Sunday, January 30, 2005

Pronunciation wars

Descriptivists and prescriptivists duke it out at MetaFilter.

Why? Merriam-Webster added Bush's "nucular" pronunciation to the "nuclear" entry.

Saturday, January 29, 2005

Capital offense

The new music device from Apple is the "iPod Shuffle," not the "iPod shuffle." That would be some silly dance you do while listening to your iPod.

I know you know I feel this way, but it bears repeating: Proper nouns get a capital letter. It's the Shuffle. (And iPod gets away with keeping their I lowercase at the start of the word because it has a cap letter near the beginning, still indicating that it's a proper noun. Consider Leonardo da Vinci's last name. And eBay.)

Fighting innumeracy

The latest "The Numbers Guy" column from the Wall Street Journal can be found here. In it, Carl Bialik breaks down the numbers in a recently published survey about lost PDAs and cell phones.

He has good advice: "Too much precision in a statistic is a good signal to dig deeper into the methodology and the origin."

But how do we as copy editors learn enough about numbers to realize when a statistic is too precise? I think a good starting point is by reading this column every week. Get used to the questions Bialik is asking; try to understand why he is asking them. Then practice asking similar questions about the numbers you see in copy.

Most of us will admit that we have a lot of learning to do in this area. Don't wait around for the newsroom to have a brown-bag on it.

Friday, January 28, 2005

ACES conference

Now is the time to register for the ACES conference, April 21-23 in Hollywood.

They've extended the early registration deadline to Feb. 8, so you have a little over a week to scrape $150 together (if you're a member, $325 if you're not). After that, it goes up to $210.

Why should you go?

First, some of my favorite people in copy editing will be presenting. There's:

* Phil Blanchard, Washington Post copy editor and Testy Copy Editor No. 1: "Listen Up"
* William G. Connolly, New York Times styleguide co-author: "Jimmy's World: How a Copy Editor Could Have Averted Disaster"
* Alex Cruden, chief of copy desks at the Detroit Free Press: "First Reader, Second Reader: An Approach to Organizing the Copy Desk"
* Craig Lancaster, executive sports editor of the San Jose Mercury News: "Getting Into the Game: How to Elevate Your Sports Report"
* John McIntyre, ACES president and AME for copy desks at the Baltimore Sun: "Making the Copy Desk a Force"
* Merrill Perlman, director of copy desks at the New York Times: "If I Only Knew"
* David Sullivan, AME for copy desks at the Philadelphia Inquirer: "Survival Strategies for Copy Desks"
* Bill Walsh, "Elephants of Style" author and copy chief of the Washington Post's national desk: "Rules That Aren't Rules"
* Chris Wienandt, business copy chief at the Dallas Morning News: "The Scalpel and the Cavalry Sabre: Methods of Cutting Texts"

Second, I'll be there for the first time! It would be great to meet some of you who are familiar to me only online. And, really, what better place than the ACES conference?

Third, I'll be presenting a session on blogging with Doug Fisher of the University of South Carolina.

So ... plan on attending. Here is a tentative schedule. Here is the conference page from ACES.

Thursday, January 27, 2005


When you hear "fondling," do you think "good touch" or "bad touch"?

I think "bad touch," as do many others, but that's not a universal reaction, I found out tonight.

There's a debate going on at the Testy Copy Editors board. It was prompted by this post from Phillip Blanchard:
Parents and investigators said Tuesday they want to know why Berwyn school officials did not tell police years ago about allegations of "inappropriate touching" against a band teacher who was charged last week with fondling girls after duct-taping them to chairs. ...
[Robert] Sperlik is charged with molesting five girls under the age of 13 between 1999 and 2003. He allegedly secured some of the little girls with duct tape--on their mouths, hands and bodies--binding them to chairs and then fondling them, according to court documents.
(Chicago Sun-Times)

***This has bothered me for years. "Fondling" isn't what we want here.***
Phillip argues later: "'Fondling' implies affection, which is not a factor in molestation."

Fondling and molestation are nearly synonymous to me, so it was eye-opening to read this debate. So far, I've left it this way: "Molestation" might be a better word choice in such situations, but "fondling" certainly isn't wrong.

