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A blonde walks into a bar

Some weeks back, a Sun reporter wrote an article on the speculation that Kristen Cox, the state disabilities secretary, would be chosen by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. as his running mate—and described her in the opening paragraph as a "petite blonde."

That was ill-judged, and it was ill-judged of the assigning desk and the copy desk to allow it into the paper. Ms. Cox is slender, and her hair is indeed blond, but the noun blonde is loaded with unfavorable connotations. (No, I am not going to direct you to the Internet sites that anthologize blonde jokes.) And the phrase petite blonde can easily be read as condescending, despite the author’s intention otherwise. We certainly heard from readers who interpreted it as such.

Presenting physical descriptions of people in news articles is perilous. Such details add color and concreteness but can easily be misread and cause offense. A long time ago, at a newspaper far way, a reporter who was assigned to cover a routine trial found that the subject was beneath his dignity as an artist. So he enlivened his text with such devices as repeated descriptions of the defendant as "a little old lady in a purple polyester pants suit."

It’s not bad enough to have been hauled into a court of law as a defendant in a criminal proceeding, or to have been convicted. Added to that must be a newspaper article read by thousands of people in which a reporter makes snarky remarks about your lack of fashion sense.

I was on the copy desk of that paper, and I saw to it that the "little old lady in a purple polyester pants suit" references, among similar touches, were excised.

One problem for editors, though, is that the reaction to gratuitous or inappropriate descriptive detail can easily turn into a reflex to delete all descriptive detail, just to be safe. That, too, is ill-judged, because it robs stories of the kind of observed detail that brings people and circumstances to life for the reader. Sometimes, I concede, our copy editors at The Sun go too far.

The tests for descriptive details are the same as for any other element in an article: Do they contribute directly to the reader’s understanding, or are they some kind of excrescence representing the writer’s desire to show off? Do they accomplish the effect the writer intends, or do they stimulate unintended and unfortunate associations?

Posted by John McIntyre at 11:30 AM | | Comments (1)


Never mind her hair color - what was she WEARING? That's what interested readers want to know.

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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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