Thursday, July 28, 2005

A grammar quiz

A colleague sent me this grammar quiz ... that kicked my ass.

OK, maybe that's an overstatement. But I did miss three of 20, and I was lucky to do that well. The answers on the last six were guesses, all of them. That's where I missed my three. (And there's a tricky one in the easier top section as well. Give the answer linguists, not Norm Goldstein, would give.)

Not good enough

Geoffrey Pullum at Language Log has a (well-founded) gripe about headline writers and science articles.

Headline writing about any involved topic is difficult; there are often too many ins and outs and what-have-yous to capture the nuances in five words or less. But that's no excuse for being wrong.

It's better to be right than interesting.

Friday, July 22, 2005


Some stuff I've been saving up:

Here's a Minneapolis Star-Tribune story about the grammar mistakes in songs that get readers' goat. A few examples:
  • "In this ever-changing world in which we live in" from WingsÂ? "Live and Let Die"
  • "What if God was one of us" from Joan Osborne's "One of Us"
  • "You keep lyin' when you oughta be truthin'," from Nancy Sinatra's "These Booths Are Made for Walkin'" (Actually, I like that one)
  • "You know he knows just exactly what the facts is," from the Steve Miller Band's "Take the Money and Run"
The letters policy from a paper in Concorde, Mass., is cracking me up. Here's the main reason: "Letters will be edited for legal reasons, clarity, space and sometimes grammar -- double negatives especially will be rooted out."

A story in a university newspaper quotes John Bremner:
Two stories ran side by side Friday on the front page of the Redlands Daily Facts. Both headlines contained the word demolition. We try to avoid this kind of redundancy in newspapers, but not too hard. As the late copy editing teacher John Bremner said, "Never call a banana a yellow elongated fruit."
I hear a lot about the sin of verbing (Googling, Netflixing, etc.). But Stephen Wilbers, who has a column on business writing at the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, writes this week about nouning, or nominalizations. That's what turns "She recommended we study this issue" into "She made a recommendation that we undertake a study of this issue." More good stuff here.

Need help brushing up on how to fix dangling modifiers? James Kilpatrick has an exercise.

A Houston Chronicle column discusses the ethics of a print shop not fixing someone's grammatical mistakes.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Syle & Substance

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

I really like this note:
"Forty-nine states and the District of Columbia either have laws on their books--or case-law precedent--?that shield journalists from revealing sources." So, what's the first question a reader would ask? Right, "What's the only state that doesn't?" Our article and articles in scores of other publications haven't answered the question. So, as a public service and for future reference, we'll tell you. Wyoming.
I've heard that a bunch of times and have been meaning to look it up but hadn't gotten around to it yet.

There's also an update to WSJ style on datelines (is Paul Martin a reader of Bill Walsh's blog, perhaps?), that includes that they normally should be cities, not regions or states, although Hollywood is one exception.

Read more here (pdf).

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Be on the lookout

With the death of Star Trek's James Doohan, make sure no "Beam me up" headlines get in the paper.

"Star Trek's Scotty beamed up" is no better.

UPDATE: As noted here, here and here, that phrase is never actually uttered in the TV series or the movies.

Monday, July 18, 2005

Helping copy editors everywhere play their A game

You should check out this article on sports cliches from the Kansas City Star. A peek:
Cliches have become a staple of an athlete's vernacular, so common that people like McEwing go home and recite them to kids in the community. Coaches ooze with them, players repeat them, and English professors and journalists cringe at them.

They wonder whether athletes have anything original left to say.

"Sports is the model of life in some sense," says Geoffrey Nunberg, a linguistics professor at Stanford. "You kind of don't want it to be original. Sports isn't original. It's about bathing you in this familiar glow of platitudes and cliches. You go there and say the same things your dad said.

"Things are cliches for two reasons -- one, people are too lazy to think of anything else, and two, they're true."
It includes a discussion of one of the most popular sports cliches: giving 110 percent, one that makes me cringe more than others. (I heard just yesterday: "I'm giving 120 percent!" Not even 110 can cut it anymore.) And there's also a quiz: Match the cliche with the sports personality.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Where are we?

CNN and Money magazine rank the best places to live every year. This year, No. 28 on that list -- Wexford, Pa., -- isn't a town. It's a post office designation for four towns in the Pittsburgh suburbs of North Hills: Pine, Franklin Park, McCandless and Marshall.

Is this a colossal screw-up? Probably not. (Let's hope the editors at Money magazine knew that going in, considering all their research.) But there are a lot of areas that come up like this.

In Kansas, we have Shawnee Mission, which is a post office designation, a historic site and a school district. But it's not a town.

And Bill Walsh points out a few more famous examples:
Jackson Hole sure sounds cool, but there is no "Jackson Hole, Wyo." -- the city that gives the area its name is simply Jackson. There's also no "La Jolla, Calif." -- La Jolla is a section of San Diego. I hope we all know that the Pentagon isn't in Washington, but what about all those casinos on the Las Vegas Strip? Not in Las Vegas; try unincorporated Clark County.
Have any other examples that bug you?