A simple prop to occupy my time

For once, it looks as if a paper in the movies will actually look like a real newspaper. (It's for Peter Jackson's "King Kong." The papers were printed by The Dominion Post in New Zealand.)
Six months ago The Dominion Post's design centre -- which creates many of the advertisements in the newspaper -- was approached by a King Kong calligrapher to help design and print the props.

"They chose the headlines, searched through the library and found exact copies of the banners and then asked the designers to lay them out," design centre production manager Stephen Dodds said.

The layout reflected the style of the period and was an example of Jackson's determination to recreate 1930s New York accurately -- to the smallest detail. The printers were allowed to use modern technology, however.
(Thanks to Paul Wiggins and Testy Copy Editors for the link.)

Democrat vs. Democratic

Is it the Democrat Party or the Democratic Party?

A reader wrote in to Ruth Walker (who writes the Verbal Energy blog):
One of my pet peeves is that the media call the Democrat party "democratic." But they don't call the Republican party "republicanistic." Nor do I want them to do so!

Walker writes that the distinction is important to her, too, but she leans the other way.
But my peeve is not that so many in the media speak of the "Democratic Party" but rather that not enough do. I hate to disappoint a reader, but with a few exceptions "Democratic Party" is the right phrase.
She chalks it up to our losing our inflections, our tendency to modify nouns with other nouns instead of with adjectives. (And I really like her example of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71. Today, she says, it would probably be known as the France-Prussia War. I think she's right.)

This reminded me of a commentary of Geoff Nunberg's I read recently (from "Fresh Air" last week). He discusses the changes the word "Democrat" has undergone since we borrowed it from the French during the French Revolution, "when democrat was opposed to aristocrat, and the idea of "rule of the people" could evoke the alarming echoes of tumbrils in the streets."

But now that most Americans are so entrenched in democracy, there is little need for us to refer to ourselves as little-D democrats. Nunberg writes:
The big-D sense of Democrat persisted, of course, but only as the name of a political affiliation that had no more independent meaning than old party names like Whig and Tory. That's what allowed the Republicans of Hoover's era to start referring to their opponents as the Democrat Party. The point of the maneuver was to suggest that there was nothing particularly democratic about a party whose support was based in urban political machines. But Republicans couldn't have gotten away with it if the earlier meaning of democrat hadn't already faded from the public mind.
Walker mentions the Democrat-ribbing aspect of "Democrat Party," as well. But she notes that the story can't end there: Even some local chapters of the Democratic Party are referring to themselves as the Democrat Party. Hence, her note on inflections.

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

That ubiquitous local man

While we're skewering ourselves, I'll point out this take on "local man" in headlines.
Local Man is famous. He doesn't have a publicist, but he gets more ink than Madonna or Michael Jackson. In some newspapers, Local Man appears in more headlines than the president of the United States.
Check out the story in the Washington Post.

Required reading

The Onion comes through with good reading this morning: Someday I Will Copyedit The Great American Novel.
Most of my coworkers here at Washington Mutual have no idea who I really am. They see me correcting spelling errors in press releases and removing excess punctuation from quarterly reports, and they think that's all there is to me. But behind these horn-rimmed glasses, there's a woman dreaming big dreams. I won't be stuck standardizing verb tenses in business documents my whole life. One day, I will copyedit the Great American Novel.
This is hi-larious. I'm tempted to copy the whole article here, but instead I'll limit myself to just one more excerpt:
With clear eyes and an unquenchable thirst for syntactical truth, I will distinguish between defining and non-defining relative clauses and use "that" and "which" appropriately. I will locate and remove the hyphen from any mention of "sky blue" the color and insert the hyphen into any place where the adjective "blue" is qualified by "sky." I will distinguish between "theism" and "deism," between "evangelism" and "evangelicalism," between "therefor" and "therefore." I will use the correct "duct tape," and not the oft-seen apocope "duck tape." The Great American Novel's editor will expect no less of me, for his house will be paying me upwards of $15 an hour, more than it paid the author himself.

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

A war of words

In his plan to fix Social Security, is Bush proposing "private accounts" or "personal accounts"? That depends on whom you ask. The White House and other Republicans are pushing for "personal accounts" and say the other term is loaded.

