chillin' in the pizzark ... mother said be home by dizzark."

Snoop* hit the trend in '93 with "Tha Shiznit": "The surgeon is Dr. Drizzay, so lizzay and plizzay with D-O-double-Gizzay."

And then Miller moves on to izzle. She traces some claims by E-40 but comes up short. But everyone seems to agree that the phrase originated in Northern California.

And from the Bay Area to the rest of America it went. It's in "Legally Blond II," Old Navy commercials, Fortune magazine and the British legal system. And let us not forget a song I was mildly obsessed with for some time: Jay-Z's "Izzo, H.O.V.A."

Now I'll be singing the song for weeks. But Snoop is saying enough, already.
He recently told Ryan J. Downey of MTV News: "The message is L.I.G.: let it go. OK, America? Let it go. You can't say 'izzle' no more. Tizzle, fizzle, dizzle — none of that. It's over with. ... Let's find something new. Maybe pig Latin, anything."
*Miller gives Snoop Dogg's real name as Cordozar Broadus. I was perplexed; I had always thought he was born Calvin Broadus. A little digging brought this article to my attention from the Times of London.
He was born Cordozar Broadus, but was known as “Calvin” until his mum started calling him “Snoop” after his favourite cartoon character, Snoopy from Peanuts.
So, watch out. All these sites are wrong. As is this MTV story.

Certainly, Snoop's "real name" is better known as Calvin. And there's nothing wrong with saying "Snoop Dogg, aka Calvin Broadus." But that's not the name he was born with.

(UPDATED: I originally had William Safire writing this column, but he's still on vacation, despite the byline on the story here, here and here. I'll trust this one at the Times. Thanks, Josh.)

Sunday, September 12, 2004

No verbs

When you really can't stand to read another verb (or, for you teachers out there, how to convince your students that verbs are all right):
The latest theory of the cause of the world's ills? Too many distracting and ostentatious verbs.

Always full of zip, those nasty words. Always tense and in agreement with this or that. Too perfect or too pluperfect. Never a still moment -- like a runaway train, forever in motion. How crass! How 20th century!

For this millennium, a new approach to writing. A fresh pace and rhythm of language for this era of multitasking and hyperlinks. An alternative to the bloated bounciness of contemporary literature, those darling "new classics" larded with 500 or 600 pages of infinitives, participles and the subjunctive. The turn, in the words of one literary critic, away from the style of Dave Eggers and Zadie Smith to self-restraint and choice.
Oh, there's more where that came from. Read as much as you can stand.

More reading to do

I've added another book to my wish list: William Safire's "The Right Word in the Right Place at the Right Time."

This review gives a taste of what the book, a collection of his "On Language" column in the New York Times, has to offer. It includes this excerpt:
"Ten years ago this week, I received in the mail a census form that began, 'Please use a black lead pencil only.' Naturally, I objected to the loose placement of the 'only,' preferring 'use only a black lead pencil' or the even more direct and simple 'use a black lead pencil.'

"This year, reflecting the leap forward in technology, the United States Census 2000 says, 'Please use a black or blue pen.' I have a blue pen that writes with black ink; I suppose that's OK. But I also have a black pen that writes with red ink; is that impermissible?

"The clear intent is 'use black or blue ink.' But if the Bureau of the Census, conscious of literal correctness, wrote those words, millions of people unfamiliar with the details of writing instruments would respond, 'I don't use ink; I use a ballpoint pen. Does this mean I have to fill this out with a fountain pen? There'll be big inkblots all over the form. What do they want from my life?'"
I love it.

But before I dig into this, I'll need to finish "Tears of the Giraffe" and "The Da Vinci Code."

Saturday, September 11, 2004


James Kilpatrick's language column this week is on choosing the most precise word for your meaning. He covers the differences between "now," "currently" and "presently."
For example, take the New York Yankees. (Somebody, please take the New York Yankees!) Are they presently, currently or simply now leading the American League East? The trouble with "presently" is that it means not only "at present" but also "pretty soon." When the receptionist says the doctor is presently with a patient but will be with you presently, we have a muddle.

The trouble with "currently" is that it suggests the first-place Yankees may not be there long. (This is a suggestion based more in hope than conviction.) The word we probably want is simply "now."
Of course, most of the time you need none of the above. "They are leading the American League" says what you mean as much as "They are now leading the American League."

I'd disagree with Kilpatrick's assertion that "currently" suggests a temporary nature that "now" does not. They both suffer from this affliction. There are cases that "now" is necessary, but I almost always use it instead of "currently." Who even says this word? It sounds stilted.

