Wednesday, November 29, 2006

From the Forest to the Bird Cage

The opening of "Lou Grant": A great piece of nostalgia -- and I had forgotten that the intro was a clever little mini-movie depicting the life cycle of a newspaper. (Too bad this is the early Rebecca Balding-as-Carla Mardigian version and not the more familiar Linda Kelsey-as-Billie Newman one.)

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

A Conclusion of Mine

The double possessive is a matter of some controversy. Some insist that constructions like "a colleague of Gates's" are redundant and therefore should be avoided. Others see "an old pal of mine" and extrapolate that, because you'd never say "an old pal of me," you also must reject "a friend of Bill."

I say trust your ear over either dogma. "A friend of Bill's" probably is better, except in the Clinton-era coinage, but it's not a must. The following over-the-cliff application of the principle, which appeared recently on the front page of my newspaper, shows what can happen if you treat it as mandatory:
Lanier has long been a favorite of Ramsey's, who gave her key patrol commands and later put her in charge of the bomb squad, SWAT team and other special units.
Extra credit if you spot the other problem in that sentence. Extra extra credit if you also spot the thing that people who are wrong about such things would wrongly call a problem.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Just for Fun

What American accent do you have?
Your Result: The Midland

"You have a Midland accent" is just another way of saying "you don't have an accent." You probably are from the Midland (Pennsylvania, southern Ohio, southern Indiana, southern Illinois, and Missouri) but then for all we know you could be from Florida or Charleston or one of those big southern cities like Atlanta or Dallas. You have a good voice for TV and radio.

The Inland North
The South
North Central
The Northeast
The West
What American accent do you have?
Take More Quizzes

Thursday, November 09, 2006

All Publicity = Good Publicity

I didn't realize I was that big in the world of notional agreement, so please put your six-year-old "Al Gore invented the Internet" jokes away. I don't think I'm even particularly radical on the topic, either, but I'll take my Ruth Walker shout-outs where I can get them.

I do, however, want to dispel any impression that I would ever write "South Carolina is looking for their third win." (Hell, it would be "South Carolina are" if you went down that road. Which I wouldn't.) I am also on the record against the likes of "The New England Revolution are currently selling season tickets."

See Pages 85 and 86 of "The Elephants of Style."

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Party Like It's 1995

Blog? What blog? There's a good old-fashioned lovingly-HTML-coded update back at The Slot.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Hyphens and Familial Pride

I just came across a reference to somebody's great, great grandson.

Further research showed that it was, in fact, a great-great-grandson who may or may not have been extremely wonderful.

In another comma-vs.-hyphen incident, I changed a headline from Controversial Ad Links MLK-GOP to Controversial Ad Links MLK, GOP, only to see something about an MLK, GOP Link in the Web hed on the same story. There's where the hyphen belonged.

To review, a comma can stand for "and" in a headline. The hyphen (or en dash, for publications that use the en dash) is the convention for a "between" link in an adjectival construction. Ali, Frazier Fight? They did indeed if you mean "fight" as a verb, but that fight (n.) was the Ali-Frazier Fight. (And so were the other two, though I suppose the first one was more properly the Frazier-Ali fight.)

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Ignorance Is Strength

A teacher -- a teacher -- was quoted thusly in a story on cursive writing:

"Cursive -- that is so low on the priority list, we really could care less."

They could care less. Really! Just as literally allegedly can mean "not at all literally," could allegedly sometimes means "couldn't." Spare me the made-up rationalizations ("I could care less, but I don't!"); sometimes an error is just an error. People type "Saudia Arabia" when they mean "Saudi Arabia," they say "sherbert" when they mean "sherbet," and they say "could care less" when they mean "couldn't care less."

Sunday, October 08, 2006

It's Certainly Not the Hair

Q: How am I like every obscure indie band?

A: I can claim to be big in Japan.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Awf Tawpic

I make no apologies for being one of the lazy-tongued, lazy-eared (in my Post colleague Gene Weingarten's words) people who pronounce "Mary," "marry" and "merry" identically. Also, "Aaron" and "Erin": I might "think" different things when I say the two names, but the first syllable is exactly the same -- "air" (any thoughts, Airhen?). I'm also one of those people who rhyme "what" with "gut," not "squat" (and forget about that dyslexic-schoolmarm "hwat," "hwich," "hwen" nonsense with the "wh" words).