This CJR Campaign Desk frames the debate and includes an interesting Washington Post interview with the president:
While most of the haggling over language goes on behind closed doors, the Washington Post's interview with President Bush last week put on display the tug-of-war that is being fought.
The Post: Will you talk to Senate Democrats about your privatization plan?

The president: You mean, the personal savings accounts?

The Post: Yes, exactly. Scott has been --

The president: We don't want to be editorializing, at least in the questions.

The Post: You used partial privatization yourself last year, sir.

The president: Yes?

The Post: Yes, three times in one sentence. We had to figure this out, because we're in an argument with the RNC [Republican National Committee] about how we should actually word this. [Post staff writer] Mike Allen, the industrious Mike Allen, found it.

The president: Allen did what now?

The Post: You used partial privatization.

The president: I did, personally?

The Post: Right.

The president: When?

The Post: To describe it.

The president: When, when was it?

The Post: Mike said it was right around the election.

The president: Seriously?

The Post: It was right around the election. We'll send it over.

The president: I'm surprised. Maybe I did. It's amazing what happens when you're tired. Anyway, your question was? I'm sorry for interrupting.
What is this all about? It's about public perception; both Republicans and Democrats are aware that the phrase "personal accounts" polls better than the phrase "private accounts."
This is a good story to read for copy editors, too. The words we choose to put in headlines will be seen even more than the words in the story. Make whatever choice you wish, but be aware that the battle is going on.

Monday, January 24, 2005

These mistakes add up

Daniel Okrent, public editor at the New York Times, has a column on the importance of numbers, and copy editors should take note. Numbers can be misleading in a story without being wrong, and it takes careful reading (and more acumen than a simple percentage-change calculator will offer) to flag these errors. Examples:
Sometimes the absence of a number is as deflating to an article's credibility as the presence of a deceptive one. Few articles noting that President Bush received more votes than any candidate in history also mentioned that more people voted against him than any candidate in history. Quoting Michael Moore's assertion that standing ovations in Greensboro, N.C., proved that "Fahrenheit 9/11" is "a red state movie" disregards the fact that metropolitan Greensboro has over 1.2 million people; you could probably find in a population that large enough people to give a standing O for a reading of the bylaws of the American Dental Association.
He discusses the importance of accounting for inflation, giving context, avoiding deceptive stats. And he mentions copy editors:
Although everyone who writes for The Times is presumably comfortable with words, every sentence nonetheless goes through the hands of copy editors, highly trained specialists who can bring life to a dead paragraph or clarity to a tortured clause with a tap-tap here and a delete-insert there. But numbers, so alien to so many, don't get nearly this respect. The paper requires no specific training to enhance numeracy, and no specialists whose sole job is to foster it. David Leonhardt and Charles Blow, the deputy design director for news, have just begun to conduct occasional seminars on "Using and Misusing Numbers," and that's a start. But as I read the paper and try to dodge the context-absent numbers that are thrown about like shot-puts, I long for more.
I do, too.

Read and enjoy

Here's a round-up of some articles I enjoyed over the weekend:

* Take a peek behind the scenes at the Contra Costa Times' copy desk. The article is written by the paper's copy chief, Courtney Semple, and she gives numerous on-deadline examples, including this one:
Another headline that prompted strong reactions was the Times' Dec. 27 edition, the first to report the devastating South Asia tsunami. The main headline read, "Epic quake, deadly wake." The subheads: "Wall of water kills more than 13,000 across Southeast Asia," and "Masses die as sea rushes in, then out." Some copy editors felt the main headline was too flip; many others felt it captured the dimensions of the tragedy. I hoped it achieved its purpose, to let the horror of the event speak for itself.

* William Safire, retiring from his op-ed columns but going strong with his "On Language" work, writes about increasing use of "annus horribilis" and its derivations. And he takes a look at Colin Powell's language on "Meet the Press." He derided some media sources as "Rolodex rangers" and used "audible" as a verb.

* This article on blasphemy should be interesting to language lovers. It talks about the evidence that we're hard-wired to swear when something really bad happens -- "'They will tell you, if I say "[expletive]," it makes me feel better than when I say "darn,"' said Timothy Jay, author of 'Why We Curse' and a psychology professor at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts." The article also quotes Geoffrey Nunberg. But the story also mentions a quote that's been making the rounds:
A chance remark can reveal a heck of a lot more than we intend. Last month, the editor of the Jewish weekly newspaper The Forward defended the inclusion of Madonna on the paper's annual list of most influential Jews in America. But isn't she Catholic?

