Saturday, December 05, 2009


You may well do some of your holiday shopping at or But I guarantee you that you'll do none at or Because they don't exist.

Here's the deal: There are names, and there are addresses. It's easy enough not to confuse "Macy's" with "151 W. 34th St.," but things get tricky when you see the same online store referred to as Amazon and and amazon and and and

Go to and you'll see "blue nile" and "Blue Nile" and "Blue Nile Inc.," but you will not see "" or "" or "" or "BlueNile" or "bluenile." You'll see "" only in your browser's address field. Therefore, if you're writing about that store, you must call it "Blue Nile." Call it "Blue Nile (" if you want to help your readers get there.

Go to, on the other hand, and you'll see "" and "" and " Inc." is both the name and the address. Even if the site consistently said "," by the way, I would call it Proper nouns are capitalized. Grant eBay (not a one-letter grace period if you like, as long as it's not at the beginning of a sentence.

If you want to point to a URL within, then you're talking address, and so you'll want to revert to lowercase. Perhaps there's a big sale at I like to keep the "www.," if applicable, in such cases, for two reasons: It helps sharpen the distinction between name and address, and it presents more opportunities for a line break if the sentence ends up in a narrow column. Some people like to keep the "http://," especially when there's no "www.," but that strikes me as silly. There will, however, occasionally be times when you'll want "https://" for a secure site.

On a tour of deal-hunting sites, note the difference between not-coms such as Stop It to Me, RetailMeNot and Coupon Sherpa and dot-coms (or -orgs) such as and

Some online stores don't know what their names are, leaving you with a judgment call. Go to and you'll see "zingsale" and "ZingSale" and ""  It's usually ZingSale, and so I would call it "ZingSale" or "ZingSale (" Because the name's-the-same dynamic is much tidier, however, it would be an acceptable style decision to take that lone "" as permission to call the site That's the decision I'd make at, where the indecision is about 50-50.

Monday, November 30, 2009

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 20, 2009

more lowercase silliness

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Downs and Ups

This sentence from my own paper contains an obvious problem:

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

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

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

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

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

Well, yes and no.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 02, 2009

You Can Write, but You Can't Edit

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

Off-topic, she has some truly amazing stuff.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

If You Libel, You May Be Liable

A publisher says -- and news outlets are repeating -- that the release of a tell-all book about the NBA by Tim Donaghy, the former referee who ended up in prison after a betting scandal, was canceled because of "concerns over potential liability."

The concept that the Triumph Books representative had in mind, I believe, was "libel."

Because "liable" and "libel" sound a lot alike, people seem to confuse them, or at least think they're related. It's not uncommon to hear a copy editor say something like "If we say he was arrested for murder, we'll be liable!"

The words are not related, etymologically. They are related only in the sense that the loser of a libel suit may be legally liable to pay damages. (Not the same thing as damage, but that's another rant.)

In other words, the publisher was right to be concerned about liability, but its immediate concern should have been libel.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Say, Say, Say

You can't say something outrageous. Well, you can, but that would mean something else. You can say something is outrageous, or you can call something outrageous. Or, in the headline shortcut that someone at Reuters or Google or somewhere abused, Iraq bombings can be 'outrageous,' Obama says.

And as for the pirate headline, well, that degree of "says" abuse is a new one on me.

As we tweet and RSS and SMS and MMS and try to broadcast news to ever-tinier devices, of course, every character is sacred, but there is a baseline of literacy below which reputable publishers should not stoop, and the proper use of to say is part of it.

As you know if you've been a copy editor any length of time, and stared at an impossible headline order at some point in the night only to see by deadline time that it was, indeed, possible, there's always a way. I'm not sure whether there was a character to spare in the format for the Gmail news clips from which I took my examples, but observe:

Obama says Iraq bombings 'outrageous'
Obama calls Iraq bombings 'outrageous'
Obama calls Iraq attacks 'outrageous'
Obama calls Iraq bombings outrageous

Somali pirates say holding British couple
Somali pirates claim to hold British pair
Somali pirates claim to hold 2 Britons

I used to think that the wrongness of President says bill bad and the like was obvious to any decent copy editor, but I was wrong. I've met some very good copy editors in my quarter-century of doing this for whom this was a blind spot. If you have the blind spot, perhaps the following excerpt from the Washington Post stylebook's entry on headlines can help.

