Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Copy editor fired

A copy editor and reporter at the Dover Post in Delaware was fired because of his personal blog.

Matt Donegan, 24, was baffled by the firing and said, "What I wrote ... was rude, but it doesn't make it wrong."

What did he write? The first interest listed on his main MySpace page, where his blog is hosted, is "shaving my scrotum." Things go downhill from there.

This isn't the classiest of blogs; Donegan never intended it to be. It's not something you'd show to your boss to help get you hired, nor is it something you'd want identified with your reporter if you were his editor.

Donegan is trying to make this into a free-speech issue. He will fail.

"He has a right to free speech, certainly," said the Post's editor, Don Flood. But his blog was "just so beyond the pale he could not possibly represent us."

(Link via Romenesko)

Monday, January 30, 2006

Quote, unquote

Language Log's Arnold Zwicky is quoted in Leslie Savan's "Slam Dunks and No-Brainers," which is nice, he says.

And he can live with some of the changes the editors made to his quote, from a post to the American Dialect Society, to conform to their style -- uppercasing some words to reflect formal capping conventions rather than his quick-hit-send lowercase style in the blog, changing his double quotes to single quotes because the entire passage is now in double quotes, moving his commas inside ending quotes marks.

But he is most put out by the changing of his asterisks (to denote emphasis more quickly than using HTML code for itals) to quote marks. And he is right to be.
Emphatic quotation marks are usually mocked as an illiteratism; but in any case, they aren't standard. Yet I have been represented as using them. I feel sullied, and frankly, I'm puzzled as to how this happened; either Savan, or someone at Knopf, apparently thinks this is an ok way to indicate emphasis.

What's my name?

If Gov. Christine Gregoire wants to be called Chris, she will be called Chris. So says the editor of the Columbian of Vancouver, Wash. (Via Romenesko.)

He had no problem setting style for his paper on the matter, but he was puzzled by AP's refusal to reflect the change in preference. There's an AP style rule saying people are entitled to be known however they want to be known, he pointed out. What gives? (It sounds like AP was reluctant because the shift was a PR move intended to soften Gregoire's image.)

The editor, Lou Brancaccio, talked to the AP bureau chief in Seattle, Nancy Trott. She came around. And in a word of Bill Clintons, Tom Cruises and Diddys, how could she not?

Fact checking

Most newspaper copy editors do as much fact checking as triage allows -- names, dates, phone numbers, Web addresses. But there are only so many hours in a day, and they run out fast for a daily publication. So that's newspapers' excuse for not checking out more facts.

Magazines? They seem to do a better job, and I suspect that the New Yorker is one of the best. I was fascinated by this CJR piece detailing "The Secret Life of a Letter to the Editor." The article includes a string of e-mails between Valerie Lawson, biographer of Mary Poppins creator Pamela Travers, and New Yorker editors. Although the point is to show how watered down Lawson's complaints became in the final version of her letter to the editor, you also get a good look at how much fact checking the paper did on the article in question.

Now, compare that example to those from today's Wall Street Journal article on fact checking in nonfiction books. Publishers say it just costs too much and that they have to rely on the honor code with their writers. But others are calling bullshit -- saying money used to be spent on editing but has been shifted recently to publicity. Everyone just wants to get those books on Oprah.

A solution has been offered: Publishers should add a clause to writers' contracts saying they are representing facts to the best of their knowledge. If authors are found to be egregious liars, publishers can sue them for breach of contract.

One reader of James Frey's "A Million Little Pieces" is taking a different tack -- suing the publisher on the basis that it misrepresented a fiction book as nonfiction.

Looks like it's not just newspapers suffering form a lack of credibility.

Friday, January 27, 2006

False ranges

John McIntyre explains the concept of false ranges, with examples, and points out why such constructions are errors:
What is the continuum on which one can place the Dalai Lama and M. Scott Peck, Lou Gehrig's disease and Parkinson's disease, Black Sabbath and Franz Ferdinand? The construction the writers could have used more precisely is that these authors, diseases, performers, topics, whatever are as diverse as.
Once you start looking for false ranges, you'll see them every day; there's no avoiding them.

The ranges that work have a definite starting and stopping point -- from A to Z, from 1 to 92, from Seattle to Miami. In more conceptual ranges, the points are less obvious and oftentimes less effective but may still work in context -- from Mother Theresa to Ted Bundy, from Death Valley to Duluth.

But, as John points out, listing random bands or diseases, topics or writers points out nothing but their diversity -- sometimes not even that. (In such cases, it's best to go with "including" instead of "as diverse as," if the examples are needed at all.)

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

A silly font meant for silly purposes

The designer of Comic Sans shares why he created everyone's favorite font.

(via Kottke.org)

Monday, January 23, 2006

Make use of the OED

The OED is free for the next 48 hours, starting .... now!

(And after 3:30 p.m. Wednesday Central time, you can still look up any word that begins with S, P, N or M. That's a lot of words.)

Weekend roundup

A copy editor took Ray Nagin's chocolate comment out of the first-day wire story at the Louisville Courier Journal. He was trying to avoid offending readers, he said, and so only included Nagin's comment that New Orleans would again be "a majority African American city." Readers accused the paper of covering up for Nagin. The public editor wrote a column addressing the problem and took the chance to praise copy editors and the many plates they keep spinning. ("We dropped a plate here; we didn't smash the china cabinet.") Testy Copy Editors has a related thread.

