Monday, February 28, 2005


Two writers at Language Log note the shift in usage of "troops."

First, Geoffrey Pullum writes about hearing "two troops" on NPR.
To me, troops is a grammatically plural way of referring to soldiers en masse (Support our troops), it's not a semantically plural version of a singular noun. For me (and NPR increasingly seems to differ), you can no more have *37 troops or *two troops than you can have *one troop — except, of course, when you're using the different lexeme troop, which means a whole group of soldiers or Boy Scouts or whatever.
Arnold Zwicky chimes in that he agrees but that the distinction is being lost:
Some months ago, I complained on the American Dialect Society mailing list about this usage (which I too had first noticed on NPR) and was quickly informed that the count plural troops for individuals was indeed widespread. And in fact the 1993 additions to the OED have "A member of a troop of soldiers (or other servicemen)", with singular examples from 1832, 1947, and 1973.

It's actually very useful, as you'll see from the way people in the Navy, Marines, and Air Force (probably also Reservists, though I haven't actually seen this) object to soldiers as a cover term for members of the U.S. Armed Services, since they see the word as referring only to the Army. Note "or other servicemen" in the OED definition. Servicepeople, anyone?
I read a William Safire column once saying that, in most instances, this is a fight no longer worth fighting: "Troop" can mean a collection of soldiers or it can mean individual soldiers. He did caution, however, that it's best to use "troops" as a countable noun only when that count is high. It's easy to confuse "two troops" -- is that two service members or two units of service members?

I've come around on this. Using "troops" as a countable noun still makes my right eye twitch, but I let it go in copy I'm editing, as long as the meaning is clear. And it usually is.

UPDATE: In the comments section, Vince Tuss made a good point: AP has an entry advising how to deal with this.
troop, troops, troupe A troop, in its singular form, is a group of people, often military, or animals. Troops, in the plural, means several such groups. But when the plural appears with a large number, it is understood to mean individuals: There were an estimated 150,000 troops in Iraq. (But not: Three troops were injured.)
Use troupe only for ensembles of actors, dancers, singers, etc.

Off the mark

I don't get people's disdain for the semicolon. I admire the mark and use it often. Not so with this "humor columnist" at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
Some semicolons help separate items in a series. I like them. They recognize when commas are overburdened, then volunteer to jump into the middle of a sentence to help make things clearer. Those semicolons contribute to society.

Then there are the semicolons that connect independent clauses. I don't like them. I don't use them. In fact, if you gave me a dollar for every time I've used a "bad" semicolon, I could still only go window-shopping at the 99-cent store.

The zeroes? The aughts? The naughties?

Yeah, yeah, there's been tons of ink spent on what to call this decade. But the real question is: If we don't come up with a good answer, what will VH1 do after "I Love the '90s"?

Friday, February 25, 2005

Watch where you preach

When a University of Texas journalism student plays William Safire in a column, readers tell him he has much to learn.

The column is about a Jon Stewart talk with Alan Cumming, in which Cumming calls the theater "enervating" and "more exciting."
Stewart is baffled. "So that'd be 'fun'?" he asks quizzically. Cumming affirms this assertion, prompting Stewart to repeat his newly acquired word - "Enervating!" - perhaps making a mental note to look it up later. He then adds, "You gotta throw the big words. I hear you." Things aren't going well.

"Yeah, you like that?" Cumming buzzes satisfactorily. As he starts to speak, still-bewildered Stewart cuts him off: "No, I hear it. Believe me." We believe you, Jon. Then, the apogee of the night: In a bizarrely goofy voice, Cumming says, "I'm clever." To this, Stewart responds laughingly, "You're very."

Thus ended a dialogue of complete meaninglessness about a word that neither person really knew but proceeded as though he did.
The columnist then explains what "enervate" means and tells people they could avoid these mistakes by learning Latin.

Readers rightfully, and intelligently, take the columnist to task for not getting Stewart's schtick. One letter writer says:
It is admittedly difficult to educate people on the opinion page without sounding pretentious and condescending, but when you resort to ad hominem, your opinion loses all cogency. I took away from this installment of "The Daily Show" that Jon Stewart knew the meaning of the word "enervate," yet chose not to embarrass his guest on national television. Clint Rainey analyzed this conversation at face value, entirely missing a layer of perspicacity often present when Jon Stewart speaks. As a regular viewer, I know Jon Stewart has been put in similar situations before and acted virtually the same way. Based on your article, Mr. Rainey, I know you have a naïve sense of humor and access to a dictionary.
I didn't see the episode in question, but it seems to me that it didn't really matter if Stewart knew the word or not: He was joking at the fact that the audience probably wouldn't know it, lightening the tone.

The column's notes on the language were all right; the writer just picked the wrong time to use them.


I'm adding another book to my wish list: "Empires of the Word: a language history of the world" by Nicholas Ostler.

Why? Read this review.
It makes good sense to consider the world from a linguistic perspective. A common language gives people not only a means of communication, but also a peg on which to hang their identity, their shared history and sense of future. Most nation states are recent impositions on top of much older linguistic communities. The Basques have been fighting for years to reunite their ancient linguistic unit, which straddles the borders of modern France and Spain. And Britain and America's "special relationship" is based above all on a shared language.

How have these communities been created? Why have some flourished while others languished? How do languages migrate? Why does a language succeed here but fail there? Why, for example, did Latin leave little trace among the English, while becoming so deeply embedded in the consciousness of other west Europeans that the Romance languages of today - Italian, Spanish, Catalan, Romanian, Portuguese and many more - are less different from Latin than modern English is from medieval English? On the other hand, why was England the only place outside Germany where Anglo-Saxon triumphed so comprehensively?

Thursday, February 24, 2005

An eggcorn database

A Web site is keeping track of eggcorns, those homophones and other mistakes that are easy to find when you're combing through stories.

I've been checking in there daily to keep up, with the aim that keeping mistakes fresh in my mind will make them easier to spot on the job.

The latest mistake is on "playwrite" for "playwright," and the site lists five references "spotted in the wild," in newspapers, blogs, etc. Then it quotes from the Columbia Guide to Standard American English:
A playwright, like a shipwright, makes or builds something (the word wright comes from an Old English form of worker and is related to wrought); to write plays is to do playwriting, although the playwrighting spelling also occurs. Edited English usually insists that a maker of plays is a playwright and that the craft be called playwriting, not playwrighting.

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

When "tank top" just won't cut it

I really enjoyed this piece in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram about wife-beaters. It's a pretty thoughtful look at the etymology and cultural taboos of the word. And it's not preachy, thank God. And why all the fuss?
Newspapers have been claiming since 2003 that "wife-beater's" inclusion in the OED is imminent. But in its February issue, GQ -- a magazine that oughta know its men's fashion terms -- swears the word will be added next month in the OED's quarterly online update.
And my favorite OED employee, Jesse Sheidlower, makes an appearance, talking about a dictionary's job to reflect the language, not police it.

(Link via Bookslut)

Cramming it in

A comment in the link roundup piece below mentions "portmanteau words" and notes the different meaning of Kilpatrick's "portmanteau sentences."

It's been awhile since I've heard "portmanteau words," and I looked up the origin to see if there's a link.

Portmanteau words are the same as blend words, those coined by combining two other words in form and meaning: brunch, smog, chortle. The term was coined by Lewis Carroll in "Through the Looking-Glass": "You see it's like a portmanteau -- there are two meanings packed up into one word." (Humpty Dumpty is explaining slithy, a blend of lithe and slimy.

