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April 26, 2006

Speak English, please

The voice was puzzled. "What is nayf?"

"Nayf?" I asked.

"On the front page of this morning’s paper."

"Oh, you mean naif — nah-EEF — "it’s French. It’s the noun for a naïve person."

"Why is there a French word I’ve never seen before on the front page of my

paper?"

Good question.

Actually, it wasn’t the noun but the adjective, a reference to a piece of pottery made by a child as an "objet naif."

A newspaper, though it aims at a broad audience, nevertheless contains many levels of diction. The vocabulary and syntax found on the editorial page and op-ed page differ from what can be found in the sports section. A review by an art critic or music critic is likelier to contain specialized terms than a news story.

What appears on the front page of the paper, directed at the widest possible readership, should be less specialized. An article on baseball that runs on Page One should not require the reader to be a sports fan. An article about making films should not demand that the reader be a movie buff. This doesn’t mean that we should write condescendingly for the front page, but we ought to be comprehensible.

I suggested in a previous posting ("Italian Englished," Feb. 9) that journalists have enough trouble getting English right. Using foreign-language terms exposes us to three hazards:

  1. We can get them wrong, usually with inconsistencies in case, number or gender.
  2. Even if we’re right, we can look pretentious.
  3. We can baffle the reader whose attention we are trying to capture.

Posted by John McIntyre at 1:37 PM | | Comments (3)
        

April 24, 2006

IT'S A DOGGIE-DOG WORLD

Spoken English is full of pitfalls, but the transition from spoken to written English is particularly treacherous.

We have a venerable word, malapropism, for the substitution of an incorrect word for the proper one, which derives from Mrs. Malaprop in Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s The Rivals (1775). Malaprop, from the French mal a propos, roughly, badly to the purpose, inappropriate. Audiences have found her errors — "like an allegory on the banks of the Nile" — delicious for nearly two and a half centuries.

A cognate word is mondegreen, coined, according to Garner’s Modern American Usage, by Sylvia Wright in 1954 to label misheard lyrics, titles, catchphrases, slogans and the like. It derives from a child’s misunderstanding of a ballad lyric, "They hae slain the Earl o’ Moray and laid him on the green," as "They hae slain the Earl o’ Moray and Lady Mondegreen."

Mondegreens are numerous and widespread, a typical example being a child’s hearing the Christian hymn as "Gladly the cross-eyed bear." The title of this posting, a mishearing of the proverbial "dog-eat-dog world." comes from an essay by a Syracuse University student in a freshman English paper thirty years ago.

The tradition was upheld by the Sun reporter who filed a story with a reference to a "toe-headed boy." (Tow, or pale yellow flax or straw, has admittedly become a relatively uncommon word.) Another writer at the paper reported confidently that a candidate was a "shoe-in." (The idiomatic term is shoo-in.) And still another heard Putty Hill Avenue as Puddy Hill Avenue and wrote it accordingly.

The speakers and writers of English are so relentlessly creative that linguist Geoffrey Pullum coined yet another word, eggcorn, to describe an erroneous usage, after a writer who transformed the word acorn. An eggcorn is a homophone that suggests meaning and originality. Chris Waigl maintains a Web site, The Eggcorn Database,

http://eggcorns.lascribe.net/

, that contains more than 500 examples.

John Kenneth Galbraith once remarked, "If all else fails, immortality can always be assured by spectacular error." So if you must sin against standard usage, you should, like Mrs. Malaprop, sin boldly.

Posted by John McIntyre at 10:35 AM | | Comments (8)
        

April 20, 2006

Isn't that special?

We published — actually set in type — a reference to “the prestigious Nobel Prizes.”

Perhaps there are readers who do not know that the Nobel Prizes carry prestige, or, even less likely, readers who have never heard of the Nobel Prizes, to whom the adjective “prestigious” would add meaning. Seems unlikely.

What we have instead is mere padding, adjectival noise. The only meaning that “prestigious” grants to this passage is an implicit message from the writer: “Lookee here, I’m writing about something really, really important.”

Adjectival clutter typically rises from such attempt to telegraph that sense of importance to the reader without actually demonstrating the importance. It violates the time-worn precept from writing instructors to show, not tell.

A recent article carried in its first two paragraphs references to a controversial measure being considered in the contentious legislative session. Controversial is one of those tell-not-show words that journalists use too frequently, though in this context the editor made a case that readers might not have known that the measure had been enveloped in controversy. Perhaps so, but piling on contentious in the subsequent sentence made no contribution. Is there anyone who looked at this newspaper during the 90 days of the legislative session who was unaware that it was particularly contentious?

Such buzzwords are an attempt to signal meaning to the reader by shorthand, the way that gritty has become a stock adjective to describe cities or neighborhoods that are (a) rundown, (b) dangerous or (c) frequented by people journalists do not commonly associate with. 

