Friday, June 24, 2005


The DSM is the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, not the Downing Street memo. Responsible users of abbreviations will recall a similar situation from earlier in the Iraq mess, namely that CPA is a certified public accountant, not a Coalition Provisional Authority.

D.C. bonus: AA is an organization for drunks, not a county in Maryland. (And I meant District of Columbia, not DaimlerChrysler.)

Thursday, June 23, 2005

A Hard Problem to Lick

Did you hear the one about the giant popsicle that melted, sending New York pedestrians scurrying?

Only, wait -- Popsicle is a registered trademark. And this one was made of Snapple, so it wasn't a Popsicle-brand product. What will you do?

The evolution of the Associated Press story is instructive. First it was a "Popsicle." Then it was a "popsicle" (though the headline didn't get fixed), with the note "Eds: SUBS lead and 4th graf to substitute generic use of 'popsicle' sted trademark."

(Sure enough, Webster's New World says the word for "such a confection" can "also" be lowercased. You'll get letters from lawyers if you take this route -- that, I don't mind. What I do mind is that it's descriptivist nonsense.)

Finally, with no note to editors, AP did the right thing: "ice pop." Before I saw this I had come to the same conclusion for the Post's second edition, after a little Web surfing. For the first edition, unfortunately, all I could come up with was the dorky and unwieldy "Popsicle-style frozen treat."

For the third and final edition, I killed the item when I saw that it was also in the Style section. Sigh.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

If, Frankly, You Give a Damn

The latest American Film Institute television special covered the "100 greatest movie quotes of all time." I'm a sucker for these shows, but the most interesting thing in this one, especially from a copy editor's viewpoint, was just how many of these quotes we get wrong all the time. (In fact, the AFI Web site gets the first one in the show -- No. 100 -- wrong. The line from "Titanic" is "I'm the king of the world," as the TV special shows, not "I'm king of the world." And that's one that people almost always get right.)

Because the show contains actual clips for every line, I'm reasonably sure I'm getting this right (if not, please correct me). So here, as a public service, are the top however-many misquoted famous movie lines (numbering courtesy of the American Film Institute):

89. "Tell them to go out there with all they got and win just one for the Gipper" ("Knute Rockne, All American," 1940). Not so much a misquote as an adaptation, but note that it's not "Win one for the Gipper." And I'm imposing a comma on that movie title even if, as the AFI claims, there is none.

74. "Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown" ("Chinatown," 1974). Not "It's Chinatown, Jake."

66. "Get your stinking paws off me, you damned dirty ape" ("Planet of the Apes," 1968). As Ray Romano makes clear on the special, there are any number of ways to get this one wrong.

63. "Mrs. Robinson, you're trying to seduce me. Aren't you?" ("The Graduate," 1967). Not "Mrs. Robinson, are you trying to seduce me?"

60. "Well, here's another nice mess you've gotten me into!" ("Sons of the Desert," 1933). Don't we normally say "another fine mess you've gotten us into"? Maybe Oliver Hardy did say that at some point, but it's "nice" and "me" in the AFI's showcase line.

57. "Greed, for lack of a better word, is good" ("Wall Street," 1987). So, it's "Greed ... is good," not "Greed is good." Again, perhaps an adaptation more than a misquote.

51. "You've got to ask yourself one question: 'Do I feel lucky?' Well, do you, punk?" ("Dirty Harry," 1971). Commonly misstated along the lines of "Are you feeling lucky today, punk?"

50. "Houston, we have a problem" ("Apollo 13," 1995). An interesting case here, in that the movie version is a misquote, and an often-misquoted one at that (people often say "Houston, we've got a problem"). The actual quote from the actual Apollo 13 in 1970 is "Houston, we've had a problem."

40. "Mama always said life was like a box of chocolates. You never know what you're gonna get" ("Forrest Gump," 1994). Was, not is.

39. "If you build it, he will come" ("Field of Dreams," 1989). Maybe at some point the movie says they, but the main quote is he.

36. "Badges? We ain't got no badges! We don't need no badges! I don't have to show you any stinking badges!" ("The Treasure of the Sierra Madre," 1948). Not "We don't need no stinking badges."

35. "You're gonna need a bigger boat" ("Jaws," 1975). Not "we're."

34. "I want to be alone" ("Grand Hotel," 1932). Apparently Garbo's alleged "vant" delivery was a myth.

28. "Play it, Sam" ("Casablanca," 1942). Here's one that I think we've come around on. I think it's fairly well known by now that "Play it again, Sam" was never uttered.

26. "Why don't you come up sometime and see me?" ("She Done Him Wrong," 1933). No, Mae West did not say "come up and see me sometime."

19. "I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore! ("Network," 1976). The common variant "I'm [not as] mad as hell, and I'm not going to take it anymore" isn't too far off, as at least one of the people following Howard Beale's instructions says it that way.

11. "What we've got here is failure to communicate" ("Cool Hand Luke," 1967). Not "What we have here" or "a failure to communicate."

  9. "Fasten your seat belts. It's going to be a bumpy night" ("All About Eve," 1950). Night, not ride.

  7. "All right, Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my close-up" ("Sunset Boulevard," 1950). This one sometimes gets turned around.

  4. "Toto, I've a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore" ("The Wizard of Oz," 1939). You could make an argument for "I have" (as the AFI special's graphics show), but it's definitely not "I've got" (despite what the AFI Web site says).