My dictionary defintes portmanteau as "a traveling case or bag; esp., a stiff leather suitcase that opens like a book into two compartments."

Kilpatrick had this to say about portmanteaus:
Those were Portmanteau Sentences, so named for the 16th-century suitcase. It was huge. You could pack everything into a portmanteau. Without pausing for a burp, it could swallow 10 suits, six robes, four pairs of shoes, a month's worth of underwear and three fifths of Scotch.
I think I first heard the term "suitcase sentences" to describe the same thing from writing coach Steve Buttry, but the term is used elsewhere.

Word history

I have another word history on my Word a Day calendar (thanks again, Samantha!), this one on "boycott."
Charles C. Boycott seems to have become a household word because of his strong sense of duty to his employer. And Englishman and former British soldier, Boycott was the estate agent of the Early of Erne in County Mayo, Ireland. The earl was one of the absentee landowners who as a group held most of the land in Ireland. Boycott was chosen in the fall of 1880 to be the test case for a new policy advocated by Charles Parnell, an Irish politician who wanted land reform. Any landlord who would not change lower rents or any tenant who took over the farm of an evicted tenant would be given the complete cold shoulder by Parnell's supporters. Boycott refused to change lower rents and ejected his tenants. At this point members of Parnell's Irish Land League stepped in, and Boycott and his family found themselves isolated -- without servants, farmhands, service in stores, or mail delivery. Boycott's name was quickly adopted as the term for this treatment, not just in English but in other languages such as French, Dutch, German, and Russian.

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Win a night with the copy desk

Vince Tuss pointed me toward a story from the readers representative at the Minneapolis Star-Tribune.

She sheds some light on what copy editors do on a given night. She also praises some headlines, with names:
That's when [at night] Dick Parker reads a story on a deer crashing through a Brooklyn Park window and writes the headline: "The deer departed isn't mourned."

And Judy Arginteanu tops a story on life-size fiberglass buffalo figures being used as art in Buffalo, Minn., with: "Where the buffalo stay put."

Or Jim Landberg captures a story about Minnesotans having a mixed reaction to our warm winter with: "Wimpy winter: Some tee off; others teed off."

Writing a good headline is a lot harder than it looks. The copy editors have to make it fit in a certain number of letters and lines, the "hed specs" sent by the layout editor. A 1-54-3 Franklin head is a three-line, one-column headline in 54-point type set in a Franklin typeface. That's not much space, which is why Pam Huey, bemoaning a bad head count she'd been handed one recent evening, was exasperated that the newspaper's "style" is to write out Minneapolis and Minnesota in headlines. "I'd like to live in a state like Iowa," she said.
But the best part of the article is the headline test that has been set up for readers. There's a 15-minute timer, and readers get a synopsis of the story, specs and these rules:
* The headline must fit in the space allowed.
* No more than three spaces can be left blank at the end of each line.
* Allow one space for each letter.
That's pretty similar to the headline writing specifications we take in copy-editing tests.

The winner gets to spend a night with the copy desk and play trivia with them afterward.

Monday, February 21, 2005

Goodbye to a grammarian

The New Yorker has a reverent obit on Eleanor Gould (by David Remnick, no less), who worked at the magazine 54 years, mostly as grammarian, a title created for her that was retired with her.
A typical "Gould proof" was filled with the lightly pencilled tracery of her objections, suggestions, and abbreviated queries: "emph?" "ind.," "mean this?" She confronted the galley proofs of writers as various as Joseph Mitchell, J. D. Salinger, Janet Flanner--well, everyone, really. She did a proof on every nonfiction piece published in the magazine. Even a writer as determinedly vernacular as Pauline Kael, who initially found Miss Gould's suggestions intrusive, came to accept them--many of them, anyway--with gratitude. Her reading was detached, objective, scientific, as if she somehow believed that a kind of perfection in prose was possible. Like Bobby Fischer's sense of the chessboard, her feel for English was at a higher level than the rest of us--we editors and writers--could hope to glimpse.
Read about her language peeves, some amusing anecdotes on her "over-editing" ("Miss Gould once found what she believed were four grammatical errors in a three-word sentence") and what she did in her free time.

And if you're still looking for a copy-editing hero, she sounds like a good candidate.

Link roundup

James Kilpatrick's language column is on "portmanteau sentences" (what I've also heard referred to as "suitcase sentences." Here's an example from the New York Times:
Survivors of the gigantic undersea earthquake on Sunday that swallowed coastlines from Indonesia to Africa -- which officials now describe as one of the worst natural disasters in recent history -- recovered bodies on Tuesday, hurriedly arranged for mass burials and searched for tens of thousands of the missing in countries thousands of miles apart.
He doesn't have much in the way of solutions (separate or cut!), but the examples are fun.

William Safire's On Language column talks about "prebuttal" and uses it to launch into our use of "pre" more than "ante" these days. (There's good reason: Look at antewar and antiwar.)

Bill Walsh writes at Blogslot that it's "dis" and not "diss" when you're disrespecting your running crew. But the back formation of "tamales" (plural for tamal) into the singular tamale can stand -- at least in English.

The Numbers Guy column at the Wall Street Journal takes a look at some economic stats to show that canceling the NHL season isn't going to cripple the Canadian economy as much as some have predicted. He offers a good lesson at separating numbers from hype.

Missives on language from a writer who can't spell

Washington Post writer Steve Hendrix has an amusing piece on how bad of a speller he is. And he's not kidding. He's terrible.
I know many people assume it's because I'm too lazy to reach for the dictionary. One of my colleagues recently summarized her 'nuff-said attitude toward misspellers by quoting to me the entirety of Stuart Little's curt spelling lesson to a class of grade-schoolers: "A misspelled word is an abomination in the sight of everyone. I consider it a very fine thing to spell words correctly, and I strongly urge every one of you to buy a Webster's Collegiate Dictionary and consult it whenever you are in the slightest doubt. So much for spelling. What's next?"

Ah, the pitiless doctrine of Just Look It Up. It's hard to explain to my colleague, much less to E.B. White, that I'm "in the slightest doubt" with about every 20th word I write. Or that I'm sometimes too far at sea to even find it in the dictionary. (I once spent 20 minutes rewriting "mosquito" because I couldn't even get close enough for spell-check to take over.) Or that in the instant between looking up from the dictionary and turning to the keyboard, I can entirely forget what I've just seen (leaving me, at worst, with one index finger on the page while I peck out a letter at a time with the other).

I can't really relate to the problems he faces -- as I'm sure few of us can -- but I can relate with the people who are editing his work.
It's just hugely embarrassing to be a professional writer who is routinely laughed out of Scrabble games. Not to mention perilous. I was put on probation at an Atlanta newspaper for causing excessive spelling trauma on deadline (a kindly copy editor began covering for me). And I've watched every editor I've ever worked for go through a sort of five-step process of realization (disbelief, anger, anger, resignation, anger) before finally assigning some beleaguered proofreader to shadow my every keystroke.
In addition to the amusing anecdotes, he shares his self-staged intervention at an elementary school and looks at some changes in schools that might be making students worse spellers. And there's a sprinkling of language commentary included, too:
It doesn't need to be this way. Did you know they don't really have such a thing as misspelling in Italy, Spain, Portugal and other countries with a more straightforward orthography? Ask a fellow on the streets of Lima how to spell abogado, and he'll simply repeat the word more slowly. It's like asking someone in Washington to spell FBI.

