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December 29, 2005

A quiz for readers

In an attempt to spur the flagging interest of Loyola College’s journalism majors in the course on copy editing that I teach, I put together a poster inviting them to spot the errors in a set of sentences. "Learn how to avoid embarrassing yourself and others in print," I suggested. Here are the sentences. Test your own abilities against those of professional copy editors. Answers are at the bottom of this entry. Don’t cheat. The sentences:

1. Since their birth Nov. 19, doctors and nurses have noticed distinct differences in the babies.

2. [A direct quote in an article] "I feel like the little guy with the finger in the dyke."

3. What residents want to protect is the peaceful, almost gentile Riderwood of manicured lawns, rolling hills and eclectic housing.

4. Mrs. Payne, whose descendants arrived on the Mayflower, was born Eloise Chipman in Harrington, Del.

5. The sight of the pontiff praying with rabbis, llamas and imams sends these Vatican conservatives around the bend.

6. Although boys do get lice, they tend to prefer females.

The answers

You didn’t look, did you?

All these sentences, by the way, were written by professional journalists, and all were moved to the copy desk by assigning editors. That’s how I know about them.

1. Misplaced modifier. Move "since their birth Nov. 19" to follow "babies." English syntax tends to be positional; word order matters.

2. Although dyke has historically been merely an alternative spelling of dike, in our time, it is an opprobrious term for a lesbian. And further, you might keep in mind, the bulk of today’s undergraduates appear to be ignorant of the story of the heroic little Dutch boy.

3. Presumably the writer was reaching for genteel instead of gentile, though it is difficult to divine exactly what the intent was.

4. We’re confident that it was Mrs. Payne’s ancestors who landed at Plymouth Rock.

5. Tibetan Buddhist monks are lamas. Llamas are South American ruminants. Admittedly the original version of the sentence offers a more arresting image than the corrected one, but copy editors are always draining the life and interest out of stories.

6. While the nearest noun to they is lice, the parallelism of the sentence suggests that boys is the antecedent. To avoid ambiguity, change lice to the vermin. And for symmetry’s sake, make it boys and girls or males and females. (Please see comments below.)

How did you do?

If you got all six right, you, too, could have a future in the glamorous world of copy editing. Enjoying the quiet superiority of identifying other people’s flaws.

Posted by John McIntyre at 11:41 AM | | Comments (6)

December 27, 2005


We've done it again. We misspelled Annapolis — as Annpolis — in a headline. In the BIG TYPE.

That headline, written by a copy editor, was checked by a slot editor (the editor who oversees the work of a particular gaggle of copy editors), was overlooked by another copy editor who read the page proof, and was set in type by a page designer. Four people saw the error in front of their noses, and no one caught it.

You may wonder how this could happen. The managing editor wondered, too.

The problem is not that those four editors were ignorant. Quite the contrary: All four are experienced readers, and that is the problem. Unless you are a beginning reader sounding out words letter by letter, or someone afflicted with a cognitive disorder, you do not read letter by letter, word by word. Your eyes scan clusters of letters and even phrases at a time, which your brain sorts into patterns and interprets as intelligible meanings. Annapolis is a familiar pattern of letters.

The reader's eye can register that particular cluster with one letter missing, and the brain, recognizing the pattern, supplies the missing letter and moves on.

That the mind operates this way, by the recognition of patterns of letters and phrases, can be illustrated by a text widely circulated on the Internet. (Look up typoglycemia on a search engine.) The faster you move your eyes over this passage without pausing, the more meaning you are likely to take in.

I cdnuolt blveiee taht I cluod aulaclty uesdnatnrd waht I was rdanieg. The phaonmneal pweor of the hmuan mnid. Aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn't mttaer inwaht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoatnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be in the rghit pclae. The rset can be a taotl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit a porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe. Amzanig huh? yaeh and I awlyas thought slpeling was ipmorantt.

Still and all, however, we make an effort to spell all the words correctly.

Posted by John McIntyre at 11:25 AM | | Comments (1)

December 22, 2005

Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?

Nothing is harder to keep fresh than the language about something that happens every year. For several seasons now, The Sun’s copy desk has circulated in-house a memo on holiday cliches to eschew. The list below, compiled by Sun copy editors and colleagues in the American Copy Editors Society, was published in an earlier form on the Poynter Institute’s Web site,, under the title “Avoid holiday cliches.”

“’Tis the season”: Not in copy, not in headlines, not at all.

“’Twas the night before” anything: 'Twasing is no more defensible than ’tising. (And if you must refer to the Rev. Mr. Moore's poem, if indeed he wrote it, the proper title is “A Visit from St. Nicholas.”) 

“Jolly old elf”: Please, no. And if you must use Kriss Kringle, remember the double s.

Any “Christmas came early” construction.

“Yes, Virginia” allusions: No.

“Grinch steals”: When someone vandalizes holiday decorations, steals a child's toys from under the tree, or otherwise dampens holiday cheer, this construction may be almost irresistible. Resist it.

“Turkey and all the trimmings”: If you can't define trimmings without looking up the word, you shouldn't be using it.

“White stuff” for snow: We should have higher standards of usage than do television weather forecasters. Also avoid the tautologies favored by these types: winter season, weather conditions, winter weather conditions, snow event and snow precipitation. And the tautologies favored in advertising: free gift, extra bonus and extra added bonus.

Old Man Winter, Jack Frost and other moldy personifications can safely be omitted.

Pray do not ring out or ring in an old year, a new year, or anything else.

If the spirit of ecumenism and inclusion requires the inclusion of Hanukkah in to holiday articles, these points should be kept in mind. Hanukkah is a holiday more like Independence Day than Christmas, and it is only the coincidence of the calendar dates in a gentile culture that has caused the holiday to mimic Christian and secular elements. The holidays are coincidental; they are not twins.

Posted by John McIntyre at 9:45 AM | | Comments (2)

December 20, 2005

Error sometimes reigns

We made a mistake in a headline on Page 1A in The Sun on Nov. 16, "Senate moves to tighten reigns on wartime policy." The copy editor who wrote the headline — one who knows better — wrote reigns instead of reins. Sometimes, particularly when the work is done hurriedly, the wrong synapse fires.

But the error is one of a class, confusing two homonyms, that is particularly difficult for writers and editors. The wrong word spelled correctly will not be caught by a spell-checking function, and electronic grammar-checking functions are notoriously unreliable.

Reign and rein belong to the subclass of homonyms called homophones; they sound alike but have different meanings and spellings.

The other class, homographs, includes words that are spelled alike but have different meanings, and sometimes pronunciations. Lead, the metal, and lead, the verb, belong in this class. But lead, the metal, and led, the past tense of the verb lead, are homophones.

For a useful electronic list of homonyms, have a look at Alan Cooper’s Homonyms.

The other problem with reign and rein is that the usage that gets confused most commonly is a buried metaphor. We no longer ride horses much, but we still take the reins when we assume control or give free rein when we surrender control to someone else. The English language is full of stock expressions that started out as metaphors and have since worn smooth with use.

Those buried metaphors frequently trip up writers who convert an expression they have imperfectly heard into written language. When I taught freshman English at Syracuse 30 years ago, my jaded sophisticates would observe that it is a doggie-dog world out there. Not an attractive picture, but certainly less disturbing than the dog-eat-dog world envisioned by Hobbes and others.

There’s a lot that can get by if you don’t keep a tight hand on the reins.

Posted by John McIntyre at 12:38 PM | | Comments (2)
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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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