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October 30, 2006

Respect for the cloth

We’re going to go over this once more, just one more time, in the ever-fading expectation that newspapers might get it right.

An obituary in The Sun for the Rev. Harry L. Holfeder, a Presbyterian divine, referred to him throughout as "the Rev. Holfeder." (The Sun, like many papers that have dropped courtesy titles elsewhere, continues to use them in obituaries.)

The word Reverend is an adjective, not a noun like Colonel or Bishop or President, and therefore is not supposed to stand alone with a name. The traditional form, when the title is used with the last name, is "the Rev. Mr. Holfeder." If that seems a bit much, "Mr. Holfeder" suffices. (Since Mr. Holfeder was not Roman Catholic, Anglican or Eastern Orthodox, Father doesn’t enter into the discussion.)

While the point may be a trifle obscure to the larger population, reporters and assigning editors and copy editors, who have access to a stylebook, might be expected to grasp it.

Now, we know perfectly well that many, many people would say or write Rev. Harry L. Holfeder without the definite article and call him Reverend Holfeder without the trace of a blush. It is also manifestly the case that many denominational publications follow the same careless practice. And it should be dawning on you by this point that very few people fixate on this issue the way that cranky old fussbudget your humble blogger does.

But if you insist — God save the mark — on using archaic titles, you ought to be using them correctly.

Posted by John McIntyre at 9:55 AM | | Comments (2)

October 27, 2006

Heckuva job, Brownie

What ya gonna do? You gonna use gonna? Wouldja use woulda, shoulda, coulda? It’s a heckuva choice and a helluva situation for a copy editor.

We all know that spoken language differs substantially from written language, and putting the former into the latter is fraught with difficulties. Written language supplies capitalization, punctuation, spelling while omitting, for the most part, nonverbal noises. But what is written should coincide in some substantial way with what was spoken.

Moreover, as we strive to make what is written more conversational than formal, at least in journalism, writers increasingly want the text to sound like speech to the reader’s mind. Hence the phonetic spellings above. People do talk like that, after all.

The question for editors is how far to go, in the translation, or rather transliteration, of spoken English into some form of the standard written dialect. In his later published work, J.D. Salinger took to italicizing syllables of words to indicate the speaker’s emphasis. Were we to reproduce spoken language thus, in a misguided attempt to represent the rhythms of speech, it would drive you nuts.

There is also the hazard, addressed in the post "You can quote me" from April 3 of this year, that phonetic representation of speech can look like condescension to the speaker, or even ridicule.

So we coulda used helluva, but we decided not to, and we aren’t gonna. You wanna make something of it? That’s what the comment function is for.

Posted by John McIntyre at 2:24 PM | | Comments (1)

October 24, 2006


"Would you have a look at this?"

"At what?"

"This expression in this story."

"Which one?"

"Sussed out."

"Ah. It’s British. We shouldn’t use it."

After years of complaints in Britain that the language was being hopelessly corrupted by American slang carried over the water by soldiers and movies, there is now some return traffic.

The expression sussed out means that one has surmised or figured out something. It might not turn up in the stately and formal periods of P.D. James, but the demotic dialogue of Ian Rankin’s urban Scots or the robust Yorkshire idiom of Reginald Hill’s Superintendent Andy Dalziel could have made it familiar to fanciers of British murder mysteries. And, of course, the Harry Potter phenomenon in books and films has gone a great way to make British slang and idiom familiar on these shores.

An editor at this paper once objected to the expression went missing — another import from British mysteries. Its increasing frequency may be accounted for by the lack of an apt equivalent in American English. Found to be missing and discovered to be missing, in addition to being wordy, look self-contradictory. Is missing describes a current situation but is not much help in narrating past events. Further, went missing is handy because it can be understood to mean abduction, flight or mere wandering off. I suspect that it is here to stay.

Other imports appear to be gaining a foothold. Roundabout for traffic circle is preferred, with attached language unsuitable for a daily newspaper, by motorists in Towson and elsewhere in Maryland. At the end of the day for finally or most importantly has become monotonously familiar in political discourse. An acquaintance typically talks about having a coffee rather than going out for some coffee. Now that a cup of coffee can cost as much as a fast-food meal, the British version makes the occasion look a little more substantial.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Many Britishisms are convenient and succinct. The series Queer as Folk took its title from the proverbial expression There’s nowt as queer as folk. "Nothing (or nobody) is as odd as people" lacks the same punch. Give it a miss for pass up or forgo has a nice casualness of tone. Barking mad is vivid enough that it would be pleasant to encounter it in American discourse.