I'm as much of an accent snob as Gene is, and so I can't get too worked up about his assertion that the bizarre accent of his native New York City is superior to my Michigan-softened-by-a-quarter-century-away lack thereof. I get just as obnoxious in denouncing the equation of "Don" and "Dawn," or "cot" and "caught" (in the only linguistics course I've taken, the instructor informed me that only those with strange acccents differentiate those vowel sounds). And don't get me started on pens and pins.

I used to give a friend of mine a lot of crap about referring to milk as "melk." When he would try to say the word correctly, he could do it only in an unnatural, exaggerated way -- "miiiiiiillk." I do the same sort of thing when I try to come up with a "marry" or "merry" that isn't "Mary." My Gene-correct "marry" sounds like a bad impersonation of Rhoda Morgenstern, and my attempt at a Gene-correct "merry" is a sound not of this planet.

What do you say?

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Comma or Cap, Not Both

Here's a little thing that readers occasionally ask about: What should be done with a construction like this?
But, she added, "it is likely to fail."
The answer depends on whether you want the "but" to go with the quote or with the fact that the person is saying such a thing. The difference between those two choices is generally too subtle to worry about, but it is important to avoid a mixed bag in your punctuation. A comma before the attribution indicates that the "But" is part of the thought being attributed, and so the quote, being a continuation of that thought, should not be capitalized as though it were the beginning of a sentence.

If the "But" is meant to apply to the "she added" part, a quote that is a complete sentence should be capitalized like a complete sentence:
But she added, "It is likely to fail."
These little markers can be obscured, of course, if the quotation begins with a proper noun or if you have avoided or overcome any lingering trauma from the Strunkwhite caution on beginning a sentence with "However":
However, she added, "John is like to fail."
In that case, you could emphasize that "However" isn't being put in the speaker's mouth by using a colon instead of a comma to introduce the quote.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Depends on How Important 'Is' Is

Headlines, like all specialized forms of language, have their own rules, customs, assumptions and expectations. One of these is the customary dropping of some helping verbs. So, in a headline like this . . .

2 Killed at Football Game

. . . someone used to reading newspapers assumes that two people were killed, as opposed to two people doing some killing. Shake things up a little, however, and that understanding gets muddled.

Security Fears Rise After 2 Killed at Football Game

Does that sound odd to you? It sure does to me. The articulation of the rule (if you can call it that) is sparse, but the Washington Post stylebook explains:
Auxiliary verbs and forms of the verb to be may usually be omitted, but they are required in the progressive and after says.
Says usually is the culprit when a helping-verb omission goes wrong -- this strikes me as just as bad as the last example:

Police Say 2 Killed at Football Game

Somehow the implied were or are is clear in the first example, but I find myself asking "Two killed whom?" when I read the second and third, in which the "are" (or "were") seems much more nakedly missing. Why? I'm not sure. I guess the convention goes only so far.

Is all this hopelessly arcane? Am I elevating a custom, a nicety, to the level of a must-be-remedied ambiguity? I don't think so, but I'm curious to hear how widely observed this distinction is. In my experience, it's one of those "If you don't get it, you don't get it" concepts, something difficult to teach even to some experienced and excellent headline writers. Sometimes I explain the idea and an associate responds by using the helping verb whenever it's possible to use a helping verb -- the problem is solved, even if the point is missed.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

It's French for 'Pear Again'

For the severalth time, I came across the bizarre misspelling "repoire," for rapport.

Friday, September 15, 2006

I'm the Blogger Here

A cousin to the confusion of blog entries with blogs is the confusion of blog comments with blog entries. On the political blogs, you'll occasionally see a blogger on one side accuse a blogger on the other side of making a particularly extreme statement, and then you'll see the accused blogger indignantly point out that said statement was not in a blog entry but rather in a comment from a particularly rabid reader. In the mainstream media, you'll see readers who post comments (some of them particularly rabid) referred to as "bloggers" when in fact they do not have blogs of their own. The distinction gets confusing with blogs that have more than one authorized poster and with those that are basically free-for-all forums.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Ceci n'est pas une blog

This thing filling your browser window? A blog. These few lines here? A blog entry. I'm seeing a disturbing number of references to the "latest blog" of somebody who has but one Web log.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Internship, Anyone?

The Washington Post

It's not too early to think about spending next summer at The Washington Post.

UPDATE: Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr., a former intern himself, answered questions about the program in a chat.


It's the Democratic Party and Democratic politicians, not the Democrat Party and Democrat politicians.

