Saturday, November 19, 2005

Why we always run spell check

My bet is that the main headline was rewritten on the page on the fly. Anyone know for sure?

Thursday, November 17, 2005

More reading

AlterNet has an excerpt from the new book "Slam Dunks and No-Brainers: Language in Your Life, the Media, Business, Politics, and Like, Whatever," by Leslie Savan. Here's a teaser:
What makes a word a pop word? First of all, we're not talking mere cliches. Most pop phrases are indeed cliches -- that is, hackneyed or trite. But a pop phrase packs more rhetorical oomph and social punch than a conventional cliche. It's the difference, say, between It's as plain as the nose on your face and Duh, between old hat and so five minutes ago. Pop is the elite corps of cliches.
You can quiz yourself on your pop-language knowledge here.

And for a little bit heavier reading, try out this essay on the part language is playing in the French riots (thanks, Phillip).
Although we have seen countless images of cars burning in the poor and segregated suburbs of France, we have not heard much about the war of words that has accompanied them. Yet when you pay attention to the words, you begin to realize that the second- and third-generation French-African and French-Arab youths burning cars are a lot more French than they may be willing to acknowledge. As true Frenchmen, they understand the importance of discourse. Maybe to their detriment, they seem to parse the fine nuances of every word; then they fight back bitterly--especially over having the last word, le dernier mot.

I like my fiction like I like my work ...

Love copy editors so much that they must part of your pleasure reading, too?

The namesake character in the new "Veronica," Mary Gaitskill's second novel, is a copy editor -- an "unbeautiful copy editor" acting as foil to the "beautiful model" who serves as the protagonist.

From Veronica, we get such lines as "Excuse me, hon, but I'm very well acquainted with Jimmy Joyce and the use of the semicolon."

But beware. After reading this review, I don't think things turn out so well for the "abrasive, hideously dressed, Judy Garland-loving Veronica."

The book had been considered a front-runner for the 2005 National Book Award in fiction, which was given to William T. Vollmann last night instead.

Gaitskill also wrote the short story on which the excellent movie "Secretary" is based.

Black Friday

Ah, New York Times, what a sin in this shopping story about the Black Friday 2005 Web site:
From a cramped dorm room in California, Mr. Brim, an 18-year-old college freshman who dines on Lucky Charms and says he rarely shops, is abruptly pulling back the curtain on the biggest shopping day of the year.
The biggest shopping day of the year, dollarwise, is not Black Friday, although that is a common myth.

The day after Thanksgiving may be the day that most people go out, and it certainly is an excuse for retailers to offer some wild and crazy deals. But more money is usually spent on the Saturday before Christmas, because of procrastinators like me.

The International Council on Shopping Centers lists these as the busiest shopping days for the last five years:
2004: Dec. 18 (the Saturday before Christmas)
2003: Nov. 28 (Black Friday)
2002: Dec. 21 (the Saturday before Christmas)
2001: Dec. 22 (the Saturday before Christmas)
2000: Dec. 23 (the Saturday before Christmas)
(This is the only hard data I've been able to find so far [and is sourced from ShopperTrak], but most references I read put Black Friday around the fifth-busiest day of the year.)

Why is it called Black Friday? Supposedly, it's the day each year when retailers go from being in the red to being in the black for the year.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

For what it's worth ...

Merriam-Webster has launched its Open Dictionary, where readers can submit words. It's updated a couple of times a day.

A browse through the words that have made it so far shows that this must be in no way monitored, which renders it pretty useless.

The entries include recently coined slang:
haggard-ass (adjective) : syn. of pathetic
That was a haggard-ass kickflip. -Bam Margera
There's jargon:
nutmeg (verb) : In soccer, to kick the ball between the defending player's legs, and then regain control of the ball. Also known as "to 'meg'". To be nutmegged can be embarrassing, especially if the offensive player then scores a goal.
Wow! Did you see that boy just netmeg (or 'meg) the other player?
There's plenty of ignorance:
gay (noun) : a same-sex attraction; a stupid lifestyle that gets people aids
And then there are the kids trying to make jokes:
Family (noun) : People put on the Earth to ruin your life while they turn the odds against you in every way just to piss you off.
My family sucks. --Chris Bizzary Hizenerary, Myself, November 16, 2005
I'll probably never look at this site again -- too much oyster cracking, not enough pearls. But I got a couple of laughs while it lasted.

