Thursday, October 29, 2009

If You Libel, You May Be Liable

A publisher says -- and news outlets are repeating -- that the release of a tell-all book about the NBA by Tim Donaghy, the former referee who ended up in prison after a betting scandal, was canceled because of "concerns over potential liability."

The concept that the Triumph Books representative had in mind, I believe, was "libel."

Because "liable" and "libel" sound a lot alike, people seem to confuse them, or at least think they're related. It's not uncommon to hear a copy editor say something like "If we say he was arrested for murder, we'll be liable!"

The words are not related, etymologically. They are related only in the sense that the loser of a libel suit may be legally liable to pay damages. (Not the same thing as damage, but that's another rant.)

In other words, the publisher was right to be concerned about liability, but its immediate concern should have been libel.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Say, Say, Say

You can't say something outrageous. Well, you can, but that would mean something else. You can say something is outrageous, or you can call something outrageous. Or, in the headline shortcut that someone at Reuters or Google or somewhere abused, Iraq bombings can be 'outrageous,' Obama says.

And as for the pirate headline, well, that degree of "says" abuse is a new one on me.

As we tweet and RSS and SMS and MMS and try to broadcast news to ever-tinier devices, of course, every character is sacred, but there is a baseline of literacy below which reputable publishers should not stoop, and the proper use of to say is part of it.

As you know if you've been a copy editor any length of time, and stared at an impossible headline order at some point in the night only to see by deadline time that it was, indeed, possible, there's always a way. I'm not sure whether there was a character to spare in the format for the Gmail news clips from which I took my examples, but observe:

Obama says Iraq bombings 'outrageous'
Obama calls Iraq bombings 'outrageous'
Obama calls Iraq attacks 'outrageous'
Obama calls Iraq bombings outrageous

Somali pirates say holding British couple
Somali pirates claim to hold British pair
Somali pirates claim to hold 2 Britons

I used to think that the wrongness of President says bill bad and the like was obvious to any decent copy editor, but I was wrong. I've met some very good copy editors in my quarter-century of doing this for whom this was a blind spot. If you have the blind spot, perhaps the following excerpt from the Washington Post stylebook's entry on headlines can help.

Auxiliary verbs and forms of the verb to be may usually be omitted, but they are required in the progressive and after says:


Budget deficit intolerable, candidate says

Candidate calls budget deficit intolerable

Driver held blameless in Beltway crash


Candidate says budget deficit intolerable

Budget deficit said intolerable

Driver said blameless in Beltway crash


Farmers fear river is rising

Farmers fear rising river

Israelis feared PLO was infiltrating


Farmers fear river rising

Israelis feared PLO infiltrating

The verb must be used in an independent clause after a conjunction.


SE mother charged after girl is found stabbed and wandering


SE mother charged after girl found stabbed and wandering

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Wish I'd Thought of That

If you're not reading the Fake AP Stylebook on Twitter, you've missed the following helpful pointers:

  • Capitalize titles when they precede a name. Ex., King Kong, Captain Crunch, Count Dracula, Kid Rock.

  • Words that substitute for Ted Nugent are capitalized. Ex. Ten Fingers of Doom, Motor City Madman, Mr. Wango Tango, The Nuge

  • Use quotation marks to express skepticism: Cher’s “Farewell Tour,” Creed’s “Best Album,” Jay Leno’s “comedy.”

  • The word "boner” is not capitalized, regardless of size.

  • Dr Pepper doesn't have a period in it. An easy way to remember this is 'Doctors are dudes and dudes don't get periods.'

    (The real AP Stylebook is also on Twitter, if you need something to cleanse the palate.)

  • Tuesday, October 20, 2009

    How About It, Hyphen Haters?

    I have a question for those of you who scoff at "real-estate agent" and "orange-juice factory" because, after all, there's no ambiguity -- nobody would think "real estate agent" means actual estate agent, and nobody would think an orange juice factory is a juice factory painted orange.

    Well, then, where's the ambiguity in "Law Abiding Citizen" or even "40 Year Old Virgin"? The meanings are perfectly clear without the hyphens. Leave them out, then?

    You might say the hyphenation of ages is a universally accepted convention, and you'd be right. But what makes "law-abiding citizen" obviously correct and, say, "law-enforcement officer" pedantic and excessive?

    Monday, October 19, 2009

    Protest-Too-Much Department

    I like compound-modifier hyphens as much as the next guy, or perhaps a lot more than the next guy, and I laughed and Twitter-linked when my brother posted a photo of a certain subway vigilante's work on a "Law Abiding Citizen" poster.

    But I'm not sure that particular omitted hyphen is worthy of the hyperventilating it inspired on an Entertainment Weekly blog.

    Friday, October 16, 2009

    Dictionary Dissents

    An occasional feature of my Twitter feed is Dictionary Dissent of the Day -- a beef with Webster's New World College Dictionary, the official dictionary of most American newspapers. Here's the list so far:
    WNWReal life
    Sweat shirt Sweatshirt
    Sunbelt Sun Belt
    Tranquillity Tranquility
    Bootees Booties
    Seviche Ceviche
    Largess Largesse
    Hardworking Hard-working
    Workingman Working man
    Workingwoman Working woman

    Wednesday, October 14, 2009

    Tuesday, October 13, 2009

    Monday, October 12, 2009

    ¿Los Los Angeles Angeles de Anaheim?

