Monday, November 30, 2009

Ambush? Why Not 'Conflagration'? Or 'Gefiltefish'?

Clearly, the horrible attack on police officers in Washington state was not an ambush. No accounts have the gunman hiding in the coffee bar waiting to spring out and shoot the officers.

But a police spokesman used the word "ambush," and it's a more interesting word than "attack" or "assault," and so, by the standards of many news organizations, OK, fine, it was an ambush.

(It wasn't a "murder" either, at least not yet.)

Friday, November 20, 2009

more lowercase silliness

Filter magazine's review of the Regina Spektor album "Far" begins:
The lowercase 'f' in far is telling.
No, it isn't.

The review continues to lowercase the album title (and, in an extra added bonus blow to reading comprehension, uses neither italics nor quotation marks), presumably because that's the way it is on the album cover, while uppercasing "Regina Spektor" (also lowercase on the album cover) and "Begin to Hope," a previous Spektor album whose cover art also lowercases both title and artist. ("Begin to Hope" and the other pre-"Far" albums merit italics.)

If you're going to be silly, at least be consistent.

As I've said many times, graphic artists do what graphic artists do. They play with capitalization and typefaces and type colors and type sizes. And they should. If they didn't, we'd die of visual boredom. None of that has anything to do with the very basic principle that proper nouns are capitalized. Just as you need not duplicate the cover art's typeface, type size or type color when you're referring to a book or a CD, you need not duplicate the playful use of all caps or all lowercase.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Downs and Ups

This sentence from my own paper contains an obvious problem:

About 10 p.m. on July 9, Gary Condit and his lawyer met lead Detective Ralph Durant in the dimly lit parking lot behind the Giant supermarket on Wisconsin Avenue near the National Cathedral. Cooler heads had prevailed, and Condit had agreed to give a DNA sample.

Durant's title is detective, and so he's Detective Ralph Durant, but in this instance the article was not using his title -- it was simply pointing out that he was the lead detective on the case. The discrete units here are lead detective and Ralph Durant, not lead and Detective Ralph Durant.

The fact that the d should have been down is clear enough, but the underlying issue can get pretty murky. Although I winced at lead Detective Ralph Durant, I'm pretty much committing the same error every time I write Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine or French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

There's a gadfly who periodically writes the Post ombudsman to say as much:

There's no reason to capitalize a title just because it happens to immediately precede a name that it's not part of. For example, the Jan. 12 article starts out referring to "Broadcasting Board of Governors Chairman Kenneth Tomlinson" instead of correctly to "Broadcasting Board of Governors chairman Kenneth Tomlinson."

Well, yes and no.

We take shortcuts in newspaper style. Copy editors working on daily or hourly or secondly deadlines don't have the luxury of cracking open the three-pound Chicago Manual and discussing over two-hour lunches whether to go up or down with that there detective. So we say certain titles are up before names and that's pretty much that, the same way cops make you stop at red lights even when there isn't another car in miles.

And so you see lead Detective Ralph Durant and movie-star Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and freshman Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse.

Now, detective is fuzzy enough that most of us could agree that it is sometimes a title and sometimes a job description. A smaller but still significant number of us would say the same about officer -- we wouldn't cap the word in "veteran Los Angeles police officer Jim Reed."

But how about "police Sgt. Joe Friday"? It's the same problem, really, but few newspaper stylists could bring themselves to write out sergeant even in that case. We get around it with chief by pretty much arbitrarily declaring the title to be "police chief" even when it's "chief of police" or simply "chief," and so the P is up and everyone's happy.

At the New York Times, where things are a little daintier than at your typical AP-style shop, the editors do observe the distinction. Here's the entry from that stylebook (a pound and a half, for the record -- I have the spiffy hardcover edition):

In identifying officials of cities, state or countries, do not make the place name part of the title: Mayor Stacy K. Bildots of Chicago, not Chicago Mayor Stacy K. Bildots. As an exception, for clarity, city and state are acceptable in titles: State Senator Morgan R. Daan; City Comptroller Pat C. Berenich.

Note the handy application of the "police chief" concept to the pesky "state Sen." problem. Arbitrary can be good in situations like this. We have style rules on this and we have style rules on that, and sometimes those style rules collide.

The U.S. Army is the Army, but other countries' armies are just armies. And so we're stuck with the downsyUpsy "Pakistani army Lt. Gen. Ahmad Shuja Pasha." (What -- you'd really say "Pakistani army lieutenant general Ahmad Shuja Pasha"?)

The House ethics committee is actually the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, and so it can't be the House Ethics Committee, and so we risk the UpsydownsydownsyUpsy "House ethics committee Chairman Zoe Lofgren," a breathtaking bit of horribleness compounded by the long unjoined modifier.

So, what are you to do if you're working within the confines of Associated Press (or Washington Post) style? Write around it when possible. The ethics committee's chairman, Zoe Lofgren. Lt. Gen Ahmad Shuja Pasha of the Pakistani army. And so on.

And with the obvious cases -- titles that aren't ranks and aren't abbreviated -- be brave. It's philosophy professor Harvey Baxter, not philosophy Professor Harvey Baxter -- he's a professor of philosophy, not a professor who is philosophy. You'd write Coach Jim Zorn but football coach Jim Zorn -- title vs. job description. The cap comes back for Redskins Coach Jim Zorn and Washington Coach Jim Zorn. And that guy will write the ombudsman. Oh, well. It's an imperfect medium.

Monday, November 02, 2009

You Can Write, but You Can't Edit

Not Regina Spektor's best effort by a long shot, but, hey, she was nice enough to attempt a theme song for us.

Off-topic, she has some truly amazing stuff.