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.

    Wednesday, November 28, 2007

    Not a Typo

    USA Today (a slightly different headline with the same problem is in the print edition):

    Typos can lead you to imposter credit sites
    This is a very common misspelling. "Imposter" is an impostor.

    Friday, November 16, 2007

    Mottled U.N.

    The area involved in Thursday's agreement runs from Ohio west to Kansas. If the region were its own country, the World Resources group estimates, it would be the globe's fifth-biggest producer of greenhouse gas emissions behind the United States as a whole, Russia, China and India.
    And it would be the sixth-biggest if a region running from Pennsylvania west to Kansas were its own country. Make up a region running from New York west to Colorado and then it drops to seventh. Now, let's say East Asia were a country . . .

    Do you see how frickin' ridiculous this sort of thing is? Only slightly less spurious is the oft-repeated idea that California has "the world's fifth-largest economy." Oh, yeah? It's a bigger economy than that of, say, the Pacific states? The American West? The continental United States?

    If you must humor the playground statisticians, at least run these claims through the non-crazy-talk reworder:
    The group estimates that the region produces more greenhouse-gas emissions than all but four countries: the United States, Russia, China and India.

    California's economy is larger than that of all but four countries.

    Wednesday, November 07, 2007

    Overriding Concerns

    The House did not override a Bush veto. It voted to override that veto. If the Senate also votes to override, then there's an override. If not, there's no override, so how could the House have overridden?

    Tuesday, November 06, 2007

    A Lot of People Is Confused

    No, this isn't another entry on notional agreement, but it is about one of its cousins -- another of those subject-verb matters that send self-styled sticklers into a tizzy and prove once again that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.

    A recent Washington Post article used a plural verb with the noun politics. The same article used a singular verb in a parallel example, and a reader pointed out that we were inconsistent (true) and that the latter was correct (false). Observe:

    Politics is a noble pursuit. My politics are none of your business.

    Economics was her first choice for a major, but she opted for business. The economics of the idea make it unfeasible.

    Genetics is a multibillion-dollar enterprise. Our genetics conspire to make having children a very bad idea.

    All of the above are correct. Citations? I have plenty.

    The Washington Post stylebook:
    Words ending in -ics, such as politics, economics and tactics, may be singular or plural, depending on context: Politics is my business. Their politics are dirty. Tactics is a science. His tactics are irrational.

    Garner's Modern American Usage:
    Politics may be either singular or plural. Today it is more commonly singular than plural (politics is a dirty business ), although formerly the opposite was true. As with similar -ics words denoting disciplines of academics and human endavor, politics is treated as singular when it refers to the field itself (all politics is local) and as plural when it refers to a collective set of political stands (her politics were too mainstream for the party's activists).

    The Associated Press Stylebook:
    Usually it takes a plural verb: My politics are my own business.

    As a study or science, it takes a singular verb: Politics is a demanding profession.

    The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage:
    Politics can be singular or plural. Use a singular verb when the word refers to an art or science: Politics is the study of government. But use a plural verb in reference to practices: His politics are contemptible.

    The Wall Street Journal Guide to Business Style and Usage:
    It can take a singular or plural verb. But as an art or science, it is singular: All politics is local.

    I would quarrel only with the emphasis of the Garner and WSJ entries (I think most writers and editors would start with a bias toward the singular and would need a prod in the plural direction) and with the use of "All politics is local" as an example of the discipline usage as opposed to the practice usage. Quite the contrary, I think it's a tricky exception to the rule. The politics in "All politics is local" look(s) to me identical to the politics in "My politics are none of your business," but the former expression, attributed to Tip O'Neill, is well established, and to give it a plural verb invites the reader to interpret it as referring to each and every "politic" being local.

    Saturday, November 03, 2007

    The Perils of Wordplay

    New York Marathon Crosses New Bridge: Cancellation Risk
    So, I'm looking at the Saturday Wall Street Journal, and I glance at this headline. At first I'm thinking, oh, they changed the route and the runners are going over a bridge they never did before? No, wait, cancellation risk. Oh -- a bridge got rebuilt, or maybe didn't get rebuilt, and the race may get canceled because people are all jumpy about bridges since that Minneapolis collapse. Yeah, that's it. Oh, wait.


    (The photo of an actual bridge didn't exactly speed my brain's slow, slow recognition that the marathon is figuratively crossing a new bridge.)

    Monday, October 29, 2007

    If You Could Talk to the Editors . . .

    I made a brief cameo appearance in the Post ombudsman's column Sunday. Meanwhile, some much more articulate dude is answering questions about language on the New York Times site.

    Wednesday, October 24, 2007

    Nothing From Nothing Leaves Nothing

    "One time less," to the extent that it makes any frickin' sense at all, would obviously mean zero. So, how could "35 times less" suddenly make perfect sense and mean more than one time less? And how could "one time more" possibly be the exact same thing as "two times more"? I don't often disagree with the Boston Globe's Jan Freeman, who was kind enough to cite me elsewhere in the same column, but I have to take issue with her take on such innumerate usages.

    Wednesday, October 17, 2007

    What We Talk About When We Talk About Editing

    Could an editor be behind the distinctively minimalist style of Raymond Carver? The New York Times explores the long story behind the short stories.

    Monday, October 15, 2007

    So Much for That Ed.D.