Is it a little odd that Republican is the same as a noun and an adjective while Democrat (n.) and Democratic (adj.) are different? Sure -- English is rife with such inconsistencies. Is it a little unfortunate that one party's adjective, when lowercased, has warmer and fuzzier connotations than the other's? Perhaps.

But . . . tough. That's the way it is. There was a time when the -icless adjective might have been read as an attempt at linguistic correction. Today, it is bound to be read as a show of solidarity with Republican propagandists. Use of the big-D word doesn't mean that the big-R people aren't interested in democracy, and use of the big-R word doesn't mean that the big-D people are enemies of our republic.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Oh, Boy

Webster's New World:

good old boy
[Informal] a man of the S U.S., variously characterized as easygoing, companionable, assertively masculine, and strongly identifying with his regional lifestyle

old boy
1 [sometimes O- B-] [Informal, Chiefly Brit.] an alumnus, esp. of a boys' preparatory school 2 a man belonging to a social, professional, etc. group regarded as prestigious or influential, whose members provide one another with assistance or preferential treatment

The confused use of "good old boys' network/club" to mean "old boys' network/club" is pretty common, but I still found it jarring to read it in a report from a government inspector general:

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement "relies on five different sets of penalties for workers," the Department of Homeland Security's inspector general reported, "resulting in the perception that a 'good old boys' network still existed where certain infractions were simply made to go away."

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

This 'Last'

CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP) -- Almost 20 percent of the female cadets at The Citadel last spring reported being sexually assaulted since enrolling at the state military college, according to results of a survey released by the school Wednesday.

Last spring. It's easy to read past that, but what on earth does it mean? It's now summer. Immediately before summer began, it was spring. The last spring to have occurred was the spring of 2006, but why, why, why would somebody write it that way? If it's Wednesday, do you refer to the previous day as "last Tuesday"?

So maybe the writer meant "spring of last year," as in the spring of 2005? That somehow seems less likely, and indeed the Reuters story on the survey says it was conducted "in the spring."

I would also accept "this spring" in a reference to the spring of the current year. And maybe even "last fall" if it's January or February of 2006 and you want to make it absolutely clear that you're referring to autumn of 2005 and not autumn of 2006. But a midweek yesterday is not last Tuesday, and a spring isn't "last" until the year is over.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

I'm One of the Only Prescriptivists Who . . .

A colleague wrote a caption saying that an object was one of the only things recovered from a New Orleanian's house after Katrina hit, and another colleague gently pointed out that "one of the only" makes no sense. It should, he said, be "one of the few."

I disagree. It would be one thing if only always referred to one and only one thing, but that's not the case. Webster's New World defines only as "alone of its or their kind," and nobody objects to "only two people . . ." and the like. If "only two people" have done something, wouldn't one of those people be one of only two people, or one of the only people, who have done it?

Monday, August 07, 2006

Well, I Should Certainly Hope So

Italics, mine. Missing detail, theirs. (Warning: You may require oxygen after reading these examples.)

Calgary Herald:
Diack's proposal came a few days after the news that Olympic and world 100-metre champion Justin Gatlin had tested positive for testosterone, dealing a serious blow to the showcase Olympic sport.

London Daily Telegraph:
Gatlin, the world and Olympic champion who tested positive for testosterone in April, is expected to have his case heard by the US Anti-Doping Agency today and should expect a life ban if he is found guilty of a doping offence.

Agence France-Presse:
Last week, joint world 100m record holder Justin Gatlin tested positive for testosterone and is currently facing the prospect of a life ban.

Washington Post:
In May, American sprinter Justin Gatlin equaled the world record in the 100 meters; last month, he revealed he had tested positive for testosterone.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Coffee? Tea? Retronym?

No, really, it's real!

Dueling retronyms today: Land O Lakes offers Traditional Half and Half, while Harris Teeter sells Original Half and Half. Both, of course, mean half-and-half, as opposed to something they call fat-free half-and-half.

As the helpful folks at Harris Teeter point out, half-and-half is made with real milk and cream. To be precise, half-and-half is milk and cream. Half of each. What, then, would fat-free half-and-half be? It would be the same thing as fat-free heavy cream or fat-free light cream or fat-free whole milk or fat-free "2 percent" or "1 percent" milk: It would be skim milk. Of course, the dairies aren't selling skim milk and calling it fat-free half-and-half. They're selling a chemical potion formulated to look and taste like half-and-half, but with a fat content low enough to meet the federal guidelines for a "fat-free" label.

