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.