    Bill Cosby is either one kinky bastard or a guy who never learned about the comma of direct address. Or both.

    (Thanks to loyal reader Charlotte for the tip.)

    Friday, October 12, 2007

    Headline of the Day

    The Grief
    That Made
    'Peanuts' Good

    (The Wall Street Journal, on Bill Watterson's review of "Schulz and Peanuts: A Biography," which details Charles M. Schulz's depression.)

    Wednesday, October 10, 2007

    Last (and First) Call for Internship Applications

    The Washington Post

    Oops -- it's getting late. Nov. 1 is the deadline to apply for a 2008 summer internship at The Washington Post. (The editors rejected me in 1982, but they've learned a thing or two since then.)

    Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr., a former intern himself, and three of this year's interns, including copy editor Ethan Robinson, answered questions about the program on

    Saturday, October 06, 2007

    Two, Two, Two Words in One

    I recently lodged a protest when the Copy Editor newsletter, of which I am a board member, decided to change its name to Copyediting. (The
    -ing is fine; it's the onewordization that bothers me.) A majority of the board members approved of the name change, citing, among other things, the inevitability of two-word compounds becoming closed up. My dissent concluded:
    If consistency and "inevitability" are our guiding principles, then ballplayer means we must use baseballplayer, and cabdriver means we must use taxidriver and truckdriver. If we recognize that taxi driver and baseball player endure because readability matters, and that tap dancer endures just because it does, then we should let copy editors be copy editors and recognize copyeditor and copyediting as industry jargon. There are worse things than using industry jargon in an industry publication, of course, but by doing so we are missing a chance to lead by example.
    Later I came across an April 2007 entry from the Wall Street Journal's Style & Substance newsletter making a similar objection to waitlist and lifecycle. A stylist after my own heart wrote:
    Lifestyle and cellphone became single words in our style only after serving many years as two words. Health care remains split. Let’s keep wait list and life cycle in a longer courtship before their wedding. A rule of thumb: If the term doesn’t appear as one word in Webster’s New World or the stylebook, use the two-word version, or hyphenation for adjectival usage: Wait-list game, life-cycle funds.
    After all that, I continue to marvel at how often people, even veteran copy editors, err in the other direction, leaving a space in compounds celebrating many years of wedded bliss. There are plenty of questionable and hard-to-remember onewordizations (cabdriver, highflier, hardworking, Sunbelt), but I'm talking the simple stuff. Repeat after me:

  • Bookstore.
  • Drugstore.
  • Nightclub.
  • Schoolteacher.
  • Stylebook*.

    *The illustration is from 1950.
  • Thursday, September 27, 2007

    Spot the Allusion

    There was neither the time nor the space nor the newsiness to write much of a headline for the in-between edition, so I slapped on something with one of those teeny little throwaway doesn't-matter-whether-you-get-it allusions. Anybody get it?

    Wednesday, September 26, 2007

    Some A-Do About No-Thing

    If I had known that the mainstream media would take such a sudden interest in language stories, I'd have thrown together a new book or something. When we're not hearing about the quotation-marks blog or National Punctuation Day, we're hearing about the supposedly shocking decision by the editors of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary to do away with a whole bunch o' hyphens.

    Bill Hyphen Walsh must be aghast at this travesty, right? Well, no. Bill Hyphen Walsh issues blustery pronouncements about American English. These are British hyphens, hyphens as unnecessary and uninteresting as they are un-American, hyphens that link adjectives to the nouns they modify. The Brits get all worried that you might think a dressing gown is a gown that is dressing, and so they write dressing-gown to make it clear that it's a gown of the dressing variety. We'd never write dressing-gown, and not only because we have the superior term bathrobe.

    Americans do use such hyphens, but only as a last resort, and often in terms most unsavory. There are giant-killers who are killers of giants as opposed to killers who are giants, and there are child-rapists who are rapists of children as opposed to rapists who are children. But we're sensible enough to know without the aid of a hyphen that a mountain climber isn't a climber that's a mountain.

    Look at the examples given in the stories about the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary's supposed apostasy and you'll find not a single example of a hyphen that's been used in American English in the past half-century. Just as we used ice-berg a billion years ago, the SOED until last week used bumble-bee and chick-pea and cry-baby and fig-leaf and hobby-horse and ice-cream and leap-frog and log-jam and low-life and pigeon-hole and pin-money (huh?) and pot-belly and test-tube and touch-line (huh?) and water-bed and water-borne. Check the current Webster's New World, the official dictionary of virtually all American newspapers, or pretty much any recent dictionary of American English. You won't find any of those hyphens.

    I'm not quite sure why the Limeys wrote ice-cream until a few days ago, but, of course, we Yanks eat ice cream. Unless, unless, unless -- and here's where we get into the kind of hyphen that inspires arguments and punctuational nicknames -- we're talking compound modifiers. The hyphens that Americans get testy about in one direction or the other are the ones that link ice and cream when they're teaming up to become a single modifier -- a compound modifier, a unit modifier, a call-it-what-you-will multiple-word modifier or adjective. I'd never dream of writing ice-cream as a noun all by itself, but I'd sure as hell be lining up with the three other Americans who would insist on a hyphen in ice-cream cone. Some -- well, most -- would insist that there's no chance anybody would read the hyphenless ice cream cone as meaning a cream cone of ice rather than a cone of ice cream, and they'd be right. And so what? Structure is structure.