"She's a practitioner of the Kabbalah, so she's practicing Judaism, for Christ's sake!" the editor, J.J. Goldberg, told the New York Daily News. "Well, not really for Christ's sake."

* James Kilpatrick's column covers finding the perfect simile (and, as an extension, identifying the ones that don't work).

* A column on language pet peeves from the Ventura County Star in California.

* More practice on who vs. whom, from Steven Wilbers.

Thursday, January 20, 2005

Kinky copy

I just finished reading "Is doggie style hyphenated?" at Salon. The author says:
My stint as a copy editor at a skin mag taught me more than I ever wanted to know about the sexual proclivities of the American public.
It's a really fun read but certainly not for the easily offended.

I love the idea of crazy-detailed style sheets at such magazines. And, really, they do sound pretty detailed:
Tackling a new letter, I'd first hit the find and replace key and change every "cum" to "come" (an average of 19 changes per letter). As per my style sheet, I'd make sure every "doggie-style" was hyphenated, every "bunghole" was not, every "blowjob" was one word, every "daisy chain" was two. Picture, if you will, all of this being dispatched with a 10-month-old baby draped over my lap. In our cozy, kinky domesticity I enlisted my wife to proofread, which she'd do during commercials of "20/20."
Don't forget that to read articles at Salon, you have to have a subscription or must watch a 10-second ad. But it's painless. And this story is worth it.

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Good hed?

Here's another link I've been meaning to mention for a while. pointed out an attention-grabbing headline from the sports section at the University of Texas' college paper, the Daily Texan: "Copy desk chief gave excellent hed." And it wasn't a mistake, as far as I can tell.

See for yourself here.

Good reading

I'm still catching up on old reading:

At Blogslot, Bill Walsh makes an excellent point about using ellipses in quotes here. Find out if you've been doing it wrong.

There are two Merriam-Webster columns worth checking out. Read about the origins of "nightmare" and "macadam" and "macadamias" here. And find out what a "bluing bag" is and if "Caesarean section" has anything to do with Julius Caesar" here.

Ruth Walker at Verbal Energy fears that prepositional phrases are under attack. At-risk children are children at risk of what? And why does a breezy stroll after lunch have to become a post-lunch walk?

Monday, January 17, 2005

A usage snafu?

Is "snafu" an appropriate word for a newspaper?

This question came up, briefly, on the desk the other night when it appeared in a staff-written story. The copy editor replaced it, but a few people weren't aware of the word's origin.

It stands for "situation normal, all fucked up." (A relative is fubar, "fucked up beyond all recognition [or repair]." That may be the origin of the usage "foo.") And a lot of your readers will know that, so just be aware before you use it in display type -- or body copy, for that matter.

You can find hundreds of examples of papers that either deemed the word acceptable or weren't aware of its vulgar links.

For the most part, I'd vote to keep it out of newspapers. (For God's sake, most of us need permission to put "sucks" in the paper.)

But it can be used to good effect. This headline, used at the Hill paper in D.C. on a story about a big e-mail screw-up, made me chuckle: I think it works for the audience.

Saturday, January 15, 2005

Question what you know

A reasoned treatise against Strunk & White.
The Elements of Style offers prejudiced pronouncements on a rather small number of topics, frequently unsupported, and unsupportable, by evidence. It simply isn't true that the constructions they instruct you not to use are not used by good writers. Take just one illustrative example, the advice not to use which to begin a restrictive relative clause (the kind without the commas, as in anything else which you might want). But the truth is that once E.B. White stopped pontificating and went back to writing his (excellent) books, he couldn't even follow this advice himself. or should he; it's stupid advice). You can find the beginning of his book Stuart Little on the official E.B. White website; and you can see him breaking his own rule in the second paragraph. That isn't the only such example.
Geoffrey Pullum argues that people should use Merriam-Webster's Concise Dictionary of English Usage instead.
MWCDEU explains what actually occurs, shows you some of the evidence is, tells you what some other usage books say, and then leaves you to make your own reasoned decision. It won't tell you either that you should split infinitives, or that you shouldn't. But it will give you a number of examples of writers who do, and point out that the construction has always occurred in English literature over the last six or seven centuries, and that nearly all careful usage books today agree it is entirely grammatical, and it will then leave you to decide.

