Tuesday, December 01, 2015

Acknowledging the Inevitable

It wouldn't be much of an exaggeration to say that I built a (not-very-lucrative) second career on hatred of the email spelling of e-mail, or to say that the peeve I petted the most was the mic spelling of mike.

But back in my first career, the one that pays the bills, it's not about me. And so, as my Washington Post colleagues and I prepared to move out of the building where I've worked for nearly 19 years, I decided this time of change would be a good time to propose some style updates. My bosses had no objection, so the change is coming. The following is from an e-mail (yes, I'm still using the hyphen on my own time) that I sent to the newsroom. The newsroom was, uh, pretty happy about it. It's probably safe to say this is the most popular e-mail I will ever send.

Important changes in Post style (effective Sunday)

Greetings! Just in case you don’t have enough upheaval to deal with in the coming weeks, we have some significant stylebook updates to announce. In some cases, we are catching up with changes that many other publications and news organizations have already made. We had good reasons for standing our ground, but usage goes where it wants to go, and the older practices were no doubt increasingly distracting to readers.

Please read over the following and incorporate them into your writing and editing effective with editions of the coming Sunday, Dec. 6.

No hyphen in email, emails, emailed, emailing, emailer, etc., in a change from long-standing Post style. Capitalize at the beginning of a sentence. Other e- formulations get hyphens: e-commerce, e-books, e-learning.

Use website, not Web site, in a change from long-standing Post style. Retain capitalization of Web when it’s used alone as short for World Wide Web. Also: Web page, not webpage, but webcam, webcast, webmail, webmaster.

website addresses
In short (the stylebook entry will be longer), there is no longer any need to use www. with Web addresses unless the prefix is required to make them work. We long ago discarded http:// -- again, except in the rare cases where a site did not work without it (it will sometimes be necessary to specify https:// when we’re talking about the secure version of a site that doesn’t automatically apply that prefix).

Not mike, in a change from long-standing Post style, as the short form for microphone. Try to avoid inflected verb forms, but use apostrophes and write mic’ed and mic’ing if they must be used.

Iraq War
Capitalize War, in a change from long-standing Post style. Use the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan or similar wording to avoid juxtaposing a capitalized Iraq War and a lowercase Afghanistan war.

Use this spelling for the stores and, in general, the company and its affiliated entities. Post style is generally not to use corporate identifiers, but use the Wal-Mart spelling if it is necessary to spell out Wal-Mart Stores Inc.or any unit of the company that uses that spelling in official filings.

Use this spelling, without a space, except in formal references to Exxon Mobil Corp. (Post style is generally not to use Corp. and other corporate identifiers.)

TV and radio stations
We are relaxing our insistence on old-fashioned call letters and allowing the use of branded names such as NBC4.

they, their, etc.
It is usually possible, and preferable, to recast sentences as plural to avoid both the sexist and antiquated universal default to male pronouns and the awkward use of he or she, him or her and the like: All students must complete their homework, not Each student must complete his or her homework.

When such a rewrite is impossible or hopelessly awkward, however, what is known as “the singular they” is permissible: Everyone has their own opinion about the traditional grammar rule. The singular they is also useful in references to people who identify as neither male nor female.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Thoughts on 'Headline Names.' Or, What on Earth is a 'Magaziner'?

During Bill Clinton's first term as president, I was not yet at The Washington Post. I worked at another news organization -- one that was, shall we say, extremely interested in the inner workings of the administration. One night I was working on a story that involved a Clinton adviser named Ira Magaziner (shown above in a New York Times article that reminded me of all this), and the headline said something like "Clinton aide blah blah blah." The top editor was not happy with this headline, and he told us to change it to "Magaziner blah blah blah." Specificity is good, he said.

He's right that specificity is good. "Clinton health-care adviser Ira Magaziner blah blah blah" or "Clinton health-care adviser Magaziner blah blah blah" or even "Clinton aide Magaziner blah blah blah" would have been better, but there was no room to get that specific. So we could call the guy "Clinton aide" or we could call him "Magaziner."

There's a concept in big-time journalism called "headline names." It's pretty simple: Will most readers know who you're talking about if you put that name in a headline? Making that determination is an art, not a science, and it involves questions of familiarity, ambiguity and context. "Magaziner" failed on all three counts. No matter what my bosses may have thought, the vast majority of readers were not so obsessed with the Clinton White House that they would have recognized that name. So much for familiarity. The ambiguity problem usually takes a different form: For instance, which "Clinton" are we talking about? The same editor who insisted on "Magaziner" once told me to change "lawmaker" to "Smith," or some other very common name, in a reference to an obscure congressman. That's a great example of more specific being less specific -- yes, "Rep. Hypothetical J. Smith, a Republican representing California's 17th Congressional District," would be more specific, but "Smith"? Nope. Smiths outnumber lawmakers by a wide margin. 

With "Magaziner," especially in an up-style headline (major words capitalized) or, in this case, at the start of a headline, the problem is a name that combines bizarre rarity with misdirection. What the hell is a magaziner? Verb, intransitive, "one who magazines"? Are we referring to Jann Wenner? Anna Wintour? Henry Luce? Hugh Hefner, Bob Guccione, Larry Flynt? Those kids who go door to door asking you to buy cut-rate subscriptions to subsidize their school trips?

If the name had been Blumenthal or something, or Magaziner's name had been in a spot where its proper-noun capitalization had been obvious, context would have probably made the non-headline name fine. The "blah blah blah" was no doubt something about advising the president, and so one could infer that we were talking about a presidential adviser and not somebody having something to do with magazines. You could argue that readers would have figured this out with Magaziner as well, but I don't know. I'm still thinking it's Hef.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

The List

  • Reach out.
  • Walk back.
  • Slow-walk.
  • Pushback.
  • Call out.
  • Hot mic.
  • Hot take.