Saturday, November 27, 2004

The singular biceps

I'm back!

And check out this correction from the Guardian Unlimited, right up our alley:
Jonny Wilkinson (Gregan's Wallabies plot new England fall, page 27, November 23) is recovering from a biceps injury, not a bicep injury. The singular of biceps is biceps. The plural of biceps is biceps.
Via Regrets the Error.

Biceps definition. (It does list "bicepses" as an alternate plural.)
Instances of the wrong "bicep" in Google News. That's 280 errors right now, in some of the nation's biggest papers.

Friday, November 12, 2004


I'm off to Wichita to visit my sister in the hospital and enjoy my birthday with friends and family. So things will be quiet here.

Feel free to comment amongst yourselves. I'll try to check in.

Enjoy the weekend!

Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Veterans Day

Remember, no apostrophe in the holiday tomorrow. Here is AP's entry:
Veterans Day Formerly Armistice Day, Nov. 11, the anniversary of the armistice that ended World War I in 1918.

The federal legal holiday, observed on the fourth Monday in October during the mid-1970s, reverted to Nov. 11 in 1978.

Engravers, hire us

Another public agency is suffering from a grammar gaffe, this time in Virginia. A plaque honoring slain officers says:
"We were highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain."
Those of you with better memories than I may recognize what it was supposed to say, from the Gettysburg Address:
"We here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain."
This news column includes another fun fact about the statue: The sculptor hid a little drawing of a pig and the words "oink resistant" on the heel of the officer.
"You found me out," she told a reporter a few days after the May 1987 unveiling of the 8-foot, 1,000-pound figure. "It's modeled after those patterns that you see that say 'oil resistant.' I hope they all have as good a sense of humor as I think they do."
They did not. The heel was sanded smooth.

Tuesday, November 09, 2004

A peek behind the curtain

Learn the origin of the phrases "flying off the handle" and "den of iniquity" in the latest Merriam-Webster Wordwatch feature.

Also, arm yourself with some facts on the difference between review and revue when dealing with plays.

Movin' on up

Former copy editor John Mancini has been named the new editor of Newsday.

How not to write a correction

There's fixing an error ... and then there's shilling. Guess which category this Woman's Day correction from June falls into:
In the "Summertime" feature on page 114, we say that before you use the Schick Intuition razor you should lather on cream or gel. But the beauty of Intuition is its simplicity - no need for shave gel, soap, or body wash! Intuition's All-in-One cartridge contains pivoting triple blades surrounded by a Skin Conditioning Solid(tm) that has a blend of sheer fruity notes of melon and fresh cucumber for normal to dry skin types. You can find the Schick Intuition Cucumber Melon at your local drug and grocery stores for $7.99.
Nice. (Link via Regret the Error)

Mixed metaphors, sloppy writing

James Kilpatrick writes about rereading your writing to save yourself from gaffes (or from embarrassing yourself in front of your copy editor).

Careful reads would have saved people from some of these clunkers:
  • "All this worry about George W. Bush's 'goings-on' during the Vietnam War is a can of worms that the Republicans tried to crucify Clinton with that now has come back to bite them."
  • "Tea is no longer a stepsister to coffee, but has blossomed of its own accord into a swan."
  • "A plan to commemorate the route of massive Ice Age floods that reshaped the landscape of the Pacific Northwest with trails and interpretive centers will go before Congress next week..."
  • "Campos abducted Almendares and two children he fathered with her in Raleigh late Monday afternoon."
These are the types of errors we should be (and usually are) catching. But they are harder to spot than the poorly conjugated verbs and simple style errors. They take careful reading.

And that's why it would be good to keep some examples of these errors lying around to explain why indeed we need all that time to read a story -- because not everything can be caught in a five-minute dash. Sometimes we need to linger a little.

Monday, November 08, 2004

Safire on albeit

William Safire writes about the word albeit, an odd 14th-century throwback that he says is all the rage today.

Why the popularity? For one, it's short, says Tony Reid of the Washington Post. He wrote a headline last month using the word: "Disarmament Process Starts in Sadr City, Albeit Slowly."
"And the tone of that word seems more definitive to me than although. Maybe because it's older it carries a little more weight. There is some part of my subconscious where my mother is running around that forced that word out of me. I know it's kind of old-timey, but when you're writing a headline, one word can make a difference."
Safire points out that albeit is not shorter than though, though. And he seems to think more people use albeit to put on a literary air.