Irregardless and nonwords

As a follow-up to the blog about NBC Nightly News, I offer this usage note from my Word A Day calendar on irregardless, which it says is probably a blend of irrespective and regardless.
Irregardless is a word that many mistakenly believe to be correct usage in formal style, when in fact it is used chiefly in nonstandard speech or casual writing. Coined in the United States in the early 20th century, it has met with a blizzard of condemnation for being an improper yoking of irrespective and regardless and for the logical absurdity of combining the negative ir- prefix and -less suffix in a single term. Although one might reasonably argue that it is no different from words with redundant affixes like debone and unravel, it has been considered a blunder for decades and will probably continue to be so.
See, it is a word.

But wait. Brian Garner says that "although this widely scorned nonword seems unlikely to spread much more than it already has, careful users of language must continually swat it when they encounter it."

Nonword? He has an entry for that, too:
H.W. Fowler's formidable American precursor, Richard Grant White, wrote incisively about words that aren't legitimate words:
As there are books that are not books, so there are words that are not words. ... Words that are not words sometimes die spontaneously; but many linger, living a precarious life on the outskirts of society, uncertain of their position, and cause great discomfort to all right thinking, straightforward people.
... Among the words that he labeled nonwords are three that might still be considered so: enthused, experimentalize, preventative. But with most of the others he mentioned, he proved anything but prophetic -- they're now standard: accountable, answerable, controversialist, conversationalist, donate, exponential, jeopardize, practitioner, presidential, reliable, tangential. The lesson is that in any age, stigmatizing words is a tough business -- no matter how good the arguments against them might be.
I really like that lesson; it's lost a lot among copy editors.

Some other words considered nonwords (with links to dictionary entries):

Have any to add?

Capital committees

I've been working overtime in business this week, so I'm coming across a lot of stories I wouldn't normally be editing.

And the question that's been bugging me all day is, why doesn't everyone lowercase the Senate banking committee?

Here's AP's ruling on committee: Do not abbreviate. Capitalize when part of a formal name: the House Appropriations Committee.

Do not capitalize committee in shortened versions of long committee names: the Special Senate Select Committee to Investigate Improper Labor-Management Practices, for example, became the rackets committee. The committee's full name is the U.S. Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs. (I guess the Senate believes in the serial comma.) Shortened, it should be the Senate banking committee.

Maybe I'm being too much of a stickler on this (I don't think national security adviser should be capped before a name, either). But what's a good reason for capping it?

The only publication I've found to lowercase it so far is the Financial Times in England. (And most Canadian publications tended to lowercase it, even in the AP story.) For the rest, it's up.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

$3 billion?!

NBC Nightly News had a story Friday night about business workers' poor grammar skills (thanks, Jessica). Here's the story they wrote based on the clip, which is also available at the site.

It's your basic article bemoaning the state of grammar today and starts out with Brian Williams explaining that a viewer took the show to task for using "less" when "fewer" was called for. He apologized for the mistake but said that "we are in the middle of a bad-grammar epidemic in this country."
Grammar and spelling have really gone the way of the black-and-white television set these days. The good news is, some people are taking much-needed action.
That action? They cited a report that Fortune 500 companies spend $3 billion a year retraining workers in basic English. That number seems shocking to me. (I dug around for more; I think it comes from a National Commission on Writing report, but that wasn't exactly the smoking gun I was looking for. Paging Carl Bialik!)

