Thursday, December 27, 2007

Inside Baseball

If you're going to use newsroom lingo, do it right. Perhaps you can expand this short list of peeves:

  • Sidebar is a word. Mainbar is not.
  • Lede, yes. Hede, no. The deliberately misspelled short form of headline is hed.
  • Tuesday, December 25, 2007

    Merry Christmas!

    The C is up because Christmas is a proper noun, but the M is up only because it's at the beginning of a line -- there's no principle by which every word in a holiday greeting is capitalized. "Merry Christmas," but "I wish you a merry Christmas." And although New Year's Day and New Year's Eve are up, it's the new year, as in "Happy new year" or "I wish you a happy new year."

    Saturday, December 22, 2007

    Repeat the Error! Repeat It, Already!

    The one part of my day night job that involves the entire Washington Post and not just national news is editing the corrections that appear on Page A2. Often that means rewriting the corrections, because there is a very specific style that is hard to master when you're not dealing with it every day. We use the date, not "yesterday" or the day of the week. We use "article" rather than "story," and we strive for economy by saying "a Dec. 20 Business article" rather than "an article in the Dec. 20 Business section" or some such. We say "incorrectly said" rather than "mistakenly reported" or "inadvertently stated" or "erroneously published." We don't say "in The Washington Post," because, well, why the heck would we be correcting something from some other publication?

    But that's all just style. As for substance, the most frequent cause for a rewrite is the mistaken idea that we never want to "repeat the error." For many publications, "do not repeat the error" is canon, and for many years that was the case at my newspaper. We reversed that policy several years ago, but it seems that not everybody got the memo.

    A don't-repeat-the-error correction reads something like this:
    A Dec. 20 Metro article misstated the circumstances of Montgomery County police's arrest of Harvey Baxter of Rockville. He was charged with speeding.
    Not exactly forthcoming about the error that was published, is it? Especially if, entirely hypothetically, an honest correction might read something like this:
    A Dec. 20 Metro article incorrectly said that Montgomery County police arrested Harvey Baxter of Rockville after a two-hour chase and a bloody shootout and charged him with murdering his grandmother. No such chase or gunfight occurred, and he was charged with speeding.
    That's an extreme and entirely hypothetical example that would have involved some major libel; often the issue isn't so much righting a wrong against someone as it is simple clarity. To be clearly understood, a correction must clearly state what was wrong in addition to clearly stating the true version of events.

    There are always exceptions, of course. If the newsroom tabby dozes off on the 7 key and nobody notices, it might be just fine to say that somebody is actually 77 years old without adding that you incorrectly said he was 7,777,777,777,777,777,777.

    Wednesday, December 19, 2007

    This Last Next Point

    With less than two weeks before I stop referring to January 2007 and the spring of 2007 and the summer of 2007 and the fall of 2007 as this January and spring and summer and fall and start talking about last January and spring and summer and fall, I thought I'd go over my chronological taxonomy once more. Here's an example from one of my favorite publications that I saved for blogging but never managed to get around to:
    Last summer, vandals broke into St. Luke's Church in Hodnet, England, where some legends place the Grail, damaging an organ pipe and a stone wall.
    I have no idea what this means. Oh, hell, I guess I do -- "last summer" probably doesn't mean the summer of last year, but, for heaven's sake, this summer ended less than two months before this was printed, and yet the writer is evoking Grandpa sitting in his rocking chair waxing poetic: "Ah, yes, the summer of ought-seven . . ."

    My system, in case I haven't already bored you with this, is basically to use this as long as we're still in the same larger period of time as the smaller period of time that's being referred to. New Year's Day isn't last January until Dec. 31 is over. Sunday isn't last Sunday until there's a new Sunday. It's not always so simple, but basically the point is to avoid ambiguity. Because last and next are used to mean both "the last/next one to occur" and "the one in last/next [larger period of time]," it's a good idea to avoid the print equivalent of the "not this Saturday, but next Saturday" conversation that we've all had. And usually, to me, this works well. It's pretty obvious what "this spring" means if you're reading it in October. Now, "this January" could be confusing on Dec. 19, so "this past January" and "this coming January" are fine (though "next month" would do nicely in the latter case).

    An extra added bonus bit of tid from the same article:
    Today, a slew of groups is betting that current technology will be able to find her plane.
    A slew is betting. Those slews, they are a gambling type. The groups are doing the betting. A slew of groups are betting. Yes, slew is singular, but that doesn't matter, unless you'd also say, well, "a lot of people is confused," because lot is singular. (You've definitely heard this one before, but it bears repeating.)

    Friday, December 14, 2007

    'Lapsing' Onto a Kindle

    Hi, technology!

    Just in time for holiday shopping, my first book, "Lapsing Into a Comma," is available for's Kindle wireless reading device. Just $9.99 for the book (and, uh, $399 for the Kindle).

    Wednesday, December 05, 2007

    Vanity? Fair Enough.

    A writer I know recounted an exchange that went something like this.

    WRITER: "Could we please say '800 residential units' instead of '800 apartments' in that caption? 'Apartments' implies rentals, but most of the units are condos."
    COPY EDITOR: "Hmm. Webster's says an apartment is 'a room or suite of rooms to live in'; there's nothing about the method of ownership. I'm going to leave 'apartments.'"

    Lesson No. 1: There are truths in this world that are not in the dictionary. Except, perhaps, in New York City, Americans do not use the word apartment to refer to an apartment-style condominium. When we work with language, we need to use our brains to think, not just to clinically process data.

    Lesson No. 2 (CONTROVERSY ALERT!): This example isn't anywhere close to a tie, but a tie goes to the person whose name is on the article. My friends and colleagues Philip Blanchard and John McIntyre consistently and eloquently make the point that a newspaper article is a cooperative venture of the newspaper, not a vanity project of the writer, and I agree wholeheartedly -- but that doesn't mean we don't listen when a writer thinks our contributions to the process strike a false note. If we're asking the reporters to check their egos at the door, we must be willing to do the same, and to me that means deferring when the writer has a point or even when the writer has a preference that would make absolutely no difference when it comes to correctness. If I write "horrible" and the reporter would prefer "terrible," I just don't care one way or the other and so I'm willing and eager to humor someone who does care.

    Lesson No. 2.5: As I wrote in "The Elephants of Style," editing isn't a game in which you try to make a story publishable in as few moves as possible. Unless deadline is pressing or a change would require replating a page at some cost to your employer, it's always a good policy to just go ahead and do 10 seconds' worth of work rather than spend 10 minutes explaining why there just isn't enough time.

    (Yes, I know that residential units has the ring of bureaucratic jargon, but I can't think of a better way to say "800 residences, some of which are condominiums and some of which are apartments.")

    Monday, December 03, 2007

    Comma, Please

    I don't drink because I have depression. . . .
    Then why do you drink?

    Oh, I see. Oops. (Dear copy editors: Sometimes a comma is required before because.)

    Saturday, December 01, 2007

    Evan Jenkins, R.I.P.

    Evan Jenkins died yesterday at age 72. I had the pleasure of finally meeting Evan at this year's ACES conference, after reading and admiring his Columbia Journalism Review column for years.

    His book, "That or Which, and Why," was published this year.