Thursday, December 22, 2005

Staging a NYT style intervention

At the Huffington Post, Arianna took some time away from politics to launch a campaign against the New York Times' apostrophe rules.

She was set off by the same things that set so many copy editors against NYT style rules -- apostrophes in plural numbers, apostrophes in plural initialisms. (She fails to mention the missing apostrophes in decades, such as 90's, though.)

She figured they were mistakes but then got a copy of The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage. Writers weren't breaking Times rules; they were following them!
That's when I decided to do something to stop the madness. It's time for regime change in apostrophe land. The good news is that vanquishing this enemy won't take congressional approval, a U.N. Security Council resolution, or the use of waterboarding.

But neither can it be accomplished just by deploying a few unmanned apostrophe drones. No, this will require a coalition of journalists, copy editors, ad execs, teachers, and people like you and me willing to draw a line (albeit a small, crescent-shaped one) in the compositional sand. To say, "This will not stand." And, fortunately, we already have the Associated Press and major newspapers like the Los Angeles Times, the Boston Globe, and the Washington Post on our side.

She follows with some oversimplified rules, but I won't knock her for the airing of grievances. I don't disagree.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

John McIntyre blogging

John McIntyre (the Baltimore Sun's AME for the copy desk) has started a Sun-hosted blog called You Don't Say.

He published his inaugural post today, focusing on a rein-reign error in a headline and explaining the difference between homophones and homographs and why some idioms trip us up more than others:
The other problem with reign and rein is that the usage that gets confused most commonly is a buried metaphor. We no longer ride horses much, but we still take the reins when we assume control or give free rein when we surrender control to someone else. The English language is full of stock expressions that started out as metaphors and have since worn smooth with use.
John warned me that the blog is aimed at general readers and might be too basic for copy editors. (This is where I admit that I didn't know what a homograph was.) But I think he's off to a good start.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Keep Web sites simple

No one wants to type in two lines' worth of a Web address' slashes, underscores and tildes. So don't make them. Instead, direct them to a home page and then tell them how to navigate from there.

Visit Departments/Parks+and+Recreation/.
Visit and pull down to Parks and Recreation in the Departments menu.
Also, note that in Web addresses, case doesn't matter in anything before the first slash but does matter after. And if you get a Web address that ends in a slash or "/index.html" or "/index.php" they can usually be deleted.

For example:
can be changed to
Same Web site. And
should be changed to
It will automatically redirect to the address with the "/index.php" ending, but the goal is to give readers the shortest Web site possible.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Fun with agate

Here's my calendar pet peeve of the day:

When a play (or some other event, but it's almost always a play) is repeating for more than one weekend, try to tell readers the times and dates in English. I'd much rather read that it will continue Fridays and Saturdays at 7 p.m. through Jan. 1 than read each date and time in confusing consecutive order.


Lakeside Community Theater presents A Dickens Christmas Carol: A Traveling Travesty in Two Tumultuous Acts at 8 tonight at the Lakeside Arts Center, 6301-B Main St., The Colony. The comedy is a spoof of the Charles Dickens holiday classic and continues at 3 and 8 p.m. Saturday and 8 p.m. Dec. 23-24 and 3 p.m. Dec. 24. Tickets are $10.
Lakeside Community Theater presents A Dickens Christmas Carol: A Traveling Travesty in Two Tumultuous Acts at 8 tonight at the Lakeside Arts Center, 6301-B Main St., The Colony. The comedy is a spoof of the Charles Dickens holiday classic and continues at 8 p.m. Fridays and 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays through Dec. 24. Tickets are $10.

Operation Kindness will feature pet photos with Santa from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. today, Dec. 23 and 30. The facility is at 3201 Earhart Drive in Carrollton.
Operation Kindness will feature pet photos with Santa from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Fridays through Dec. 30. The facility is at 3201 Earhart Drive in Carrollton.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Wikipedia vs. Britannica: Who wins?

