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.


Nick said...

This is nice point. In Wichita, it was the basis for a rule that we pushed through -- but that seems to be unusual -- that almost no "titles" (usually job descriptions) are capitalized. It looked weird to people about a week, and then it became perfectly normal.

Karen said...

"so we risk the UpsydownsydownsyUpsy"

You've got to write another book! And whether it's football coach Jim Zorn or Coach Jim Zorn, I don't think we'll have to worry about it too much longer. ☺

Becker said...

Shouldn't she be a "chairwoman"?

Bill Kempin said...

And then there's "the Rev. John Doe." Shouldn't "the" be capitalized as well? Or, better yet, drop the "the." When we meet the church pastor before services, we don't say, "Good morning, the Reverend."

Bill Kempin said...

What's interesting (and infuriating) about Associated Press style for titles is that the AP calls for "police Chief John Doe" but then gets around the problem in "physics professor Jane Doe" by decreeing that "professor" is never capitalized, even by itself. It makes much more sense to say "Professor Jane Doe" and "physics professor Jane Doe."

Bill Kempin said...

As someone on a downsized copy desk, I appreciate the idea of "shortcuts." But isn't the best and fastest shortcut being right? Isn't the best shortcut understanding why it's "Sen. Jane Doe" but "three-term senator Jane Doe"? Because "three-term" modifies only "senator," not "Sen. Jane Doe." Otherwise, we would capitalize "president" in this sentence: What a controversial president George W. Bush was.

noneemac said...

While we're having that two-hour lunch, could somebody please insert the comma after "Tex."?

BW said...

Keep in mind that the image up top is an image. It got published -- too late to fix it now.

Chairmen in Congress come in both sexes.

And ministers/preachers/priests aren't "reverends" any more than judges are "honorables." Hence the "the."

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

Well, in your paragraph one thing goes unquestioned: WHY do most people abbreviate Senator (when it's a title) – and state names and names of months? Can we not afford a few more letters?

Rev William Smith Jr said...

As a copy editor and former Marine, I enjoy noting that the armed forces has Marines, soldiers, sailors and airmen. And you should never dare call Marines soldiers. Furthermore, this is only the case with United States Marines. All the other countries of the world have just marines.