The Barbara Wallraff edition

Barbara Wallraff filled in for William Safire in his "On Language" column last week. She uses the space to plead that we get to know our dictionaries better -- even when they sometimes let us down:
The great majority of America's copy editors would go along with the hyphenation in both of these sentences: "An up-to-date dictionary is up to date" and "A far-fetched theory is far-fetched." (Don't believe me? Use Google News to check my work.) But five of the dictionaries present "up-to-date" and "far-fetched" only as hyphenated compound adjectives. They may note, somewhere, that hyphens aren't used in certain adjectival compounds unless these directly precede a noun, but they're vague about which hyphens to take out. The Collegiate says about compound words in general, "It is often completely acceptable to choose freely among open, hyphenated and closed alternatives (as lifestyle, life-style or life style)." Hey, thanks a lot!
And Atlantic Monthly subscribers can find her latest "Word Fugitive" column here.

To make our Wallraff edition complete, check out her Free the Peeves site, which adds a quiz every week. Find out if you're imposing changes because they're necessary or because you have a pet peeve. What do you think of this statement:
"When describing people who hope their actions will result in good being done, it is said they are well intentioned. Shouldn't the word be intended? Isn't well an adverb? Intention is a noun. Intend is a verb. Nouns have no past tense!"

Friday, September 10, 2004

Kiss whom goodbye

There's an interesting discussion of "the coming death of whom" at the Language Log.

There's a picture of a protest flag with writing on it:
We live in a country founded by cheats, murderers, rapists, thiefs, terrorists, whom captured, killed, enslaved millions of Africans whom killed more natives than Nazis did Jews, while the Catholic Church is behind the altar, justifying molestation -- God bless Amerikkka
Geoffrey Pullum writes:
Using whom for who isn't regularization. It's a desperately insecure clutching after a form that people no longer know where to use or how to control.
Or, what most of us like to call "overcorrection."

Thursday, September 09, 2004

Presidential endorsement from the United Rim Rats of America

From Ed Sargent, a colleague of mine on the Universal Desk at the Dallas Morning News:

As John Kerry and George W. Bush gather endorsements and donations based on the weighty issues of war, terrorism and the economy, the nation's copy editors are anxiously waiting to see who wins the endorsement of the United Rim Rats of America. Their very careers could depend on the outcome.

The United Who?

Copy editors are the last line of defense at any newspaper. They're the last people to read the stories before the mighty Wifag press starts churning out thousands of newspapers per hour, to be bundled up and tossed on your doorstep or put in your favorite rack before sunrise. All of this happens in the middle of the night, which is why copy editors often feel that they're treated as the stepchildren of journalism.

They also happen to be the people who write the headlines. That's right: Not the reporters or the big-shot editors with fancy titles and glass offices – it's the folks with the green eyeshades and the whiskey bottle in the lower desk drawer. OK, not any more, but that's their stereotype. And that feeling of perpetual mistreatment gave rise to the proud term of "rim rat" for those who slaved away long into the night in the noble profession of copy editing.

Why rim? Because many years ago, long before the advent of computers and the ubiquitous cubicles that American offices have succumbed to, copy editors sat around the outside edge -- the rim, if you will -- of a large, U-shaped desk. The person in charge of the copy desk sat in the "slot" of the U. These terms are still used in many newsrooms today to designate who's doing what on the copy desk, even though the U-shaped desk was long ago rendered to sawdust.

The United Rim Rats of America is a mostly apocryphal fellowship of these important but oft-overlooked members of the journalistic fraternity. Meetings, if any have really occurred, are historically held in the parking lot of a tavern near the newspaper office after closing time. The group doesn't do much because copy editors are notoriously picky, so they can't even agree on whether Rim Rats is one word, two words or hyphenated.

This loose-knit but important group is not to be confused with the august American Copy Editors Society, a noble product of the professionalization of copy editing that actively works to improve copy editors' skills, working conditions and perceived worth within the ranks of journalists. Unlike the URRA, ACES is open, above-board and takes absolutely no political stands.

But the only thing the URRA has ever done, other than swell the coffers of alcohol purveyors and, long ago, tobacco companies, is to endorse a presidential candidate. They've done this in every election since "independent" newspapers -- that is, those that weren't directly controlled by political parties -- emerged in the mid-19th century.