Another blogger explored the ingredients list on a carton of "fat-free half-and-half." I'll leave Eric Schlosser and company to address those horrors (and the fact that even the "traditional" and "original" products include disodium phosphate, sodium citrate and sometimes carrageenan). Meanwhile, I'll suggest that Land O Lakes and Harris Teeter and the others offer me a choice between half-and-half that requires no elaboration and "artificially flavored coffee creamer."

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Yeah. What They Said.

The Wall Street Journal, too, is explaining to readers the world beyond Subject-Verb Agreement 101. I offer the following entry from that paper's Style & Substance newsletter, in case it clarifies something that I failed to drive home in all my exasperated entries on the "a bunch of us are going to the mall" topic. (One bit of dissent: I agree that the decision can be subjective, but this isn't among the subjects on which I advise avoiding the issue altogether.)

One article said a group of analysts were gathered. ... Another said the panel of physicians have met. ... A headline said A new wave of philanthropists are rushing to spend their money before they die.

Shouldn’t the verbs in these examples have been singular, reflecting the subjects of the clauses, a reader asks?

Group and panel in these cases are collective nouns, with intervening plural nouns before the verbs, and the general rule is to use a singular verb if the idea of oneness predominates and a plural verb if the idea of several or many predominates. As we have observed before, the decision is usually subjective, and the easiest solution often is to change the sentence: Physicians on a panel have met. ...

The stylebook’s entry on collective nouns advises that with words such as variety, number and total, a rule of thumb is to use a singular verb when the article the precedes the noun and a plural verb when the article a is used.

If one extends this standard to other nouns, the sentences in question should be: A group of analysts were gathered and the panel of physicians has met. ... Which seems like the logical solution.

The headline with new wave was clearly right in using the plural verb are and the plural pronouns their and they -- thus avoiding this sort of absurdity: A new wave of philanthropists is rushing to spend its money before it dies.

Monday, July 24, 2006

One of the Litmus Tests

A reader complained of a "glaring" error in this sentence from my newspaper:

One of the few commanders who were successful in Iraq in that first year of the occupation, Lt. Gen. David Petraeus, made studying counterinsurgency a requirement at the Army's Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, where mid-career officers are trained.

"One commander 'was' successful, not one commander 'were' successful," the reader observes, and it's hard to argue with that. But the sentence wasn't saying that only one commander was successful; it was saying that few commanders were successful and that this commander was one of them. To put it another way, the sentence wasn't saying that he (a) was one of the few commanders and (b) was successful; it was saying that he was one of the few commanders-who-were-successful. One of the few successful commanders, not one of the few successful commander.

This sort of construction would be my top choice for bait to dangle in the hope of fishing dilettantes out of a pool of sticklers. Any others come to mind?

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Stating the Obvious

Stories that mention price ranges often include superfluous marketing-speak:

Houses in the development are priced at $259,990 to $399,990, depending on the model, options and lot selected.

As opposed to depending on the spin of a "Wheel of Fortune"-style contraption or depending on the buyer's religion and skin color? Unless a "depending on" clause is going to tell readers something they don't already know, skip it.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Terms of Endearment

Call it precision or call it silly literalism, but I tend to change gay marriage to same-sex marriage when the subject is the legal status of such a union. After all, a law regarding the practice would apply to a couple of straight guys who decided to get hitched for whatever reason, but it wouldn't apply to a marriage between a gay guy and a lesbian. Still, it's gay people who are affected by bans on same-sex marriage, and so I don't lose sleep over gay marriage as a headline shortcut or a second-reference change-up.

At the Washington Times, where I worked for eight years, gay is tolerated for space reasons but homosexual is strongly preferred. Even more strangely, the Times still puts quotation marks around the word marriage whenever it involves same-sex couples. (That practice made sense, in a way, when it referred to commitment ceremonies that carried no legal standing. It's nonsensical, however, when the very issue is whether same-sex couples are granted legal standing. You can ban same-sex marriage, but how in the world do you ban same-sex "marriage"?)

I once derided the phrase "gays and lesbians" as being akin to "people and women," and indeed I still prefer to see it recast as "gay men and lesbians," but I don't see any point in changing a phrase such as "gay and lesbian couples." While gay certainly can refer to women (as it does in "gay marriage," and as, yep, Time magazine and Ellen DeGeneres made clear), "gay couples" risks being read as "gay male couples." Better to commit a tiny redundancy than to sacrifice clarity.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

And Don't Get Me Started on 'Forward Slash'

In "Lapsing Into a Comma," I mocked my neighborhood coffee bar for using the unnecessary retronym "country muffin" to distinguish a muffin from an English muffin. After all, I pointed out, referring to an English muffin as a muffin would be like referring to table tennis as "tennis."