    Some -- well, most -- would say the same thing about orange juice salesman or even high school student, and some -- well, most -- had better not come crying to me when they're suddenly confronted by a juice salesman who's orange or, unlikely as it may seem, a school student who's high. In fact, the Shorter OED's editor, Angus Stevenson, makes it clear that he's not striking compound-modifier hyphens. Reuters says:
    But hyphens have not lost their place altogether. The Shorter OED editor commended their first-rate service rendered to English in the form of compound adjectives, much like the one in the middle of this sentence.

    "There are places where a hyphen is necessary," Stevenson said.
    "Because you can certainly start to get real ambiguity."
    And then there's e-mail vs. email, but that's a unique case.

    But enough about a non-story. Or is it a nonstory? Now, there's a more interesting hyphen argument.

    Monday, September 24, 2007

    Big in Big Rapids

    Need a job? Like the upper Midwest? Here's an employer with good taste.

    Friday, September 21, 2007

    All Euphemisms, All the Time

    Today on TV I heard about police interviewing persons of interest in a shooting, and then I saw ads for Sunsweet plum juice and an IUC for women who don't want to become pregnant. (Perhaps I have a suspect prune device.)

    Friday, September 14, 2007

    Don't You Think?

    It's not ironic that the guy you just met grew up on the same street where your aunt lives, or that a coach lost his last game to a team he used to work with, or that there's a black fly in your chardonnay. But this is ironic.

    Thursday, September 13, 2007

    Only 418 More Days

    Clinton Blasts Obama For Slamming Edwards Jab

    The Onion

    Clinton Blasts Obama For Slamming Edwards Jab

    WASHINGTON, DC—Dissent continued to plague the 2008 presidential campaign this week, as Sen. Hillary Clinton had harsh words for Sen. Barack...

    Friday, September 07, 2007

    Walsh Disputes Headline Written by Examiner

    I'm not disputing that the headline was written by the Examiner; the Examiner wrote a headline, and I'm disputing that headline. Similarly, what the Examiner is saying in the headline is that there is a sex ring operating out of fire stations but that nonetheless D.C. officials are denying that fact.

    I believe the headline writer meant D.C. officials deny sex ring is operating out of fire stations.

    I've made the case for the helping verb before. In the case of the alleged sex ring there's an issue of meaning, but other times it's a nicety -- one that even a lot of copy editors don't quite grasp. It must be genetic, like the quirk that makes cilantro taste like soap to some unfortunate souls. When I try to teach colleagues about it, most of the time they smile and nod and start adding "Is" to all headlines, whether they need it or not.

    In this case, at the very least, there's ambiguity. Consider "Woman Denies Man Asking for Sex."

    Saturday, August 25, 2007

    I Can Has E-Mail?

    If you tried to send me a message on Friday, Aug. 25, I probably didn't get it. There were troubles. Please try again.

    If you're wondering about the odd grammar and syntax in the title of this entry, learn and enjoy.

    Friday, August 24, 2007

    'It Is I,' Said the Fullback

    Sorry, but I never get tired of that line. It was the title of one of my original Sharp Points on The Slot, and that essay became a sidebar in "Lapsing Into a Comma." My little joke almost became reality last month when Clinton Portis of the Washington Redskins, not a fullback but a running back, was quoted once in the Washington Post talking like Clinton Portis and elsewhere in the Washington Post saying the same thing on the same occasion, only like George Will.

    The issue of "cleaning up" quotes is one on which journalists are split pretty much 50-50, in my experience. And each side thinks the other is nuts. Post ombudsman Deborah Howell sums up the controversy and argues for using a speaker's actual words here and here. Post humorist Gene Weingarten, an otherwise reasonable fellow, eloquently presents the don't-tell-us-what-people-actually-said viewpoint here (it's not right away; be patient and enjoy the other stuff).

    My thoughts are here. And here: We get to say what we want everywhere else; let the speakers say what they want within quotation marks. If it's Clinton Portis, who obviously steers clear of Henry Higgins English on purpose, allow him the courtesy of using his own words. If it's some poor schlub who simply made a mistake because he's human and he's nervous and he doesn't usually get interviewed by newspapers, put the salient words in quotes and correct the subject-verb agreements outside quotes. If he accidentally says, "I has a heck of a dilemma," make it a partial quote and say that he has "a heck of a dilemma."

    The ombudsman got plenty of feedback, and one reader made a point I wish I'd thought of: If we clean up quotations to avoid making readers look bad, would we also touch up photographs of them to remove their blemishes?

    Wednesday, August 22, 2007

    Staff Infection

    The use of staff as an article-free plural noun -- in place of "the staff" or "staff members" -- is, at least in American English, a hallmark of bureaucratese. It's an established and understandable usage, and so some would tell us to put down the red pencil and slowly back away from the text, perhaps even kneel and build a shrine to yet another example of the language's flexibility, but our job is to avoid jargon. We're not bureaucrats; we don't get as many days off.

    NO: The senator instructed committee staff to research the issue.
    YES: The senator instructed the committee staff to research the issue.

    NO: The report said some hospital staff were untrained.
    YES: The report said some hospital staff members were untrained.