Their criteria? The URRA pays no attention to party platforms or political philosophy or flip-flopping or attack ads. The endorsement always goes to the candidate with the shortest last name.

Why? Because the president of the United States is in the news every day, and the shorter the last name, the easier it is to write a headline that conveys what the leader of the free world did that day. "Smith signs peace treaty" tells you much more than "McFluegelhornstein inks pact." Copy editors are generally stuck with the space they're given to write a headline on a particular story, so having a president with a short name is crucial.

The tough part of this endorsement is that letters have different widths. To account for this, the URRA uses the ancient art of "headline counting." For decades, this is how copy editors made sure headlines fit the allotted space. Now, of course, a computer does the counting. Most lower-case letters are 1 count, but because m and w are wider, they count 1.5. And f, i, j, l and t, being thin, count a half. Most capital letters count 1.5 each, but wider ones count 2 and narrower ones count 1.

In recent years, we've been blessed with presidential candidates with relatively short names, particularly men such as Gerald Ford, both Bushes and Bob Dole. Why Republicans have shorter names than Democrats is an interesting question, but the URRA and its purported members take no interest in that sort of partisan trivia.

The "head count" for Ford and Bush is 4.5, while Dole comes in at 4, among the shortest, along with Polk and Taft. Clinton was longer (he never won the URRA endorsement) but was still within reason at 6. Reagan was 6.5.

From the early 20th century through the 1960s, most candidates had longer names than they do today. In the 1980s, copy editors cringed at the thought of a Mondale (7.5) or Dukakis (7) presidency. The real nightmare, though, came in 1972, when Richard Nixon, an easy 5, faced George McGovern, a full 9 and a half.

Luckily, the U.S. Constitution prohibits the foreign-born governor of California from seeking the presidency, although he's already caused plenty of havoc on copy desks around the world with the 15 counts of Schwarzenegger. He often shows up in headlines simply as Arnold, a mere 6.

For many years, candidates with longer names were the norm: Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Stevenson, Kennedy, Johnson, Goldwater and Humphrey all coming in with at least 7. To solve the problem, headline writers usually referred to them by their initials, generally counting 4 to 4.5: FDR, JFK, LBJ and even HHH. One was known in headlines by his nickname, Ike. For many copy editors, he's still the greatest president ever, counting at a mere 2.5, beating out Taft and Polk by a full count.

The practice of using initials stopped with the 1968 election of Nixon, whose name was the same length as RMN.

In the 14 elections since 1948, the URRA has picked the winner eight times, using Ike, JFK and LBJ instead of their real names. The last URRA winner was George Bush in 1988. The group backed Republicans 10 times in those elections. The Republican Party also gets favorable nods from copy editors, at least when they’re working, because it can be called GOP (4.5 counts), while Democrats are always Democrats (9.5).

In 2000, the URRA endorsement, like the election, was a dead heat. Bush and Gore both officially count 4.5. But like the popular vote, Gore got the edge because r is slightly narrower than its lower-case brethren, just not enough to count as a half.

And r will prove tricky in this year's contest. Kerry, while counting at 5.5, actually comes in shorter than that because of his two r's. But Bush stands solidly on his 4.5 count, and takes home the 2004 endorsement of the United Rim Rats of America.

So will this endorsement affect the election’s outcome? Don't count on it.

Looking for a good job?

I've always heard good things about working at the Charlotte Observer, a Knight Ridder paper. And they're hiring:
The Charlotte Observer has an immediate opening for an entry-level copy editor. The right candidate is a strong collaborator, a creative editor, an excellent headline writer and a solid journalist.

One of America's fastest-growing cities, Charlotte sits in the North Carolina's Piedmont, midway between the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Atlantic coast. The Observer (290,000-circulation, Sunday) has been a player in the city's growth for more than a century. We are a paper with a proud journalism tradition and a national reputation for being well-edited and well-designed.

Send a resume and samples of your work to Robin Thrana, copy desk chief, The Charlotte Observer, P.O. Box 30308, Charlotte NC 28230, (704) 358-5091.

Any math geeks out there also copy-editing geeks?

I ran across this copy-editing aside in a column. It's out of my league, as I know not the difference between a motherboard and a systemboard or whether there's a difference at all.
And in "Do You Need a New PC or Just a New Motherboard?" Kirk gives you some more of his hardware insights. He explains the importance of a systemboard's form factor of (something I didn't think about); talks about choosing the right CPU; and shows you how to figure out how many slots, ports, and connectors you ought to have.