The sad thing, half a decade later, is that hearing table tennis referred to as tennis would no longer surprise me:

  • I've heard people say "custard" when they mean the form of ice cream known as frozen custard. Custard is a very real and extant substance that still needs a name of its own, people. Do you refer to ice cream as "cream"?

  • I heard a radio host introduce a coach from "the Olympics -- the Special Olympics!" The second part was presented as an amplifier, not a correction.

    On a lighter retronym note, I recently caught the "Simpsons" episode in which Kent Brockman refers to "sky stars" to distinguish the luminous celestial objects from the likes of "Matthew Modine and Charlene Tilton."

    Hey, let's have a contest! If stars need to be called sky stars, what modifier do we need to insert before "custard" to make it clear we mean custard? And how about "the [blank] Olympics"?

  • Saturday, June 24, 2006

    An Area Opportunity

    I watch HGTV and I hear of "the living-room area" and "the dining-room area" instead of the living room and the dining room. I watch tennis coverage and I hear of "break-point opportunities" instead of break points. I think the turning of nouns into modifiers to clear the way for superfluous nouns says something about how we're afraid to just come out and say anything. (Or whatever.) But I also see an opportunity for a riff.

    The living room is an area. It's an area known as the living room. But a living room cannot be a living-room area.

    "Living-room area" would make perfect sense in a reference to an area being used as a living room in a dwelling that doesn't have rooms as such -- a loft, or perhaps an RV. "Living-room area" would make perfect sense in a reference in a reference to the living room and some adjacent real estate. But if you mean "living room," say "living room."

    The D.C. area is an area known as Washington, D.C., or just D.C. But Washington, D.C., cannot be the D.C. area.

    "D.C. area" makes perfect sense in a reference to Washington and the adjacent region. But if you mean Washington, D.C., say "Washington, D.C."

    A break point is an opportunity. But a break point cannot be a break-point opportunity.

    Insofar as a break point could be called a break opportunity (you win this point and you break serve, meaning you win a game when you're not serving), "break-point opportunity" could be viewed not as redundant, but as a way of saying "opportunity to get to a break point." At 30-40 the receiver is at break point, with a break opportunity, so then perhaps at love-30 or 15-30 or 30-all the receiver has a break-point opportunity.

    To review: If redundancy and wordiness don't bother you all that much, go ahead and say "living-room area" when you mean living room. But "break-point opportunity" is ambiguous. Even if you scoff at "Omit needless words" (as I sometimes do), there's a word there that is begging to be omitted.

    Tuesday, June 06, 2006

    Tiny Acts of Elegance

    The hyphenation or non-hyphenation of compound modifiers is a frequent topic among copy editors, and I discuss it as eagerly as anybody. What we sometimes lose sight of, though, is whether the compound modifier really needs to be a compound modifier.

    I've jotted these phrases down over the past month or two: his global warming policy . . . the ocean science and fisheries professor . . . next month's whaling commission meeting . . . a northwestern Louisiana youth shelter . . . negligent homicide charges.

    There's nothing particularly confusing in those constructions (though I would ask why we're calling the homicide charges negligent), but aren't they ugly? A hyphen would eliminate the inappropriate allegation of negligence, and I'd also hyphenate global-warming policy, but whaling-commission meeting, ocean-science-and-fisheries professor and especially northwestern-Louisiana youth shelter would look pretty weird even to a dedicated hyphenator like me.

    But why not dedicate a few crumbs of paper and drops of ink to writing prose and not lines from a telegram? Why not his policy on global warming and the professor of ocean science and fisheries and next month's meeting of the whaling commission and a youth shelter in northwestern Louisiana? Keep the telegram method in your back pocket when a draconian trim is needed, but don't make it a first resort.

    Thursday, June 01, 2006

    Hyphen Shortages

    For those who have missed my rants about anti-child abuse programs, Banterist offers an excellent illustration of the one-hyphen-short error.

    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.
    THE FINE-POINT VERSION: See "raw copy."
    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

    Thursday, April 27, 2006

    Bits of Tid

  • George Stephanopoulos was never the White House press secretary, though he did handle many of the traditional duties of the job when Dee Dee Myers held the title under President Clinton. Note also that it's -poulos, not -polous.

