Thursday, June 30, 2005

Deceptively deceptive

An interesting note from my American Heritage Word a Day calendar on deceptively:

When deceptively is used to modify an adjective, the meaning is often unclear. Does the sentence The pool is deceptively shallow mean that the pool is shallower or deeper than it appears? When the Usage Panel was asked to decide, 50 percent thought the pool shallower than it appears, 32 percent thought it deeper than it appears, and 18 percent said it was impossible to judge. Thus a warning notice worded in such a way would be misinterpreted by many of the people who read it, and others would be uncertain as to which sense was intended. Where the context does not make the meaning of deceptively clear, the sentence should be rewritten, as in The pool is shallower than it looks or The pool is shallow, despite its appearance.

Friday, June 24, 2005

Easily offended? Don't read this mofo

There's been a lot of talk in these parts about Texas Gov. Rick Perry's comment to a reporter, accidentally caught on mike: "Adios, mofo."

Now, not everyone knows what "mofo" refers to (shorthand for "motherfucker").

And it prompted a discussion on proper style for the word: Mofo? Mo-fo? Mo'fo?

None of my dictionaries at work could help. It is in the online Urban Dictionary as "mofo," but, like Wikipedia, that's not exactly an authoritative source.

But this Language Log entry sheds some light:
For those foreign readers whose command of American slang is incomplete, mofo is a conventional orthographic representation for a slurred fast-speech rendition of "motherfucker". The first two citations in the OED are

1967 H. S. THOMPSON Hell's Angels 33 The "Mofo" club from San Francisco.
1970 R. D. ABRAHAMS Positively Black vi. 154 Soul is walkin' down the street in a way that says, "This is me, muh-fuh!"

At least, mofo started out that way -- I think it's now taken on its own spelling pronunciation, in the style of tsk and phooey and other such orthographic expedients.
The entry is more about the FCC than mofo, and Mark Liberman continues:

Anyhow, I wonder whether the FCC will fine KTRK-TV $500,000 for each airing of Gov. Perry's valediction, as the law apparently calls on them to do:

(link) ...the term 'profane', used with respect to language, includes the words `shit', `piss', `fuck', `cunt', `asshole', and the phrases `cock sucker', `mother fucker', and `ass hole', compound use (including hyphenated compounds) of such words and phrases with each other or with other words or phrases, and other grammatical forms of such words and phrases (including verb, adjective, gerund, participle, and infinitive forms).'

If so, I wonder whether the station will send the governor the bill. This would be the next logical step in what Stuart Benjamin called the FCC's "fucking brilliant regulatory strategy".

Most news outlets have gone with the mofo spelling, although I've seen a couple mo-fos.

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Failure to communicate

In the Poynter article mentioned below, John McIntyre says: "The one area in which allusion appears to remain lively is the movies."

So get thee to a bloggery: Bill Walsh uses AFI's "100 greatest movie quotes of all time" to point out that people misquote a lot of movie lines they allude to.

For example, it's "Mrs. Robinson, you're trying to seduce me. Aren't you?" Not "Mrs. Robinson, are you trying to seduce me?" (From "The Graduate.")

And "Fasten your seat belts. It's going to be a bumpy night," not ride. (From "All About Eve.")

Read more from Bill here.

UPDATE: A related correction (via Regrets the Error) from the Cleveland Plain Dealer:
Because of a page designer's error, a line from the movie "The Godfather" was misquoted in a chart on the front page of the Arts & Life section Tuesday. Marlon Brando, in the role of Vito Corleone, said: "I'm going to make him an offer he can't refuse."
Anyone know what the mistake was?

Freedom's just another bird?

John McIntyre has a piece up at Poynter (thanks, Philippe) about the dangers of allusion -- in headlines and copy. He starts with an example.
On July 4, 1996, when President Bill Clinton visited MarylandÂ?s Eastern Shore, a bald eagle named Freedom, which had been nursed back to health after an injury, was released into the sky to commemorate the occasion.

Unfortunately, Freedom was attacked by a couple of ospreys and ended up back in the bird hospital. When The Baltimore Sun put the story on its front page, the task of writing a headline fell to Paul Clark, one of the ablest copy editors I have ever worked with. He came up with "FreedomÂ?s just another bird/ with nothing left to lose."

That headline was applauded in the newsroom and praised in the in-house newsletter. But when I offer it up as an example of the craft to my copy editing students at Loyola College, I get a roomful of blank looks. Janis Joplin singing "Me and Bobby McGhee" is presumably the kind of music that only older people listen to.
Now, I like the headline. (And, surprisingly enough, I like the song, too. So maybe there's a correlation.) But it's a great example of how allusions can be dangerous because not everyone is drawing from the same cultural framework.