McIntyre reviews 'The Vanishing Newspaper'

John McIntyre has reviewed "The Vanishing Newspaper" for the Baltimore Sun. His summary doesn't sound quite as grim for copy editors as this discussion might have:
His fundamental point, the one at which the data hint, is that newspapers succeed by achieving influence in the communities in which they publish, and that they reach that level of influence through accuracy and credibility.

To enhance that reach, he suggests, newspapers must strengthen their credibility. That may mean moving from operating as a craft, in which anyone who can cobble together a noun and a verb can become a journalist (as many have), to a professional level with more specialized training and certification, particularly in such arcane areas as computer-assisted reporting and statistical analysis. He suggests that codes of conduct, if stated and enforced, will also enhance credibility.

I've started reading the book myself. I'll probably have some thoughts of my own this week.

Thursday, February 17, 2005

Obsessive over possessives

I love seeing a good argument over punctuation in the community.

And that's just what Minneapolis has at the University of Minnesota's Twin Cities campus. Their new Scholars Walk -- or should it be Scholars' Walk? -- is stirring some strong feelings.

One school official involved in the project says: "We're honoring Nobel laureates and Pulitzer Prize winners and Academy Award winners and great scholars. It's their walk, in a sense. ... I just thought it was a good use of the apostrophe."

Another can't disagree more: "The Scholars Walk honors the scholars; it doesn't belong to the scholars. It's not possessive. Therefore, it seemed to me it didn't call for an apostrophe."

So what would AP style dictate? It's spelled out pretty clearly:
DESCRIPTIVE PHRASES: Do not add an apostrophe to a word ending in s when it is used primarily in a descriptive sense: citizens band radio, a Cincinnati Reds infielder, a teachers college, a Teamsters request, a writers guide.

Memory Aid: The apostrophe usually is not used if for or by rather than of would be appropriate in the longer form: a radio band for citizens, a college for teachers, a guide for writers, a request by the Teamsters.

An 's is required however, when a term involves a plural word that does not end in s: a children's hospital, a people's republic, the Young Men's Christian Association.
So, the Scholars Walk probably wouldn't take an apostrophe using AP. As such, my first instinct is to say "no apostrophe!"

But the more I've thought about it, the more I remember being in high school, first learning the Associated Press Stylebook. This entry befuddled me. If you need the apostrophe for women's gym, you should need the apostrophe for girls' gym. There really isn't a good argument to make against it.

And so I argue against AP style and for the apostrophe. Today. I might change my mind tomorrow.

But when the results are this close, you really can't choose wrong (or right).

Distance learning

There was great stuff at the online copy-editing chat yesterday with the Washington Post's Don Podesta and Bill Walsh.

Podesta explains why the Post created his position and what he'll be doing:
The AME for copy editors is charged with improving standards and editing across the newspaper, making the lives of copy editors better and doing a better job of managing this group of journalists. There are also recruiting, hiring, scheduling and performance evaluation tasks. Other newspapers have similar positions for managing copy editors. The Post's newsroom has traditionally been a federal system with strong assistant managing editors running their own sections. It took a lot of research and study to come to the conclusion that centralized management of copy editors would be good for our newsroom.
Walsh covers one of my pet peeves:
"Age" is definitely preferable to "aged." (I don't like either, personally -- usually the fact that the number is an age is abundantly clear from the context. If it really needs to be spelled out, it can be "Two girls, both 12 years old.")
You'll also find advice on writing the jump hed, which I found interesting because there seem to be so many theories on how this shuld be done correctly. (Do you repeat the hed on the cover to make the jump easier to find? Do you just rewrite the hed on the cover, same idea but with different words? Or do you use the jump hed to advance the story, mentioning news that comes after the jump to draw in readers who might not have been interested based on the main hed?) Here's Walsh's opinion:
Ah, the jump head. It's a tricky balancing act. I don't like to see the exact same headline on the front and the continuation, though The Post does this sometimes. It's especially funny-looking if the story starts on, say, Page 6 and continues on the facing Page 7. Usually, though, the headlines must be different because they're laid out differently. The trick is to make it clear that the subject is the same while saying things differently enough that the reader doesn't feel as if we're forgetfully repeating ourselves (the little word that appears in the "turn to" and "continued from" lines is supposed to help, but I admit it is little). Some papers make a point of introducing a new element in the jump head, but that's confusing if it's too much of a topic change, for exactly the reason you cite.
And Podesta gives three things he thinks reporters should know about copy editors:
1) Copy editors are your friends. Their questions are not meant as challenges to your integrity but to make your story better and ensure accuracy.

2) That said, while copy editors can save you from yourself,don't expect them to do your fact-checking for you. Don't submit stories with holes in them and expect the copy desk to fill them in.

3) Respect the art of headline writing. The copy editor is pulling the reader into your story in just a few words that summarize the 800 words you've written, and it's not easy to do.
There's a lot more worth reading. I hope they do another chat soon.

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Ask a copy editor (or his boss)

Bill Walsh will take part in another online chat tomorrow -- at 11 a.m. Central. He will be joined by the Washington Post's new AME for copy desks, Don Podesta.

Find out more about Walsh here.

And read about Podesta here.

How bills the event:

Ever wonder how the pages of The Washington Post (and stay so error free? An army of copy editors spend their evenings -- and sometimes very late nights -- poring over stories for spelling, grammatical and factual errors. Copy editors are also largely responsible for the headlines read by Post readers around the world.

This Week: Washington Post Assistant Managing Editor for Copy Desks Don Podesta and National Copy Desk Chief Bill Walsh will be online Wednesday, Feb. 16, at Noon ET to take your questions and comments about editing and headline writing throughout the paper. Have questions, just Ask The Post.

Make 'em tough! I think Bill could use the challenge.

Style & Substance

The latest edition of the Wall Street Journal's in-house style newsletter is available.

Most of it is dedicated to sniffing out dangling participles -- with lots of examples. If you have trouble identifying these, this newsletter will help.

The quiz section is good because it is varied. You'll get style issues and grammatical points. There's a smidgen of tech terminology, too, but you'll be the better for it.

* And there are these two quick hits:
In stories about airlines' problems with paying their pensions, we have been calling the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. a "quasigovernmental insurer of pensions." In fact, we should call it what it is, a federal agency, as it was created by federal law and is overseen by a board of three cabinet secretaries. It is funded by premiums from employers, but that doesn't make it quasigovernmental.

* If you plan to use a phone number or Web site in a story, you must routinely first call the number or access the site to verify it and then mark the copy CQ. Failure to verify phone numbers or URLs often leads to corrections.
Good stuff. Find the PDF here.

You need to read this

For those of you in the newspaper business who don't already read Tim Porter, make an effort to get to this post.

Porter has been reviewing Philip Meyer's "The Vanishing Newspaper," chapter by chapter. He gets to Chapter 8 today, and it hits home.

It's on copy editors.

Meyer helped design a survey of copy editors at 169 U.S. papers and found out what we all know: Copy editors are discouraged. Meyer wrote:
"They felt less respected by their newspapers' reporters, they saw fewer opportunities for professional development, they liked their bosses less, and there were less likely to feel reward for their work."