Panic on the streets of London

A roundup on some notes from the London bombings:

The worst headline I saw was from the L.A Daily News: "Bloody hell."

Another interesting headline came from the San Jose Mercury News: "Deadly attacks: Can we be safe?" There were musings that this was a result of the paper's recent changes to make the paper more local. (For example, local news, instead of being in the B section, has been folded into the A section.) It seemed an odd, too-local first-day head to me.

And the BBC, which initially spoke on its Web site of "terrorists," edited the coverage later to referred only to "bombers."
The BBC's guidelines state that its credibility is undermined by the "careless use of words which carry emotional or value judgments".

Consequently, "the word 'terrorist' itself can be a barrier rather than an aid to understanding" and its use should be "avoided", the guidelines say.

Rod Liddle, a former editor of the Today programme, has accused the BBC of "institutionalised political correctness" in its coverage of British Muslims.

A BBC spokesman said last night: "The word terrorist is not banned from the BBC."

This prompted one blogger to say that BBC stands for Bad British Copyeditors.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

A copy editor's error

A correction from the L.A. Times:
Live 8 Critic's Notebook - In the Critic's Notebook by Times pop music critic Robert Hilburn that ran in Section A on July 3, the term "ultraconservative" was added by a copy editor to describe Fox News commentator Bill O'Reilly. Hilburn, before interviewing O'Reilly about the social activism of U2's Bono, had told the commentator he would not label him in a subjective way. The adjective that was inserted did not reflect that agreement or the critic's views.
O'Reilly had been ranting on his show, calling the reporter a liar:
But last week, Robert Hilburn, the music writer for The Los Angeles Times, called wanting to talk to me about Bono and his Africa project. Now, I like Bono. He's a good man, and I agreed to talk on one condition: Hilburn was not to put an adjective in front of my name, you know, like "bombastic," "fascist," that kind of thing. They always do that.

Hilburn agreed to those terms. But he lied. When the article appeared, I was labeled an ultraconservative by this guy.

Now, do I care? No, I don't. But you should know how dishonorable people like Robert Hilburn are, and there are legions of them in the print industry.
Watch what ya change.

(Via FishBowlLA)

Saturday, July 09, 2005

A new way to impress friends at design parties

How to tell Arial from Helvetica from Grotesque.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

Epicrain, en francais

A friend and former colleague of mine, Angie Wu, is responsible for one of my favorite copy-editing stories.

One night we were all sitting around telling tales about gaffes we'd made or ways we'd embarrassed ourselves on the job. Angie's was the best. It combined so many elements of what makes our jobs tough -- editing an unfamiliar topic, trying to build on something you do know to make it through, realizing too late that your ignorance is obvious ...

She's started a blog and has retold her 2000 Tour de France story there.
Back in 2000, I was an inexperienced copy editor trying to keep my head above water on the sports copy desk at The Dallas Morning News. I was editing a Tour de France story whose lead described "an epicrain-soaked journey."

Being relatively new to cycling lingo, I figured "epicrain" (pronounced in snooty French accent) was some term I didn't know (a la peloton). And I proceeded to call the reporter, who was in France, and ask him about it, all smug about my flawless pronunciation. As the words were coming out of my mouth, "So what is this epicrain ...?" I realized that, duh, the words had been run together in the e-mailing of the story. *Ahem* "epic rain-soaked journey," thank you very much. Quel horreur!
She tells another story, and then a co-worker offers one in the comments. Take a gander, and feel free to share one of your own here in the comments.

Friday, July 01, 2005

Gonna, hafta, useta

Ruth Walker, at Verbal Energy, decides to accept "gonna," "gotta" and other reductions.

Why? In part because of the book "Unfolding of Language," by linguist Guy Deutscher.
The specific insight from the book that made me relax a bit was that "going to," used in reference to a specific physical/geographic destination, never elides into "gonna," not even in casual conversation. Compare: "I'm going to the gym tonight. I'm gonna work out."

In other words, the temporal "gonna" is not just sloppy diction and muddled thinking. It's different from the more carefully enunciated spatial "going to." No one would say, "I'm gonna the gym tonight."
She also talks about the differences between "let us" and "let's, "gotta" and "got to."

She's not ready to let them all slide into the pages of the Christian Science Monitor -- at least, not quite yet.

Her latest post is worth a read, too. It's about rules that aren't rules -- against split infinitives and sentence-ending prepositions.
Split infinitives, I've found, really are something that people bring up with copy editors in social situations where a bit of small talk is called for. "Hmm, by the way, how do you feel about split infinitives?"

Funny you should ask. I just happen to have an opinion in here somewhere. In Latin, as in a number of other tongues, infinitives are one word. The basic reason one "shouldn't" split an infinitive in English is that one can't split it in Latin.

That said, the rule, however dubious its logic, was enforced fiercely enough over the years by English teachers and others that many careful writers avoid the split anyway. After all, an infinitive is a unit, even if expressed on the page as two words.

And yet there are times when the split may be the best way to express an idea.
A good example? She gives President Bush's desire to partially privatize social security.