Efforts to root out adjectival noise are only intermittently successful. We have had some success on The Sun’s copy desk over the years in stamping out dramatic in news stories; if the circumstances described don’t look dramatic, no quantity of adjectives will make them so. We have also been able to scotch the impulse to use special to indicate something that may be merely somewhat out of the ordinary. We limit it to specific meanings, such as special education or special session. There has been remarkably little contention in-house over these dramatic and controversial decisions, and the readers do not seem to feel deprived. 

Posted by John McIntyre at 7:33 AM | | Comments (1)
        

April 18, 2006

The one and the many

We appear to have rattled a few readers with a secondary headline that said: “Millionaire Maryland couple don't judge themselves by how much wealth they've accrued but by how many people they've been able to help.” Some found the syntax a little lumpy, but others complained about using couple as a plural.

If we had used couple as a singular, no doubt there would have been complaints about that, particularly since its would then have been the appropriate pronoun.

Collective nouns like couple, which may be singular or plural, depending on context and convention, appear to push people into rigid stances. But the Associated Press is admirably succinct in making the necessary distinction:

“When used in the sense of two people, the word takes plural verbs and pronouns. The couple were married Saturday and left Sunday on their honeymoon. They will return in two weeks.

“In the sense of a single unit, use a singular verb: Each couple was asked to give $10.

Sometimes circumstances compel us to stretch usages of collectives, as in the recent headline “At least 9 U.S. troops killed in Iraq.” Some readers complain, rightly, that a troop is a body of soldiers; they then say that troops must be used for military subdivisions, such as regiments, rather than individual soldiers.

Headline writers are up against the lack of adequate alternative vocabulary. Soldiers will not do, because the military personnel involved may include, for example, Marines. GIs is out, because the term is typically limited to enlisted men in the Army. A trooper is a cavalryman.

The sense of the word as referring to individuals rather than military units, moreover, is making its way into dictionaries. A similar fate has overtaken cohort, which, despite the apoplectic reaction of Latinists, has come to be used in the singular as a synonym for companion or even accomplice.

We will try, at least, to refrain from referring anywhere in the paper to a couple of troops.

Posted by John McIntyre at 7:25 AM | | Comments (2)
        

April 16, 2006

We called him MR. Pryor

It puzzled a reader to see Richard Pryor referred to as “Mr. Pryor” in the obituary that ran on Page One of The Sun. His perplexity is understandable, because The Sun, like most newspapers that follow Associated Press style, does not give courtesy titles — Mr., Ms., Mrs., Miss, military ranks, clerical titles, etc. — on second and subsequent reference.

The major exception we make, and it is a common one, is in obituaries, out of respect for the dead. That holds for obituaries that run outside the obituary page. We “mistered” Dennis Weaver, Darrin McGavin and Don Knotts in the news section during the past few weeks.

The matter of courtesy titles has a tangled history. The Sun used them for years, but The Evening Sun scorned them. A unified house style promulgated in 1991 retained courtesy titles, but that decision was reversed in 1996 — with obituaries and direct quotations excepted.

The major arguments for and against courtesy titles are simple to articulate. Advocates of courtesy titles say that they give a respect, dignity and gravity to the text. Opponents say that they look stuffy and dated in a culture that is increasingly informal.

The minor arguments get more complicated.

Even some opponents of the use of courtesy titles feel uneasy about referring to Sister Maria Celeste Gamba as “Gamba” or an 84-year-old grandmother as “Smith.” And how to differentiate between people who share a surname? The Associated Press style was to use courtesy titles only to identify a woman who uses her husband’s surname, which was widely found to be unsatisfactory. And further, people do still use courtesy titles. There are academics who have “Dr.” printed with their names on credit cards. (I did, however, know a teacher in graduate school who insisted on being addressed as “Professor.” “Doctor,” he explained, was a title for people whose job was to probe into other people’s orifices.)

Proponents of courtesy titles have no easier time of it. It is simple enough to dismiss the titles for historical figures — no “Mr. Caesar” — but at what point does a deceased notable become historical? Titles look odd in many columns and light features. And there are the felons. The Sun did not use courtesy titles for notorious criminals, which led to endless exegetical discussions. Use the title of someone charged with a crime until he is convicted; then withhold it. Does he get it back after he has completed his sentence and is off probation? What is a serious crime, anyhow?

As much trouble as they were — copy editors had to insert them laboriously in wire service articles — I regret their loss. They established a tone of respect for our subjects, particularly African-Americans, who were denied courtesy titles in American newspapers for decades. But I concede that they can look stuffy and that no reversal of the preference for the casual in American society seems imminent. 

But for the dead there remains a degree of dignity.

Posted by John McIntyre at 7:27 AM | | Comments (1)
        

April 10, 2006

The customer is not always right

Sharp-eyed as our readers are, and as much as we welcome their comments, they do not always hit the mark.

+ A reader, under the heading “Proper English,” advised us: “You wrote “between her and the basket”, and it should have read “between she and the basket”.

Well, no. The pronoun is the object of the preposition between and should properly be her. This seems to be akin to the common error in speech, between she and I.