  • Price club is not a generic term for a members-only warehouse store that specializes in volume discounting. Price Club was a pioneer in that retailing genre founded by a man named Sol Price. Its stores took the Costco name after a merger in the early 1990s.

  • It's risk-averse, not risk-adverse.

  • The term button-down shirt properly refers to a dress shirt with buttons to hold down the collar flaps, not a shirt with buttons down the front. Because there isn't really a good term for the latter, though, this is a distinction that is rapidly being lost.

  • Wednesday, April 12, 2006

    Save Your Apostrophes

    One meaning of round is "around." So there's no need for apostrophizin' in "round-the-clock service" or "shot heard round the world."

    Similarly, till is a word of its own, not a truncation of until. So don't go writin' 'til or 'till.

    Stalling Tactics?

    The guy's name is DeLay. Big L. Everybody knows this, and yet everybody writes Delay. I do a case-sensitive search-and-replace every time I get a story that mentions him. You should too.

    Wednesday, April 05, 2006

    Gator? It's a Croc!

    I was just reading a reference to the preppie-era popularity of "Izod shirts." That's technically correct, but it's like referring to Coca-Cola by the name of your local bottling company.

    Until the '90s, Izod had the U.S. contract to manufacture and distribute Lacoste shirts. Lacoste was and is the Coke; Izod was, uh, "the good guys at Kalil."

    Speaking of Lacoste myths, that animal on preppies' chests is no alligator. It's a crocodile. Rene Lacoste, the French tennis legend who founded the company, was nicknamed "Le Crocodile," and his nickname lives on on his shirts.

    Thursday, March 23, 2006

    The Class of the Hed

    For me, headline writing is a bit of a zen exercise, and so it's hard for me to give tips on how to write good headlines. I can tell you what I don't like, though, and so I'll offer a few don'ts.

    Proposal Praised, Decried

  • Good, comma, bad. Variations on the "best of times, worst of times" theme can work well at times. Here, though, I'm talking about the utterly lazy headline analog of the redundant phrase "controversial issue." If it weren't controversial it wouldn't be an issue, and it isn't often that a plan makes the news without having both supporters and opponents.

    Bush a Stupid Idiot, Franken Says

  • Shooting first, coming out of the sniper's nest later. Before I worked for a "paper of record," I had the opposite view on this topic. Give me the meat and then bore me with the attribution, I might have said. And that's still not a bad idea when the emotion in question is relatively tame and the emoter isn't all that important. But when the story is that somebody is making an accusation or any sort of powerful statement, full disclosure demands that the speaker be identified before being allowed to spout.

    As you turn that kind of headline around, though, make sure you don't commit my most hated headline sin: the omission of a helping verb in a verb that isn't the main verb. Bush a Stupid Idiot, if you'll excuse the editorializing, is fine. "Is" is omitted, but it's the main verb, and omitting that word when it's either the auxiliary verb (Bush Denying Franken Charge) or the only verb (Bush a Stupid Idiot) is a well-established headline conceit. "Is" is still the main verb in Bush a Stupid Idiot, Franken Says, and so that form of attribution, despite my other problems with it, is structurally sound.

    But Franken Says Bush a Stupid Idiot is not structurally sound. "Says" becomes the main verb in such a construction, and so the helping verb is required: Franken Says Bush Is a Stupid Idiot. If space does not allow that auxiliary verb, there are verbs that work without helpers. Franken Calls Bush a Stupid Idiot. Or Franken Terms Bush a Stupid Idiot. Or Franken Labels Bush a Stupid Idiot. But you can't say somebody a stupid idiot.

    Bush a 'Stupid Idiot'

  • The naked quote. In related news, this technique also sucks. A paper-not-of-record could get away with America 'Beautiful' over a Fourth of July puff piece, but, in general, quotation marks do not qualify as attribution. If you print that headline, your publication is calling the president a stupid idiot. Better, even, to go with the still-nakeder version: 'Stupid Idiot' all by itself, with a secondary hed explaining what the hell you're talking about, isn't great, but it's a little less likely to be read as your publication's opinion.

    Decline Blamed on Crime, Schools, Economy

  • The threesome. Another basic headline conceit is the use of the comma to mean "and." It isn't the greatest device in the world even when it does work, as the Onion has illustrated (Looters Demand Justice, VCRs), and it really gets pushed to the limit when you use it more than once in the same headline. Join two items if you must, but revert to the serial "and" with three or more.

