Monday, November 19, 2012

The Breaks

The following is an outtake from my forthcoming book, "Yes, I Could Care Less: How to Be a Language Snob Without Being a Jerk." My editor considered it too inside-baseball for an audience larger than newspaper copy editors, and she was probably right.


In the arcane subculture of the headline writer, there is a concept called the bad break. As with pretty much everything else I’m writing about, those rules have relaxed over the years. There was a time when many newspapers would have rejected the following:

heads to

Are you horrified by that preposition at the end of the second line? Yeah, me neither. But I’m still enough of a traditionalist to consider the following break — leaving a preposition at the end of the first line — undesirable. I don't rule out such breaks, but I try to avoid them.

President heads to
Dominican Republic

Chances are, if you’ve never been initiated into the headline-writing fraternity, you didn’t see an aesthetic problem with that break either. And you’d be onto something. For many years now at the annual conference of the American Copy Editors Society, Alex Cruden, now retired from the copy desk of the Detroit Free Press, has invited civilians into our world and asked them to evaluate headlines. He’s found that they rarely if ever care or even notice how headlines break — and not only in the case of obscure technical violations involving prepositions, conjunctions and articles.

Cruden and others argue that the utter lack of reader awareness of such things is a good reason not to worry about them. That viewpoint has clearly gained traction, even among copy editors who remain largely hidebound when it comes to the dictates of their stylebooks. The following examples come from my own paper, the Washington Post.

N.Y. banker contributed
money, time to cancer
group for young people

Fifteen years after discovering taekwondo at a mall
kiosk, Alexandria’s Jennings is bound for London

Savage gives first crash
course in sex on campus

Whistleblower sues IRS to get reward
Claims disclosures showed how Dutch
bank helped clients avoid paying taxes

Are you horrified? Please be horrified. Sparing readers a preposition at the end of the first line of a headline is a tiny act of elegance that you can take or leave, but — except in narrow one-column headlines, in which all bets are off — readers should not be led to believe even for a nanosecond that a New York banker loves cancer. Dan Savage gave a crash? Oh, a crash course. A Dutch bank is a Dutch bank, not a Dutch ... bank. We can debate just where these examples fall on the continuum from tiny act of elegance to colossal act of courtesy, but line breaks separate; they cause a reader to pause, however briefly. To dismiss the importance of line breaks is to deny poetry.

It’s mainly the poetry — the rhythm — of the headline that I’m talking about here, but occasionally a bad break can be a fatal flaw, changing the message conveyed. A Columbia Journalism Review compilation of humorous headline gaffes includes this one:

Man shot in back,
head found in street

The humorous misreading is still possible with the “back, head” part unbroken, but I think it’s a lot less likely. One of Jay Leno’s headline-mocking books offers a similar example:

powered by
human flies

I’m not sure whether any of Alex Cruden’s people-off-the-street sessions included headlines like those. Obviously, any literate person would notice the humor in those examples as they were published; the question becomes whether they would feel precisely the same way about them laid out like this:

Man shot in back, head found in street

Helicopter powered by human flies

Or this, if you’ll excuse the problem of line lengths (a problem that’s also on our radar):

Man shot in back, head
found in street

Helicopter powered by human

While I consider Cruden’s research admirable and useful, especially when I’m worried about a questionable break and have no time to fix it, I have to raise the question: Is what readers would notice really a valid criterion upon which to base editorial judgment? We spell supersede and stratagem and, heck, judgment the way we do because those are the correct spellings, even though a large majority of readers would never register supercede or strategem or judgement as an error.

Furthermore, I’ve always thought that bad breaks carry a subliminal message of sloppiness. Readers may not think they notice them, but I’d like to see a controlled study in which they’re presented with two otherwise identical pages, one following the old conventions and the other ignoring them. I’d bet my green eyeshade they would rank the former as somehow more polished, more professional, even more credible.

That cumulative effect, I think, holds true for all tiny acts of elegance. A bad break here, a usage not quite finished evolving into universal acceptance there, and the next thing you know, there’s a general aura of sloth.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

On Victims, Bayonets and Paying Attention

In "The Elephants of Style," I examined a couple of examples of instant historical amnesia -- cases of the news media and the public just not paying enough attention to get a story right even in the first telling. No, George H.W. Bush did not accidentally say "September 7" in a slip of the tongue when he meant to say "December 7." He showed up on Sept. 7 and started talking about it being Pearl Harbor Day. No, the powers that be did not compromise with Tonya Harding in allowing her to skate in the Olympics. They capitulated when she threatened legal action.