The journal Nature launched an investigation to compare the accuracy of online science entries in Wikipedia and the Encyclopedia Britannica.
The exercise revealed numerous errors in both encyclopaedias, but among 42 entries tested, the difference in accuracy was not particularly great: the average science entry in Wikipedia contained around four inaccuracies; Britannica, about three.
Britannica helps our cause in its response:
Editors at Britannica would not discuss the findings, but say their own studies of Wikipedia have uncovered numerous flaws. "We have nothing against Wikipedia," says Tom Panelas, director of corporate communications at the company's headquarters in Chicago. "But it is not the case that errors creep in on an occasional basis or that a couple of articles are poorly written. There are lots of articles in that condition. They need a good editor."
In other Wikipedia news, the site's founder, Jimmy Wales, tells Business Week Online that he thinks neither Wikipedia nor Britannica should be used as a citable source:

Do you think students and researchers should cite Wikipedia?
No, I don't think people should cite it, and I don't think people should cite Britannica, either -- the error rate there isn't very good. People shouldn't be citing encyclopedias in the first place. Wikipedia and other encyclopedias should be solid enough to give good, solid background information to inform your studies for a deeper level. And really, it's more reliable to read Wikipedia for background than to read random Web pages on the Internet.

I can't argue with him there. This is even more evidence that Wikipedia is a stellar starting point for information; but it should never be where you end up.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Slate's copy editors

Slate's "Who We Are" page includes bios of their five copy editors, all of them women:

Susan Daniels is a Slate copy editor. She earned her bachelor's degree at the University of Iowa. Before joining Slate, she was an editor at a consumer finance Web site.

Sian Gibby is a Slate copy editor. She received her master's degree in architecture from the University of Cincinnati and worked for a number of online entertainment sites before coming to Slate.

Kim Runciman is a Slate copy editor. She's edited and managed various magazines and newspapers in the Seattle area, and her fiction and creative nonfiction have appeared in numerous publications. She is a devout believer in the serial comma.

Ellen Tarlin is a Slate copy editor. She has copyedited previously at National Geographic Adventure, Travel + Leisure, Everyday Food, Scholastic, and numerous other places. She has taught writing and literature at Emerson College and Newbury College. Her essays have appeared in the Boston Globe, the Boston Phoenix, Brooklyn Bridge, and Bark magazine.

Amanda Watson-Boles is a Slate copy editor. She enjoys reading the dictionary, and her grammatical pet peeves include verb-stranding commas and misuse of the subjunctive. Before joining Slate, she was an editor at the Committee to Protect Journalists and Foreign Policy magazine. She graduated from Vassar College and earned a master's in international economic affairs from George Washington University.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Headline contest

Entries for the ACES headline contest must be postmarked by Friday.

Here are the rules. Winners receive $500 each ($250 for in the student category).

On plurals

From Jason Kottke:
Me: Yeah, it's like the plural of attorney general is attorneys general.
J: Attorneys general? I thought there was only one attorney general.
Me: Well, one for each state, and if they all go to a meeting or something...
M: Like, "all the attorneys general get together for the annual attorney general-a-thon."
Me: Shouldn't that be attorney-a-thon general?

Related: Engadget checked with Apple PR to see if it's iPod shuffles or iPods shuffle. They said the former...I think it should be the latter.

Monday, December 12, 2005

And now for something completely ... similar

To combine the last two threads: Let's see what's wrong with the source line on NPR's Tookie Williams timeline:
Sources: Associated Press, Reuters,,,
Tsk, tsk, tsk.

Tookie: founder, co-founder or just a member?

Stanley "Tookie" Williams, scheduled to be executed tonight, is usually referred to as "co-founder of the Crips," but that description isn't universal.

NPR: "Williams joins the Crips street gang, already formed by high school friend Raymond Washington."
L.A. Times: "Williams, co-founder of the Crips street gang, has become an international figure"
AP: "Williams founded Los Angeles' violent Crips street gang."

From what I can tell, it was Raymond Washington who founded the group, and by 1969 it had morphed into the Crips. All the accounts I've seen that include a date have Williams joining in 1971. Can you be a founder two years after the fact?

A Reuters story explains:
Experts say the convicted killer and his supporters have also overstated his role in founding the gang -- which has a reputation for violent rivalries with other gangs -- as a way of emphasizing his claim of redemption.

"Actually, everybody but Tookie gives Raymond Washington credit for starting (the Crips)," said Malcolm Klein, an emeritus professor of sociology at the University of Southern California who has studied gangs since 1962.

"Instead of founding the gang, which is what Tookie claims, what you're really talking about is emerging as a dominant figure," Klein told Reuters. ...

"The Crips were already well established when Tookie came on the scene," said retired Los Angeles County Sheriff's Sgt. and gang expert Wes McBride.