  1. "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn" ("Gone With the Wind," 1939). Even more so than with the "Play it again, Sam" myth, I think people know now that the formerly common version -- in this case, "Frankly, Scarlett, I don't give a damn" -- is wrong.

Sunday, June 19, 2005

When Answers Are E-Mailed

The question "Should direct quotations be edited?" is one, as I have said before, that seems to split journalists right down the middle. One side maintains that "we shouldn't make people look stupid," while the correct side considers the question analogous to "Should history be altered?"

I put it this way in "Lapsing Into a Comma":

This doesn't mean we need to reproduce every um, every er, every cough; it doesn't mean a reporter's transcription errors can't be corrected; and it certainly doesn't mean that stories should attempt to re-create dialect (plenty of literate people pronounce should have as "should of"). But it does mean that a reader should be able to watch a TV interview and read the same interview in the newspaper and not notice discrepancies in word choice.

The pronunciation issue is just one of the complexities within the bigger question. What about quotes from written material? If the Senate subcommittee's report refers to "the President," are we at liberty to make that "the president"? It's a slightly closer call than changing a spoken "ain't" to "isn't," but I think the answer is still no. The attribution "the panel wrote" should introduce what the panel actually wrote.

Now then: What about written material of a less-formal nature? More and more these days, instead of making a phone call, a reporter will ask a source a question by e-mail. If Deep Throat '05 writes, "dood that documnet, thats the smokin gun!!!!!," what do you quote your source as saying?

My answer may surprise you:

"That document, that's the smoking gun," the source said.

E-mail is the medium, not the message, and informality in spelling, capitalization and punctuation in e-mailed answers is akin to pronunciation in spoken answers. All this, for me, hinges on the verb "said." Whether you must disclose "said in an e-mail interview" is an issue for your publication's masters (Do you say "said in a telephone interview"?), but once you frame your quote in terms of "said" rather than "wrote," you become a literate transcriber rather than a photocopier. More controversially, perhaps, I would extend this liberty even to "said in a news release." If Acme announces news about "WILE E. COYOTE" in a release, go ahead and make it "Wile E. Coyote," as long as you're saying "the spokesman said" or "the company said" rather than "the news release said."

That news-release guideline is an exception to my general advice, which is to treat documents as sacred when they are intended to be read by an audience other than the reporter. When you're quoting an e-mail to yourself, you're quoting the writer of the e-mail, you should use the verb "said," and you should follow your publication's style; when you're quoting an e-mail from Enron felon No. 1 to Enron felon No. 2, you're quoting the e-mail, you should use the verb "wrote," and you shouldn't change things.

Saturday, June 18, 2005


My favorite pull quote from my latest acquisition as a stylebook collector, the style guide of the Guardian:
"Iraq or Iran -- what's our style?"

Freelance subeditor at British national newspaper
(not the Guardian)

Friday, June 17, 2005


Clearing out the notebook . . .

  • Comma before "and" when the word is joining two independent clauses, right? Hell, I've even hit you over the head with that concept. But there's a "but." Observe:

    "From the beginning, the company has acknowledged wrongdoing and we’re going to have to take responsibility for our actions," he said.
    If you're tempted to put a comma before that "and," hold on. The comma belongs there if the speaker is asserting that the company must take responsibility. It doesn't belong there if, as is more likely, he is listing that as one of two things the company has acknowledged. He may indeed agree with the assertion, but in the context of this sentence he's saying "The company has acknowledged a and b," not "The company has acknowledged a, and I would like to add b." Sometimes an independent clause is a tad on the dependent side.

  • Still using the "small-business man" example to illustrate the joy of hyphenation? It's a classic, but it's flawed, because "businessman" is one word -- doubters could point out that "small business man" is different from "small businessman." Try this: A small town judge is different from a small-town judge.

  • From the "Say what you mean, mean what you say" file:

    According to industry executives and analysts, the management strategy that made Dell a successful computer company could do the same for the fast-food chain.
    The fast-food chain wants to become a successful computer company? No.

    In the players' box was Tony Nadal, the uncle and coach of Rafael Nadal since he started playing as a youngster.
    Tony didn't become Rafael's uncle until Rafael started playing tennis? No.

    Members of the platoon testified that they punched, kicked and struck the detainee with their rifles.
    They punched him with their rifles and kicked them with their rifles? No.

    Unlike the Middle Ages, when books were made of parchment so expensive that they were mainly for the wealthy, papyrus was more accessible to members of all classes.
    Papyrus was unlike the Middle Ages? Well, yes, but . . .

  • Friday, June 10, 2005

    Fun With Partial Quotes

    This Chowhound post tickled my funny bone. (Of course, I still giggle to myself every time I pronounce "Zagat" as "Zagnut," so it goes without saying that your sense of humor may vary.)

    Thursday, June 09, 2005

    A Little Good-Natured Belittling

    In case your self-esteem has gotten a little too high, fellow copy editors, try this. Or maybe this.

    Montopoli is right, of course, that a Mrs. Robinson allusion was a bad idea for the Anne Bancroft headlines. Those of you who became editors for reasons other than "it might lead to a reporting gig down the road," or who have thinnish skins, might prefer the way the point is made at A Capital Idea and Testy Copy Editors.