Friday, October 29, 2004

When Kansas City Isn't a Kansas City

In "Kansas City" you'll find a small style point and a larger exercise in balancing common sense with copy-editor geekiness. (Also, I understand, some crazy little women.)

Most stylebooks leave "Kansas City" off their "dateline cities" lists, meaning that you must specify in datelines and on first reference "Kansas City, Mo." or "Kansas City, Kan." Your common-sense instincts might say, "Aw, c'mon, of course 'Kansas City' alone means the big city in Missouri and not the not-so-big city in Kansas!"

But listen to your geek side on this one. For every 10 people who know that Kansas City means Kansas City, Mo., there are probably three who "know" that you're leaving off the Kansas part because it's part of the city's name. If you mean the Missouri city alone, you need to spell that out.

On the other hand, don't let the stylebook bully you into insisting on a state in references to the Kansas City area or Kansas City television and radio stations or even Kansas City-style barbecue.

Sunday, October 17, 2004

There Oughtta Be a Word

Some common errors hint at gaps in the language. Host as a verb and gender meaning "sex" are two examples that filled those gaps so well they can no longer be considered errors. Other examples that may never grow into acceptance but sound stubbornly right while being wrong:

  • Bemused. You know, bemused -- looking at a person or a situation with slightly amused detachment, perhaps with a wry smile or even a shake of the head.

    The word doesn't mean that, of course, even though that's what most writers think it means; it means something closer to "confused."

    Webster's New World:


    1. to muddle or stupefy
    2. to plunge in thought; preoccupy: usually in the passive voice
    The standard copy-editor trick is to change bemused to amused, and indeed that's about the best we can do, but I find it not quite satisfactory. We need a word that means "quietly and slightly amused."

  • Officious. As I wrote in "Lapsing Into a Comma," the mistaken meaning sounds so right. The Transportation Security Administration stooge who makes a big Barney Fife show of inspecting your sneaker -- officious! The Six Flags ride monitor who points out that you're encroaching on the do-not-pass yellow line by an eighth of an inch -- officious!

    The hint of "official" makes this an understandable mistake, but the word actually means almost the opposite.

    Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary:

    volunteering one's services where they are neither asked nor needed
    The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language:

    Marked by excessive eagerness in offering unwanted services or advice to others.
    Webster's New World does hint at some overlap with the mistaken meaning (my italics):

    offering unnecessary and unwanted advice or services; meddlesome, esp. in a highhanded or overbearing way
    Bizarrely, in the world of diplomacy, officious flies in the face of the "official" thing even more, meaning "informal or unofficial."

  • Monger. My third offering in the "they should mean this, but they don't" category might be a little more controversial, because I'm not sure how many people share my former misapprehension.

    If you're a whoremonger, doesn't that mean you really, really enjoy using the services of whores? Fishmonger? You crave seafood.

    A -monger, of course, is a seller, so a whoremonger is actually a pimp, but aren't many or most uses of powermonger intended to mean "power hound" rather than "power broker"?

    The brilliant singer-songwriter Joe Pernice sings of an ex-girlfriend as a "life-sucking powermonger," which obviously means desiring power rather than doling it out. The error isn't limited to pop music. From

    Ncube's presentation suggested that the Zimbabwean president is a "powermonger . . . who is prepared to kill for power."
    From Slate:

    Essentially, [Dr.] Strangelove is the story of a few deluded powermongers who destroy the world because they can't admit they're wrong.
    From a letter to the editor in Florida Today:

    One has to wonder how different our country would be today if George W. Bush had listened to his wife, his father and mother instead of Don Rumsfeld, Condoleeza Rice, Karen Hughes, Karl Rove and Andrew Card. It's obvious that none of those powermongers were looking after the best interests of Bush or our country.
    A headline in Crain's Chicago Business:

    Rant control: Control freaks, opinionated nonconformists and powermongers make condo association meetings the scene of fireworks-and the occasional fistfight
    I've known the true meaning of fishmonger and the like for decades now, but I still think mong just screams craving and desire, as in "I'm really monging some fish right now -- let's go to McCormick and Schmick's!"

  • Friday, October 15, 2004

    See How the Comma Bends?

    With the hyphen, I'm generally a fan of consistency. Decide on vice-presidential debate or vice presidential debate; don't say you'll use the hyphen only if the story also mentions a presidential debate about vice.

    But when it comes to punctuation's other most confusing critter, I like flexibility. Do I use a comma to introduce a quotation? It depends. Do I use a comma after an introductory phrase? It depends -- and not only on the length of that phrase. Observe:

    "On issue after issue, they’ve blurred the choice," Keyes said.
    Note the comma.