But my favorite, as a manager/administrator/bureaucrat is bumf. It is a wonderfully eloquent monosyllable with which to refer to official forms and all manner of paperwork. Its currency dates from at least the Second World War. And its origin? From bum-fodder — toilet paper.

Posted by John McIntyre at 1:19 PM | | Comments (8)

October 19, 2006

Nasty stuff

An article in The Sun weighing the hazards of regularly eating fish mentioned prominently the risks of consuming "trace amounts of mercury, PCBs, dioxin and other toxins," referring later to "toxins such as mercury." On balance, fish in the diet is a good thing for most people, but a potential hazard for certain groups.

The problem here is that while toxic and toxin may be roughly interchangeable in ordinary discourse, the words have more precise meanings in scientific contexts. A toxin is a poisonous substance produced by a living organism. The strain of E. coli (Escherichia coli) in our intestines that happily and harmlessly produces vitamins for us is fine. But if a harmful strain, say, from cattle, should contaminate the spinach crop and, once ingested, produce toxins, we have trouble.

Mercury, an element, is not an organic product, but it is highly toxic, or poisonous. So is lead. So are many industrial products and byproducts that get loose in the environment. But they are not toxins.

Toxins are toxic — that is, poisonous—but not all toxic substances are toxins.

The point this lapse illustrates is the difficulty of writing on technical subjects for a general-audience publication. In writing about science and medicine — business or sports or law — we struggle to make technical subjects readily comprehensible to the non-specialist reader, while trying not to bring the scorn of the specialist down on our heads.

Posted by John McIntyre at 12:08 PM | | Comments (1)

October 16, 2006

It's a funny old world

We made the mistake over the weekend to referring in an article on the Baltimore Marathon to "the Ukraine," and we promptly got an irate note.

Ukrainians find the usage offensive. It was "the Ukraine" when it was a region, a part of Russia or the Soviet Union. It is an independent nation now, and its name does not take the definite article. (At least we didn’t commit the gaffe of using the old nickname, "Little Russia.")

It may also take us some time to accustom ourselves to the relatively new style of the names of major Indian cities. Bombay is now Mumbai, Madras is Chennai and Calcutta is Kolkata. India dislikes vestiges of British colonial nomenclature, and American journalism is slowly going along.

We also went along when Upper Volta became Burkina Faso (retaining the irresistible name of its capital, Ougadougou), though there has been some resistance to the Burmese junta’s insistence on Myanmar, though Seinfeld didn’t balk at it when it sent J. Peterman there.

But what to call a place doesn’t depend entirely on the local preference. As you may remember from the post on Feb. 9, "Italian Englished," we stuck with Turin over Torino during the Olympics, on the ground that there are many names of cities and nations for which English equivalents are well established. Not having received any irate notes from outraged Italo-Americans, we remain comfortable with that decision.

Some names just stick stubbornly, as we see locally in the refusal of residents of Pigtown to be gentrified into "Washington Village." They’ll accept the new name when pigs fly.

Posted by John McIntyre at 3:47 PM | | Comments (3)

October 12, 2006

And your little dog too

Another growl over the breakfast coffee and newspaper, this one over the discovery of the non-word fiesty in The Sun. What was meant, of course, was feisty. This error — not the first occurrence of its kind — is something that could be headed off if reporters would humble themselves to use the spell-check function.


The word feisty was once prohibited for use in The Sun by an editor who found it obnoxious. He said that it came from the German for a “small farting dog,” and, indeed, a look at references discovers that the word has affinities with the American feist or fice, small dog. Going back further, we find fysting cur, “stinking cur” from the Middle English fysten or fisten, “to break wind,” and the Danish fise for, as you might have guessed by now, “to fart.”

Rejecting the word on that ground may be taking etymology a bit too far, but I think there may be another reason to shy away from it. In some contexts, we are invited to take feisty to mean spirited or spunky. (We have sadly lost the fine old word doughty.) The local activist spearheading the fight against the new Wal-Mart or interstate interchange will almost invariably be described as feisty, especially if he or she is given to colorful, even earthy, language. Then salty comes into play.

But we may also be invited to see feisty as a euphemism for crackpot. Some of you may recollect feisty old Harry Truman, the octogenarian with all the cats who adamantly refused to leave his house below Mount St. Helens. Feisty he was, and feisty he was called, right up to and beyond the point at which his house, his cats and his person were obliterated by a storm of volcanic gases, ash and mud.

In my obituary, cranky will suffice.

Posted by John McIntyre at 8:39 PM | | Comments (2)

October 9, 2006

There were giants in those days

John Menzies died last week, a note from a colleague in Cincinnati advised me. He was 86, and an epoch passes with him. John served in the Marine Corps in the Second World War and suffered a head wound, which may explain why he became a copy editor. He was for many years the makeup editor in The Cincinnati Enquirer’s composing room.