Well, we're still not paying attention. Take two examples from the current presidential campaign. Remember when Mitt Romney called 47 percent of the American people "victims"? Yeah, no.

What Romney said in the leaked cellphone video of a speech to wealthy campaign contributors was that the approximately 47 percent of working-age Americans who do not pay federal income tax "believe that they are victims." The implication, of course, is that they are wrong to believe such a thing: Not only did he not call people victims; he said, or at least implied, the exact opposite.

And yet many news organizations focused on people being called victims, and some angry YouTube responses even insisted "I'm not a victim!"

I can see how one might feel belittled at the general aura of being called a victim, had Romney actually done that, but stop and think for a minute: Whatever you think of this line of reasoning, isn't a key component of the argument against Romney, and the Republican Party in general, something along the lines of "I am a victim"? If you lost a big chunk of your retirement savings and you think Wall Street shenanigans were to blame, aren't you saying you were victimized? If you lost your house and you think mortgage-lending high jinks were to blame, aren't you saying you were victimized? If you lost your job and you think outsourcing or profit-chasing or excessive executive compensation was to blame, aren't you saying you were victimized?

Then there were the bayonets.

Whatever you think of President Obama's debate zinger -- "You mention the Navy, for example, and that we have fewer ships than we did in 1916. Well, Governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets" -- you cannot honestly think you are debunking that remark by pointing out that bayonets still exist, and that the U.S. military still uses them. "Fewer" does not mean "none." Partisan outlets do what partisan outlets do, and I understand that, but even mainstream news organizations seemed to be reacting to something Obama never said.

Now, if indeed the armed forces have more bayonets than they did 96 years ago, as some are reporting, that's a debunking.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Hopefully, Everyone Will Do as They See Fit

As I settle back into the real world, scratching at imaginary insects under my skin after four days of the heroin-y warmth of sharing a cocoon with hundreds of my people in New Orleans at the annual conference of the American Copy Editors Society, I'm marveling at the reaction to a small tidbit from the Big Easy. The editors of the Associated Press Stylebook have gotten into the habit of using our little gathering to stage publicity stunts, declaring the electronics-industry space saver "mic" as preferred over the actual word "mike" as the abbreviation for "microphone" one year, and removing the hyphen from "e-mail" another. I was relieved to sit in on the AP guys' session this year and hear nothing of particular import.

Oh, there was that "hopefully" thing. Now it's OK in AP style to use the word to mean "it is to be hoped that," in addition to "in a hopeful manner."

That made news. It made some angry. I say: Much ado about nothing, times two.

In the first place, to the extent that the sentence-adverbial role of "hopefully" was ever an issue, it was an issue not of correctness but of taint. Misguided sticklers have made a fetish out of looking at something like "Hopefully the weather will be nice today" and pretend-interpreting it to mean the weather was experiencing a feeling of hope. Meanwhile, they didn't apply that logic to other adverbs used in precisely the same fashion:

Frankly, she's just not that into you. (Wait, you're being frank -- why are you saying she's being frank?)

Honestly, Joliet is a dump. (Wait, you're being honest -- why are you talking about that city being honest?)

Seriously, he's an idiot. (Wait, you're being serious -- why are you talking about him being serious?)

Mercifully, I had an excuse to leave early. (Wait, you're not being merciful -- why are you talking about being merciful?)

Curiously, the cat didn't show up for dinner. (Wait, you're not talking about a curious cat ...)

In the second place, this just isn't a front-burner issue. AP style is used mainly by news organizations, and news organizations, for the most part, are not supposed to express hope or any other opinions. I suppose the stylebook change loosens the reins on some editorial writers, but other than that, it's an almost entirely inconsequential bit of pandering. I'm not complaining; I'm just shrugging.

The taint issue, however, is interesting, and it has broader implications. Even if you enjoy the subject of style as much as I do, you have to admit that the whole point of style is to be invisible. Get the hell out of the way. Don't distract from the writer's message or detract from the writer's credibility. To that end, we sometimes avoid usages not because there's anything wrong with them, but because a lot of readers think there's something wrong with them. Arnold Zwicky has written for Language Log about this mind-set, which he calls "crazies win." Robert Lane Johnson recently discussed the Economist stylebook's caution against splitting infinitives, a policy he feels duty-bound to enforce even though he disagrees with it. There was predictably Zwickian reaction on Twitter and in blogs from, among others, John McIntyre and Jonathon Owen (Owen had discussed the issue at length months earlier, hence the time-warp link).