That much we all know. But what's interesting here is that Meyer looked to see whether copy editor happiness and skill on mechanics translate into better circulation. Porter summarizes:
Yes, because Meyer finds a correlation between the way copy editors feel about their work and success in the marketplace. Newspapers where respect for the rim is higher "hung on to an additional 1.5 percentage points of home county penetration" for the three-year period Meyer examined. That "half percentage point a year adds up mighty fast," says Meyer.

What doesn't matter, though, to readership or much else, is how well copy editors do their jobs - at least the part of their jobs that involves ensuring accurate and grammatical copy ends up in the newspaper.

Meyer dove into the databases of 20 newspapers and searched eight years of stories for common spelling and grammatical errors, such as "miniscule for minuscule" and "general consensus for consensus."

The result? Plenty of errors, about 4 percent on average. The San Jose Mercury News published the cleanest copy (1.14 percent errors), the Boulder Daily Camera the dirtiest (11.08 percent).

Big papers were generally more correct than smaller ones, a condition Meyer attributes to staff size: More editors, more time per story, fewer gremlins.

Big papers were generally more correct than smaller ones, a condition Meyer attributes to staff size: More editors, more time per story, fewer gremlins.

But, regardless of where the copy fell on Meyer's accuracy scale it didn't affect any of the other indicators he examines for sign of connectivity between quality and success. He writes:
"If editing accuracy is an indicator of general newspaper quality, then it should predict all sorts of things, including reporting accuracy, credibility, circulation penetration and robustness. It doesn't. Whatever readers want in a newspaper, spelling accuracy appears not to be a primary concern."
Porter addresses the fact that we're not going to like that result. And, no, I don't.

But what does this mean? That there shouldn't be copy editors? I don't think so. I think it means that copy editors need to consider that the really important stuff we're doing is more substantive than grammar and style.

We need to start thinking about how that affects the type of editors we hire (critical thinkers vs. wordsmiths) and the type of training we get.

Let's start asking these big-picture questions. Porter offers us a starting point:
Should there even be a copy desk? The traditional rim is now overburdened with duties ranging from gate-keeping the copy to wrangling the pagination system. Let's separate the manufacturing jobs from the journalism jobs.

Why bother chasing typos and proofing pages? Getting the content right counts, ... but type lice don't bother readers or move the circulation needle, says Meyer, so why put much energy into eliminating them? Doesn't it just reinforce the perfection-minded culture in newsrooms - much effort on little things, little effort on big things?
These are big questions. Any takers?

Breaking news on the night desk ... and bias

It sounds as if the reader advocate at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram has had enough claims of bias.

He writes about a note he received after the Iraq elections. The paper had a late enough deadline that Saturday night (Jan. 29) to get in reports of early violence and polls opening. It had this deck under the main head of "Hope, fear in Iraq":

"Amid scattered violence, voters trickle into polls."

Trickle. Trickle?! A reader was incensed:
"The use of the word 'trickle' on your front page headline to describe the historic voting in Iraq was worthy of al Jazeera and has to be in the Top 10 all-time examples of media bias."
That's so extreme as to be comical (and a great example of why I wouldn't make a good reader advocate, I guess; I doubt I'd come up with a civil response).

But David House uses it as an opportunity to explain how the night desk works when news is breaking. Here's a sample:
11:50 p.m. -- [Copy Desk Chief Tim] Sager releases the Page One summary to Sunday Coordinator Kate Gorman, who has designed the page and will flow the summary into place. The story for 26A is sent to News Designer Amanda Reiter.

Assistant Managing Editor/Operations Danny Vandegriff and other editors have jointly composed the main headline for Page One ("Hope, fear in Iraq").

Midnight -- Gorman holds Page One for a significant update in the summary. Reiter holds 26A for the update. And what is this news? Wires report there's a "trickle" of voters -- a small but crucial piece of the answer to the turnout question.

12:10 a.m. Sunday -- Election updates are complete. Vandegriff and editors have written the secondary headline on 1A: "Amid scattered violence, voters trickle into polls." Page One and Page 26A are released.
This does leave me wondering how it came that the AME for operations "and other editors" wrote those heads. (I have those "unnecessary involvement from higher up" alarms going off in my head.) Is the AME for operations usually there at midnight before a Sunday paper?

And one other passing comment: House is right: Readers are looking for bias in everything, and it's getting ridiculous. That is certainly not a biased headline.

But it's not a perfect headline, either. Hindsight makes this easy, but I'd say the headline should have been less exact. You know that saying voters trickle in will be dated by the time readers get the paper. Perhaps it's better to simply say that voting begins amid scattered violence.


Monday, February 14, 2005

Ma Bell

Heed Bill Walsh's advice on AT&T.
AT&T was "Ma Bell" when it was the parent of all the regional phone companies (the "Baby Bells," if you must).

The AT&T that was recently acquired by one of the so-called babies, SBC Communications Corp., was, almost by definition, not Ma Bell.
And be sure to check out the advice in the comments from Phillip Blanchard, too.


Why tattoo parlors should employ copy editors. (Link via Bookslut)

Better with numbers

Daniel Okrent, the New York Times' public editor, shares letters from readers who share his annoyance with misleading numbers in the news. (Okrent wrote a column on the matter three weeks ago.) One writes:
You say, "Numbers without context, especially large ones with many zeros trailing behind, are about as intelligible as vowels without consonants." ...

A five-pound mouse is one heck of a mouse. A five-pound elephant is, equally, an amazing elephant. Yet the number means exactly the opposite in each case.

Small numbers can be equally deceptive. A sales tax goes from 3 percent to 4 percent; a 1 percent rise or a 33 percent rise? (Only the incumbent knows.)

Numbers without context -- and fictional ones concocted for selfish ends -- saturate the media. I am dismayed The Times does not have a numeracy department.
Shouldn't that department be the copy desk? (And note the mistake about the change of 1 percentage point vs. 1 percent. However, it is possible the writer knows the difference but is implying that politicians don't. Given that this is one of the most pervasive math problems I see in stories, though, it's a good example of how that mistake can skew a story.)

Another reader complains that using the general "many" instead of precise numbers is "loaded, slanted, lazy, hazy." But context is everything, as this reader pointed out:
The Times's front-page blizzard article on Jan. 23 told readers that "all three airports remained open, but 175 flights were canceled at Kennedy, 120 more were canceled at Newark, and 200 were canceled at La Guardia, where delays ran up to two hours." That left me wondering how the remainder of flights -- however many there were -- could possibly be taking off in the blinding snow.

The Daily News put my concerns at ease: "By midafternoon, nearly all passenger flights had been canceled at Kennedy, La Guardia and Newark airports." Less precision can be far more meaningful.
Okrent made a couple of mistakes himself when he wrote his column on numbers a few weeks ago, and he corrects the record:
Only hubris could have led me to write three weeks ago about the misuse of numbers, for it was inevitable that I would misuse some myself. A couple of readers pointed out that the Treasury Department no longer issues the 30-year bond I took as a standard against which New York City's potential investment in a stadium could be measured.

And several called me to account on my computation of the return on Harvard's endowment. The $82 million allotted by Harvard for undergraduate financial aid is equal to what its endowment produces in seven and a half days, not six days; and the $2 million set aside last year for students from low-income households is equal to the endowment's appreciation in 4 hours 23 minutes -- not 3 hours 36 minutes. I think.
So who checked his math? One thing's for sure: Readers did.

(Link via Charles Apple at the Visual Editors board.)