In other words it treats you like a grown-up. Strunk and White treat you like the abused 9-year-old daughter of a pair of grumpy dads ("Omit needless words, damn you! And fetch my slippers. And bring his slippers too. Now fix our supper. And don't let us hear you beginning any sentences with however"). Don't put up with the abuse.
I think there's merit to what Pullum is saying. A lot of the rules we have learned in copy editing are arbitrary, outdated or there only because of tradition.

The flip side: A lot of the rules we have learned are more style rules than grammar rules. We follow them for consistency's sake, not always because one way is better than the other.

Friday, January 14, 2005

Playing catch-up

Having been out of town most of the last week, I'm just now catching up on some reading. Here's some stuff to check out:

I missed PBS's "How to Speak American" last week, alas. But it looks as if the program's Web site offers the next best thing. It's extensive. I've barely made a dent in the articles here, but I've found some good ones already, such as this one on why the OED has created a North American office. It's written by Jesse Sheidlower, who was mentioned here yesterday. And it also points out that Sheidlower is the author of "The F Word." (And I will use this opportunity to ask Mike Marlett if I can please get back my copy before we both forget that it's mine.) I love the Track that Word feature, with the definitions of recent coinages in such categories as college (e.g. off the hook), 20th-century miscellaneous (brewski) and Dictionary of American Regional English (blue norther). I could go on and on. And I probably will later. If you have a few hours (days?) to kill, check it out.

William Safire writes about "tongue-tippers," or "terms used in place of words on the tip of the speaker's tongue but just beyond linquistic reach." Whatchamacallit, doodad, hootis ... He hunts down the origin of a couple, but most elude him. (And a side note here. I found this play on words annoying: "I touched database with Google and can offer only one previous citation..." Groan.)

James Kilpatrick writes about misplacement of "only." He says: "No little dog's trick of the writing art is easier to master. No rule of prose composition is more widely abused." He offers plenty of examples of misuse -- not that any of us need them. We all have plenty of our own.

There'll be more to come, I'm sure.

The Great Generalists

It's not exactly a shout-out, but Ken Jennings did mention copy editors in a speech on trivia at Westminster College this week.
"I think we're overspecialized," he said. "Today the copy editor and the electrical engineer might as well be talking different languages. Trivia is a way to make connections with people."
Apparently he didn't get the memo: Great copy editors know something about everything and everything about something.

Thursday, January 13, 2005

Behind the Word of the Year

The American Dialect Society recently released its Word of the Year, which is actually six words: red state, blue state, purple state.

And at Slate, Jesse Sheidlower, editor at large of the OED and a member of the society, gives a peek behind the scenes of the selection process in different categories. There's some fascinating reading here (well, at least to this word dork): why the suffix -based lost out to carb-friendly in the Most Unnecessary category, why most newspapers didn't print santorum as the winner of the Most Outrageous category.

There's some food for thought for copy editors, too. Consider:
The suffix -based, as in faith-based or reality-based, was widely disliked. "It's its own opposite," said Bill Kretzschmar, editor of the Linguistic Atlas of America. "If it's reality-based, it's not real."
And what about carb-friendly?
"It's meaningless," said phonetician David "Not the Rock Star" Bowie, "unless you're saying you're a friend of carbs by not eating them."

Google's grammar guidelines

Google is also doubling as grammar police in their AdWords division, this New York Times article points out.
Taking the stance that unorthodox usage and punctuation and slang create a less straightforward searching experience, Google's AdWords division, which is responsible for the contextual ads that appear alongside search results, insists on standard English and punctilious punctuation.
The author of the article, Sarah Lefton, discovered the odd grammar rules when she got a letter saying her AdWords ad broke them.

The offending phrase? "Check em out." Google suggested "check them out" instead. Of course. Lefton was perplexed.
Since when does anyone care about grammar and style on the Web? Would my little colloquialism really bring so much chaos to the searching experience of Googlers?

From Google's point of view, the answer is yes. Clarity is more important than tone.