"(That he created the Crips) is part of his mystique that his supporters are using to try get him commuted. It gives him a stature as an anti-hero kind of person that has now turned his life around."

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Gig's up for Wikipedia vandal

Who wrote those Wikipedia lies about John Seigenthaler? An operations manager at a Nashville delivery company named Brian Chase. (Thanks, Leebert)

He came forward only when a Wikipedia critic came dangerously close to unmasking him on his own. Daniel Brandt, who runs Wikipedia Watch, had tracked the guilty IP address down to the delivery company. And then the New York Times called. Chase got nervous and 'fessed up to Seigenthaler (that's E-I, by the way, not I-E); then he resigned from his job.

But why'd he do it? In his letter to Seigenthaler, he said he wrote it to shock a co-worker.

On a related note, I edited the 1A obit on Richard Pryor yesterday and was doing a little background reading on his Wikipedia entry. Every time I hit reload, a word would change here or there; I could tell by the layout differences. But one time I hit reload, and Pryor's medium-sized picture was replaced with a huge one of Che Guevara.

I knew it'd disappear instantly, so I printed the page (for posterity? I don't know why, really). Sure enough, as soon as I hit reload, it was back to normal. Must have taken seconds.

I do think the big errors on Wikipedia are caught almost instantly. It's the stuff that's not big in the news that flies under the radar. And that's dangerous.

DeLay, Part 2: Criticizing the critics

After two of the three charges against Tom DeLay were dropped last week, I pointed to the discrepancies in news headlines.

I didn't mention the Houston Chronicle's head, "DeLay fails to get case tossed out." The paper's ombud says angry readers are justified in finding it biased: "Instead of taking a neutral or glass-half-full approach, the headline provided fodder to those who claim we are 'Chronically biased.' "

He asked the copy editor responsible, Helen Olin, to explain the headline. She responded:
"Our logic at the time seemed pretty straightforward. DeLay was in court with hopes that his case would get tossed. That didn't happen. We put that in the main headline and explained the split ruling in the deck. I truly had no intention of appearing biased. We wrote the headline based off the story's lead paragraph. ... The lead did not take a double-barreled approach (meaning the story's first paragraph didn't read that the judge rendered a split decision). Thus, our headline focused on DeLay failing to get his case thrown out. We felt our deck, which mentioned the conspiracy charge being dropped, added balance. The point size and the story's lead, not political bias or any other non-editing related force, influenced our actions with that headline. Had it been a story about any other politician with the exact same circumstances, we would have arrived at the exact same headline. I will certainly take that into consideration next time I'm working on a story with a politically charged nature."
The ombud, James Campbell, accepts her "earnest answer" and said that, yes, the headlines is technically accurate -- but it is still biased.

And in typical outsider fashion, Campbell suggests changing from:
DeLay fails to get case tossed out
to the too-long, confusing and poorly spelled and punctuated:
DeLay wins one, drops one, trial will procede.

Copy editors need to have thick skins, because headline criticism comes from all sides. And most criticism, I've found, has some merit. There's almost always a better headline out there, time warranted.

The Chronicle probably could have come up with a better headline. But James Campbell's example is laughable.

I'd try:
Two of three DeLay charges stand
Judge tosses 1 of 3 DeLay charges

(But a word of caution: Those two headlines say the same thing to me, but I bet people looking for bias would still say they'd found it there. There really is no pleasing everyone. And it can be tough to sort out valid complaints from hogwash. Just make sure you try.)

Friday, December 09, 2005

An expensive error

The $3 billion typo [Slashdot]

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

DeLay decision: Good for him or bad?

From Daniel Solove's blog, Concurring Opinions:
Here's a selection of headlines for stories about the Texas court's recent decision throwing out the conspiracy charge against Tom DeLay but retaining the money laundering charges. But by these headlines, it appears that there were two very different results in the case:

Washington Times, DeLay's Conspiracy Charge Rejected

Washington Post, Felony Charge Is Upheld For DeLay

New York Times, Texas Judge Lets Stand 2 of 3 Charges Against DeLay

Fox News, Judge Tosses DeLay Conspiracy Charges

LA Times, Judge Upholds DeLay Money-Laundering Charges

CNN, DeLay Conspiracy Charge Tossed Out

MSNBC, DeLay Money-Laundering Charges Upheld

Former Toledo Blade copy editor dies

Former Toledo Blade copy editor and writing coach William Shay died. The paper published a nice tribute.
Young reporters, especially, would bristle at his dogged insistence that every fact in a story be checked and double-checked, Mr. Cairns recalled.