The split infinitive is right up there among the most baseless and silly prohibitions in all of misguided-sticklerdom. At the Washington Post, the publication that pays my salary, we split infinitives, letters to the editor be damned. On the other hand, I don't get the sense that we're going to be following AP on "hopefully" (we haven't on "email" or "website" or "mic" either). Judgment calls, all. Do you lowercase "e.e. cummings" because "everybody knows" that was his preference, or do you write "E.E. Cummings" because "everybody" is wrong? You'll get angry letters even when you're indisputably correct. If you're one of those people who think I should have just written "one of those people who thinks," perhaps you're the one of the people who wrote the Post to tell us we were wrong on that point when we most certainly were not. (If you look hard, you'll find examples of that error on more than one of the language-expert blogs I've mentioned above.)


On another front in language evolution, you're not likely to see the singular "they" any time soon in the stylebook of the Associated Press or the Washington Post or any other major newspaper. This, too, came up at the ACES conference, in a presentation by Sandra Schaefer of the University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh. I caught only part of her session, having been busy learning whether to use "blow job" or "blowjob," but she made the case that "they" is not only the logical candidate to replace "he or she" as a gender-neutral singular pronoun, but also quite well established as such.

I agree on the former point. On the latter, however, I think the burden of proof is formidable. For now, I feel compelled to keep letting the crazies win. I hope with all my being that the evolution away from "he or she" and the like is swift. I also like "they" without a clear plural antecedent ("Trader Joe's is great -- they have a lot of good cheap wine!").

But large mainstream general-interest publications simply aren't on the cutting edge when it comes to language innovation, nor should they be. You can thank this innate conservatism for the fact that I'm not hotmailing you to let you know that I've gifted you and your empoyes thru some cigarets in the frigidaire.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Don't Be a Serial Killer

Newspaper style generally eschews the serial comma. I'm fine with that. Toast, juice, milk and Trix. But sometimes that comma is useful. If I write about a city's departments of housing, parks and recreation and well-being, do I mean there's a department of parks and recreation or a department of recreation and well-being? And what if my series consists of three or four full sentences? For many serial-comma-phobic journalists, the answer to those questions tends to be: Semicolons! Ugly, unwieldy semicolons. Clearly, those journalists did not actually read the stylebook to which they are slavishly devoted. AP specifically says that the serial comma is needed in those cases.
IN A SERIES: Use commas to separate elements in a series, but do not put a comma before the conjunction in a simple series: The flag is red, white and blue. He would nominate Tom, Dick or Harry.

Put a comma before the concluding conjunction in a series, however, if an integral element of the series requires a conjunction: I had orange juice, toast, and ham and eggs for breakfast.

Use a comma also before the concluding conjunction in a complex series of phrases: The main points to consider are whether the athletes are skillful enough to compete, whether they have the stamina to endure the training, and whether they have the proper mental attitude.

So it's The departments of housing, parks and recreation, and well-being, not the departments of housing; parks and recreation; and well-being. Once one of the elements in a series includes a comma, then you want those ugly, unwieldy semicolons: The committees on appropriations; health, education and welfare; and labor.

Monday, April 16, 2012


I am back from New Orleans and the 16th national conference of the American Copy Editors Society. You should have been there.

A few people expressed interest in getting their hands on the PowerPoint presentation that I used in hopes that nobody would look at me during my "Tiny Acts of Elegance" session. I don't think the visuals are all that useful without my accompanying blather, but I aim to please. You can download the file here, at least until the bitching about my last-minute typos causes me to take my ball and go home.

Said blather, of course, can be mined from previous posts here and from my books. (Spoiler: A new one is in the works.)

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Not Quite a Damn Lie. More of a Darn Lie.

You may have read last night or this morning about the December statistic for U.S. job openings being near a three-year high. That's literally true, but it's, well, kind of a stupid thing to say. Because the actual three-year high was the statistic for September. In other words, the December number was the highest in three months. If you want to say the December number approached the three-year high set in September, fine. But "near a three-year high" is just misleading. Woo-hoo! Things haven't been this good since ... oh, I see, just the other day. It's also potentially ambiguous: Especially once it's run through the headline grinder, it's apt to lead some readers to believe you're talking about the number being the highest in nearly three years, which is a different thing altogether. (That headline grinder, you may notice, also led some outlets to just dispense with the "nearly" and proclaim this a three-year high. Now, that's a damn lie.)