Auxiliary verbs and forms of the verb to be may usually be omitted, but they are required in the progressive and after says:


Budget deficit intolerable, candidate says

Candidate calls budget deficit intolerable

Driver held blameless in Beltway crash


Candidate says budget deficit intolerable

Budget deficit said intolerable

Driver said blameless in Beltway crash


Farmers fear river is rising

Farmers fear rising river

Israelis feared PLO was infiltrating


Farmers fear river rising

Israelis feared PLO infiltrating

The verb must be used in an independent clause after a conjunction.


SE mother charged after girl is found stabbed and wandering


SE mother charged after girl found stabbed and wandering

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Wish I'd Thought of That

If you're not reading the Fake AP Stylebook on Twitter, you've missed the following helpful pointers:

  • Capitalize titles when they precede a name. Ex., King Kong, Captain Crunch, Count Dracula, Kid Rock.

  • Words that substitute for Ted Nugent are capitalized. Ex. Ten Fingers of Doom, Motor City Madman, Mr. Wango Tango, The Nuge

  • Use quotation marks to express skepticism: Cher’s “Farewell Tour,” Creed’s “Best Album,” Jay Leno’s “comedy.”

  • The word "boner” is not capitalized, regardless of size.

  • Dr Pepper doesn't have a period in it. An easy way to remember this is 'Doctors are dudes and dudes don't get periods.'

    (The real AP Stylebook is also on Twitter, if you need something to cleanse the palate.)

  • Tuesday, October 20, 2009

    How About It, Hyphen Haters?

    I have a question for those of you who scoff at "real-estate agent" and "orange-juice factory" because, after all, there's no ambiguity -- nobody would think "real estate agent" means actual estate agent, and nobody would think an orange juice factory is a juice factory painted orange.

    Well, then, where's the ambiguity in "Law Abiding Citizen" or even "40 Year Old Virgin"? The meanings are perfectly clear without the hyphens. Leave them out, then?

    You might say the hyphenation of ages is a universally accepted convention, and you'd be right. But what makes "law-abiding citizen" obviously correct and, say, "law-enforcement officer" pedantic and excessive?

    Monday, October 19, 2009

    Protest-Too-Much Department

    I like compound-modifier hyphens as much as the next guy, or perhaps a lot more than the next guy, and I laughed and Twitter-linked when my brother posted a photo of a certain subway vigilante's work on a "Law Abiding Citizen" poster.

    But I'm not sure that particular omitted hyphen is worthy of the hyperventilating it inspired on an Entertainment Weekly blog.

    Friday, October 16, 2009

    Dictionary Dissents

    An occasional feature of my Twitter feed is Dictionary Dissent of the Day -- a beef with Webster's New World College Dictionary, the official dictionary of most American newspapers. Here's the list so far:
    WNWReal life
    Sweat shirt Sweatshirt
    Sunbelt Sun Belt
    Tranquillity Tranquility
    Bootees Booties
    Seviche Ceviche
    Largess Largesse
    Hardworking Hard-working
    Workingman Working man
    Workingwoman Working woman

    Wednesday, October 14, 2009

    Tuesday, October 13, 2009

    Monday, October 12, 2009

    ¿Los Los Angeles Angeles de Anaheim?

    I used to root against the Washington Redskins, to the extent that I paid attention to the NFL at all, but then I realized that putting up with the D.C. media's assumption that every person in the metropolitan area is depressed about a Redskins loss is even worse than putting up with the D.C. media's assumption that every person in the metropolitan area is elated about a Redskins win. And then I married into a family in which the words "the game" are assumed to mean "the Washington Redskins game on the Sunday most appropriate to the tense of the current sentence."

    Anyway, the game was on the TV, and just as I was about to compose a 140-character-or-less rant about the announcer's reference to "a longtime veteran," I heard a reference to "the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim."

    The who of what? This isn't a new development, I learned; apparently they failed to alert me at the time.

    You may know how I feel about the "Oh, OK" answer to logo-rrhea. The team's owners are welcome to use the tortured construction as a marketing ploy, or to satisfy the terms of a legal agreement, or just to piss off people like me, but media outlets run by grown-ups will follow the normal conventions and refer to the [One and Only One Location] [Nickname(s)]. And, much to my relief, they apparently do.