McIntyre offers some pointers on how to use them effectively. My favorite:
Will the passage be understood clearly by a reader who does not catch the reference? Allusion should enrich the readerÂ?s experience by providing an additional layer of meaning. But if it gets in the way of grasping the principal meaning, it is intrusive and counterproductive.
There's more discussion at Testy Copy Editors, including a look at whether the song is "Me and Bobby McGee" or "Me and Bobby McGhee." (Leave it to copy editors to get hung up on that.)

Doug Fisher at Common Sense Journalism says this is just one more reason we need to focus on newsroom diversity.
Products as we are of our upbringing and surroundings, we should realize it is becoming harder for each of us, individually, to make such determinations. By definition, we see things from within our own fishbowls.
And a quick side note: I worked a couple of shifts in the editorial department this week (and that's a nice gig). I was fact-checking some stuff in an article by Virginia Postrel and found another version of it online, in Reason magazine. The headline: "Consumer Vertigo: A new wave of social critics claim that freedomÂ?s just another word for way too much to choose. HereÂ?s why theyÂ?re wrong." I had to fight till the end to not recycle that deck; I really liked it."

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Potato farmers fight "couch potato" term

British potato farmers say the term "couch potato" is reinforcing negative stereotypes about the tuber that are unfounded. It's asking the OED to remove the word, which was added (as American slang) in 1993.
John Simpson, the editor of the dictionary, ... said: "When people blame words they are actually blaming the society that uses them. Dictionaries just reflect the words that society uses. We monitor words in the language and what's out there. Our dictionaries describe - not prescribe."

He said words were never taken out of the full-length dictionary, but that little-used words could be removed from the smaller dictionaries to make way for more up-to-date ones.

"I sympathise with them. It's not much fun being called Simpson after the birth of Bart and Homer," he said.

"However, couch potato will stay. We do not leave out words. Once a word is included in the big dictionary, it stays there.
The British Potato Council has a solution prepared: Use the term "couch slouch" instead.

Good luck.

The corrections (or, making up quotes)

Small Corrections to Neal Pollack's Piece in the Times Book Review, by Dave Eggers.

He quotes me as saying, "We're about to enter a new age of literary celebrity." When I read this online this morning, I had to re-read it a few times, looking for some postscript that indicated that, as Neal usually does, he had made the quote up. Then I figured maybe the PS wasn't in the online version. Eventually I learned there wasn't such a postscript, which is too bad, because he did make that quote up, and it's a kooky quote to attribute to me—or to anyone. That quote is as likely to have exited my mouth as would an elf riding a three-headed mule. The quote doesn't sound like anyone, really—no one would have said something like that, unless they were addressing, in a bad late-'80s TV movie, some kind of misguided depiction of a glitzy (ha!) book-industry convention.
Pollack responds:
Apologies for any inaccuracies in the piece or for any potential misinterpretations. I still remember some conversation where some concept of "literary celebrity" was mentioned, but who knows the context at this point—it was at least seven years ago and I never should have put quotes around those words. It's obvious from the way Dave and McSweeney's have gone in the last bunch of years that traditional celebrity was the last thing he wanted. That sin was mine, and mine alone. Now, as before, Dave and I will keep a friendly and wary distance. I will only go to McSweeney's headquarters at 3 a.m., and then only when I am very hungry. Goodbye.

Monday, June 20, 2005

Get out those checkbooks

Bill Walsh has been named a member of the Copy Editor newsletter's editorial advisory board. I'd say that's even more reason to subscribe.

In other Walsh news, this blog entry of his has had me cracking up for days:
My favorite pull quote from my latest acquisition as a stylebook collector, the style guide of the Guardian:

"Iraq or Iran -- what's our style?"

Freelance subeditor at British national newspaper
(not the Guardian)

And be sure to check out his recent argument that e-mail responses, given their informal nature, can often be edited.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Michael Jackson headlines

I don't think everyone got the Anne Bancroft memo on bad headline writing, so here's a roundup of some of today's gems on Michael Jackson.

The estate option:
Back to Neverland — San Francisco Chronicle, Denver Post, Philadelphia Inquirer
Return to Neverland — Columbus Dispatch
Off to Neverland, a free man — Minneapolis Star Tribune

Something in the way he moves:
Moonwalk — The Ledger of Lakeland, Fla.
Dead man moonwalking — Philadelphia Daily News
He Moonwalks — Newsday
Michael moonwalks — McAllen (Texas) Monitor
How He Walked — Syracuse (N.Y.) Post-Standard

Stop me if you've heard this one before:
Thriller: Jackson cleared — Kansas City Star
Thriller — Times Reporter of Dover-New Philadelphia, Ohio
Verdict a thriller for Jackson, fans — Houston Chronicle
Music to his ears — Press & Sun Bulletin of Binghamton, N.Y.
Who's bad? Not Jackson — Austin American-Statesman
Beat it — LA Daily News, Miami Herald, The Daily Advertiser of Lafayette (La.), Boston Herald
He beat it — Chicago Red Eye, Wooster (Ohio) Daily Record of Wooster, Northern Virginia Daily
Jackson verdict: He 'Beat It' — Kokomo (Ind.) Tribune
(See some of these covers side by side at