It was difficult to believe much of anything from this clip, though, when it ended with this rant (floating words superimposed in the background):
"Unbelievable" is one of today's "in" words. But is it overused or used incorrectly? Unbelievable means I didn't believe a word I just said. Anxious -- "the president is anxious to meet the prime minister" -- means he doesn't want to meet him at all. And irregardless -- look it up in the dictionary. You won't find it because it's not a word. Unbelievable.
OK, I maintain the distinction between eager and anxious.

But what's this "unbelievable" rant about?

And "irregardless" isn't in the dictionary? They must have caught this error sometime after the piece was taped but before it aired: Brian Williams came back on the screen and said: "It gets worse. We did find "irregardless" in two dictionaries. It's a word, just not a good one." And on the story version, this was tacked on the end: "Post script: Webster's New World Dictionary does include the word 'irregardless,' defining it as follows: adj., adv. REGARDLESS: a nonstandard or humorous usage."

Word history: laconic

Laconic is a word whose definition always seems to escape me. I bet I look it up once a year.

But that should change now after reading this note on its history from my Word a Day calendar:
The study of the classics allows one to understand the history of the laconic, which comes to us via Latin from Greek Lakonikos. The English word is first recorded in 1583 with the sense "of or relating to Laconia or its inhabitants." Lakonikos is derived from Lakon, "a Laconian, a person from Lacedaemon," the name for the region of Greece of which Sparta was the capital. The Spartans, noted for being warlike and disciplined, were also known for the brevity of their speech, and it is this quality that English writers still denote by the use of the adjective laconic, which is first found in this sense in 1589.
And, whaddya know, Merriam-Webster lists "laconic" as a defintion for spartan.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Making copy editors everywhere slap-happy?

From a review of "Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang," in the Denver Post:
Writer-director [Shane] Black became a Tinseltown legend when as a very young man he wrote "Lethal Weapon." "Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang" is the more than confident directorial debut of a scribe still thrilled with words. A running gag about grammar and the quirks of adverbs will make copy editors everywhere slap-happy. And any movie that uses the famously misused "nonplus" and makes a joke of the pluperfect is a flick that enjoys language.
I don't plan on seeing this movie, so someone else will have to tell us if the review is accurate.

Friday, November 11, 2005

A knee-slapper

Well, whaddya know, here's another case of dummy type making it on the Web -- this time on the Web site of the Danbury, Conn., News-Times:
The Immaculate High School girls' team was celebrating a goal scored in a championship-clinching win Nov. 5. The newspaper's Web site published a photograph of the jubilant team, but said it was celebrating a teammate's decision to "come out of the closet as a lesbian."
Who was responsible? Oh, you know it: a funny copy editor. The paper's editor said the copy editor was just "goofing around" and didn't know the caption had made it online.

"It was a flagrant, awful violation of every journalistic principle," said Paul Steinmetz, the paper's editor. "It's just embarrassing to us and untenable."

UPDATE: The copy editor was fired. And at Visual Editors, someone posted a note from her managing editor in Lewiston, Maine, who said he had worked with the guy before:
"To make it worse, years ago I supervised this guy in Connecticut, warned him more than once that he was risking his job by fooling around. He was immensely talented and a hard worker, but he thought he could always walk on the edge without falling off. Now he's fallen off, and I doubt he'll ever be able to regain his balance on a newspaper."

Perfectionists editing perfectionists

Get Your Word On, a feature at, interviews author Elizabeth McCracken.
GYWO: What has been your experience working with editors? How difficult is it to have to deal with someone else's sense of perfection after you have satisfied your own? How helpful is it? How necessary?