    Keep this in mind if you start hearing about the New York Giants of East Rutherford. Or the New York Jets of East Rutherford. Or the Buffalo Bills of Orchard Park. Or the Dallas Cowboys of Arlington. Or the Detroit Pistons of Auburn Hills. Or the Phoenix Coyotes of Glendale. Or the Washington Redskins of Landover. (Or is it Largo? Raljon?)

    Sunday, October 11, 2009

    At Least They're Not Evildoers

    From the Jackson Hole News & Guide via the Jackson Hole Daily, Aug. 5, 2009:

    Crime in Teton County is down 30 percent to 40 percent for the year, according to court and jail officials. Authorities say it could be because there are fewer people here after the recession forced many to move or because the troublemakers have left the valley.

    Well, that would explain it.

    Saturday, October 10, 2009

    Rounding Up: A Roundup

    The Dow Jones Industrial Average closed Oct. 9, 2009, at 9864.94. If you want to express that as a whole number, you just lop off everything after the decimal point, right? Well, of course not. It's closer to 9865 than to 9864, and so you'd round it to 9865. Also Friday, the Standard & Poor's 500 index closed at 1071.49. You'd round that to 1071. But if it had risen one more hundredth of a point, to land midway between two whole numbers, for rounding purposes that would equal an entire point -- 1071.50 would round to 1072. Tie goes to the runner, or something like that.

    Now then. The half-rounds-up concept can get you in trouble. You'd probably never lop just one of the decimal digits off a stock index, but let's say a reporter was figuring out how much one of those indexes had risen since a certain date, and the answer came out to 14.45 percent. That's a lot of not-so-significant detail, and so maybe the reporter's assignment editor would round that up to 14.5 percent. And then the story comes to you, the copy editor, and you think, wow, that's a lot of not-so-significant detail, so I'll just make that a whole number. The half rounds up, and so you make it 15 percent.

    You've now inserted an error.

    When you go to round a number up, you'd better make darn sure that you're not rounding an already-rounded number.

    In a related caution, take a look at the following snippet from a spreadsheet:

    Would you believe that both sums, in their own way, are correct?

    Here are the same two columns and sums, only expanded to three decimal places.

    In the first column, Excel was showing the rounded numbers but adding the raw numbers. In the second column, Excel was adding up only the rounded versions. Lesson No. 1: It's fine to round the result of an equation, but do not round the numbers you use to get that result. Lesson No. 2: If you're diligently checking the numbers in a report, or in somebody else's graphic, and the answer doesn't add up, consider that you may not have enough information to judge whether the math was correct.

    Friday, October 09, 2009

    Actual Newspapers on Google News

    In honor of Sydney J. Harris, whose "things I learned on my way to looking up other things" columns fascinated me in my childhood reading of the Detroit Free Press, here's something I stumbled upon while looking into another pleasant 1970s memory, the awesome theme song and opening to "AM America."

    One Google search produced a page image from the Ocala Star-Banner showing an Associated Press story about how ABC was going to scrap the show and replace it with something called "Good Morning, America."

    This was my first exposure to Although too many of the results are pay-per-view articles from the ProQuest archive, it's pretty cool.

    Monday, October 05, 2009


    Yes, there's money in copy editing. Well, at least for students. If you're a college junior, senior or graduate student who intends to pursue a career in this godforsaken field, you're eligible for a scholarship from the American Copy Editors Society's Education Fund.

    The top winner will receive the $2,500 Aubespin scholarship (named for Merv Aubespin, the "godfather" of ACES), and at least four other students will get $1,000 awards. All winners will be given free registration to the 2010 ACES conference next April in Philadelphia.

    The 2009 winners are pictured above.

    Applications and supporting materials must be postmarked by Nov. 15. For more details, see the ACES Web site.

    Thursday, September 24, 2009

    You've Been Punc'd

    In observance of National Punctuation Day, I present seven punctuation mistakes that make you look stupid.

    1. Being outsmarted by "smart quotes."

    I'll look a little dumb right off the bat because I'm following the Web convention of using hash marks instead of "smart" quotation marks and apostrophes. Not all browsers and mobile devices can "read" the smart characters, as demonstrated by the strings of gobbledygook you'll sometimes see in forwarded e-mails. But let's assume you're working in an environment more friendly to these characters. The illustration above demonstrates some very common errors. Microsoft Word assumes that a single or double quotation mark immediately before another character is opening a quotation, and so class-reunion planners and political-campaign-sign makers everywhere blindly type in the apostrophe expecting it to show up as an apostrophe but instead it gets reversed and they look -- you guessed it.