Friday, February 11, 2005

I spoke too soon

OK, thanks to everyone who sent me Numbers Guy links. I'll need to be more astute in the future.

Carl Bialik talks about the "social effect" of some poll interviews and how it can skew results.

For instance, President Clinton said during the Super Bowl that a third of American households had contributed to tsunami aid. Where'd that number come from? Polls.
But Americans likely haven't been quite as charitable as Mr. Clinton suggested. His figure appears to have been based on telephone surveys, and that's no way to measure charitable donations.

That's not to say Americans haven't been very generous in giving to victims of the deadly Asian tsunami. But it turns out to be very tough to get a precise measure of how many Americans have donated. Asking the major aid groups won't work, because you'd inevitably miss a few, and anyway you'd double-count for households that have donated to multiple groups. But a poll has a serious problem of its own: People tend to fudge when they feel social pressure to answer questions a certain way -- in this case, by saying they've given to a good cause.
So why were these polls even done? Well, it's polling organizations' job to do polls, and if people are curious about the number of U.S. contributors, I guess the orgs can do a poll on it.

But where are the media types questioning the validity of such polls? More and more, these are making my head spin. I don't discount them all. But it's been awhile since I've believed everything I read in them.

It was bound to happen

I won't be linking to the Numbers Guy column today. It's behind the Wall Street Journal curtain, for subscribers only.

And it's about tsunami numbers, too. Damn.

What does not kill you makes you stronger

Syndicated columnist Paul Greenberg responds to a reader's complaints about his grammar.

To judge language only by its grammar is to kill the greater part of it and reduce it to some dead, taxidermied artifact. Grammar is to language only as the map is to the road. It's a kind of unnatural, post-facto construction compared to the living language itself.
And a bit more:
Language, like life, should surprise. As that legendary linguist Fats Waller put it, one never knows, do one? Which I think of as one of the more eloquent if ungrammatical observations in the American language. In so few words, it says so much about the unpredictable nature of the human condition. And it does so with such an innocent, unthreatening air. Which is a rare gift in rhetoric. Ol' Fats persuaded; he did not bully.

Which brings me to the big problem with pedantry; it induces a kind of counter-pedantry in its target, and reduces him to sounding as small as his critic. Consider this column Exhibit No. 1 for that thesis.
Sorry. The next post will be more uplifting, I promise.

Deaths in headlines

Obits are not the time to get cute in headlines.

Testy Copy Editors has a red alert on the death of Arthur Miller.

The fact that he wrote "Death of a Salesman" does not make "Death of a playwright" a good headline.

Keep it straight.

British vs. American spelling

A history of theater vs. theatre. An excerpt:
It was almost 200 years ago that Connecticut lawyer and schoolmaster Noah Webster decided that America would spell words differently from the British, as, in many cases, we already were. In a series of influential dictionaries, like the Compendious Dictionary of the English Language in 1806, Webster decisively got rid of the extraneous u in colour and flavour, the unnecessary -me in programme, the second i in aluminium-and, following trends already in play by 1780 or so, he reversed the final two letters in many English words like centre and fibre and theatre.

To practical, hardworking Americans, Webster's plainer, more phonetic spellings came as a welcome relief; they just made more sense. Americans were especially happy to get rid of the -re suffix, a remnant from the Norman French who had invaded England in 1066. Nineteenth-century Americans started spelling centre "center," and fibre "fiber." They even started spelling theatre> "theater." If there was any big dispute about that at the time, it's not prominent in the history books.

It was profoundly successful. American spelling has conquered most of the English-speaking world. On the web in 2005, Webster's spellings are more popular than the original Franco-British spellings worldwide.
I can't vouch for much of that, but it sure is a good story.

(An aside: Every time I write "vouch," I end up spelling it "vouge" first. Then my brain sends up a signal: "Yoohoo, don't think that's right," and I realize my error. Are dictionaries starting to accept "vouge" or is Merriam-Webster's super-secret extended dictionary simply referring to this?)

(One more aside: Any of you watch "Aqua Teen Hunger Force"? Now anytime I say "yoohoo," I hear Meatwad calling, "Yoohoo, running crew!" to the Mooninites. Wonderful.)

Thursday, February 10, 2005

Word a day

I have a word-a-day calendar at work (thanks, Samantha!) that I love. It actually has words I've never heard of -- as opposed to the vocab builder at, which tries to stump me with "fraternize" and "inexorable."

Anyway, this calendar also includes some word histories, and I thought this was interesting about iconoclast:
An iconoclast can be unpleasant company, but at least the modern iconoclast only attacks such things as ideas and institutions. The original iconoclasts destroyed countless works of art. Eikonoklastes, the ancestor of our word, was first formed in Medieval Greek from the elements eikon, "image, likeness," and -klastes, "breaker," from klan, "to break." The images referred to by the word are religious images, which were the subject of controversy among Christians of the Byzantine Empire in the 8th and 9th centures, when iconoclasm was at its height. In addition to destroying many sculptures and paintings, those opposed to images attempted to have them barred from display and veneration. During the Protestant Reformation images in churches were again felt to be idolatrous and were once more banned and destroyed. It is around this time that iconoclast, the descendant of the Greek word, is first recorded in English (1641), with reference to the Byzantine iconoclasts. In the 19th century, iconoclast took on the secular sense that it has today, as in "Kant was the great iconoclast" (James Martineau).
I could read about word histories all day.

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Food feud

A proud PR man from Buffalo persuaded People magazine to cap the B in buffalo wings, reports the Buffalo News. He sent editors a note:
Unless your copy editors are like Jessica Simpson and think Buffalo wings come from buffalo the animal and not Buffalo the city, you need to tighten up your editing.
People responded that the dictionary says the B can be down, but that wasn't enough for Bill Collins. He wrote back: "Why on earth would you reduce the name of a prominent city to lower case? Is it new york strip steak? Or maine lobster or texas red hots or boston baked beans?"

And People relented:
"A review of recent evidence in our files ... shows that current styling favors a capitalized B by a margin of close to 2 to 1," an editor told Collins. "I've left a note in our files that summarizes the evidence I've surveyed and recommends that the first element be changed from "buffalo' to "Buffalo."
(Let's leave alone the "margin" mistake there and assume this person knows what she's talking about.) So what would you do?

I dislike the "check the library to see what we've done the most" solution. That's an easy way to repeat mistakes. Instead, I'd check the stylebook.

But I think the AP stylebook's entry on food is sticky:
Most food names are lowercase: apples, cheese, peanut butter.
Capitalize brand names and trademarks: Roquefort cheese, Tabasco sauce.

Most proper nouns or adjectives are capitalized when they occur in a food name: Boston brown bread, Russian dressing, Swiss cheese, Waldorf salad.

Lowercase is used, however, when the food does not depend on the proper noun or adjective for its meaning: french fries, graham crackers, manhattan cocktail.

If a question arises, check the separate entries in this book. If there is no entry, follow Webster?s New World. Use lowercase if the dictionary lists it as an acceptable form for the sense in which the word is used.

The same principles apply to foreign names for foods: mousse de saumon (salmon mousse), pomme de terre (literally, "apple of the earth" ? for potato), salade Russe (Russian salad).
What confuses me is the capitalization part. How does one determine if the food depends on the proper noun or adjective for its meaning?