EM: I'm not sure I have a sense of perfection - at least, when I'm writing, I like to try to ignore it. Otherwise I'd never get anything done. But it's essential to my work that someone else reads it - I'm capable of writing sentences that sound great but mean next to nothing. My friend Ann Patchett is coming with me to Richmond; she's one of my first readers. She doesn't line-edit - I mean, I'm sure she would if I asked - but she reads my work with generosity and brilliance and bawls me out when I'm being self-indulgent. (Writing an entire chapter to justify one joke, EG.) I have a lovely book editor, too, Susan Kamil, who's smart and useful. I love a fantastic copy-editor - those people who go through novel manuscripts at the very end to make sure sentences and paragraphs and chapters add up, though I'm more likely to politely note in a margin that I know that neither Strunk nor White would approve of a particular comma, but by God McCracken says a comma should go there and so there shall be a comma! [And] I like semi-colons; I like them a lot.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

How to be hip to science fiction writers

From a letter to the editor of the Anchorage Press:
I was glad to see Brandon Seifert's article on Fairbanks science fiction writer David Marusek ("Everyday science fiction," November 3). David is an amazingly cool guy and a brilliant writer, deserving of fame, fortune and almost 72 inches of copy in Alaska's hippest newspaper.

Alas, Mr. Seifert used a phrase I've come to expect from other, less hip Alaska newspapers: "sci fi." We poor science fiction writers have been fighting that silly little slang term since the 1950s. I once saw the producer of Star Wars booed at a World Science Fiction convention when he said "sci fi" - and this was when he was accepting a special award. There's no quicker way to demonstrate ignorance of the field than to say "sci fi." If you want to be hip, write "sf," pronounced "es-sef."

Not that it's a big deal. Sf writers have suffered far worse indignities, starting with the perception that what we write is mindless, silly fluff. Of course, a lot of it is, but not what David Marusek writes. The guy's a genius.

Still, a little respect would be nice. Get the slang right. Don't blunder in with an insult. Newspapers can drill Associated Press style into their writers, so you'd think they'd learn how to be science-fictionally correct. It would be way cool if the Press made "sci fi" uncool in its house style except when referring to incredibly sleazy 1950s B movies.

Michael Armstrong, member
Science fiction and Fantasy Writers of America
And here's the accompanying mea culpa:
Editor's note: Brandon Seifert used the term "SF" as well as "sci-fi" in his copy. Then an editor, who feared that some people might think Seifert was talking about San Francisco, "fixed it."
Normally, I'd laugh the letter writer right out of this blog. It's better to be accurate than use "hip" terminology, sir.

But there just might, if you look hard enough, be a lesson here. Was there any real reason a reader would mistake SF for San Francisco? (After reading the original piece, I'd say no, despite the subject having attended a California college.)

I think it's interesting that sci-fi writers hate the term "sci fi." A little insider information can be good when you're trying to offer a window into another world.


It's Veterans Day, not Veterans' or Veteran's. The holiday is tomorrow, Nov. 11.

See also Apostrophes in descriptive phrases and Obsessive over possessives.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Language on NPR

Jeffrey Dvorkin, NPR's ombudsman, discusses pronunciation and grammar complaints from listeners.

There are plenty of the usual suspects who vs. whom, mispronunciation of foreign names, no an in front of H's -- but there was one response I didn't suspect, on the latter. Dvorkin finds:
The use of "an historic" is in fact, not technically incorrect but is now considered archaic and pedantic. According to Fowler's Dictionary of English Usage:

A is used before all consonants except silent 'h' (a history, an hour); an was formerly usual before an unaccented syllable beginning with h (an historical work), but now that the h in such words is pronounced, the distinction has become pedantic, and a historical should be said and written...

NPR's reference librarian uses a more journalistic source to back Mr. Everest's concern. According to Kee Malesky:

The AP Stylebook 2005 agrees:

Use the article a before consonant sounds: a historic event...

(As we discussed, this is just a personal affectation. It should be discouraged.)

Also, there's mention of how to pronounce Roberts's and Miers's. Dvorkin calls the pronunciation of the second S archaic.

(Link via Romenesko)

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Style & Substance -- and a rebuttal

The latest Style & Substance newsletter, from the Wall Street Journal's Paul Martin, has been published. Two points stand out.