    (I would even accept staffers, though that word makes some of my fellow tsk-tskers wince.)

    Friday, July 20, 2007

    'Insult . . . (to) Injury'

    I see this sort of punctuation way too often:
    The study said the redevelopment plan "lacks imagination . . . (and) will cost more than the city is projecting."
    Ellipses suck. Inserts in quotes suck. So hey, kids, let's go out of our way to do both!

    If you're introducing a break in the quote anyway, why in the world would you shoehorn a word in with parentheses or brackets right at that breaking point? You'd have to really, really hate partial quotes not to do it this way:
    The study said the redevelopment plan "lacks imagination" and "will cost more than the city is projecting."

    Wednesday, July 11, 2007

    The Accidental Funster

    A commenter on a previous post bemoaned a headline that referred to a lawsuit over pants as a "pants suit." That case happened in my dear city, and indeed my newspaper used the phrase more than once. This raises an intriguing question: Are self-respecting headline writers at sophisticated publications duty-bound to go into contortions to avoid even the appearance of a cutesy play on words, even when that phrase is the most obvious, natural and succinct way of getting the idea across?

    I'm struggling to come up with another example. There are some cousins -- I've said bad things about the reflexive use of fine wine, though you could argue that the odd little word fine is a perfect pairing for that term, which is intended to say a lot while saying very little. The grocer or restaurateur who claims to offer such libations isn't necessarily saying they're grrrrrrrrreat -- just that they are of a certain quality beyond the point where all reds are "burgundy" and all whites are "chablis." But I think it's a pat term best left to menus, ads and signage.

    A thoroughly modern equivalent is "nip slip," which by its very genre is immune to this sort of criticism. My instinct on "pants suit" is to go ahead and use it in a tight headline count while pretending not to notice its giggle-worthy qualities. Maintain a noncommittal gaze at an imaginary object in the near distance, as though your mother-in-law were committing a nip slip.

    Tuesday, July 10, 2007

    ACES Springfield

    At the opening reception for the American Copy Editors Society conference in Springfield are, from left, Philip Blanchard, Merrill Perlman, Barbara Wallraff, John McIntyre, Bill Walsh, Nicole Stockdale, Wendalyn Nichols and Erin McKean. (Created with the avatar builder at -- except the bow tie and the togetherness.)

    Wednesday, July 04, 2007

    Friday, June 15, 2007


    You'll see this sort of thing a lot:
    Several Hollywood stars are supporting Sen. Barack Obama's, D-Ill., campaign.
    Well, no. Sen. Barack Obama is an Illinois Democrat. Sen. Barack Obama's is a possessive. Recast, please.

    Thursday, June 14, 2007

    Flagrant Foul

    Does everything have to be branded and logoed? The NBA's championship series is the NBA championship series. Or the title series. Or the championship. But, because everything has to be branded and logoed, we have The Finals. Don't fall for it. Call it the finals if you must, but it's not The Finals, and it's certainly not The Finals (believe me, they'd force the font on you if they could).

    Basketball has always had it in for me. I've written about my annoyance at the linguistic rituals surrounding the NCAA tournament (at least the pros save their excitement for the top two teams instead of making the semifinals the holy grail). Maybe I'd understand all this if I were taller.

    Wednesday, June 13, 2007


    "Bring your favorite bottle of wine, and on Wednesdays there's no corkage fee!" "A bar where you can enjoy your favorite cocktail!" "Take advantage of our 'accent wall' plan and get one wall of your apartment painted your favorite color!"

    OK now. My favorite bottle of wine may not go with the cuisine offered by a no-corkage-Wednesdays place that advertises on the radio. Hell, my favorite bottle of wine is probably one I can't afford. My favorite cocktail? I dunno, maybe the Cable Car, a variation on the sidecar offered at select Las Vegas Strip establishments? It's not offered at the bar I'm inventing for the sake of argument here, so I guess I'm not welcome. And my favorite color is a hunter or emerald green of some sort, but that's not necessarily the color I'd paint my "accent wall" if I rented a place at the complex I'm inventing for the sake of argument here, so I guess I'm not allowed to opt for my second- or third-favorite color.

    Yes, my point is that "favorite" is an ad-speak cliche best avoided in actual writing. What, you think I'm being overly literal? Well, bite me.

    But don't actually bite me.

    Wednesday, June 06, 2007

    Get Real With Garner

    The Usage Tip of the Day that Bryan Garner just sent out is so good I have to share it:
    "Get" is good English. Yet many writers want to avoid it because they consider it too informal; they prefer "obtain" or "procure." The same tendency is at work here that leads some writers to shun "before" in favor of "prior to," "later" in favor of "subsequent to," and the like. But confident, relaxed writers use the word "get" quite naturally -- e.g.: "Duke was obviously referring to some of the conference championship teams or playoff winners that either got lucky or hot during the playoffs or played an unimpressive schedule to win a conference title and gain an automatic berth." Gordon S. White Jr., "NCAA Tourney Snubs Syracuse," N.Y. Times, 9 Mar. 1981, at Cl.

    Although some pedants have contended that "get" must always mean "to obtain," any good dictionary will confirm that it has more than a dozen meanings, including "to become." So the second and third bulleted examples above are quite proper. And it's entirely acceptable to use such phrases as "get sick" and "get rich."