Enjoy this article

The Washington Post's John Kelly has a truly enjoyable column on headline writing based on this question from a reader:

I am fascinated by the headlines in The Post that are plays on words or well-known phrases: "John Heinz, Preferring Inner Light to Limelight" and "Anne Arundel Considers Giving Video Bingo a Spin." Every day these wonderful lines literally fly off the page. Are they written by a specially trained wordsmith? I do some writing and have trouble coming up with even one or two of these rascals. Are there tricks?
He interviews the Post's metro copy chief, Marcia Kramer, and the copy chief of the editorial department, Vince Rinehart.

He talks about when headlines should be straight and when they can be playful. Rinehart gives this interesting comparison with the New York Times' heads:

"I think what The Post is best known for is adventurousness in feature headlines," said Vince, who also has worked in Style, Financial and National. (As opposed to the headlines in the New York Times, which employ a more formal style and need to be imagined, said Vince, as being read by Alastair Cooke.)
Many examples are given:
  • Some Telling William Overtures (over a story on the different leadership styles of two congressmen named Bill)
  • Out for a Bit of Fresh Eire (over a St. Patrick's Day column)
  • Unindemnified Flying Object (on insurance companies that were canceling policies against alien abduction)

There's more, as well as a discussion of the traits of a good headline writer, the tools they use, and how to know when you've gone too far.

The author gives his own "Fin d'Icicle," on a story about ice fishing, as an example of a head gone bad. And Kramer says, "If I see a 'A Tale of Two Anythings,' I'm going to puke."

Read the full thing here.


Here's another reason -- and a big one, at that -- why every phone number should be called, every Web address visited, every mailing address double-checked before you publish them. From Romenesko:
The Florida Times-Union's election day front page included a toll-free number to a non-partisan organization tracking the election. The number was wrong, though, and sent callers to a sex talk service. "This never should have happened, since the newsroom's policy is that all phone numbers should be called before publication," writes ombud Mike Clark.
Checking these little facts often seems like one of the least important parts of copy-editing work. It's certainly one of the most tedious aspects of our jobs, to be sure. But there's so much room for error, and these are the details that readers are most likely to use. So when they're wrong, readers are more likely to notice.

>More on the election and that really bad telephone number [Florida Times-Union]

Saturday, November 06, 2004

Cavalry vs. calvary

Growing up, I used to always confuse cavalry and calvary. One showed up at churches, the other at wars.

So I devised one of my many mnemonic devices to keep words straight: The early L stands for the lord. Silly, I know, but I've never confused them since.

Others aren't so lucky.

Campaign cliches

William Safire wrote a column on campaign cliches shortly before the election. How many of these ended up in your paper?

Neck and neck
Photo finish
Dead heat
Groundswell of support
Flood of votes
Tidal wave of support
Whirlwind campaign
Political avalanche

Friday, November 05, 2004

Avoidable corrections

OK, here's today's first post that doesn't have to do with animals.

It's always bad news when you have to correct a correction. But it's even worse when the error is easily avoidable.

Today's example comes from the Akron Beacon Journal (via Regret the Error), who ran this correction:
"Watched any Futbol Americano lately? The Channels television guide in today's Akron Beacon Journal says you can find it at 1 and 4 p.m. today on WJW (Channel 8).Due to a production error, the listings for the Browns vs. Eagles game at 1 and the Cowboys vs. the Packers at 4 are in Spanish. The information in English is on Page 2 in today's Premier section. Lo sentemos..."
Here's the problem. What they wanted was "Lo sentimos." So here's their second correction:
"We give up. A front-page correction Sunday about a listing in the Channels television book having been written in Spanish contained an error -- in Spanish. What we meant to say was "Lo sentimos" ("We're sorry"). What we inadvertently said was "Lo sentemos," which roughly translates "We sit it down." Oi, vai!"
I'll admit, though, that I don't mind the conversational tone of the corrections. It wouldn't be appropriate in all circumstances. But I think it works just fine here.

From the humorous-mistakes department

Disclosure: This is from a press release, not a news column, but still ...