French fries aren't really French, so that makes sense. I've never seen graham crackers capped, although it comes from graham flour, which was named after dietary reformer Sylvester Graham. But why is manhattan cocktail down? The dictionary gives the etymology as "Manhattan, borough of New York City."

I have no problem just following AP and then the dictionary. That's fine. But I wish I could figure out AP's reasoning. Can anyone else?

Click here!

Style pointers on hypertext links

How to get fired as a copy editor

I wrote about former copy editor Dawn Eden a couple of days ago, when Women's Wear Daily wrote about her being fired from the New York Post. There seemed to be more to the story then, but Eden said she was going to wait a few days to correct the record.

Well, today, the record was corrected in a feature about Eden in the New York Observer. And Eden's the worse for wear. I'd say her firing was justified, from what I can tell.

But the WWD piece was still wrong.

Here's a long excerpt from the Observer piece. It's the stuff that has to do with her job. (And background, for it to make sense: Eden is very conservative and makes her beliefs know on her personal blog.)

The Post hired her for a tryout on the copy desk in early 2002. She also began her blog: She wrote about music and having a boyfriend, but it got more political when she attacked Planned Parenthood—she tends to compare the organization to the eugenicists of Nazi Germany. Suddenly her blog was approvingly linked on National Review’s online forum.

The Post hired her full time in 2003. She loved editing and writing punning headlines. But she landed in hot water after giving an interview to Gilbert, a G.K Chesterton magazine, in which she talked about her faith and working at the Post.

She said her boss, chief copy editor Barry Gross, chided her, telling her, "Some people already think the Post is conservative, and we don’t need New York readers also thinking it’s a Christian paper and that there are Christians working there."

"I don’t recall saying that," said Mr. Gross. "But I can’t swear that I didn’t. I mean, there’s no question people think we’re conservative." He added that he did caution her to cool it a bit in the future.

There was another chat with Mr. Gross after Ms. Eden resisted working on an article about a murdered porn star. She’d made it clear that she was disgusted with the cheerful, lurid commentary.

But Mr. Gross wasn’t around on Jan. 8 this year, when Ms. Eden was given a story by Post reporter Susan Edelman to copy-edit. The story was about women with terminal cancer who want to have babies: Through in-vitro fertilization, multiple embryos are fertilized and implanted one at a time until as many as 12 survive.

According to Ms. Eden, she was repelled by what she interpreted as a "cavalier" attitude about the embryos in Ms. Edelman’s story: "Treating them as a manufactured commodity that don’t have significance as human life," Ms. Eden said. (Ms. Edelman declined to comment when reached by The Observer.)

"I got choked up," Ms. Eden said. "How are people going to ever understand the complex issues involved here, if the story they’re reading reduces it to ‘Oh, isn’t this nice? We can just make lots of embryos and not worry about whether they live or die.’"

Ms. Eden read a line in the draft of the story: "Experts have ethical qualms about this ‘Russian roulette’ path to parenthood." She saw her opportunity: She added a phrase: " … which, when in-vitro fertilization is involved, routinely results in the destruction of embryos." And where Ms. Edelman had written that one woman had three embryos implanted "and two took," Ms. Eden changed that to read: "One died. Two took."

Ms. Eden said she thought she was performing a service for the reader, since she believed that the Post had been "notoriously oblivious" to the nuances involving embryonic life.

"In retrospect, my first loyalty should have been to my employer," she said.

The article, with Ms. Eden’s alterations, came out on Jan. 16. Post editors were furious. Mr. Gross told her to apologize to the writer, Ms. Edelman, which Ms. Eden promptly did, calling her own actions "unwarranted and wrong."

Ms. Edelman replied with an e-mail under the subject heading "SABOTAGE":

"Dawn You are the most unprofessional journalist I have ever encountered in all my years in this business. A disgrace. Sue Edelman."

Things soon got worse, as editors at the Post discovered her Dawn Patrol blog.

She waited. Mr. Gross came over to tell her she couldn’t blog on company time anymore.

Mr. Allan called her into his office and fired her.

"Probably the second most surprised person in the office the day she was fired, after Dawn, was me," said Mr. Gross. "I’m still not pleased about it, but the call wasn’t mine."

"I thought it was miraculous that I hadn’t cried," Ms. Eden said. "I wasn’t going to say goodbye to any of my co-workers, but one of them ran up and gave me a hug. Then I started crying.

"I thought it was terrible from the point of view of losing a good person," she added. "And I also thought that, given the circumstances of it, [Mr. Allan] couldn’t expect it to go unnoticed. I thought he really was opening himself up for some serious criticism by doing this."

There are so many lessons in here, I'm not sure where to start. So I won't.

But I think it's funny that Eden was so aghast that the WWD piece said she's editorialized an editorial. Sure, they got the "editorial" part wrong, but that makes it even worse. She editorialized a news story.

Also, here's the graf that talks about what a good headline writer Eden is:
A 1960’s pop historian, Ms. Eden was obsessed with bands like the Zombies and the Left Banke. She’d read deeply in Christian writers such as G.K. Chesterton and C.S. Lewis. While at the Post, she’d won a New York State Associated Press award for her headline "Hurt in the Line of Doody" (after a toilet collapsed under a city worker taking a bathroom break). She’d had many Post headline triumphs, in fact. Remember when Bob Dylan did a commercial for Victoria’s Secret and the Post headline was "Dylan Sells Out for a Thong"? Dawn Eden. Remember the headline "Amazing Gross" when The Passion of the Christ hit No. 1 at the box office, and "Felon’ Groovy" after Martha Stewart’s broker took a vacation at a spa? Dawn Eden.
These aren't the kind of heads that win awards in these parts. (OK, the first two aren't so bad. But the last two aren't laudable.) Easy puns are just that -- too easy. (But those are also the types of headlines the Post is known for. You can't knock Eden for doing that part of her job right.)

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Sex vs. gender

Doug Fisher at Common Sense Journalism points to a cheat sheet on the differences of sex and gender.

(Note that not everyone is on the same page here. It's one of the few things that Bill Walsh and I disagree on, but I think there's value in the distinction.)

Here's how the The American Heritage Book of English Usage puts it:
Traditionally, writers have used the term Gender to refer to the grammatical categories of masculine, feminine, and neuter, as in languages such as French or Spanish whose nouns and adjectives carry such distinctions. In recent years, however, more people have been using the word to refer to sex-based categories, as in phrases such as gender gap (as in voting trends) and politics of gender. Anthropologists especially like to maintain a distinction between the terms Gender and sex, reserving sex for reference to the biological categories of male and female and using Gender to refer to social or cultural categories, such as different gender roles in a religious organization. According to this distinction, you would say The effectiveness of the treatment appears to depend on the sex (not Gender) of the patient but In society, gender (not sex) roles are clearly defined. A majority of the Usage Panel approves of this distinction, but opinions are mixed. In a sentence similar to the first one above, 51 percent choose sex, 31 percent choose gender, and 17 percent would allow both. Similarly, for the example Sex/gender differences are more likely to be clearly defined in peasant societies, 47 percent prefer Gender, 38 percent would use sex, and 15 percent would allow both words.
This is probably not something you'll be expected to change in copy. However, you should be aware that the distinction exists and is not wrong.

And, by all means, you don't need to change "sex" to "gender" just to avoid giving readers a case of the giggles. Let's be a little more adult than that.

Getting along with line editors

Poynter has an article by Bob Baker: 10 things copy editors want from line editors. The best:
1. Have the courage to tell them (reporters) when their stories don't work.