    Thursday, May 31, 2007

    Got Pix?

    If you haven't joined Flickr, join Flickr. It's a place to store and organize digital photos, but it has become so much more. It's a research tool, a place to find and buy photos, and a way to peek in on the lives of your family members and friends -- and strangers. You can upload a pretty big bunch of photos per month free, or as many as you want for 25 bucks a year.

    But enough free advertising. This entry is a call to community: I just started a Flickr group called The Copy Desk, where copy editors are invited to contribute pictures of themselves, their co-workers, their workplaces, their cats -- whatever. Take a look: There's not much there to start, but I hope that will change quickly.

    Wednesday, May 30, 2007

    Just a Production Issue

    Asked about a Men's Fitness cover photo of tennis star Andy Roddick that didn't particularly appear to be portraying the physique of tennis star Andy Roddick, a company spokesman said that "we wouldn’t comment on any type of production issue" and added: "I don’t see what the big issue is here."

    Hey, I've handled some production issues in my time, and I couldn't agree more. I mean, if you need to get next month's issue out now, you do what you have to do. If that means spending seven to nine weeks wrapping your reptilian brain around the niceties of Photoshop in order to put fake arms on a sports celebrity, so be it. I don't see how that could possibly harm the credibility of Men's Fitness, of magazines in general, or of all of journalism. You go, boys.

    Wednesday, May 16, 2007

    Silly Design Cliches

    If you could read what's under this photo, you'd see this:

    Real captions are so last year. It's much cooler to print what needs to be printed in tiny type along with the credit. That way we look artsy and screw the senior citizens. Two birds, one stone.

    Monday, May 07, 2007

    See Below

    If you write headlines, you're bound to hear from readers, writers, your bosses and the assistant circulation director's second cousin from time to time about how a headline somehow lacked the "nuance" and "sophistication" of the story below it.

    I take the criticism to heart when a headline fails to fit the facts or the tone of a story, but in general I try to retain my sanity by reminding myself, and the complainers, that 1,235 words will generally paint a more nuanced and sophisticated picture than, say, nine words. (Or, hell, 1,234.)

    John McIntyre, assistant managing editor for copy desks at the Baltimore Sun, offers some words to live by:
    A headline -- please keep this in mind -- is inherently elliptical and approximate. The text has the exact, detailed information. The headline is a suggestion that you should read the damn story.

    Tuesday, May 01, 2007

    Books, Books, Books

    I've revamped my online bookstore, The Book Slot, to make things easier to use, less unsightly and more current. Check it out and buy a book or two. Visit the Off-Topic section and you might even buy a DVD or two.

    Friday, April 27, 2007

    The Wrong Headline Got the Hyphen

    Looking at today's Wall Street Journal, I spotted two front-page headlines that Paul R. Martin is likely to brand "heads below the rest" in the next Style & Substance.

    Atkins's Estate
    In a Scandal

    He's diet doctor Atkins. No hyphen. The phrase "diet doctor" is not an adjective or a modifier; it's simply a noun that helps define another noun. There's probably a fancy grammatical term for that, but I'd call it a label. Diet doctor Atkins, copy editor Walsh, baseball player Bonds. All labels. "Steroid abuser Bonds" would not get a hyphen (still a label), but "steroid-abusing Bonds" would -- there's a modifier.

    Then, a couple of inches away, I see this:

    All Harman Investors
    Have Chance for a Stake
    In KKR, Goldman Deal

    A comma used that way in a headline means "and." I suppose in some sense you have a "KKR and Goldman deal," but that's just not how such a thing is supposed to be punctuated. It's a KKR-Goldman deal. Ali-Frazier fight, Tigers-Yankees game, Burton-Taylor marriage, KKR-Goldman deal.

    Under the fairness doctrine, I'm obligated to point out that my paper also made a front-page hyphenation error today. From the article on Stephen Hawking's ride on the vomit comet:

    Dressed in dark blue flight suits, Hawking and an entourage of caretakers boarded a Boeing 727 that roared out over the ocean and carved huge parabolic arcs in the sky, creating for passengers the "zero-gravity" effect of being in space.

    Those blue flight suits sure were dark! That's not what the writer meant. He meant the color of the flight suits was dark blue. Dark-blue flight suits.

    Wednesday, April 18, 2007

    Bad Comma

    Is the comma in this sentence OK? "One was about a fight between a stepson and his stepfather, and involved throwing hammers and attacks with a chainsaw."

    I think it's wrong, but I see this everywhere. Did I miss something?

    Short of the dreaded comma splice it's hard to pin the word wrong on anything involving comma placement, but I wouldn't have used that comma.

    The writer, or perhaps an editor, saw two instances of and in quick succession and moved to tidy things up. Perhaps the writer or editor confused that sentence with a series -- even those of us who stylistically eschew the serial comma are supposed to use it if an item in the series contains a conjunction (toast, juice, and ham and eggs) -- but two items do not a series make. What's going on in that sentence is a compound predicate, and compound predicates are not supposed to get commas.

    As I said in a longer discussion of this topic, a technically incorrect "take a breath" comma is sometimes appropriate, but in this case there are better alternatives. Among them:

  • One was about a fight between a stepson and his stepfather, and it involved throwing hammers and attacks with a chainsaw.