I wrote some years back about a similar error in the [blank]est-since-[blank] department, one that resulted in understatement rather than overstatement. (After searching frantically for that blog entry I knew I wrote, I finally found my rant in "The Elephants of Style.") When Roy Jones Jr. won a version of the world heavyweight boxing title at 193 pounds in 2003, USA Today called him "the lightest heavyweight champion since 205-pound Michael Spinks in the mid-1980s." Of course, 193 is lighter than 205. It's also lighter than 199 3/4, which is what Spinks weighed when he beat Larry Holmes for the title. While it is interesting that there was another example of a not-so-heavy heavyweight champ in the interim, Jones's fake title (Lennox Lewis was the real champion, but that's another rant) made him the lightest champ since 180-something-pound Floyd Patterson way back in the late '50s and early '60s.

Before we start arguing about whether since can mean because (spoiler: it can), maybe we should all get on the same page about what since means when it means "since."

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Penney want a cracker?

You may have heard that J.C. Penney is permanently cutting its prices

Well, no, it isn’t. I didn’t go to business school, but I think it’s safe to say that selling your fine Stafford Signature no-iron shirts at 2012 prices is a piss-poor strategy for 2015 and 2020 and 2050. I doubt that’s what the current executives have in mind, and even if they did, I really doubt the current executives are immortal. Not that the company will necessarily outlast them, especially if I’m somehow wrong about all this. (Note to self: Invent time machine and stock up on 20-cent shirts, just in case.)

But I’m not wrong. And so, Journalism 101: Do not report that anybody is going to do anything. You’re not a seer. You can report that the company says it’s going to do so-and-so, and even then you have to first ask yourself whether the CEO or the spokesman really meant what was said. 

In this case, the wording is clearly a mistake. The company meant “permanent” in the sense of regular prices as opposed to sale prices. It’s lowering regular prices and cutting back on sales in a strategy that may or may not work. If the strategy doesn’t work, the company has every right to change course -- and if it does, a bunch of news outlets will be revealed as big, fat liars. Even if it does work, the company has every right to raise its lowered prices a bit every once in a while to keep up with inflation. And a bunch of news outlets will be revealed as big, fat liars. 

Don’t be a parrot. When a cop tells you the suspect produced a weapon, you’re allowed to say the robber pulled out a gun. When Reuters tells you about lorries and trainers and high-calorie biscuits, you’re allowed to say trucks and sneakers and energy bars. I don’t care what J.C. Penney’s news release says; your job is to use your own words to tell the story. Journalists should not be stenographers. If your editor tells you to “type in this here press release,” you should start looking for another job, one at a real news organization. 

Monday, January 23, 2012

Or Perhaps Some Counterprogramming

Not interested in the big game? Tired of the Puppy Bowl? Tune to Travel Channel at 6 p.m. Feb. 5 for SUPERB OWL SUNDAY.* Join who else but Andrew Zimmern for a tour of some places where the bird is as delicious as it is wise.

Brought to you with limited commercial interruption by Tootsie Pops.**

*Not really.
**Not really.

Introducing My New Sports Bar

To put it another way: Super Bowl. Two words.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

No Problem. I'm Fine.

I had to laugh when I saw the comments on a nice DailyWritingTips review of "Garner's Modern American Usage" quickly devolve into a discussion of the plague of "No problem" as a substitute for "You're welcome" in response to "Thank you."

Now, I'll continue to make a prescriptivist spectacle of myself and argue that caring less and not caring less are two different things, and that literally doesn't mean "not literally." I'll roll my eyes at the new vowel shift, which has today's youth sitting at their dusks to take their tusts (and hoping to do well to please Mom and Dodd). I'll refuse to say, OK, fine, if everybody gets confused about stanch and staunch and gantlet and gauntlet, I guess they win. But, for the life of me, I cannot fathom why anyone would be so married to the "You're welcome" convention that any deviation causes them emotional distress.

I'd write a little more about that, but I guess I already did.

Oh, and -- as I said in the comments to that blog post -- I'm fine with "I'm fine" as a response to "Can I get you something to drink?" You don't have to be named Geoffrey to see that it makes perfect sense as shorthand for "I'm fine without a lovely beverage, thank you."