Mr. Shay bristled at sloppiness.

One of those young reporters in 1971 was Blade Outdoors Editor Steve Pollick, then a general assignment reporter on the city desk.

"What a great guy. To me he was a master copy editor and a master of the English language. He had little tolerance for incompetence in writing. He helped me grow tremendously as a writer, taught me how to say exactly what I was thinking in a concise way. He forced me to learn how to write cleanly, accurately, and quickly on deadline."

Monday, December 05, 2005

Sticky wikis

Wikipedia is requiring users to register before creating articles, after John Seigenthaler complained about a malicious entry on him. Problem solved? Probably not. Anyone can edit information in or out of articles with no accountability.

An interesting side story is the case of Adam Curry (yes, the former MTV veejay [veejay is one of the stupidest words ever]). He had a role in inventing podcasts, and he is accused of editing the podcasting entry at Wikipedia to inflate his role in the endeavor and delete references to others' work. Curry has apologized, blaming technology and ignorance. But the case helped put Wikipedia's credibility in the crosshairs even before the Seigenthaler problem. (And writing or editing articles about yourself on Wikipedia? Bad form there, just like it would be in newspapers.)

Today, New York Times business editor Larry Ingrassia sent a memo to reporters (later published on Romenesko) saying the paper has received a number of complaints about inaccurate information on Wikipedia. "We shouldn't be using it to check any information that goes into the newspaper," he said. I'd hope NYT reporters would know better. Most of the people who read A Capital Idea and Testy Copy Editors certainly do. (And I'll reiterate here: I love Wikipedia for exploring topics and learning new facts. But it's just a starting point; everything must be confirmed from a reputable source before appearing in a newspaper.)

Cnet has an article on whether Wikipedia is safe from libel liability.
As angry as Seigenthaler was, and as untrue as the article had been, it's unlikely that he has a good court case against Wikipedia, according to legal experts interviewed by CNET Seigenthaler himself acknowledged as much in a USA Today op-ed piece.
But, as has also been discussed round here before, legal liability may mean nothing if your credibility is shot. No one will be reading you anyway.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Beautiful screaming lady? Or cat in danger?

Richard Scarry's "The Best Word Book Ever" has undergone some updating between the 1963 and 1991 versions. There's a comparison on Flickr (via The Morning News).

becomes police officer, pretty stewardess becomes flight attendant, handsome pilot becomes just pilot, and the beautiful screaming lady being saved by a brave hero becomes cat in danger and fire fighter. But fisherman stays fisherman.

The roles of commuter and train conductor are replaced with reporter and photographer. Some of the wording is less judgmental. And the former roles of men and women (farmer vs. caretaker or cook) are mixed up a bit now.

Blood alcohol content

This recently updated thread from Testy Copy Editors is worth a read. It points out a couple of facts about blood alcohol content that are often wrong.

First, it's not a percentage. There's some math involved here that you can get at TCE, but it comes down to this: The measurement is of grams (of alcohol) per deciliter (of blood), and that doesn't work out to be a percentage. (Blood and alcohol each have a different densities from water.)

Second, it's a measurement of the alcohol content of the blood. A hyphen between blood and alcohol isn't necessary.

A Wikipedia warning

Here's the reason so many of us preach that Wikipedia is a useful starting point for research and not the end-all be-all.

John Seigenthaler writes in USA Today (via Romenesko) that for 132 days, a false and malicious biography appeared under his name there.
John Seigenthaler Sr. was the assistant to Attorney General Robert Kennedy in the early 1960's. For a brief time, he was thought to have been directly involved in the Kennedy assassinations of both John, and his brother, Bobby. Nothing was ever proven.
One sentence is true, he writes: "I was Robert Kennedy's administrative assistant in the early 1960s. I also was his pallbearer." The rest? Lies.

An editor did change the site shortly after it was created, to fix a misspelling.

I'm back

Forgive the extended absence. I thought I would be able to blog while visiting the in-laws, but the Internet connection blocked all blog-related sites, including Blogger, Bloglines and all blogs.

So, although I was online, I was still offline.

But I did enjoy wonderful cornbread dressing and some relaxing time with family.