Quick quiz: When's the only time you can use "motherboard" instead of "systemboard" at PC World? When the copy editor is dozing. [Note to Copy Editor: Keep snoozing.]

Wednesday, September 08, 2004

Outsiders peeking in

Testy Copy Editors earns a mention in a Houston Chronicle blog:
6. Also, a wonderful exploration of the fine points of English by one of our seriously favorite subsectors of humanity: copy editors. Who kind of are the Neos and Trinitys of grammar, spelling and punctuation.
Before the Matrix, we were much harder to describe.

But I would like being called one of anyone's favorite subsectors of humanity.

Get those brains working

Yet another reason to use strong verbs in your headlines:

I missed this article in February saying that the same part of your brain that orchestrates most of your movement also lights up when you read verbs.

That's right, not just any words: verbs only.

"Remarkably, just the reading of feet-related action words such as dance makes [the motor cortex] move its 'feet,' " said one of the researchers.

No word in this study on whether readers are more likely to read active headlines.

Tuesday, September 07, 2004

Local headline of the week

Slate has a feature called "Local Headline of the Week -- Breaking news from a campaign battleground."


GREENSBORO, N.C.—From the Greensboro News & Record, Sept. 7, 2004, page B1, banner headline:

"Some gay men hook up at area parks."

That's a story I'd like to read more about, but I can't find it online.

Saturday, September 04, 2004

Hug an editor today

September is Be Kind to Editors and Writers Month.

It is also International Gay Square Dance Month.

Please celebrate both.

You can't edit all the time

John McIntyre, assistant managing editor for the Baltimore Sun's copy desk and president of the American Copy Editors Society, wrote a book review for the paper. "The Sleeper" doesn't have anything to do with copy editing, but it's nice to see editors branching out.

Friday, September 03, 2004

Off the desk

At the Rockford Register Star in Illinois, a copy editor has a weekly column about grammar and style. (How widespread is this? I like it, and I could see some readers being interested. A lot of non-journalists have to write, too.)

This week's column is on redundancy.

The C word: Cliche?

Did your paper use "the F word" when describing Cheney's tiff with Leahy? Does it use "the N word" when describing racist dialogue? How about "the A word" to refer to amnesty?

Jack Rosenthal calls this letteracy.
This usage probably began as a coy way to avoid obscenities and delete expletives. Garry Trudeau described the main ones in a Doonesbury comic strip last month in which a Cheney voice announces that “I not only intend to use the F-word from now on, I’m also using the S-word, the C-word, the P-word and the J-word,” leaving readers to wonder what curse the J-word might euphemize.
Find some funny examples in his column (filling in for William Safire) here.

Thursday, September 02, 2004


When Democrat Zell Miller speaks at the Republican convention, headline writers take notice.

The National Journal writes:
Headline writers rarely pass up the chance to use a pun, and Georgia Sen. Zell Miller gives them plenty of fodder. A few of our favorite headlines from today:

-- "Mad as Zell" -- the New York Post
-- "The Devil in Zell" -- AlterNet
-- "Is Miller a Zell-out?" --
-- "ZELLEPHANT GONE WILD!!!" -- DNC press release
-- "For the GOP, Giving 'Em Zell" -- the Washington Post

Only a few mentions of his old nickname, "Zig-Zag Zell," crept in to today's coverage. Alliteration is no match for the mighty power of the pun.
(Thanks, Angie!)

Mad props to grammarians

India has a new postage stamp commemorating its heritage in grammar and mathematics.

It honors Panini, who is considered the founder of Sanskrit and one of the greatest grammarians. (It looks as if he was a descriptivist.)

Wednesday, September 01, 2004

Margin of error

A great note on Romenesko's letters page from John Maggs:
A good "On the Media" piece on how to understand the margin of error in political polling moves me to challenge what has become a widespread convention in news reporting: when a race is close enough to fall within the margin of error, news reporters say it is a "statistical dead heat" or even that the race is tied. This is wrong. A three point lead for Bush, even in a poll with a four point margin of error, means that there is a small probability that Kerry might actually be tied, or even ahead, but that it is far more likely that Bush is ahead (and most likely that he is ahead by three points.) Polls are an estimate of what millions think based on what a few hundred think, nothing more than a probability. If they have any use, then reporters ought to report a small advantage as an advantage.

A banner day

A Washington Post reader actually defends a headline she dislikes:
I know reporters do not write their own headlines, but the copy editor here was clearly just doing her job: matching the snarky, flippant tone of the article.