    I used to root against the Washington Redskins, to the extent that I paid attention to the NFL at all, but then I realized that putting up with the D.C. media's assumption that every person in the metropolitan area is depressed about a Redskins loss is even worse than putting up with the D.C. media's assumption that every person in the metropolitan area is elated about a Redskins win. And then I married into a family in which the words "the game" are assumed to mean "the Washington Redskins game on the Sunday most appropriate to the tense of the current sentence."

    Anyway, the game was on the TV, and just as I was about to compose a 140-character-or-less rant about the announcer's reference to "a longtime veteran," I heard a reference to "the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim."

    The who of what? This isn't a new development, I learned; apparently they failed to alert me at the time.

    You may know how I feel about the "Oh, OK" answer to logo-rrhea. The team's owners are welcome to use the tortured construction as a marketing ploy, or to satisfy the terms of a legal agreement, or just to piss off people like me, but media outlets run by grown-ups will follow the normal conventions and refer to the [One and Only One Location] [Nickname(s)]. And, much to my relief, they apparently do.

    Keep this in mind if you start hearing about the New York Giants of East Rutherford. Or the New York Jets of East Rutherford. Or the Buffalo Bills of Orchard Park. Or the Dallas Cowboys of Arlington. Or the Detroit Pistons of Auburn Hills. Or the Phoenix Coyotes of Glendale. Or the Washington Redskins of Landover. (Or is it Largo? Raljon?)

    Sunday, October 11, 2009

    At Least They're Not Evildoers

    From the Jackson Hole News & Guide via the Jackson Hole Daily, Aug. 5, 2009:

    Crime in Teton County is down 30 percent to 40 percent for the year, according to court and jail officials. Authorities say it could be because there are fewer people here after the recession forced many to move or because the troublemakers have left the valley.

    Well, that would explain it.

    Saturday, October 10, 2009

    Rounding Up: A Roundup

    The Dow Jones Industrial Average closed Oct. 9, 2009, at 9864.94. If you want to express that as a whole number, you just lop off everything after the decimal point, right? Well, of course not. It's closer to 9865 than to 9864, and so you'd round it to 9865. Also Friday, the Standard & Poor's 500 index closed at 1071.49. You'd round that to 1071. But if it had risen one more hundredth of a point, to land midway between two whole numbers, for rounding purposes that would equal an entire point -- 1071.50 would round to 1072. Tie goes to the runner, or something like that.

    Now then. The half-rounds-up concept can get you in trouble. You'd probably never lop just one of the decimal digits off a stock index, but let's say a reporter was figuring out how much one of those indexes had risen since a certain date, and the answer came out to 14.45 percent. That's a lot of not-so-significant detail, and so maybe the reporter's assignment editor would round that up to 14.5 percent. And then the story comes to you, the copy editor, and you think, wow, that's a lot of not-so-significant detail, so I'll just make that a whole number. The half rounds up, and so you make it 15 percent.

    You've now inserted an error.

    When you go to round a number up, you'd better make darn sure that you're not rounding an already-rounded number.

    In a related caution, take a look at the following snippet from a spreadsheet:

    Would you believe that both sums, in their own way, are correct?

    Here are the same two columns and sums, only expanded to three decimal places.

    In the first column, Excel was showing the rounded numbers but adding the raw numbers. In the second column, Excel was adding up only the rounded versions. Lesson No. 1: It's fine to round the result of an equation, but do not round the numbers you use to get that result. Lesson No. 2: If you're diligently checking the numbers in a report, or in somebody else's graphic, and the answer doesn't add up, consider that you may not have enough information to judge whether the math was correct.

    Friday, October 09, 2009

    Actual Newspapers on Google News

    In honor of Sydney J. Harris, whose "things I learned on my way to looking up other things" columns fascinated me in my childhood reading of the Detroit Free Press, here's something I stumbled upon while looking into another pleasant 1970s memory, the awesome theme song and opening to "AM America."

    One Google search produced a page image from the Ocala Star-Banner showing an Associated Press story about how ABC was going to scrap the show and replace it with something called "Good Morning, America."

    This was my first exposure to Although too many of the results are pay-per-view articles from the ProQuest archive, it's pretty cool.

    Monday, October 05, 2009


    Yes, there's money in copy editing. Well, at least for students. If you're a college junior, senior or graduate student who intends to pursue a career in this godforsaken field, you're eligible for a scholarship from the American Copy Editors Society's Education Fund.

    The top winner will receive the $2,500 Aubespin scholarship (named for Merv Aubespin, the "godfather" of ACES), and at least four other students will get $1,000 awards. All winners will be given free registration to the 2010 ACES conference next April in Philadelphia.

    The 2009 winners are pictured above.

    Applications and supporting materials must be postmarked by Nov. 15. For more details, see the ACES Web site.