    Even worse, the less-educated among us have gotten used to seeing characters that look vaguely like quotation marks, perhaps in some examples of the above error, and somehow absorbed the idea that that's exactly what they are. Greetings, Class of "80"!

    2. Using a hyphen as a dash or colon.

    We're talking about the em-dash here, not the esoteric little critter that is the en-dash. An em-dash can be "tight" (no spaces around it) or "loose" (a space on each side). It can consist of two hyphens, when technology makes a long character of that size problematic (as with smart quotes, not all Web browsers can display the real character). What a dash can't be is simply a hyphen. It isn't surprising, given that most ordinary Americans use the word "dash" to mean "hyphen," that these rogue hyphens appear on many a resume and curriculum vitae:
    GOAL- To optimize my potential using dynamic communications strategies.

    3. Using ellipses as a toy.

    Ellipses, of course, are used primarily to indicate the omission of material from a quotation. (In general they should not be used to indicate omission at the beginning or end of a quotation, as people tend to say and write things before and after the snippet we choose to pick out, but check out the advanced lesson before automatically following that advice.) Ellipses also may be used to indicate a trailing-off of speech or thought, or to separate thoughts in a piece of writing that consists of a series of unrelated thoughts, such as Larry King's old USA Today column.

    Less-educated people simply know that they sometimes see a bunch of pretty dots, and they imitate this with two or three or four or six or 12 dots randomly placed in or between sentences for no particular reason.

    An ellipsis consists of three dots (the word can refer either to one of the dots or to the whole unit). Because those three dots are often preceded by a dot that is a period, many educated people mistakenly think there are "four-dot ellipses." This has typographical implications. You should keep the three dots from breaking at the end of the line, either by simply keeping an eye on the line breaks; by making the spaces that separate the dots in a properly constructed set of ellipses "non-breaking spaces" or "thin spaces" or whatever your coding language, word-processing software or typesetting system allows; or by simplifying matters and dispensing with those spaces. But you should not extend that courtesy to the "fourth dot," the period that accompanies the ellipsis only coincidentally. Whatever solution you come up with for keeping the three dots of an ellipsis together, you should separate the first of them from any period that happens to precede it with a full, legitimate space-bar space.

    4. The old half-a-paren trick.

    Parentheses come in pairs. Their usefulness for encasing the letters or numbers used to letter or number a list within running text has migrated into the odd but very common use of a single parenthesis after a letter or number used to letter or number a more formally presented list. A properly formatted list uses full sets of parentheses in the former case and periods in the latter case. Got that? Probably not. Allow me to illustrate.

    The ATP rankings at the end of 1977 stood as follows: 1) Connors, 2) Vilas, 3) Borg.
    The ATP rankings at the end of 1977 stood as follows:
    1) Connors.
    2) Vilas.
    3) Borg.
    The ATP rankings at the end of 1977 stood as follows: (1) Connors, (2) Vilas, (3) Borg.
    The ATP rankings at the end of 1977 stood as follows:
    1. Connors.
    2. Vilas.
    3. Borg.

    5. Using a comma between a label and a labelee.

    Pick up a yearbook from high school or college and you'll probably find this one in more than one photo caption.
    Sophomore quarterback, Tom Tunnicliffe, scrambles for a gain.

    Tennis player, Paul Chamberlin, returns a serve.
    He's just sophomore quarterback Tom Tunnicliffe. He's just tennis player Paul Chamberlin. These are labels being stuck before names; the names are not what you would call in apposition to the descriptions. For that you'd need some articles, at the very least:
    A tennis player, Paul Chamberlin, returns a serve.

    The sophomore quarterback, Tom Tunnicliffe, scrambles for a gain.
    It's not likely that anybody would want to write such sentences, but they're at least technically correct (the second one could be incorrect if the team had more than one sophomore quarterback that season, but that's a different lesson). You'd probably want a little more description if you're using apposition rather than just labels:
    The star of the men's tennis team, Paul Chamberlin, returns a serve.