Playing it straight, kinda:
Not guilty — Chicago Sun-Times, Dallas Morning News, Indianapolis Star, Topeka Capital-Journal, Louisville Courier-Journal, Shreveport (La.) Times, Boston Globe, Detroit News, St. Louis Post Dispatch, Albuquerque Journal, The Oklahoman, Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Not Guilty Times 10 — Tampa Tribune, Tacoma News Tribune
(And the Atlanta Journal-Constitution had "Not guilty ..." nine times in an overline, with a big "Not guilty" as a hammer below, for a total of 10.)

Misery loves company:
Boy, oh boy! — NY Daily News
Boy, oh, boy! — NY Post
(See these covers side by side at

Monday, June 13, 2005


Saw this on a couple of minutes ago:

Suicide. Now that's entertainment.

Friday, June 10, 2005

You shouldn't always keep it short

It's the Netherlands, not Holland. And it's Northern Ireland, not Ulster. Ruth Walker uses these facts at Verbal Energy to talk about when shorter isn't better and "search-and-replace editors." She throws in some trivia for fun reading:
The people of the Netherlands are sometimes called Netherlanders but more usually designated as "Dutch," which literally means "German" (compare "Deutsch"). The Pennsylvania Dutch are in fact of German and Swiss descent, as their visitors generally find out sooner or later. And "Dutchman" turns out to be slang in the Western United States to refer to a man of German ancestry. Go figure. In the building trades, a "dutchman," lowercase, refers to "a piece or wedge inserted to hide the fault in a badly made joint, to stop an opening, etc." Now go figure that one. And it gets worse. Politically correct it's not.

Thursday, June 09, 2005

Don't. Fix. Quotes.

When President Bush mispoke a couple of weeks ago and said "disassemble" when he meant "dissemble," most journalists did the right thing and quoted him as he spoke.

One glaring exception was Mark Silva of the Chicago Tribune. He "fixed" the quote to "people that had been trained in some instances to dissemble -- that means not tell the truth."

(The Trib later handled the gaffe by having Silva write a column about it, never admitting a mistake but turning it into a piece on Dubyaspeak.)

Someone at Testy Copy Editors, ADKbrown, sent a note to the public editor and got this silly reply:
Our reporters' first obligation, we feel, is to communicate a speaker's meaning. If a mispronunciation obscures the speaker's meaning, then a reporter must ask questions to clarify it. If the mispronunciation is just that--a mispronunciation and nothing more--then the reporter should render the word as the speaker obviously meant it. In this case, the president left no doubt as to his meaning because, as I recall, he defined the word even as he mispronounced it. So our reporter rendered it as the speaker, the president, intended: dissemble.

I would remind you that we have done the same thing for decades with presidents of all political stripes and levels of education. When John F. Kennedy said "Cuber," we rendered it Cuba, as he obviously meant it. When Lyndon Johnson said "Nigra," we rendered it Negro, as he obviously intended. When Jimmy Carter said "nucular," we rendered it "nuclear," as he obviously intended.

I hope this helps you understand our approach to differing American pronunciations.

Don Wycliff
Public Editor
So this seems like a good time to share a lesson from John Bremner. I transcribed this last year from "John Bremner: Guardian of the Newsroom."
Do we ever change a quote? Well, let me give you my principle.

I would never make an ordinary citizen look bad. I'd never make it appear that I were being condescending or, rather, that I were showing this guy up if he goofed in speech.

What do you do, however, if you get a public figure who goofs in a quote? Are you going to correct it? Suppose you have to use it. You can't paraphrase. ... No answers? Quote it the way he says it? I'm not talking about obscenity here, I'm just talking about usage, grammar. Anyone disagree?

[Comment from teacher]

Very important, the television bit ... because if they read it in the paper one way in the afternoon and then see it on the television that night or the next morning or whatever. A great example of that--

Remember when Alexander Haig was president of the United States? Remember that, that day? What the hell happened? Ronnie was sick, wasn't he? Wasn't that it?

No, he was shot. That's right, I'd forgotten the circumstances. And they couldn't find George anywhere; he was flying around Texas, as I recall. And Haig stepped in and took over. There was no way under ... constitutionally, he had no right.

Anyway, they finally got George back to Washington and propped him up in front of all the cameras and microphones. And George said, I quote exactly, "I want to reinsure the American people."