2. Stylish writing is invalidated by bad grammar, bad spelling and other rudimentary flaws.

3. Encourage more hard-news leads. Our overuse of anecdotal or feature-style leads -- particularly ones that are too long -- tends to make the newspaper insubstantial.

5. Try to avoid being defensive when we ask a question that challenges a story. We don't mean it personally.

7. Stick to deadline, and put more pressure on your reporters to follow it. Do a better job of filing non-deadline features or news stories between 2 and 4 p.m.
But when you're reading, don't stop there. This street goes both ways, and the advice for copy editors to help out line editors resonates as well.

Most of it has to deal with our tendency toward being too literal. A turn of phrase may be out of place in one story but work well in another. It might sound strange on its own but work in context. Be flexible. The main goal here is for readers to get it, and sometimes they get more than we give them credit for.

One other comment: There's a point in there that will make a lot of copy editors groan. Here's an excerpt:
Let us have that sense of style. A writer should be able to use the expression "...doesn't float her boat" without having it automatically changed to "...fails to enthrall her." ... I don't want things to get out of control, but I like it when a writer tries coining a new phrase or even a new word. We should be willing to accept such attempts at word play or at least not toss them aside immediately.
All I'll say here is that considering how bent out of shape some copy editors get when their headlines are tweaked by the slot, we should be aware that the best writers will notice when we change a turn of phrase.

No one's saying you should not change that turn of phrase if it's warranted. But when you're doing it, imagine how you'd explain the change to the writer the next day if confronted. If your reasons sound hollow -- or don't exist at all -- think twice.

Monday, February 07, 2005

The time is nigh

Tomorrow, Tuesday, is the last day to send in registration for the ACES conference and still pay the early rate. It just needs to bear a postmark of Feb. 8.

Want to know why you should go? Read this and this.

Weekend roundup

The Numbers Guy column at The Wall Street Journal takes a look at numbers in NFL games -- stats you probably aren't familiar with.

In the Merriam-Webster Wordwatch column, you can learn the origin of caddie, cadet and madder plant.

James Kilpatrick talks about meter. And for those of you who couldn't care less, he takes another quick stab at placement of "only."

In "On Language," William Safire deconstructs a few cliches: tiger by the tail, pedal to the metal and beating a dead horse, among a few others.

Ruth Walker of Verbal Energy talks about the "quaint, old-fashioned" meaning of footprint vs. the new meaning, the amount of space something takes up ("your hard drive's footprint").

Friday, February 04, 2005

Copy editor catching libel?

Women's Wear Daily is reporting on the firing of a New York Post copy editor in its Memo Pad column.
It is possible to be too conservative for The New York Post after all. According to a source at the Post, one of its copy editors, born-again Christian Dawn Eden, apparently embellished a Jan. 18 editorial about stem-cell research during the editing process. Her version of the story — which slammed New York Senate Minority Leader David Paterson’s plan for a state-sponsored stem-cell institute as a "harebrained scheme" — made it into print.
I have no idea why the magazine is gossiping about such a thing or why readers would care, but there it is.

Eden has a blog, the Dawn Patrol, and she denies the accusation there today.
This is a complete lie and it can easily be disproved. I have official Post documentation relating the circumstances of my departure, which I have thus far kept confidential. I do not know whether this story was spread by someone attempting to make me publicly reveal those circumstances. In any case, I will not do so at this time, because this utter falsehood may be disproved without opening my personal records.

As a copy editor on the NEWS copy desk and not the EDITORIAL PAGE department, I had NO computer access to the editorials. I would only see them when they were on page proofs, where I would mark grammar and spelling corrections ONLY. These page proofs were then given to the editorial-page editors, who would make the changes themselves. I never once while I was at the Post accessed an editorial in a manner that I could possibly make any change without the editors' full and complete knowledge.
I'm trying to imagine quitting or being fired and then ending up reading about it in a magazine ... still trying ... still trying ... Nope, can't see it happening.

Admittedly, Eden may be more well known than many other copy editors. She's a former pop music critic (with interviews with the Animals' Alan Price and GBV's Bob Pollard under her belt). She's a regular DJ at a New York club. And Gawker did a "Five Questions" feature on her in August. (Gawker, by the way, is where I first read about this mess.)

But what is this doing in a magazine? Especially when it seems unconfirmed and so far-fetched? I'm befuddled.

Mr. McIntyre makes his case (and ours)

John McIntyre, president of ACES and AME for copy desks at the Baltimore Sun, has an article up at Poynter.

He's urging editors to pay more attention to copy editors. And he makes a lot of sense:
Nothing is easy anymore for newspapers. Technological challenges, financial pressures and an increasingly fragmented audience present formidable difficulties. But at bottom, as editors readily acknowledge, is credibility. If readers cannot trust publications to be accurate, to be clear, to be reliable, then not much else will matter. Copy editors are indispensable to that credibility, and its preservation will depend in some part on the willingness of editors to recognize, and make full use of, the energy, acuity and commitment of their copy desks.
He points out some of the obstacles copy editors are facing -- and some of the strides we're making. And he does some conference selling, too.

And the story has another picture of John in a bow tie. I love bow ties!

'Grammatically suspect'

Tony Blair's Labour (take that, AP!) Party is being criticized for its latest slogan: "Britain forward not back."

The Plain English Campaign, a British organization, says it's grammatically suspect.
Plain English Campaign spokesman John Lister said the logo was missing a verb and should read: "Britain forwards not backwards".

He said: "The verb seems to have been abolished by New Labour. It sounds like a grammatical nicety but it means you can put across a message with no specific action in it so you can’t be tied down to anything."

"It should say forwards not backwards just for the sake of linguistic consistency."

Mr Lister added: "I think it is grammatically suspect to say the least. I think it is one step forwards and two steps backwards."
I think the original sucks, and I think the "improvement" isn't much better.

But I love that the question is being raised.

And it just goes to show you that what's correct here (AP style calls for "forward" and "backward," no S on either) can be turned on its head across the pond.

>Labour Slogan 'Grammatically Suspect' []

Thursday, February 03, 2005

AP Stylebook: keeping it real

Is the AP Stylebook too conservative? Copy editors discuss.
I think, in fact, that it's a good thing the stylebook is "conservative." So many usage and grammar rules fall prey to collective ignorance that it's nice to have somewhere that "keeps it real." And I don't ever want to see that phrase in a news story.
Add your 2 cents' worth.

Them's fighting words

Peter Fisk, a copy editor at the Tampa Tribune, took issue with criticism of Bryan Garner in Language Log (in the comments of my post here). Now Language Log strikes back.

Peter had come to Garner's defense:
Moreover, if "with reference to" isn't a phrasal preposition, what is it? Apparently, the only people privy to the "correct" terminology are those who plunk down $160 for the 1,800-page Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. I can't vouch for Garner's "inflected form" tallying skills, but his work is well researched, highly respected and most appreciated by those of us who actually work with the actual language for a living. He strikes a reasonable balance between the prescriptive and descriptive. And he writes in a civil tone.
But Language Log's Geoffrey Pullum says that isn't enough. He explains phrasal prepositions -- and why the phrases at issue do not fall into this category.
My point is that things have been discovered about English grammar in the last hundred years. I'm not pressing for new names for time-worn concepts. I'm objecting to the fact that people treat English grammar as if it were a frozen collection of eternal truths like Pythagorean geometry. The analogy is inapt: Pythagoras's theorem about right-angled triangles is true, and his proof of it is sound. It's very different with grammar. Mistakes were made in the analysis of English syntax in the 18th and 19th centuries. Bryan Garner's presentation (and yes, I agree absolutely that on usage matters he strikes a very reasonable balance between prescriptive and descriptive approaches) sadly reflects none of the progress that has been made to correcting those mistakes.
I can't add a lot to this discussion; I don't have the technical training in grammar. But I will say this: As testy as copy editors are, I think linguists may give us a run for our money. And that's certainly not a dig.

