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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)


I LIKE the anecdotes. They're reassuring, in a you-are-not-alone way ...

Somewhere in my file drawer is a piece of a Page One proof with the words "African-American Tuesday" circled. It's a relic of the time when wire editors used programmable keys to shorten certain editing chores and of one the first times when Democrats had a big bunch of primaries on a single night.

I suppose every copy editor over 30 has a similar tale to tell.

You left out another reason African-American is not an accurate term: There are many white people who were born in Africa and later became U.S. citizens. They are technically more African-American than U.S.-born black people.

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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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