    The Wildcats' record-setting sophomore quarterback, Tom Tunnicliffe, scrambles for a gain.
    Note again, the distinction between with article and without article when a caption lapses into labeling to save space:

    RIGHT: Mikael Pernfors and his wife, Kristina.
    WRONG: Mikael Pernfors and wife, Kristina.
    RIGHT: Mikael Pernfors and wife Kristina.

    6. Leaving the apposition door open.

    Speaking of apposition, this is perhaps the most common error I correct in reporters' copy. Observe:
    When voters in Appalachia, Va. went to the polls on Nov. 2, 2006 they found no functioning machines.
    Where, again, is the town I'm reading about? It's in Va., of course, but this sentence says it's in Va.-went-to-the-polls-on-Nov.-2-2006-they-found-no-functioning machines. Which Nov. 2 am I reading about? It's 2006, of course, but this sentence says it's 2006-they-found-no-functioning-machines. You indicate the beginning of a bit of apposition with a comma, but then you have to indicate the end of it as well. It's a Washington, D.C., man, not a Washington, D.C. man.

    7. Using a semicolon where a comma would do.

    If you're looking to graft two complete sentences together, you can reach for a semicolon or you can reach for a comma and the word "and." If you have the "and," you don't need the semicolon.

    RIGHT: We arrived at the airport early, and we made our flight easily.
    RIGHT: We arrived at the airport early; we made our flight easily.
    WRONG: We arrived at the airport early; and we made our flight easily.

    Sentences that are rather long but are essentially "a, b and c" series also tend to get unnecessary semicolons. My theory is that newspaper copy editors who have been trained not to use serial commas never stuck around for Day 2 of that lesson, in which they would have learned that it's no style violation to stick that comma in before "and" when a sentence gets unwieldy:

    WRONG (WELL, AT LEAST UNADVISABLE): The barriers to entry in this sector include higher-than-typical personnel costs, the need for thousands of square feet of space and a sea of well-established firms to compete with.

    WRONG: The barriers to entry in this sector include higher-than-typical personnel costs; the need for thousands of square feet of space; and a sea of well-established firms to compete with.

    RIGHT: The barriers to entry in this sector include higher-than-typical personnel costs, the need for thousands of square feet of space, and a sea of well-established firms to compete with.

    You'd also want to use the serial comma if one of the items in your series of sorts contains "and," "or" or "but":

    WRONG: She has worked at the departments of Labor, Education and Health and Human Services.

    WRONG: She has worked at the departments of Labor; Education; and Health and Human Services.

    RIGHT: She has worked at the departments of Labor, Education, and Health and Human Services.

    Think of the semicolon as the supervisor you ask for when you've done all you can with a hard-working but ultimately ineffectual comma. Semicolons are quite appropriate in these "a, b and c" sentences when a or b or c already includes a comma:

    RIGHT: The bathrooms feature stylish glass tile; deep, luxurious tubs; and heated towel racks.

    RIGHT: In the early 1970s, she worked at the departments of Labor; Health, Education and Welfare; and Housing and Urban Development.

    Note, however, that two items do not a series make. Our language can't solve all ambiguities, and its punctuation system doesn't provide a good solution when such an unwieldy sentence essentially presents a pair rather than a series:

    WRONG: She worked at the departments of Health, Education and Welfare; and Housing and Urban Development.

    RIGHT BUT AMBIGUOUS: She worked at the departments of Health, Education and Welfare and Housing and Urban Development.

    A GOOD KLUDGE: She worked at the Department of Health, Education and Welfare and the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

    While I'm on the semicolon, allow me to point out that it should never, ever be the last character before an ending quotation mark -- the rules for quote-ending placement in American English call for periods and commas always inside and semicolons and colons always outside. Also, the semicolon is in no sense a sentence-ending punctuation mark; whereas there are instances in which you would capitalize the first word after a colon, you would never capitalize an otherwise lowercase word after a semicolon.

    (I have more than seven, but I'm a lazy, procrastinating bastard and National Punctuation Day is half over.)

    Thursday, August 27, 2009

    Murder Suspect or Columnist?

    The Sheridan Press does a decent job for a paper that small, but it has a really unfortunate style for laying out mug shots.

    Friday, May 29, 2009

    Tuesday, March 24, 2009

    Don't Be One of Those People

    The Post recently ran an article about controversy over the big spending bill's inclusion of a million bucks toward battling an insect called the Mormon cricket, and the headline was "One of Those Earmarks That Bug People."