  • Wednesday, March 15, 2006

    -Ice, -Ice, Baby

    If you occasionally view an autumn leave through your contact lense, why not check an indice?

    It's probably something I'll see all over the place now that I've noticed it once, but I'm pretty sure I had never before seen the last of those singular-via-plural formations until I read a quote by an academic calling some measure of success in Iraq "a positive indice."

    "Indices," of course, is an alternate plural of "indexes," and it's not surprising that the kind of people who use the more eggheady-sounding plural for certain kinds of indexes might stop thinking of "indices" as being indexes at all.

    "Lense" is pretty common, and it's the most innocuous example, as the pronunciation is the same as that of the correct spelling. "Leave" for "leaf" isn't a mistake you see very often, at least among adults, but it's more analogous to "indice" because of the pronunciation difference.

    Tamale, by the way, is another example of this phenomenon (in Spanish, "tamales" is the plural of "tamal"), but I'm less bothered by such transformations when they cross languages. Similarly, I don't see what the big deal is with the supposed redundancy of "Rio Grande River" and "Sahara Desert." (If "ugga-bugga" means restaurant in Uppaduppian and I'm opening an Uppaduppian restaurant, I'm not allowed to call it the Ugga-Bugga Restaurant?)

    Wednesday, March 08, 2006

    A Continuing _____

    Perhaps the closest thing to a coin-toss question in the whole "singular or plural?" realm is choice posed by the word "series."

    A series of programs ___ examining the issue of immigration policy.

    Is? Are? Both, really: The series is examining, and so are the programs. But it's the series that we're really talking about, so is works better.

    A series of explosions ____ rocked the city in the past week.

    This one is easier: The explosions did the rocking, not the series, so make it have.

    Tuesday, February 28, 2006

    No Hyphen in 'Revenge'

    If you thought the copy editors you read about at Common Sense Journalism were harsh, wait till you see this.

    Friday, February 24, 2006

    A Portrait of the Editor as a 13-Year-Old

    It's slightly off topic, but I invite you to enjoy the April 25, 1975, edition of the Leningrad Socialist, which you could say was the first newspaper I ever worked on.

    Was I a teenage Bolshevik? Good guess, but no. This was a social-studies assignment at John Page Junior High School in Madison Heights, Mich., and my friend Paul Olsztyn and I were teamed up with a classmate or two of the tag-along-and-do-no-work ilk. No matter, because Paul and I had a blast. The main theme, you'll see, is propaganda in the Soviet press, but there's a lot of whimsy in there as well, not to mention a frighteningly accurate parody of the mid-'70s Detroit Free Press.

    We did a "women's page" featuring fashion preview and a couple of borscht recipes, a comics page including a "Charlie Brawnschky" starring Snoopy as Stalin, a "new ad section" with the latest in tractor technology, even a page of columnists including Erma Blabsky. Not bad, aside from a surfeit of exclamation points. My favorite headline is on the sports page: "Odessa creams Minsk."

    Looking at these pages you'd think I had found my calling, but no. Taking the journalism class and working on the school paper didn't occur to me until my friend Kathy Hulyk pretty much insisted on it.

    (Be patient -- each page takes a few seconds to load -- and don't be scared off by the poor reproduction quality of the front page; the rest of the pages are better.)

    Wednesday, February 22, 2006

    A Bunch of Us Is Wrong ©

    Ever the contrarian, I seem to be in a small minority in one debate currently raging online and, so far, utterly alone in another.

    On the ACES board, this question was posed:

    "An additional $18 billion in six-month bills was auctioned at a discount rate of 4.545 percent."

    "An additional $18 billion in six-month bills were auctioned at a discount rate of 4.545 percent."

    Which one do you like better, and why?
    It's obvious to me that "were" is correct. It's obvious to almost everybody else that "was" is correct. (Congratulations to Autumn, though, who replied first and got it right.)

    There are interesting issues along these lines, as many people pointed out, but that isn't an example of them. My final thought:
    It's easy to get distracted by the dollar amount in the original example. . . .

    Yes, as many pointed out, you say $18 million was, not were -- but that's not the issue at all in this case. Forget the dollars and imagine it was "a lot of bills were sold" or "a bunch of bills were sold." "Lot" and "bunch" are singular, but your ear, and those synesis principles that Garner describes, should make it clear that the plural "bills" requires a plural verb. Sums would behave no differently -- the specifics on that side of the equation are an irrelevant distraction.