Argue on!

(Want to buy the works being discussed here? The Cambridge Grammar, on which Pullum has a byline, is here. The Chicago Manual of Style is here.)

Pop grammarians

Right now, I am listening to Geoff Nunberg's essay (aired Tuesday on NPR's "Fresh Air") about Lynne Truss' "Eats, Shoots & Leaves." (This book is still floating around best-seller lists.)

It's about five minutes long.

There's not so much there that hasn't already been brought up here. However, he did mention the harsh reviews from Louis Menand and Edmund Morris. And he does some criticizing himself: He calls Truss' own punctuation "alarmingly insouciant." And he says she uses semicolons like he scatters fennel seed while cooking -- "in the vague hope it will somehow pull the other ingredients together."


UPDATE: The essay can be found on Nunberg's site here. Be sure to check out the notes section, where he breaks down some semicolon misuse.

What we're up against

Here's a good example of why newspapers are having trouble selling ads.

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Against the grain

Geoff Pullum at Language Log skewers Bryan Garner and his grammar section in the latest Chicago Manual of Style.

Revised ACES schedule

John McIntyre posted a revised ACES schedule.

With such a packed line-up, I somehow overlooked one copy-editing celeb: Tom Mangan (of the San Jose Mercury News and Prints the Chaff fame) is presenting "It’s Only Rock ’n’ Roll: Editing Pop Music Copy."

Only six more days to send in your registration.

UDPATE: Tom's changed his session to "Fitness for Rim Rats: How I
lost 37 pounds, discovered the great outdoors and re-energized my life." (Hint: He quit blogging at Prints the Chaff. So his weight loss was a loss for the rest of us, too.)

The new SAT

Here are the sample questions on the new grammar part of the SAT.

You may also want to check out Mark Liberman's post on the section at Language Log. You'll probably disagree with his point (that many of the grammar rules students will be tested on aren't really rules), but that's all the more reason to read it.

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Watch your language

James Kilpatrick's language column this week covers foreign phrases -- how they're misused and when they're used to often.

The mistakes he cites are humorous ("an internal coo" instead of "coup," roles that give an actor "cache" instead of "cachet").

Those are common enough words that their use was OK and their misuse should have been caught.

But there are plenty of foreign phrases whose obscurity merits that they be used sparingly if at all. Kilpatrick cites auto-da-fe, soupcon, mot juste.

Watching language evolve

A new language arises, and scientists watch it evolve
Linguists studying a signing system that spontaneously developed in an isolated Bedouin village say they have captured a new language being generated from scratch. They believe its features may reflect the innate neural circuitry that governs the brain's faculty for language.

Thinking with type

What do you want to know about typography? I bet you'll find it here. (Link via Languagehat)

Like vs. as: Smokers weigh in

This column from the Winston-Salem Journal on cliches that annoy readers wasn't too enlightening on the cliches.

But I did read for the first time that there was an uproar among grammarians and grammar teachers in the 1950s when Winston cigarettes came out with the slogan "Winston tastes good like a cigarette should." That like should be as, they said. (And most today would agree.) Enough noise was made that Winston addressed the issue in a follow-up campaign: "What do you want, good grammar or good taste?"

Had I read Geoffrey Nunberg's book "The Way We Talk Now," I would have known this already. Hougton Mifflin has an excerpt here:
The year was 1954. The top-rated TV show was I Love Lucy, sponsored by Philip Morris, and close behind was Your Hit Parade, sponsored by Lucky Strikes, whose "Be Happy, Go Lucky" jingle had won TV Guide's award for commercial of the year. And Otto Pritchard, a Pittsburgh carpenter with lung cancer, filed the first liability suit against a tobacco company.

In that year R. J. Reynolds introduced the new brand Winston, which unlike other filter cigarettes stressed taste rather than health. Reynolds ran a singing commercial with the tagline "Winston tastes good like a cigarette should." Like instead of as-as grammatical sins go it was pretty venial, but the purists went to the mattresses over it. One critic called it "belligerent illiteracy"; another suggested that the writer who came up with the ad should be jailed. The Winston people were delighted with all the free publicity. They capitalized on the controversy in a new campaign that featured the slogan "What do you want, good grammar or good taste?" Soon after that Tareyton got in on the act with a campaign headed "Us Tareyton smokers would rather fight than switch," and the whole dance went round again over pronouns.
Despite my tender age, I know the Winston jingle. I can remember my dad telling me as a kid that he and his friends had changed the words to: "Winston tastes bad, like the one I just had. No flavor, no taste, just a (clap clap) 50-cent waste."

A little help?

I have a journalism friend, Ted Ingram, going to biz school who needs some assistance:
I was wondering if you have come across anyone who studies "best practices" for copy editor staffing and evaluation.

I've been thinking about how newspapers decide how to decide optimal copy desk staffing. And after copy editors have been hired, how do newspapers know they're getting the most/best out of them. Has anyone ever tried to build a business case for copy editors? Or does anyone even worry about these things?

All help is appreciated.
Let me know what you know, and I'll pass it on.

Monday morning copy editing

A thread about copy editors' mistakes has started in Romenesko's Letters section.

It began when journalism prof Elaine Liner said she encouraged students to read the newspaper by having them find 100 mistakes in print.
hen they become obsessed. Sad to say, it's getting easier to find grammar, spelling and punctuation mistakes in print. But students also get credit for finding factual errors, bad arithmetic and lack of attribution. In just a few weeks, most of them have found well over 100 errors for their collections (one young man found 154 mistakes in just one issue of our daily campus paper).
Steve Watson of the Buffalo News took issue with the practice, saying "Monday Morning Copy Editing, to borrow an old saw, is like walking onto the battlefield after the fighting's stopped and shooting at the wounded." He said there should be better ways to get students exciting about reading the paper.

Ray Bearfield agrees that the critiques can be over the top but says that does not mean editing standards have not dropped over the years.
Those old-time editors, many of whom were blessed with only a high school diploma and a love of language, didn't make many mistakes. They could argue grammar with an English teacher, and they knew their infinitives from their participles. They made sure that the young editors put in their charge did too. Those that found that system too rigid and demanding became reporters or found work elsewhere.

The error of our ways

I missed this article from writing coach Paula LaRocque when it came out a couple of weeks ago.

The piece is a compendium of mistakes that might make you laugh.

A couple of examples: A CNN headline saying Greenspan had an enlarged prostitute, a notice that "an Italian sinner will be served at 5:30 p.m. at the Essex Center United Methodist Church," a steakhouse serving pan-fried children.

She also has a few corrections that need correcting, like this one:
"We referred to the chairman of Chrysler Corporation as Lee Iacoocoo. His real name is Lee Iacacca. The Gazette regrets the error."
Read this, feel better about the mistakes you catch, and have a stress-free day.