  • One was about a fight between a stepson and his stepfather; it involved throwing hammers and attacks with a chainsaw.

  • One of them, about a fight between a stepson and his stepfather, involved throwing hammers and attacks with a chainsaw.

  • Saturday, April 14, 2007

    Close-Enough Hyphenation

    In the phrase long-term care insurance, shouldn't there be a second hyphen -- long-term-care insurance? It's insurance for long-term care, not care insurance of the long-term variety, right?

    Technically, yes, but that's one of those that fall into the "close enough" category in this hyphen-averse world. In a sense it is care insurance of the long-term variety, and so I don't think that's too much of a tragedy in any publication that isn't so strict that it would print ice-cream cone or high-school student, which is to say most publications.

    Contrast that with something like anti-child abuse program, where the single hyphen would be inexcusable.

    (Have a question? Send it along and I just might answer it in this space. Let me know whether you want me to include your name/location/affiliation or none of the above.)

    Friday, April 13, 2007

    Feeling Testy?

    People often ask me where they can find a copy-editing test. It's not an easy question, because by and large such tests are proprietary and hard to grade, but here, at the University of Kansas site, is a classic from the late and legendary John Bremner. (He'd be even more legendary in my book if he had alerted somebody to the fact that "KU" doesn't stand for "University of Kansas.")

    Thursday, April 12, 2007

    Ho, Ho, Ho!

    Not long ago this was a burning issue before the Washington Post copy chiefs, and for the life of me I couldn't figure out why:

    Is the plural of ho . . . hos? Ho's? Hoes? None of the above?

    How often, I thought, could this possibly come up?

    Well, it sure has come up a lot in the past week, thanks to serial A-hole Don Imus. I favor hos, but I thought it was a close call (see do's and don'ts and noes) and I didn't even remember how the debate was resolved until I started researching this entry.

    The good news is, nearly everyone agrees with me. That is, they agree with me on hos, though my feeling that it was a close call seems to have been knocked down. The near-unanimity is rather startling. Only the Kansas City Star has used hoes in reporting the Imus quote, and that was only once. Ho's does show up, mainly in New York City, but the papers that use it tend to go back and forth between that and hos. Here's the breakdown among what LexisNexis considers the major U.S. newspapers (asterisks indicate occasional inconsistency, as opposed to the coin-flip inconsistency of the last group):

    Atlanta Journal-Constitution
    Baltimore Sun
    Boston Globe*
    Boston Herald
    Buffalo News
    Charlotte Observer
    Chicago Sun-Times
    Chicago Tribune
    Christian Science Monitor
    Cleveland Plain Dealer
    Denver Post
    Detroit Free Press
    Fort Worth Star-Telegram
    Grand Rapids Press*
    Hartford Courant
    Houston Chronicle
    Kansas City Star*
    Los Angeles Times
    Miami Herald
    Milwaukee Journal Sentinel*
    Minneapolis Star Tribune
    Newark Star-Ledger
    Orlando Sentinel
    Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
    Rocky Mountain News
    Sacramento Bee
    St. Petersburg Times
    San Antonio Express-News
    San Jose Mercury News
    South Florida Sun-Sentinel*
    USA Today
    Washington Post

    Dallas Morning News
    New York Post*
    St. Louis Post-Dispatch

    New York Daily News
    New York Times
    San Francisco Chronicle

    Wednesday, April 11, 2007

    A Morning on the Links

    Please welcome Jan Freeman, Evan Jenkins and Patricia T. O'Conner to my list of language links. Jan writes about language for the Boston Globe, with a generous sprinkling of Bill Walsh references; Evan, whom I'm looking forward to meeting at next week's ACES conference, is with the Columbia Journalism Review; and Pat is the author of the brilliant "Woe Is I" and "Words Fail Me." I've also renamed some of the links, favoring people's names over site names except with a couple of household-name sites (apologies to Philip Blanchard and Paul R. Martin).

    I would have also included Nathan Bierma, but he's taking a break from blogging. He does, however, occasionally write about language for the Chicago Tribune, most recently reporting on the Arkansas legislature's resolution attempting to establish the proper possessive form for the state's name.

    Thursday, April 05, 2007

    Quote Patrol

    "Consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds," Keith Olbermann recited this week.

    Uh, no. People often erroneously say "small," but the otherwise truth-squadding MSNBC personality also managed to miss the main point of the Ralph Waldo Emerson quotation.

    "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds." Not every consistency is foolish. Write it down.

    (For all you reference-book addicts, the recently published Yale Book of Quotations sounds like a promising alternative to the old familiar Bartlett's.)

    Wednesday, April 04, 2007

    And Half of His Steak Was Leftover

    "I got my haircut," a blogger wrote recently.

    That makes sense in a way, of course. He got a haircut, and that haircut was his -- but what he really meant was "I got my hair cut." When you get your hair cut, it's a haircut.

    Anyone have another example of this kind of error? Better yet, a relevant term for the phenomenon?

    Tuesday, April 03, 2007

    Tilting Ly-Ward

    I've long been skeptical of the conventional wisdom on more important vs. more importantly, but until recently I've been applying it. The New York Times stylebook, for instance, puts it this way:
    important(ly). Avoid this construction: He is tall. More importantly, he is young. Make it more important. The phrase includes an implied what is (What is more important, he is young). Thus important is an adjective modifying what.
    As with the hopefully mess, parallel examples tend to back up the more common usage. Nobody (that I know of) insists on changing "Interestingly . . ." and "Significantly . . .," but do these usages not work the same way? Come to think of it, what about "Importantly . . ." without the more?