The first is on grandmothers :
A story about an Ohio real-estate broker referred to her as a 60-year-old grandmother. Other stories on the front page that day didn't identify various long-in-the-tooth male executives as grandfathers, although they probably were, a reader pointed out. The description grandmother, in fact, should be a red flag to editors by now, and they should ask themselves whether they would identify an equivalent male as a grandfather in a story that didn't focus on his grandchildren. The result usually will be the deletion of grandmother.
The second is about markup:
In retailing, as we have preached, a 100% increase from the cost is really a 50% markup. Retailers divide the difference by the selling price rather than by the buying price to determine the markup or gross profit.

So consider this scenario presented in a page-one article: The laboratory charges a doctor $30 to analyze a skin biopsy and the insurer "reimburses the doctor an average of $109 per biopsy interpretation, allowing the doctor to realize a profit of 263%."

In the usual market terminology, the doctor's markup in this case is really 72%, although one might also say the doctor is reimbursed at more than three times his cost.
Doug Fisher, at Common Sense Journalism, makes this reasoned response:
Now, the Journal, focused on the business communtiy and its conventions, may have to follow this reasoning. But I wonder about whether ethically most of us should do this when I'll bet you that is not the way the public interprets things. If I pay you $80 for a vacuum you've bought for $40, you've doubled your money. That's a 100 percent profit to my mind -- and I'll bet to yours, too, unless you're in retailing.
Doug suspected retailer manipulation, but the head of the University of South Carolina's Center for Retailing wrote in to tell him that it's more tradition. Some retailers figure markup/cost, some markup/retail.

Fine, but that's confusing to me. And Doug. It's gotta be confusing for readers.

Doug follows up with:
Is it a case of twisting things in the retailer's favor? Maybe not. But it is ambiguity. And just as we resist attempts by other institutions to shape the language and facts to their liking (think "homicide bomber" instead of "suicide bomber" and the reactions that brought), it's at least incumbent on us, if we are going to use industry jargon/standards like this, to explain how they differ from most people's common perceptions.

Monday, November 07, 2005

Home schooling

From The New York Times' Metropolitan Diary:
Dear Diary:

It is hardly unusual, even at a time when the quality of education is frequently criticized, to read about a teacher whose encouragement has changed someone's life for the better.

Nevertheless, I was surprised to see in the window of a real estate broker on Flatbush Avenue a listing for an "English-tutor inspired brick home."

David Hawkins

New circulation figures

New weekday circulation figures for the six-month period that ended Sept. 30, compared with comparable figures from a year ago.

NewspaperSept. 2005 CircGain/LossChange
USA Today2,296,335-13,518-0.59%
The Wall Street Journal2,083,660-23,114-1.10%
The New York Times1,126,1905,1330.46%
Los Angeles Times843,432-33,184-3.79%
Daily News, New York688,584-26,468-3.70%
The Washington Post678,779-28,991-4.09%
New York Post662,681-11,708-1.74%
Chicago Tribune586,122-14,866-2.47%
Houston Chronicle (M-S)521,419-33,367-6.01%
Boston Globe414,225-37,246-8.25%
Arizona Republic (M-S)411,043-2,225-0.54%
San Francisco Chronicle (M-S)400,906-79,681-16.58%
Star-Ledger (N.J.)400,092500.01%
Star Tribune (Minn.) (M-S)374,528-961-0.26%
Atlanta Journal-Constitution362,426-34,674-8.73%
Philadelphia Inquirer357,679-11,635-3.15%
Detroit Free-Press341,248-7,590-2.18%
Cleveland Plain-Dealer339,055-15,845-4.46%
Oregonian (Portland, Ore.)333,515-4,192-1.24%
San Diego Union-Tribune314,279-20,908-6.24%

The numbers for three newspapers usually in the Top 20 are still being withheld: Newsday, the Dallas Morning News and the Chicago Sun-Times.

Testy and funny?!

The editor of the Pantagraph devotes a column to copy editors and heaps praise on Testy Copy Editors.
Hollywood rarely makes movies about copy editors. So it's easy to get a sense you're a second-class citizen on what we call the "desk."

I've never felt that way because of what I said above and I've worked on the copy desk at other papers. I always felt I traded anonymity for a role where I had more influence on the final product. But for many copy editors that feeling lingers.

