Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Style & Substance

The latest Style & Substance newsletter from the Wall Street Journal is out. Of special interest is the desk's ruling on the word "fraudster" (it stands) and the initialisms CFIUS and OFHEO (one's surprisingly ruled a "household acronym" and one's not).

I always enjoy the quizzes included in these newsletters. My favorite on this test is No. 3: "The cabin of the plane is about half a meter wider than a 747."

That would be a pretty wide cabin. What the writer meant was "wider than a 747's." This is an awfully common error.

Find the PDF here.

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Excuse the absence

Bear with me as A Capital Idea slows down a little again. I have a dad evacuating from New Orleans and a fiance returning from Australia. Things are getting busy around here.

But I won't be as bad as I was a couple of weeks ago; expect a few posts sometime this week.

Friday, August 26, 2005

Ask and ye shall receive

Readers have repeatedly complained (thanks, Nick) about spelling, grammar and bad writing on the BBC News Web site. The editor responded:
it is time to do something about all this. I've explained before that it is, in my opinion, impossible to eradicate all errors when you are publishing and republishing articles thousands of times a day. But your response shows we are falling short of the mark.

Reports that appear on the News site have already been second-checked by another journalist prior to publication, a process that ought to pick out the howlers.

From next month we will be establishing a small, additional subbing team to provide a further safety net. They will focus initially on the reports on our front pages and other main indices, polishing headlines, tightening the copy, cutting out unnecessary paragraphs, eradicating any lingering spelling mistakes, and feeding this back down the line to the writers.
This renews my faith in the utility of sending letters. Perhaps letter-writing campaigns could help copy desks replenish their numbers?

Hurricane watch

I've heard the pun from a number of colleagues, but few "Katrina and the waves" references have made it on the Web.

We can probably thank the fact that the band is too obscure for most headline writers. (I seriously doubt we can owe it to restraint, given history.)

But, as the exception to the rule, "Katrina and the waves sink MTV" is a bit more appropriate.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

On the job

A funny error caught by a colleague:

After pasturing at Golden Gate Baptist for 45 years in Oak Cliff, he's kept busy preaching at churches across the country.


Here's what can happen when you publish (or broadcast) the wrong address.

A former prosecutor on Fox News as a "terror expert" mistakenly identified the house of a family as that of a terrorist -- only, the man in question had moved three years ago. Now there's a family of five living there, with terrorist-hungry drivers shouting profanities, taking pictures and spray-painting the house. The police have stationed a squad car across the street.

The family wants a correction but has not been able to reach Fox News or John Loftus, the man who gave the address. But the LA Times has.
Both have issued apologies -- Fox in a one-line statement to the Los Angeles Times and Loftus in an e-mail to the family -- after being contacted by the newspaper. The Voricks say they have yet to see or hear a correction.

"John Loftus has been reprimanded for his careless error, and we sincerely apologize to the family," said Fox spokeswoman Irena Brigante.

Loftus also apologized and told The Times last week that "mistakes happen."

"I'm terribly sorry about that. I had no idea. That was the best information we had at the time," he said.

Loftus said he gave out the address to help local police.
Riiight. National news programs are the perfect venue for that.

An aside -- the story says, "Last weekend, someone spray-painted 'Terrist' on their home." That is indeed the mistake of the spray-painters, not the LA Times, I confirmed in an AP story.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Shock of the day

Writing coach identifies language gaffes in TV newscasts.

Dictionary fakery

Encyclopedias have a tradition of inserting a fake entry to protect their copyright. If workers find that entry up in another source, they know they've been stolen from.

I'd never heard of this until I read a New Yorker article about a fake entry being inserted into the latest New Oxford American Dictionary. Word got out that it started with an E, so someone set to combing. The investigator got down to 360 words that weren't also in Webster's Third New International. Those were pared down to six suspects.
earth loop--n. Electrical British term for GROUND LOOP.
EGD--n. a technology or system that integrates a computer display with a pair of eyeglasses ... abbreviation of eyeglass display.
electrofish--v. [trans.] fish (a stretch of water) using electrocution or a weak electric field.
ELSS--abbr. extravehicular life support system.
esquivalience--n. the willful avoidance of one's official responsibilities ... late 19th cent.: perhaps from French esquiver, "dodge, slink away."
eurocreep--n. informal the gradual acceptance of the euro in European Union countries that have not yet officially adopted it as their national currency.
The New Yorker mailed those words to nine experts, including Copy Editor's Wendalyn Nichols, who voted for esquivalience, and Will Shortz.

With guess in hand, a call was made to America's Lexicographical Sweetheart -- and she spilled the beans.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Hyphenated names

The No. 1 movie at the box office over the weekend was ... "The 40 Year-Old Virgin." And, no, that's not a mistake; almost all of the movie's promotional material (including its official Web site) leaves out the hyphen between "40" and "year."