+ Another wrote that “the howler of a grammar error in the first sentence of your 4/406 article on jill carroll's return the CSM newsroom is a great teaching tool.”

That sentence read: “Former hostage Jill Carroll met yesterday with the staff of The Christian Science Monitor, visiting the newsroom of the paper that hired her a week after she was taken captive in Iraq.”

I may well be as thick as a plank, but I see no glaring error. Perhaps the reader misunderstood the clause that hired her a week after she was taken captive in Iraq. Going a couple of sentences deeper into the article would have clarified that the paper, which had engaged Carroll on a freelance basis, hired her as a staff member after the kidnapping. If that wasn’t the problem, what could be?

+ A published letter to the editor: “For a long time I have been uncomfortable with the title that sometimes appears at the bottom of The Sun's obituary page: ‘Other Notable Deaths.’ The easy inference is that the deaths of the listed persons were ‘notable’ and the deaths of persons who did not appear in this section were ‘not notable.’ That seems harsh. I would suggest a less exclusive title, such as ‘Other Noted Deaths.’”

This one also leaves me puzzled. Other notable deaths says pretty much the same thing as additional notable deaths would. It takes some straining to read that other as slamming the people not included in the category.

Posted by John McIntyre at 9:54 PM | | Comments (4)
        

April 5, 2006

Is e-mail speech or writing?

Confounding all expectation, people appear to be reading these postings. The previous item on quotations prompted a question from a reader about a relatively novel issue: quoting e-mail texts.

"[W]hen an interview is conducted by e-mail, or supplementary information is gathered by e-mail, should that always be signaled in the text, or is it okay to use the usual "said" and "according to" and "mentioned" as the verbs?"

Indicating in an article that an interview was conducted by e-mail is as much a point of accurate sourcing as saying that an interview was conducted by telephone or in a face-to-face encounter.

Once that has been established, "said," "according to" and "mentioned" are probably acceptable as loose attribution. But if you are going to be as strict about reproducing texts exactly as they were written as I recommended previously, you should probably use "wrote."

No doubt we’ll be hearing from people who disagree.

I’m sure that practice varies. The exchanges in the famous Paris Review interviews of authors — now available free and electronically at

http://www.theparisreview.com/literature.php

— were traded back and forth between interviewer and subject in manuscript form so that both questions and answers could be refined. They were presented as direct speech, but the method was explained.

The thing is not to bamboozle the reader about what is going on.

On another topic, a colleague points out that "For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge," another folk candidate for the origin of one of English’s most-beloved verbs, is "also the title of a Van Halen album." Not having paid any particular attention to rock music since the spring of 1970, I was unaware of that.

Posted by John McIntyre at 4:34 PM | | Comments (2)
        

April 3, 2006

You can quote me

Not long after the previous posting on quotations in articles ("Warts and all," March 27), the topic sprang up on the discussion board of the American Copy Editors Society. (Non-members can have a look. Go to www.copydesk.org and from the pull-down menu at the top of the page select Site Features and click on Discussion Board.) 

The comments were typical of what reporters and editors say about quotes:

"I know plenty of people who say walkin' instead of walking. Or talkin' instead of talking. Or ‘We were thinkin' about that.’ And yet we always seem to write Walking, Talking, Thinking. Or ‘We're 'bout ready to go get 'em.’ And we write ‘We're about ready to go get them.’"

"How often do we see quoted all of the ‘Ummmms’ people say when they're
thinking about what to say next?"

"And to take that a step further, what about all the other ‘filler words’ people use just like many use ‘ummm’? Do you quote every ‘like’ or ‘I mean’?

Such comments overlook the important distinction between selected quotation and transcript. Any reader of even moderate intelligence sees that articles do not purport to run transcripts of what people say. Journalists select significant quotes, omitting non-verbal noises, and transcribing the spoken words into the conventions — spelling and punctuation — of written language. When we run a transcript, the complete, exact words as uttered, we call it a transcript.

Moreover, we do not attempt to reproduce people’s accents and inflections. First off, it looks condescending. Second, there is no standard method of reproducing spoken language in writing. Every writer would come up with a distinctive set of phonetic spellings, which would drive readers mad.

I suppose that newspapers could transcribe every quotation in the International Phonetic Alphabet. We’d have to add the schwa (that upside down e) to our fonts, and break every word into syllables with accent marks to show primary and secondary stresses. Who wants that?

Talking about ummm and like, you know misses the point: The words inside quotation marks should be the words the person uttered, subject to the conventions of written language.

There is a greater concern: Many people complain that they are not quoted accurately in news articles. Sometimes it may be that they do not like seeing what they said, but the complaints are so numerous and so persistent that they cannot be dismissed out of hand.

If reporters do not know shorthand or use tape recorders, then they reconstruct quotes from a combination of notes and memory. The central concern, then, is not whether to choose between walkin’, talkin’ and thinkin’ and walking, talking and thinking, but to be sure that we know what the subject actually said.

Posted by John McIntyre at 4:31 PM | | Comments (3)
        
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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 john.mcintyre@baltsun.com.
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