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You just can't win

In this space on Nov. 1, I wrote: "Last week, I saw a reference in a wire service article to that hoary term, a candidate’s war chest. Those of you who watched Lou Grant a quarter-century ago (and if you did, you were probably a journalist) may recall a sardonic remark by Charlie Hume, the managing editor, played by the late Mason Adams. A green reporter who had been sent out to cover a political campaign for the first time was turning in substandard work. Someone made a weak defense of the work, and Adams, his lip curling, said, ‘I know. I read it in the story about the war chest.’"

The front page of The Sun for Nov. 14 carries an index item about Sheila Dixon’s fundraising in the campaign to be elected mayor, with the headline — you guessed it — "War chest."

On Oct. 27 a post resisted the tendency to indulge in phonetic spellings such as helluva, gonna, shoulda. Then, on Oct. 31 The Sun published an article with gonna in a headline. A headline!

On Nov. 4 I re-posted the annual prohibitions on seasonal cliches, such as "’Tis the season."

A colleague at the Testy Copy Editors Web site

then posted, "Well, I spammed the newsroom with the text of the column and a link to it. Two section editors responded, one saying I was a party pooper trying to take all of the fun out of the holiday season, and one defending his right to lazy writing on the grounds that Christmas is about tradition (I guess implying that cliches are traditional?)."

Another colleague reports an identical response in a different newsroom.

None of this should come as much of a surprise. I have at my desk copies of The Sun’s various in-house newsletters on writing an editing for the past 30 years, and the same errors recur with depressing regularity. The mistake of referring to opening arguments at a trial instead of opening statements. The almost universal failure to use comprise properly or to refrain from saying that something reaches a crescendo. The apparently insoluble who/whom conundrum. The inability to make the heroic effort to discriminate between it’s and its.

Yes, it is the task of the copy desk to correct errors small and great. (We also serve who sit and fume.) But just once it would be nice to leave work after rolling the rock to the top of the hill and to return the next day without finding it at the bottom.

Posted by John McIntyre at 11:09 AM | | Comments (9)


One of the few victories we had in our newsroom was a ban on "Tis the season," but it takes constant vigilence to enforce the rule.

A February, 2006 press release contained this doozy:

"Founded in 1997, Microsoft's Macintosh Business Unit (Mac BU) is a leading developer of software for Mac customers. The group COMPRISES more than 180 fulltime Mac product experts, who are dedicated to creating top productivity software for Mac customers worldwide. Developed by Mac users for Mac users, the current product line includes: Microsoft Office 2004 for Mac, a productivity suite that IS COMPRISED OF the e-mail application and personal information manager Entourage 2004, Word 2004, Excel 2004 and PowerPoint 2004; Microsoft Messenger for Mac 5; and Microsoft Virtual PC for Mac Version 7." [emphasis added]

One wonders how many authors were involved in THAT one! : )

I've been fighting the "'tis the season" battle for a long time now, and it's been slow-going. But there's progress in my newsroom. We're getting there. Just have to keep fighting.

David, I can tell you with certainty that the Microsoft Style for Technical Publications (MSTP) has an absolute ban on "comprise" ("do not use") precisely because of the widespread confusion about its proper use. Then again, this would be marketing, so ...

"I have at my desk copies of The Sun’s various in-house newsletters on writing an editing for the past 30 years, and the same errors recur with depressing regularity."

I appreciate that you focus on style and copy editing and avoid any Sisyphean arguments for prescriptivism.

I do have one question. How did you convince your copy editor to allow the phonetic "an" instead of "and" in the sentence I quoted above? I use it quite often but my copy editors always hate it.

JEM: The "an" is a typo that I overlooked and which the two editors who check my posts also overlooked. No persuasion was required.

Within the hour, I fixed an item that asserted snakes can be pregnant; last week, I knocked down a claim that the centrifuges used for concentrating uranium generate electricity. Much as I detest sloppy, lazy writing, this year, I'm trying not to let it sidetrack me from catching the truly, frighteningly stupid stuff.

Cliches have a strange hold ... just today I saw a New York Times story mentioning that rain wasn't dampening hikers' spirits.

The day before yesterday one of our most trusted, senior writers was trying to get us to relent and let 'tis the season in the paper.

Imagine how mad they'd be if we started inserting cliches into their stories ... it's almost as if our desire to keep cliches out creates a challenge to see if they can get them in. I feel like the father of a 9-year-old.

Lordy, I sympathize. At a NYTRNG newspaper I worked at during the 1990s, the executive editor outright banned the use of "comprise"! And as far as helluva and gonna, I've gone so far as to suggest that we begin spelling bylines phonetically.

And Michael, he didn't "convince" his copy editor to do anything.

I didn't think so. I was quite sure this was just another harmless typo like the many that I have committed.

But I appreciate the explanation. My chide was much too glib and probably too snide as well.

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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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