E&P has a story on the matter, including a rundown on which news outlets are adding the hyphen, which are leaving it as is, and which are inconsistent.

It's an interesting problem. I think most copy desks would add the hyphen "to avoid confusion," although I doubt there's a soul out there who thinks the film is about 40 abstaining babies.

On the other hand, as one reporter points out in the article, there is at least one promotional image (used by and Rotten Tomatoes) that includes the missing hyphen.

My vote? Go without the hyphen. There's no real confusion, and that's what the official site does. If you can't use that as the deciding factor, I'm not sure what you can use.

And note that this might seem to contradict my view that movie titles should be capitalized regardless of what the movie makers say. I stand by that; proper nouns are capped in our language, and the lack of them is more likely to cause confusion than the lack of a hyphen. And capitalization is more a logo issue than a language issue; I can't say the same about hyphenation. (I could be persuaded, though, if it were proved that the producers use the hyphen in writing about the movie but intentionally didn't use it in the logo. I can't figure out why that would be the case, but it's possible.)

It's a fine line, I know, but that's where I choose to draw it.

(Also, check out Romenesko's Letters section. Some readers are chiming in.)

Monday, August 22, 2005

Headline writing

The public editor of the Louisville Courier-Journal, Pam Platt, has a column on headline writing. She explains the craft and talks about the difficulties copy editors face.

An interesting aside: She counted 210 headlines that had to be written for Friday's paper. (That seemed high at first blush, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized how quickly the numbers add up. I counted 79 headlines -- not including decks -- in today's A section of the Dallas Morning News. And there's* four more sections to go.)

Platt addresses some complaints she's received. And what makes this article different from others I've read is that she sent the complaints to John McIntyre, AME for copy desks at the Baltimore Sun, to see what he thinks.

The paper has a separate Q and A with McIntyre on what makes writing headlines so difficult. He gives some advice (which includes avoiding "wretched, obvious wordplay") and gives his favorite and least favorite headline (regular Capital Idea readers should be familiar with both).

Saturday, August 06, 2005

Who's in New York?

The NYC Fringe Festival will host a one-woman play about copy editing. That’s right, grammarians. Your dreams are all about to happen. For those for whom the trees are the forest, the Elements of Style by Wendy Weiner will be a once in a lifetime experience. The website for the play declares, "find the mistakes on this website and win the respect of the creators of this show." Ah, sweet Jesus!

The play will run August 12 through 27, 2005, in New York City. It depicts the writer's experience as a copy editor at Conde Nast, including the "beauty of well-placed punctuation."

The play's Web site.

Thursday, August 04, 2005

Well, if I were the editor ...

Read this letter to the editor from the Toledo Blade and enjoy:
A few rule changes couldn't be simpler

If I were the editor of a newspaper I would lay down a few simple rules.

First: In reporting arrests, I would ban the line "If convicted, Mr. Doe faces up to a maximum of …"

That's deceptive, because it gives readers a false sense of security. They think that another threat to their persons and property will be out of circulation for a good, long while.

Not so. Between plea-bargaining, sentencing "guidelines," compromises made within the jury room, so-called "mitigating factors," and the personal philosophies of individual judges, the odds are that Mr. Doe is not going to get the maximum sentence.

The better practice would be to make no mention of possible penalties until Mr. Doe has been convicted and sentenced, and then to conclude the story with, "As originally charged, Mr. Doe could have been sentenced to a maximum term of …"

Second: Do away with the expression "execute" when describing the killing of a hostage or kidnap victim by a criminal or terrorist organization. "Execution" means the carrying out of a sentence pronounced by a legitimate court having lawful jurisdiction of the case, after observance of at least minimal rights of the prisoner.

Absent these little niceties, killing a prisoner or hostage is murder. The media should call it that. To label it an "execution" is to give a whiff of legitimacy to an otherwise barbaric act.

Third: Never quote someone as saying, "I could care less …" even if that is what was actually said. The correct expression is "I couldn't care less," meaning that "I am completely indifferent to …" whatever the subject is.

If "I could care less …" appeared in a story on the newswires, I'd tell my copy editors to change it, rather than give space to people who are too illiterate to express their feelings accurately.

Manchester Boulevard

The language of war

President Bush is focusing on the language of the current U.S. conflicts. He says, "Make no mistake about it, we are at war."

A war on terror? Not a global struggle against violent extremism, as some of his top aides have taken to saying?
It is not clear whether the new language embraced by other administration officials was adopted without Mr. Bush's approval or whether he reversed himself after the change was made. Either way, he planted himself on Wednesday firmly on the side of framing the conflict primarily in military terms and appeared intent on emphasizing that there had been no change in American policy.