The Sacramento Bee's public editor writes that there were groans in the newsroom when they had to run this correction recently: "A story on Metro Page B2 Sunday about a spelling bee misspelled the name of Leroy Greene Middle School." The rest of the column is devoted to how the paper tracks corrections. Like other papers, the Bee has started tracking them in a computer database.

Barbara Wallraff's syndicated column discusses the origin of the phrase for good, meaning permanently. The phrase, much like thanks to, can often be used in situations that are neither good nor deserve thanks -- a company shutting down for good thanks to a recession, for example. Also covered: woe is me and thanks to I.

James Kilpatrick picks apart the new book "Weasel Words: The Dictionary of American Doublespeak." "Functionally it is quite worthless -- it's a guest-room book for an insomniac bibliophile." He lists numerous terms that he doesn't believe qualify as weasel words; I'd have to disagree on at least a few, though. However, it sounds like the book is more a list of cliches and might be useful to read through just to keep you on the alert. But it's not going to teach you much.

Pinecones used to be called pineapples, and pineapples were so named because they looked like big pinecones. Also, varsity was originally a shortened version of university that meant the same.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

The OED -- for free

The BBC, with help from the OED, is running a six-part series on words and their origins called "Balderdash and Piffle." Each week, they discuss the origins of words starting with a specific letter.

In conjunction with the series, the OED is offering free access to the dictionary online for 48 hours after the program airs, at 3:30 p.m. Central time Mondays.

In addition, at any time, you can look up words that start with this week's featured letter or any previously featured letter.

This week, the letter is N. So far, P and M have also been covered.

But you still have two more hours to enjoy unfettered access today.

It's easy to use. And addictive.

So which is older -- balderdash or piffle? Balderdash, by about 250 years.

The currently popular third definition of balderdash: "A senseless jumble of words; nonsense, trash, spoken or written." (1674)

The first definition of balderdash: "Froth or frothy liquid." (1596)

The noun piffle: "Foolish or formal nonsense; twaddle; trash; also used as a derisive retort." (1890)

The verb piffle: "To talk or act in a feeble, trifling, or ineffective way." (1847)

(Via Languagehat)

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Begs the question (now with dinosaurs!)

If you're into absurd comics about dinosaurs and language, you'll enjoy this.

My feelings on begs the question are known. I don't like it. However, I'm at a point where its "misuse" no longer makes me cringe; it's just so universal. Who can cringe that often? It hurts my shoulders.

I still change it in copy, though.

(Via Languagehat)

Birdflu is evolving

Benjamin Zimmer at Language Log notes that he's seeing more instances of birdflu rendered as one word instead of two.

The one-word construction shows us 158 times in a Google News search right now. Take out everything from Reuters, which seems to be the biggest offender, and you drop to 88 hits.

Few of those come from U.S. sources, though -- seven of the 88. Three are from the Columbus Dispatch, and all are used as adjectives. However, the paper doesn't consistently use the one-word form for adjectives; it more often appears as bird-flu.

Two hits are from Science Daily. Both are just pages that contain links to stories from November that used the term. But their current stories consistently use two words for the noun and the adjective.

One shows up in the headline but not the body of a Herald News Daily (N.D.) story, from AP. It's used as an adjective there, too.

I wouldn't call this a widespread error yet, but be on the lookout. Birdflu is no cellphone, but nor should we let it become so, either.

Like they were drawn by a drunk with an Etch-a-Sketch

Harper's republishes its list (from May 2005) of similes recently used by journalists to explain the shape of legislative districts, including:
Like embryos
Like a crab with two narrow claws
Like a ribbon of shame
Like a bad restaurant-floor accident
Like an upside-down swan
Like a backward C with a fat middle
Like a bucket of earthworms
Like long fingers
Like a gun pointed east

Monday, January 16, 2006

The year in words

Hello, everyone! Forgive the absence. The holidays and traveling and then illness (and a bit of laziness in between) kept me away for much longer than planned.

And I missed all these conversations about words of the year.

The New Oxford American Dictionary chose podcast. That's certainly a word that came into its own in 2005. Not a bad choice. And editors there have discussions about the word. They argue about making a serious choice. Thought goes into it.

Merriam-Webster picked integrity. I can't say that word really defined 2005 for me, but the dictionary's criteria was the word with the most hits on its Web site. You can't really argue with that. People looked up what they looked up.

The American Dialect Society liked truthiness. That's from "The Colbert Report" and refers to stating concepts one wishes to be true rather than stating the facts. It's clever, and might just be snarky enough to hold on for a while. Maybe.

But infosnacking? That was Webster's New World College Dictionary's choice. And though I apparently do it quite often, I've never heard of the word. And the dictionary's editor in chief, Mike Agnes, wouldn't be surprised.

"We try to choose a word that tickles our linguistic funny bone or is significant in the way language reflects culture," Agnes said in a Cox News Service story.

Wherever did the editors spot it? In an Associated Press story a few weeks ago, according to the Morning Call of Allentown, Pa. "They thought the term for acquiring discrete bits of information on various Web sites during office hours might stick. It didn't."

Agnes said, "We have no explanation for this."

And then there's CNN, which had a story on some of these words Jan. 7. Sudokus, to which I'm sufficiently addicted, were mentioned in the headline, only spelled "soduko." (The error has since been fixed.) They're making their own words of the year over there. (However, the story does mention the clever whale tail, the strings of thongs you often see peeking out of women's low-rise pants.)

Add to these round-ups all the commentary on Lake Superior State University's banished words list, and that's a lot of talk about the language. This one is probably more useful for copy editors than the other yearly lists. It's like a compilation of word we can excise almost every time we see them in copy (the FEMA entry excluded, of course).