    All that (well, maybe not the last part) was quietly simmering on a back burner for me when Wendalyn Nichols, editor of the Copy Editor newsletter, told me some months ago that she had given up on enforcing "More important . . .," and I finally turned up the heat on that kettle when I saw an interesting Mark Liberman soliloquy on the matter on the Language Log site.

    Liberman points to Merriam-Webster's Concise Dictionary of English Usage. The Merriam-Webster book isn't always a useful guide for setting style, as it (like some Language Log entries) is so anti-prescriptivist that "apologist" might be a better description, but there's some nice research there, and it traces the "More important . . ." prescription to a 1968 Theodore Bernstein entry in his Winners & Sinners newsletter for the New York Times staff. Merriam-Webster says Bernstein changed his mind in 1977 and declared both options valid.

    Why, then, does the Times stylebook still come down on the anti-ly side? Well, for the same reason that I'm about to come down on the other side: because it's in the business of setting style. If I get frustrated at seeing Rumanian or axe in Washington Post copy, it's not because the spellings are out-and-out wrong; it's because the spellings are not Washington Post style. Few would disagree that it would be distracting for readers to see "an axe-wielding Rumanian" on A17 and "an ax-wielding Romanian" on A18, and so it makes sense to standardize such things.

    On the other hand, I'm with the write-and-let-write folks at Language Log when I get questions like "Is it 'a top lawyer at the firm,' 'a top lawyer with the firm' or 'a top lawyer for the firm'?" (Answer: See your primary-care physician about a refill of that chill-pill prescription.) I suppose it's debatable whether the presence of "More important . . ." side by side with "More importantly . . ." is more like an axe-wielding Rumanian or a top lawyer for the firm (when does a consistency become foolish?), but I think it's a good idea to make a -ly decision and stick with it.

    As I point out in an uncharacteristically wimpy taking-no-sides passage in "The Elephants of Style," Bryan Garner has an interesting entry on more important(ly) in Garner's Modern American Usage. He starts out with an assertion that Liberman and Merriam-Webster might have a problem with ("As an introductory clause, more important has historically been considered an elliptical form of "What is more important . . ."), but he goes on to bring up the "Importantly . . ." issue, the parallel-example issue (he cites "notably" and "interestingly"), and the fact that the omission of -ly just doesn't work anywhere but at the start of a sentence. He concludes:
    The criticism of more importantly and most importantly has always been rather muted and obscure, and today it has dwindled to something less than muted and obscure. So writers needn't fear any criticism for using the -ly forms; if they encounter any, it's easily dismissed as picayunish pedantry.
    I agree. Sorry it took me so long.

    Friday, March 23, 2007

    A Plug for Brand Y

    The Wall Street Journal's excellent Style & Substance newsletter is now available in blog form.

    Wednesday, March 21, 2007


    Tuesday, March 20, 2007

    A Plug for Brand X

    The delightful Merrill Perlman, who runs the copy-desk world at the New York Times, is answering reader questions this week. Lots of good stuff, including a nice description of what exactly copy editors do.

    Tuesday, March 13, 2007

    One Count of Stupid Shorthand

    The Justice Department did not fire a bunch of "attorneys." OK, they were attorneys, if you accept the tarted-up term as a synonym for lawyers, but to use it as an all-purpose shorthand for U.S. attorneys makes about as much sense as using it to describe Supreme Court justices.

    The generic term for those who hold the title U.S. attorney is federal prosecutor, or simply prosecutor. In fact, it's a good idea to work prosecutor into any story on the matter even if U.S. attorney isn't too long for the headline specs or too frequently mentioned as to become monotonous: There are bound to be readers out there without a firm grasp of what exactly a U.S. attorney does.

    Friday, March 02, 2007

    The Oughties' Newest Wrinkle

    We never did decide what to call this decade, did we? The 2010s will make things a little easier, but wait . . .

    At the Conservative Political Action Conference, veteran Republican fundraiser Richard Viguerie said he is not optimistic about a GOP presidential victory in 2008. "I think it will be '012 or '016," he said.

    That sure looks odd in print, but people do talk that way, don't they? Though the 0 in '07 most assuredly stands for the third digit in the year, not the second and third digits, "in '12 or in '16" just doesn't roll off the tongue the way "in '68 or '72" did. I let the quote run in the Post for one edition before it occurred to me that the apostrophe was required. That makes it look at least a little less queer.

    (And I decided that CPAC would be the Conservative Political Action Conference, taking a cue from the event's Web site, though one could argue that CPAC is still the Conservative Political Action Committee and that this is the CPAC conference.)

    Wednesday, February 21, 2007

    Wait, Who's Abusing the Dog Paths?

    I'm sure the New York Times improved this Page One headline for subsequent editions, but on my early peek I saw this:

    Abuses Dog Paths of Young Magazine 'Crews' 

    In addition to its being, finally, one iffy headline that I won't get yelled at about, it illustrates one of the many problems we face as headline writers: the possibility that nouns will be read as verbs and vice versa. It took me about half a dozen readings before I realized that Abuses was not a subjectless verb but rather a plural noun, making Dog not a noun or a noun adjunct describing Paths but rather a verb. Nobody's abusing any dog paths, but abuses are dogging these crews' paths.