    Others that actually are close calls:

    "A group of doctors is/are going to meet." Depends. The AMA is going to meet, but Drs. Brown, Smith and Jones are going to meet. In one case we're really talking about a group; in the other we're really talking about some doctors.

    "Eighteen million barrels of oil is/are consumed each day." Are we counting the very countable "barrels," or are we simply using them as a unit of measurement for a non-countable entity? I'd say the latter (just as we were talking about bills, not dollars, here we're talking about oil, not barrels), but here's one where I might expect such vigorous debate.
    (I claim bonus points for illustrating how easy it is to confuse millions and billions.)

    Meanwhile at, somebody who makes posters using images of newspaper pages was taken to task for thievery and copyright infringement and whatnot.

    My current attitude toward copyright law is "I don't even know who you are anymore," and so Newsdesigner and the commenters who came before me may well be correct, but here's what I had to say:
    It's not theft, any more than taking a photo of somebody in public is stealing his or her soul. Am I not allowed to take a photo of the side-by-side newspaper vending machines displaying such pages and call it art? How about whipping out my brush and dashing off an oil painting? What happened to fair use?

    "Copyright" nonsense has gotten way out of hand, as the Washington Nationals' imminent name change to the Washington (it was the only name not previously thought of) is proving.
    Flame away, but be careful about violating this copyright.

    Tuesday, February 21, 2006

    'Down,' Boy!

    Knockdown is one word. Rundown is one word. But you might have a knock-down, drag-out fight in a run-down neighborhood.

    See what's happening here? The space-hyphen-solid decision is complicated by a coincidental word, and the difference is a lot more subtle, and likely to fool even experienced word people, than, say, bare foot (n.) vs. barefoot (adj., adv.).

    A rundown, obviously, is a summary -- nothing to do with decrepitude. But a knock-down fight involves knockdowns. You might even dispute my contention that the solid form does not apply, but I think the juxtaposition with drag-out makes the truth clear.

    Do any other examples come to mind? Heck the linguists probably even have a cute term for the phenomenon. If not, let's make one up.

    Thursday, February 02, 2006

    Groundhog Day. Again.

    Spoiling sport as only a copy editor would, I am compelled to suggest that the idea of repeatedly reliving the same events is not inherent in Groundhog Day, but rather traceable directly to the Bill Murray movie of that name. (Correct me if I'm wrong.)

    This fact may or may not spoil whatever cute allusions a writer might come up with, but copy editors should at least keep it in mind, lest "Groundhog Day" become as widely misused as "deja vu."

    Tuesday, January 31, 2006

    Hoo! Hoo!

    It's that time again.

    If I ever open a sports bar, it will be called the Superb Owl. Sunday's football game is the Super Bowl. Note that each name consists of two words.

    Thursday, January 26, 2006

    Starsky and Hutch's Ford Is Another Matter

    The site of the Winter Olympics is Turin, the Games' logos notwithstanding. English speakers should not use Torino unless they also refer to Rome as Roma, Spain as España and so on.

    Are these Anglicized names a sign of how self-centered and imperialistic we Americans are? Not at all, unless you think the use of Estados Unidos proves that all Spanish speakers share those traits.

    Saturday, January 14, 2006

    Firefighters Battle Blaze

    Yes, they do. Every time. But what's the writer of a headline, caption or story to do? The obvious attempt to avoid "firefighters fight fires" is better than not avoiding it, I think, and there aren't too many other alternatives. ("Firefighters confront conflagration?")

    Is it redundant to say such a thing? Not really, any more than "firefighters sit and wait" or "firefighters cook chili" or "firefighters score with chicks."

    In a caption, especially, you sort of have to say they're doing something. "Firefighters do their job"? "Firefighters tend to ...," and then what? A fire? A blaze? Some flames?

    Any ideas?

    Thursday, January 12, 2006

    It's Not All Liver

    A story came to the copy desk yesterday with "participate" misspelled so badly that all the spell checker could come up with was "part paté."

    Monday, January 09, 2006

    'Good' Grief

    In this week's On Language column, William Safire of the New York Times stops short of the silly "no problem"-style objection to the common "I'm good" response to a "Can I get you anything?" request (I didn't ask whether you were good or bad; I simply inquired about your potential desire for a Diet Pepsi!) but still expresses wonder at such a novel use of the word "good."

    To me, the response makes perfect literal sense. Would you like a Diet Pepsi? No, thanks, I'm fine, or good, without one. I am happy with the status quo. I will inform you later if my thirst makes me less than good.