The first film is Jean-Luc Goddard's Week End. This master piece of the French "New Wave" follows a woman through her unlikely transition from complacent bourgeois housewife to militant leftist gorilla.

I'm seeing irate primates demanding bananas for all, "or I'm taking all these macaws hostage!"

Hopefully, this won't come up much

Here's another one of those quirks in the language: It's bestiality, not beastiality.

Thursday, November 04, 2004


Here's a commentary from EContent magazine about trademarks, namely that of Instant Messenger from AOL. Supposedly, it's OK to use instant messenging as a verb but not as a noun.

The author says:
I'm wondering what AOL gains from this move. I understand why Xerox didn't want its name to be used willy-nilly by every copycat. I get how Kleenex wanted to be a brand that made tissues for the face and other body parts, not a generic term used even when others' products got sold. But how does it behoove AOL to trademark two words that have entered the common parlance, in a particular order, at a given time in our communication history? I can say AOL Instant Messenger and I can say Instant Messenger if I'm referring to AOL's product, but the strange part is that I can only say "instant messenger" (even with no initial caps) if I mean AIM. The company views the use of these two words in reference to a broader category as an infringement on its intellectual property.

This is like Kleenex sending out cease-and-desist orders to everyone that referred to facial tissue not as Kleenex, but as "facial tissue" itself. I mean where would that have left a company like Puffs? With snot rag? Maybe not, but would they have had to write around it with something catchy like "tissue that is used on the face or nose area"? Perhaps they would have felt compelled to coin their own term like "Paperchief."
Of course, AOL would argue that the only reason "instant messenger" has entered our language is because AOL brought it.

AOL is responsible for Instant Messenger. Kleenex was never resonsible for Facial Tissue.

I'm not big on crazy trademark rules and cease-and-desist orders. But this one seems pretty simple.

Music on the job

I've read a lot of debate at Testy Copy Editors on whether it is appropriate for copy editors to listen to music while working. Many say it helps them concentrate. Many say it keeps people from hearing important discussions going on around them. Some say it's unprofessional.

But I found this buried in a feature about Mozart.
Scientists at the University of Washington found that the accuracy of 90 copy editors increased by 21.3 percent when they listened to light classical music.
Anyone know more?

Sad quote from a blogger

"I don't want to be a journalist. They edit things to death. Two copy editors have to look at everything. What the hell is that? It's boring. I can swear. I can fly off the handle. I do it all the time. If people don't like it, tough."

That's from Markos Moulitsas, who runs the Daily Kos.

Oh, what a night

Read horror stories from the election at; maybe you can feel better about your night.

Monday, November 01, 2004


A couple of style points from AP to remember for the election:

It's Election Day, capital E, capital D.

election returns Use figures, with commas every three digits starting at the right and counting left. Use the word to (not a hyphen) in separating different totals listed together: Jimmy Carter defeated Gerald Ford 40,827,292 to 39,146,157 in 1976 (this is the actual final figure).
Use the word votes if there is any possibility that the figures could be confused with a ratio: Nixon defeated McGovern 16 votes to 3 votes in Dixville Notch.
Do not attempt to create adjectival forms such as the 40,827,292-39,146,157 vote.

majority, plurality Majority means more than half of an amount.
Plurality means more than the next highest number.
COMPUTING MAJORITY: To describe how large a majority is, take the figure that is more than half and subtract everything else from it: If 100,000 votes were cast in an election and one candidate received 60,000 while opponents received 40,000, the winner would have a majority of 20,000 votes.
COMPUTING PLURALITY: To describe how large a plurality is, take the highest number and subtract from it the next highest number: If, in the election example above, the second-place finisher had 25,000 votes, the winner's plurality would be 35,000 votes.
Suppose, however, that no candidate in this example had a majority. If the first-place finisher had 40,000 votes and the second-place finisher had 30,000, for example, the leader's plurality would be 10,000 votes.
USAGE: When majority and plurality are used alone, they take singular verbs and pronouns: The majority has made its decision.
If a plural word follows an of construction, the decision on whether to use a singular or plural verb depends on the sense of the sentence: A majority of two votes is not adequate to control the committee. The majority of the houses on the block were destroyed.

postelection, pre-election

ratios Use figures and hyphens: the ratio was 2-to-1, a ratio of 2-to-1, a 2-1 ratio. As illustrated, the word to should be omitted when the numbers precede the word ratio.
Always use the word ratio or a phrase such as a 2-1 majority to avoid confusion with actual figures. (Be careful; writers will often say a 2-to-1 margin. But margin is the difference. So, it's a 600-vote margin, a 6-to-1 ratio.)

re-elect, re-election

The Electoral College

It will take Bush or Kerry 270 electoral votes to win the election tomorrow (or next week, or whenever), of 538 total. I've seen more than a couple of stories get states' allocations wrong, so try to keep a guide like this one handy when you're editing these election stories.