    The plausibility of "dog paths" as something that could indeed exist and be written about compounds the "noun or verb?" problem, and even if you get a glimmer of the story's real subject, noun dogs could still conceivably be involved (as a colleague of mine said, "At least it isn't what I feared -- a story about how these salespeople are often attacked by dogs").

    The headline isn't helped by the quotation marks, justified as they may be, on "Crews," or by the fleeting appearance that we're talking about a young magazine, not young people making up these "crews." Too many distractions.

    I've certainly looked the other way at one or two of these issues when I couldn't think of a better alternative, but a headline can survive only so many potential distractions. (And the Times is consistently excellent at avoiding such problems, which is why this example stood out for me.)

    Monday, January 29, 2007

    And the Winners Are . . .

    The American Copy Editors Society has awarded its annual scholarships to five students. Here's the news release:

    Matthew Dulin
    University of Houston

    Dulin, as the top candidate, was also named the Aubespin Scholar. That scholarship is named for Merv Aubespin, the former Louisville Courier-Journal editor who is considered the godfather of ACES.

    As a Dow Jones intern, Dulin impressed his boot-camp instructors so much that three of them concurred he was the best intern they've had in three years. "It was clear to everyone at the training camp -- interns and faculty alike -- that Matt was the star player," Rick Brunson, associate director of the Center for Editing Excellence at the University of Central Florida, wrote in his letter of recommendation.

    Dulin, a senior, completed his internship at the Naples Daily News in Florida. He has also been editor-in-chief, managing editor and news editor of the Daily Cougar, the student paper at the University of Houston. His headlines at the Naples Daily News show a real flair, even on dry news stories, such as "The real toll, officials say, would be time," about the widening of Interstate 75 and a study on toll lanes.

    Krysten Chambrot
    University of Missouri
    at Columbia

    Chambrot, a senior, grew up in a Cuban family as a native Spanish speaker, and for her, learning English was a scientific endeavor: "I remember getting excited seeing sentence-diagramming trees."

    While she was healing from major surgery after a bicycling accident, she stayed engaged by reading up on Bremner, Strunk and White, Walsh, and Truss. Today she helps coach other students as an assistant news editor at the Columbia Missourian, and she spent the summer as a Dow Jones intern at The New York Times.

    Megan Crockett
    Central Michigan University

    Crockett, a senior, completed a Dow Jones internship at the Detroit Free Press last summer. There she demonstrated what one assigning editor called an "I can solve this problem" attitude and an ability to get things done "with a minimum of drama and angst." She quickly progressed during her 10-week stint on the features copy desk, designing inside pages and even doing some slotting. Back at school, her academic adviser at Central Michigan described Crockett as "driven, diligent and meticulous."

    Amy Goldstein
    City University of New York

    Goldstein, a graduate student, said in her essay that she was "born to edit." In 1998, she placed fourth in the Scripps-Howard National Spelling Bee. The judges found Goldstein to be a good wordsmith with good news judgment. While interning at the McClatchy-Tribune news service, she lobbied to change the wording that described the day an Israeli conflict began because she knew newspapers disagreed about when the conflict began.

    David Ok
    University of Texas
    at Arlington

    Ok, whose family moved to Houston from Seoul, South Korea, in 1989, wrote in his essay that English was difficult for him as a
    youngster. But the judges agreed after reading his application package that he has mastered it through his dedication and hard work. He began his trek into the newspaper world as a proofreader for the UT student newspaper and almost immediately was given editing duties. In a few short months, he was named copy desk chief and has served as editor-in-chief of the paper. He's also working part time at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

    As the Aubespin scholar, Dulin received $2,500. The other winners each received $1,000. In addition, all winners receive free registration to ACES' 2007 national conference in Miami.

    The winners were selected from a group of 18 applicants, judged by five professional copy editors. The judges were Casey Common of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Lourdes Fernandez of Newsday, Henry Fuhrmann of the Los Angeles Times, Dory Knight-Ingram of the St. Petersburg Times and Candy Mount of the Belleville (Ill.) News-Democrat.

    The winners were selected using these criteria:Commitment to copy editing as a career; work experience in copy editing; abilities in copy editing, as demonstrated by the examples in the application; and the recommendations.

    The judges’ recommendations were approved by the board of the ACES Education Foundation. The foundation’s scholarship committee is Bill Cloud of the University of North Carolina, Leslie Guevarra of the San Francisco Chronicle and Kathy Schenck of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

    The 2006 scholarships bring the total awarded to 34 since 1999. The deadline for the 2007 scholarships is Oct. 15. For more information on the scholarship program, please see the ACES Web site.

    Friday, January 12, 2007


    Now hear this: There is no "Duke lacrosse rape case," and not only because it's no longer a rape case.

    Call it the Duke case if you must in a headline pinch, but in text you really need to slow down, take a breath, and call it what it is, even if it requires an extra word or two. It's a sexual-assault case against three Duke University lacrosse players.

    As for "lacrosse rape," yikes. I'm just going to look the other way and hope the term could refer only to an officiating error that costs your favorite team a victory.