Now, I was on the road the next day and able to see different papers. The AP story said "I want to reassure," which is probably want he meant to say to the American people. The L.A. Times/Washington Post story said, "I want to assure the American people." And one paper -- in fact, it was in Indiana, a small paper up here that said (and you may disagree with this, you may say it's editorializing; I like it) said, "As a sign of his nervousness, Vice President Bush began his remarks with, "I want to reinsure..."

I thought that was a great way to handle it. It got the thing across and explained it, and I don't think it's editorializing at all. Watching it, Bush was nervous.
Don't. Fix. Quotes.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Here's to you, original headline writers

Yes, there were some original headlines about the death of Anne Bancroft. But most people resorted to a variation on a theme:

Anne Bancroft, star of theater and screen, dies (New York Times 1A promo)
Oscar Winner Anne Bancroft dies at 73 (Washington Post 1A promo)
Versatile, but Forever Mrs. Robinson (Los Angeles Times)
Role of seductive Mrs. Robinson brought cult status (Dallas Morning News)

Here's to you, Mrs. Robinson (New Orleans Times-Picayune 1A promo)
Here's to you, Mrs. Robinson (Atlanta Journal-Constitution 1A promo)
To you, Mrs. Robinson (San Antonio Express-News 1A promo)
Here's to you, Mrs. Robinson (St. Paul Pioneer Press)
Here's to you, Anne Bancroft (
And here's to you, Ms Bancroft (London Times)
Here's to you, Mrs Bancroft (The Age of Australia)
So here's to you, Mrs Robinson ... (
'Graduate' co-star dies: Here's to you, Mrs. Robinson (San Jose Mercury News)
And Here's to You... Remembering Anne Bancroft (Slate)

UPDATE: Check out a right-on skewering of this headline-writing process on CJR's site (via Blogslot [I know; that links to this, this links to that. It's all too incestuous]).
You take a breath. What were the lyrics to that song again? "Koo-koo-ka-choo, Mrs. Robinson?" That's not much of a headline.

But there's that part about DiMaggio -- Jolting Joe has left and gone away, or whatever it was. Maybe a play on that.

"Anne Bancroft has left and gone away"? That's pretty good. She'd like that.

Still, that's just your first try. You can do better. Was Bancroft religious, maybe? 'Cause there's that religious part in the song, about how "Heaven Holds A Place For Those Who Pray."

That's really pretty awesome, all by itself. Too bad the slot editor is an atheist.

Math, grammar tips: multipliers, dangling modifiers

The latest Style & Substance newsletter from the Wall Street Journal is out (pdf).

Most of it is dedicated to frequent errors, such as dangling modifiers:
The most egregious recent example to find its way into print was the lead in a lead story with a dangling gerund: After facing one of the biggest legal assaults in corporate history, the smoke is clearing for Philip Morris USA. The smoke wasn't facing the assault, the company was, so rewording was required. A recent dangling participle: Born in Dickensian poverty in rural Louisiana, Ms. Wolfe's story has all the classic metaphors of a boxer's biography. If her story was born there, where was she born?
And multipliers:
If the U.S. spends $30 billion and Japan spends $10 billion on research and development, we spend three times as much as Japan (or two times more than Japan, including the basic $10 billion in the equation). Despite pleas to avoid the ambiguous expression times more than, the beat goes on: Example: Men whose pulses ran above 75 beats a minute while they were resting were nearly 3.5 times more likely to suffer sudden cardiac death than those with resting pulses below 60. We need to check the raw figures and then make it read X times as likely to.
There are more good lessons to review, plus the accustomed-to quiz and updates on business names (Chevron, which AP just covered, and Sears, which AP had already covered).

The paper is also switching to the new names of some Indian cities: Bombay becomes Mumbai; Madras becomes Chennai, and Calcutta becomes Kolkata.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

AP style update

The Associated Press Stylebook sent out an update today:

Chevron Corp. Created by the merger of Chevron (formerly Standard Oil Co. of California) and Texaco in 2001. Headquarters is in San Ramon, Calif. (Name changed from ChevronTexaco in 2005.)

Monday, June 06, 2005

AP style changes

Doug Fisher, at Common Sense Journalism, has a recap of what's new in the 2005 AP Stylebook. Read his whole entry, but here's a few I haven't talked about much:

backyard: Now one word in all uses, noun and adjective.

child care: Use as two words in all instances, including as an adjective. (But no mention of day care.)

physician assistant: Not physician's.

sync: Short for synchronization, not synch.

voice mail: Two words.

Sunday, June 05, 2005

Commercial kisses

Before I start posting in earnest, let me share this typo I saw before I started a hike in Colorado. (For once, I had my camera on hand.)

An easy mistake, I suppose, but it shouldn't make it onto a sign.

Saturday, June 04, 2005

She's baaaack!

Excuse my absence, friends. I took an impromptu trip to Denver, with no Internet access. And then I got a touch of the flu.

Posts will now resume. In the meantime, check out some new editing links on the right.