    "In the end, I think they’ve sacrificed the moral culture of Republicanism," he said.
    Again, comma. But these quotes are actually two sentences from the same quote. Here's the way I sent it through:

    "On issue after issue they’ve blurred the choice, and in the end I think they’ve sacrificed the moral culture of Republicanism," Keyes said.
    In this context the very same introductory phrases work much better without the commas. The comma that is there is important not just because it is technically appropriate when two complete sentences are fused with and, but also because its presence, in conjunction with the lack of the introductory-phrase commas, emphasizes the relationship between those phrases and the thoughts they introduce.

    Similarly, a routine quote-introducing comma . . .
    They shouted, "Down with Bush!"
    . . . might get in the way once the sentence becomes more complex:
    They shouted "Down with Bush!" as they marched toward the auditorium.

    Thursday, October 14, 2004

    Did Your Message Get Lost?

    Some copy editor I am. I'm just now noticing that I never replaced the Yahoo address I used during some recent e-mail difficulties with my address in the "E-Mail" link on the right side of this page. If you sent me a question that I didn't answer, or anything else to wfwalsh (at) yahoo (dot) com (a valid address, but one that goes directly to a spam folder that I don't regularly monitor), please resend it using the corrected link.

    Saturday, October 09, 2004


    The third and final Bush-Kerry debate is scheduled for next Wednesday at Arizona State University in Tempe.

    Tem-pee? No.

    Temp? No.

    Tem-pay? No.

    It's Tem-pee. Yes, it's odd. (I went to school in Tucson -- Too-sonn. Only the old-timers call it Too-sonn.)

    Bonus point: Go ahead and call it a presidential debate if you're mentioning such a debate out of nowhere, or to distinguish it from the vice-presidential debate, but don't say President Bush and Sen. John F. Kerry did so-and-so in their presidential debate. Say campaign debate if debate alone makes you nervous -- it's a little redundant, but I suppose they could debate in a context other than the campaign. But to use presidential to elaborate on exactly what kind of debate Bush and Kerry might be having is to commit an impressively moronic combination of stating the obvious and saying nothing at all.

    Friday, October 08, 2004

    The Corrections

    One of the great things about being a copy editor is that you can be correcting an expert about his own specialty one minute ("No, Mr. Political Writer, it was a joint meeting, not a joint session") and committing an error that any sixth-grader could catch ("Old and Gas Hold the Reins in the Wild West") the next.

    Even under the best of circumstances, there's a pretty good chance that a daily-newspaper copy desk of any significant size is going to screw something up in every edition. "Make sure everything is right, and clear, and not misleading" is a pretty challenging mandate, and daily deadlines are a bitch. Book publishers have months to get things right, and when is the last time you read an error-free book? A newspaper copy desk seldom has the luxury of spending even a full hour with a story, and sometimes we have less than no time. That wasn't hyperbole: I've received stories several minutes after I was supposed to have been finished with them.

    That absurd example is a rare case, but it's quite common for a copy editor to have only five or 10 minutes to edit a lengthy article and write its headlines and photo captions. And even when we're not facing that kind of deadline pressure, the threat of facing it in the future is a stifling force. If my final deadline is 9:45 and I have only one story in front of me at 8, I can't settle in for a leisurely read, because I know that a dozen more stories are due, and any or all of them could arrive at any time.

    Speed kills, no matter how easy the task. Ever try to sort your laundry a little faster than usual? A black sock will go in the white pile, guaranteed. And then there's the pressure. In a classic "Odd Couple" episode, Bobby Riggs bet Oscar Madison that he couldn't type his own name.

    "Oscar Madisoy."

    "Oscar Madisox."

    Usually we outshine any Jack Klugman character -- grace under pressure is part of our job description -- but I've seen truth as strange as that fiction.

    Friday, October 01, 2004

    A Massive Cliche

    Massive intervention. Massive expenditures. A massive anti-gun campaign. The massive bill. Everything is "massive" these days (those examples were all from one recent edition of the Washington Post). I'm not going to hit you with a geeky copy-editor rule that says "massive" means only "having great mass." Common sense and Webster's New World tell us it can also mean "larger or greater than normal," "large and imposing or impressive" or "of considerable magnitude."

    My problem is that the word has become a cliche. Writers seldom opt for "huge" or "extensive" or any other word when "massive" is an option, and, as when any quirky fashion choice becomes the standard (see mid-1970s ties and lapels), it looks silly. When there's an unfortunate double meaning (a massive campaign against obesity), it looks even sillier.