A composing room — gather around, youngsters, Uncle John is going to tell you about the Old Times — was, after hot type gave way to offset printing, a large room where printers, wielding knife blades or razor blades, cut out articles and headlines and pasted them on the pages. As they made up the pages, their work was overseen by makeup editors from the newsroom.

John ambled through this chaotic environment with a loopy sense of humor. When the last page had been completed and sent through the door to be photographed for the making of a plate, John would duck into a cramped little room reserved for editors, get on the intercom, imitate a bosun’s whistle, and call out, "Sweepers, man your brooms."

He was once the subject of a memorable telephone call. The Enquirer in those days employed an editor of vaguely defined duties who acted as a production straw boss, mainly striding around the composing room and telling the printers that they were "running out of clock." He also favored the newsroom with this observation.

One night, as edition close approached, he called the news desk in a fury to complain, "I’m over here trying to get the paper out, and Menzies is over here trying to make it right."

There’s a whole history of American newspapering in that sentence.

Posted by John McIntyre at 2:36 PM | | Comments (2)

October 6, 2006

Unsatisfactory choices

On Oct. 1 The Sun published an article on the anxiety in some Democratic circles about the turnout of African-American voters in this year’s election. The article ran under the headline "Will blacks show up for Democrats?" and a reader wrote to ask: "The article was informative, however I found your title to be a little abrasive. If you took the time to call Mr. Steele an African American, then why wasn't African American included in the title?"

The short answer, aptly, is about length. African-American is too long to fit the available space.

But the short answer is not an adequate answer. Otherwise, everything would have been OK the night a copy editor sang out to the slotman, "Bill, I used Shell in that headline. Texaco wouldn’t fit. (He was joking. It was at another paper. It was a long time ago. I don’t know why I brought it up.)

Beyond what will fit in headlines, there is the vexatious issue that has lingered for more than two decades, that African-American and black have remained in common use, with neither gaining predominance over the other. And African-American is not always appropriate, as you can hear from black people from the Caribbean. (Or from the parishioner who had schooled her priest so thoroughly in using African-American that in one Good Friday sermon he referred to St. Simon of Cyrene as an African-American. All right, all right, no more pointless anecdotes.)

We do avoid using black as a noun in the singular, because many readers find that usage dismissive or pejorative. But, as in the headline the reader questioned, we continue to use it in the plural.

I can see how someone might find the construction jarring, but other choices are less satisfactory. African-American can’t be made to fit. Minorities as a noun referring to people in minority groups is also irritating, and it would have been less accurate; the article was specifically about turnout among African-American voters.

Writing headlines, which are inherently elliptical and compressed, is often not a matter of achieving the ideal meaning, but getting as close as possible with the narrow range of available choices.

Posted by John McIntyre at 3:35 PM | | Comments (2)

October 2, 2006

Nobody knows the trifles I've seen

A perplexed copy editor at another paper wrote after a visiting professional laid down the law on likely. Use it only as an adjective, not an adverb. "He will likely be proved wrong" should be rewritten as "He is likely to be proved wrong." Next question.

Well, not so fast. Henry Fowler wrote that likely as an adverb must be coupled with very, most or more in educated speech and writing, though it can be found used otherwise in Scotland, Ireland and the United States. (Take that, outlanders.) Theodore Bernstein wielded the same cudgel. But Merriam-Webster’s concludes, in a lengthy entry, that "the use of likely as an adverb without a qualifier … is well established in standard general use in North America. It is an old use, dating back to the 14th century. The strictures on it seem to have developed because it dropped out of mainstream literary use in England during the 19th century."

Yet those strictures survive among the shibboleths to which newspapers’ in-house style guides are prone. And copy editors throughout the land are expected to enforce them. "He likely will" to "he is likely to," lawyer to attorney (or the reverse), "half a mile" to "a half-mile."

Some little things count for a lot, and some not a whit. Authorities disagree, and that ukase from three managing editors back may not be the best advice on what to do today.

True, the copy editor’s lot is to be responsible for the little things, but part of the responsibility is to determine which little things matter. You may recall my kvetching in a previous post about irritating pleonasms — safe haven, close scrutiny, armed gunman. And this morning’s Sun carries a bold headline, O’S REFUTE CLAIMS, though the text makes it clear that the Orioles rebut, dispute, disparage and contradict accusations that they used performance-enhancing drugs. To refute is to demonstrate conclusively that a statement is false, not merely to take exception to it.

Editing involves making a multitude of small decisions. The trick is to make the right ones.

Posted by John McIntyre at 2:05 PM | | Comments (0)
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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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