Is Google an Internet incarnation of the grammar prescriptivist, insisting that language has rules and that communication without those rules leads to confusion and the decay of civility? Could advertising's dangling participles and the unrelenting trend of sentence fragments be at the root of our collective information overload?
There's a lot more worth reading in the article. She talks to Robert Hartwell Fiske, who wrote "The Dictionary Of Disagreeable English: A Curmudgeon's Compendium of Excruciatingly Correct Grammar." And she interviews Fran Wills, vice president for interactive media at the Denver Newspaper Agency (which covers the Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News).

Thursday, January 06, 2005

WSJ editing newsletter now available to all

The Wall Street Journal has begun posting its internal Style & Substance newsletter online.

Such critiques are fun -- and enlightening -- to read from anyone, but I expect them to be particularly gratifying from the WSJ.

Newsletters from the last four months are up. The latest, December's, includes a note on morphing:
Morph itself originally referred to the transforming of one computer image into another, as in an animation. Eventually, morph morphed into any type of transformation. Such evolutions help keep the language vibrant (and help keep stylebook editors in business). The question is whether and when to accept the new usages. Morph’s time has arrived, though it is rapidly lapsing into cliché.
The newsletter's editor, Paul Martin, also includes headline standouts and flubs.

Martin is a former copy editor who once worked as an AME at the paper. He gave up those duties in 2001 but stayed on as awards coordinator and style aficionado. Martin is also the editor of "The Wall Street Journal Guide To Business Style and Usage."

Copy desk news at the Post

The Washington Post has created a new position: assistant managing editor for copy desks. The job goes to Don Podesta, the deputy AME for planning and administration.

This means the Post's 80 or so full-time copy editors will belong to one department now. Editor Leonard Downie Jr. says this should "improve copy editor hiring, career development, quality control and recognition for outstanding work."

Podesta has been at the Post since 1981. "It's great to get back into words," he said. "I really care a lot about the English language and about accuracy."
"The work that copy editors do is hard work, and it's undervalued," said Podesta, who has been a copy editor on The Post's foreign desk as well as for papers in Minneapolis and Miami. "It's going to be an interesting challenge to raise their profile and improve their lives."

Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Trooper vs. trouper

The latest edition of the Columbia Journalism Review is online, and that means a new Language Corner. This month's is about:
Is someone who perseveres in the face of difficulty a real trooper, "akin to calling someone a brave little soldier," or a real trouper, "a professional performer for whom the show must go on, no matter what?"
The answer is trouper, with its own definition in Merriam-Webster's: "a person who deals with and persists through difficulty or hardship without complaint."

In case you care

Dallas' D magazine has rated the best and worst puns in Dallas Morning News headlines from 2004.
Punny Headline in the News
BEST Texas Rangers reliever Frank Francisco responded to heckling from Oakland A’s fans by hurling a chair into the crowd and breaking a woman’s nose. The headline: “The Seat Hits the Fan.”

WORST A Sunnyvale schoolteacher used an experiment involving a cigarette and the classroom’s pet hamster to illustrate the effects of smoking. The headline: “Where There’s Smoke There’s Ire: PETA seeks the rodent less travailed, so teacher’s anti-tobacco lesson gets snuffed.”

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Working in sports

It looks as if started a copy desk.

From a post at Testy Copy Editors:
Hello, I AM the executive editor for quality/presentation at and yes, I am setting up a copy desk for the website. We're immediately looking to hire three editors and will go from there.
The desk will eventually be staffed from 8 a.m. to 2 a.m. Sounds like a promising gig.

Sunday, January 02, 2005

We need conflict resolution

Choire Sicha looks at conflicting headlines from Dec. 31.
Relief pours in (Miami Herald)
Tsunami aid trickles in (Cleveland Plain Dealer)
Relief effort expands (Dallas Morning News)
Relief arrives slowly (Anchorage Daily News)
U.S. steps up tsunami relief (Orlando Sentinel)
Red tape ties up tsunami aid (St. Louis Post-Dispatch)
Aid arriving (Northern Virginia Daily)
Delays hinder relief (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)
All of these headlines are probably backed up by their stories somehow. But it goes to show how, when writing a headline, you should really step back and look at the big picture.

What's the bigger deal, that the aid is starting to come in? Or that most of it is being held up?

This is especially important in these stories of progression, in which the news of the day might not be so different from the news of the last few days.