Thursday, May 25, 2006

Fine Point vs. El Marko

We are editors, yes, but we must be writers as well. And sometimes a stylebook ruling or a factual correction conflicts with the goal of presenting prose that sounds as if maybe, just maybe, it was written by a human rather than a machine. The correct answer in such a case?

a. Shrug. The stylebook is the stylebook, and we follow the stylebook.
b. Hey, I'm a human! Perhaps I can craft something that satisfies both requirements!

You guessed it. The artfully wielded Bic can be mightier than the thick, permanent black marker. Here are some case studies. The details have been changed to protect the guilty.

THE RAW COPY: She is a teacher at Los Cerritos High School, which offers classes in seven foreign languages.
THE CATCH: It's a high school all right, but that's not its name. It's something long and unwieldy, like Los Cerritos Advanced Institution of Learning and Culture for All the Live-Long Day.
THE EL MARKO FIX: She is a teacher at Los Cerritos high school, which offers classes in seven foreign languages.
THE SLOT SPEAKS: It's either a name or it isn't. There are some conventions that occupy that middle ground -- Time magazine, Washington state -- but "Los Cerritos high school" is just plain ugly. The fix that requires the fewest keystrokes isn't always the best route. As they say on the infomercials, There's got to be a better way!
THE FINE-POINT VERSION: She is a teacher at Los Cerritos, a high school that offers classes in seven foreign languages.
EPILOGUE: See? There was a better way.


THE RAW COPY: His next campaign stops are in Sandusky and Cleveland, Ohio.
THE CATCH: "Silly backwards writer! Everybody knows Cleveland stands alone but Sandusky requires the state!"
THE EL MARKO FIX: His next campaign stops are in Sandusky, Ohio, and Cleveland.
THE SLOT SPEAKS: Give me a ____ing break. The way it was written is the only sensible way to write such a thing. If that's a stylebook violation, then the stylebook is a ass.
EPILOGUE: You're trying to get me to take early retirement, aren't you?


THE RAW COPY: The group, which backed the confirmations of Supreme Court Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., objected to the commentary.
THE CATCH: He's the chief justice of the United States, not the chief justice of the Supreme Court.
THE EL MARKO FIX: The group, which backed the confirmations of Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Supreme Court Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., objected to the commentary.
THE SLOT SPEAKS: Good point, bad "fix." The chief justice is on the Supreme Court, and there's a way to reflect that and avoid sounding idiotic.
THE FINE-POINT VERSION: The group, which backed the Supreme Court confirmations of Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., objected to the commentary.
EPILOGUE: Was that so hard? Think, people, think!

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Roberts's Rules of Style

My desk wrote the headline "The Case of Roberts's Missing Papers" last night, and the reporter whose name was on the story received several e-mail messages (some more polite than others) pointing out the "error" of not using Roberts'.

Lesson No. 1 here, of course, is that the reporters don't write the headlines.

Lesson No. 2: This is a matter of style, and Washington Post style calls for Roberts's. Styles vary, but if one style must be declared more correct than the other, Roberts's wins.

"The Elements of Style," in fact, makes the principle Rule 1 in Chapter 1. Sayeth Strunkwhite:

1. Form the possessive singular of nouns by adding 's.

Follow this rule whatever the final consonant. Thus write,

    Charles's friend

    Burns's poems

    the witch's malice
  Exceptions are the possessives of ancient proper names ending -es and -is, the possessive Jesus', and such forms as for conscience' sake, for righteousness' sake.

The aggrieved readers' aggrievedness is an interesting demonstration of how well Americans have been "trained" by Associated Press style. It is true that most U.S. newspapers, because most U.S. newspapers follow AP style, would write Roberts'. AP says:

SINGULAR PROPER NAMES ENDING IN S: Use only an apostrophe: Achilles' heel, Agnes' book, Ceres' rites, Descartes' theories, Dickens' novels, Euripides' dramas, Hercules' labors, Jesus' life, Jules' seat, Kansas' schools, Moses' law, Socrates' life, Tennessee Williams' plays, Xerxes' armies. (An exception is St. James's Palace.)

There are myriad rules within the rule -- tiny points on which virtually no two stylebooks agree -- but in general USA Today agrees with AP while the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal agree with the Post.

The Chicago Manual of Style is to more formal publishing what the Associated Press Stylebook is to newspapers, and it takes the formal route:

The possessive of most singular nouns is formed by adding an apostrophe and an s, and the possessive of plural nouns (except for a few irregular plurals that do not end in s) by adding an apostrophe only.

(Note that Roberts as a last name does not mean "more than one Roberts.") Chicago gives Burns's poems and Dickens's novels as examples.

Words Into Type has a similar entry.

So does Garner's Modern American Usage:

To form a singular possessive, add -'s to most singular nouns--even those ending in -s, -ss, and -x (hence Jones's, Nichols's, witness's, Vitex's).

The most interesting exception, addressed by some of the above, is for Sox, as in Red Sox and White Sox. The obviously correct solution is Sox', as the spelling is an analogue of Socks (plurals take the apostrophe alone) and, of course, people just don't say "Sox's."

For much, much more on this topic, see "The Elephants of Style."

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Know Your Demics

I recently came across a reference to "an epidemic of pandemic flu." Pandemic flu looks like avian flu and Spanish flu, but it refers to the prevalence of the disease, not the type of the disease. There could be an epidemic of flu, and if it spread far enough it would be a pandemic of flu.

Webster's New World on pandemic:
over a whole area, country, etc.; universal; general; specif., epidemic over a large region: said of a disease
a pandemic disease