This is why I found a Web site called "Testy Copy Editors" -- -- interesting.

I can't say that the humorous excerpts he pulls from the site reflect our funniest work, but I shouldn't complain.

Friday, November 04, 2005

Updating 'The Elements of Style'

Strunk & White's "The Elements of Style," an outdated prescriptivists' dream, is getting a facelift. And a sound check. Someone tell me why.

First, there's "The Elements of Style Illustrated," with art by Maira Kalman (best known for her New Yorker covers). Take that for what it's worth, but first read this Boston Globe review:
''The Elements"'s new clothes can't hide the worsening limp and spackled complexion that plague this aging zombie of a book.

It was never a seamless creation, to be sure; the 1959 first edition merely sandwiched Strunk's 1918 handbook for his Cornell students, lightly edited, between White's introduction and his essay on prose style. But at least you knew Strunk was Strunk, vintage 1918, and White was White, circa 1958. Succeeding revisions, instead of blending the disparate parts, have left ''Elements" a hodgepodge, its now-antiquated pet peeves jostling for space with 1970s taboos and 1990s computer advice.

And if the illustrated 'Elements' isn't your style, perhaps a musical version is? Newsweek writes that Kalman worked with friend and composer Nico Muhly, who has written an "operatic song cycle": "The Elements of Style: Nine Songs." It's being performed in New York (where else?).
Although lyrics like "Revise and rewrite" and "Do not use a hyphen between two words that can better be written as one word" suggest the didactic thrust of "Schoolhouse Rock," Muhly's work is more in the minimalist-modernist mold of Philip Glass and Steve Reich but with an absurdist dash of Spike Jones.
You can hear a clip at that link. It's fairly unintelligible.

UPDATE: Just read this gem from Languagehat on Strunk & White:
Ouch. I know I can't talk you Strunk-lovers out of your affection, but can you at least look on the damn book as an affectionate portrait of a crotchety former teacher and not as a guide to English, a task for which it is manifestly unsuited? Let it sit harmlessly on the mantelpiece and glare out at the unruly world with its glassy eyes.

Beef panties

This typo in the lead of a Reuters story must be shared (thanks, Robin):
WASHINGTON, Nov 1 (Reuters) - Quaker Maid Meats Inc. on Tuesday said it would voluntarily recall 94,400 pounds of frozen ground beef panties that may be contaminated with E. coli.
The link is here. I would have guessed they'd fix this error online, but the story is already three days old.

If that link disappears, you can find plenty of reprints.

UPDATE: Regret the Error has screen grabs of several news orgs that ran the piece unedited, including the New York Times and ABC News.

Paying respects

Paper runs a touching tribute to a copy editor after he dies.

Tom Russ, 54, died in a car accident.
[Daily Press Editor Ernie] Gates described Mr. Russ' eye as being as sharp as an X-Acto knife, his knowledge as broad as the James River and his wit as sly as the subtlest pun that you ever read in a headline. He confessed in a phone call from Connecticut on Monday, however, that Mr. Russ would have "told me to tone that down."

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

AP Stylebook update

Here's an updated entry:
Hawaii Do not abbreviate the state name. Hawaiians are members of an ethnic goup indigenous to the Hawaiian Islands and are also called Native Hawaiians. Use Hawaii resident or islander for anyone living in the state.

The state comprises 132 islands about 2,400 miles southwest of San Francisco. Collectively, they are the Hawaiian Islands.

The largest island in land area is Hawaii. Honolulu and Pearl Harbor are on Oahu, where more than 80 percent of the state's residents live.

Honolulu stands alone in datelines. Use Hawaii after all other cities in datelines, specifying the island in the text, if needed.
So what changed?

Just the first graph. It used to say: "Do not abbreviate. Residents are Hawaiians, technically natives of Polynesian descent."

I'd never noticed how poorly the old entry was stated, but this is a good change. The stylebook now asks you to differentiate between Hawaiians the ethnic and Hawaiians the residents.