Alabama - 9
Alaska - 3
Arizona - 10
Arkansas - 6
California - 55
Colorado - 9
Connecticut - 7
D.C. - 3
Delaware - 3
Florida - 27
Georgia - 15
Hawaii - 4
Idaho - 4
Illinois - 21
Indiana - 11
Iowa - 7
Kansas - 6
Kentucky - 8
Louisiana - 9
Maine - 4
Maryland - 10
Massachusetts - 12
Michigan - 17
Minnesota - 10
Mississippi - 6
Missouri - 11
Montana - 3
Nebraska - 5
Nevada - 5
New Hampshire - 4
New Jersey - 15
New Mexico - 5
New York - 31
North Carolina - 15
North Dakota - 3
Ohio - 20
Oklahoma - 7
Oregon - 7
Pennsylvania - 21
Rhode Island - 4
South Carolina - 8
South Dakota - 3
Tennessee - 11
Texas - 34
Utah - 5
Vermont - 3
Virginia - 13
Washington - 11
West Virginia - 5
Wisconsin - 10
Wyoming - 3
Note that these are not necessarily the same numbers as the 2000 election. Every 10 years, the numbers are reapportioned, based on the census. Florida, for example, had 25 electoral votes in 2000; Ohio had 21.

Now, with an even number of electoral votes, that means there could be a tie. If that's the case, each candidate has 41 days to persuade an elector to switch sides, which is legal but rare. (We've had few faithless electors, but they include one of D.C.'s votes in 2000.)

If that doesn't work, the election goes to the House. There, each state's delegation gets one vote, regardless of how many representatives it has. (That would probably mean a Bush win: Thirty states' delegations are controlled by Republicans, 15 by Democrats. Five are tied, in which case they would abstain from voting.)

A couple of other things to consider: Maine and Nebraska are the only states now that can split their electoral votes. There, the statewide winner gets two votes; then the winner of each congressional district gets one vote. Neither has split before, but there's a chance Maine will this year.

Also, Colorado has a proposition on the ballot that would allow its electoral votes to be awarded proportionally, based on popular vote. If it passes, that change would be in effect for this year's election.

An ode to the period

James Kilpatrick (happy birthday) rips apart an article in the New Yorker.
On Oct. 4, The New Yorker magazine carried 1,500 words of truly abominable editing. The piece was a think-piece of little thought. It started nowhere, went nowhere, and arrived at no interesting destination. Even so, the content was not improved by the style. All of us may learn something here.
He includes some stunning examples of paragraphs that go on forever, such as this:
"The sorry episode, in which the authenticity of documents used to buttress a story about the president's National Guard service three decades ago was called into question, enjoyed only a brief life as a flap - when it looked as though CBS had the goods to back its story and the attacks were anti-big media gun spray from the trigger-happy right - before becoming a scandal, when, last week, it came to light that CBS could not authenticate this document after all."
and this
"This time the Internet - blogs in particular, many of which are part-time enterprises, written and compiled by guys sitting at home waiting to pounce on the mainstream (excuse me, elite) media - played a more important and more active role in the story, by immediately questioning the validity of the means that Dan Rather, the correspondent of the '60 Minutes' piece, used to support the well-established claim that Bush received preferential treatment during his now-you-see-him, now-you-don't service in the Texas National Guard."
And he makes a good point; readers are usually turned off by a sea of gray:
It may be that some of my irk stems from The New Yorker's peculiar animosity to the paragraph. The editors historically have regarded the paragraph's indentation as a loathsome interruption. Nevermind that columns of good gray type tend to stupefy the wandering eye. This is New Yorker style: 1,500 words, six grafs.
I found the original article here. And he's not kidding. There really are only six grafs.