    As surely as the chirping of a male cricket attracts female crickets, that construction attracted some raised eyebrows. It should have said "One of Those Earmarks That Bugs People," I was told. The predicate has to agree with the subject.

    Yes, the predicate does have to agree with the subject. But it has to agree with its own subject, and sometimes that's the subject of its clause and not the subject of the entire sentence.

    That's the technical explanation, but it's the technicalities that tend to lead people to make this common error. Forget all the times you were slapped with a ruler and think about the intended meaning of what you're reading; don't pull out your parts-of-speech flash cards and chant "Subject, verb, subject, verb" like a zombie.

    In that headline, it's "those earmarks" that bug people, and this is just one of them. Why would we have dragged those other earmarks into this if we were talking about only this one? Of those earmarks that bug people, this is one. The story is about one of [those earmarks that bug people], not [one of those earmarks] that bugs people. The verb has to agree with "those earmarks," not with "one."

    Friday, March 20, 2009

    Either Way, They Got Some Crazy Little Women There

    "Kansas City" alone is often ambiguous, and so I would not include it on a list of "dateline cities." For every person who thinks it's obvious that a reference with no state means the much larger one, in Missouri, there's probably, oh, I don't know, a third of a person who thinks it's obvious that it means the one in the eponymous state.

    But here's an example of why the dateline-city thing, like all style guidelines, is only a guideline:
    RAYTOWN, Mo. — Police say that the bodies of four people have been found in an apartment near Kansas City and that they suspect foul play. Police are trying to confirm the identities of the dead, including two preteen boys.

    No need to say "Kansas City, Mo." when (a) we already know the suburb is in Missouri and (b) if it's near the one in Missouri, it's also near the one in Kansas.

    Monday, February 23, 2009

    Idaho -- Alaska!

    Occasionally we old-fashioned newspaper people are asked what the heck the deal is with this Calif., Fla., Mich. business. Why don't we use the modern, streamlined, newfangled state abbreviations provided to us by the U.S. Postal Service?

    I usually don't like to answer a question with a question, but -- quick -- what's MI? Minnesota? Wrong. What's AK? Arkansas? Wrong! What's MS? Massachusetts? Wrong!

    Yeah, I know you didn't get any of those wrong, because my readers are sharper than that, but trust me: Ordinary people outside of Arkansas and Alaska (I'll let you fill in your own redundancy joke) would bat maybe .600 on the AK question. And just as AK could be Alaska or Arkansas, AL could be Alabama or Alaska; MA could be Massachusetts or Maryland; MI could be Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi or Missouri; MO could be Missouri or Montana; MS could be Mississippi or Missouri; and NE could be Nebraska or Nevada. I think that about covers it. Now, how many of the standard old-fashioned abbreviations used in Associated Press style run the risk of confusing people? Miss. and Mo. are the only ones that come to mind.

    We'd love the ink and the newsprint savings that the two-letter abbrevs. would provide, but, to the degree that these style decisions are more than just arbitrary rulings for the sake of consistency, clarity is Job One.

    Thursday, January 29, 2009

    Work at Home!

    For years, people have been asking me about work-at-home opportunities for copy editors. Today, I finally saw one of some substance.

    United Press International seeks a speedy, eagle-eyed,
    English-language wordsmith with a strong journalism background to join
    its copy desk.

    The ideal candidate is an experienced grammar and style maven who
    thrives in a fast-paced news environment, works swiftly and
    efficiently on tight deadlines, and is quick with an extensive set of
    Internet reference tools.

    You must have an innate enthusiasm for dictionaries and stylebooks; a
    proofreader's attention to the tiniest detail; a mastery of grammar
    and composition; a passion for polishing copy; and a proven ability to
    edit news stories for accuracy, clarity and fairness -- quickly.


    -- Supreme command of the English language and a familiarity with
    government, politics, international relations, history, economics,
    current events and more.

    -- Experience in all facets of daily copy desk work, including style,
    grammar and libel issues.

    -- Strong organizational, time-management and communication skills.

    -- Bachelor's degree in journalism or related field.

    This position does not include design work but requires strong
    computer literacy and familiarity with Outlook, Word and Mozilla Firefox.

    This is a full-time telecommuting position, Monday through Friday.

    Salary determined by experience and performance evaluation.

    Reply here.