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Lame prose

Oh, you hear people say, I don't read the newspaper because the articles are so boring.

Boring, they complain. That's not the worst. There are copy editors who long for boring. There are editors who would welcome a boring story like a glass of lemonade handed to them in Hell. These are the editors who work with reporters who are given to Lively Writing. These are copy editors charged with editing copy that — a cruel but necessary thing to say — does not even rise to the level of local television news.

Oh, it can't be all that bad, you say? Here are some examples culled from submissions to the Testy Copy Editors discussion board. See for yourself at

Passages in bold are direct quotations from that Web site.

Item: This one is from the Associated Press:

WASHINGTON — Call him Cool Hand Nuke. Paul Newman weighed in Wednesday on the Indian Point nuclear power facility in the New York suburbs, pronouncing it safer than military bases he had visited.


The actor and salad dressing salesman visited the Buchanan, N.Y., facility on Monday, according to Jim Steets, a spokesman for Entergy Nuclear, the company that owns Indian Point.

Newman, the star of such films as "Cool Hand Luke," "Slap Shot" and "Nobody’s Fool," praised the nuclear power facility as an important part of the region’s energy future because it doesn’t produce greenhouse gases, which contribute to global warming.

Item: An intrepid editor kept this one out of a newspaper:

Sore backs.

Stiff fingers.

Failing vision.

These women don’t let aging get in the way of hooking.

It's not about what you thought; it’s about crocheting.

Item: If Dr. Johnson complained of Cowley and the other Metaphysical poets that "[t]he most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together," imagine what he would have made of the modern journalist's fondness for the non sequitur:

Springtime is in the air. And along with other signs of spring, such as flowers in bloom, there has been a blossoming in the number of unscrupulous contractors.

Item: Another from the AP:

SHERIDAN, Wyo. — Shirley Weidt says people should stop complaining about the goat in her minivan. After all, there’s plenty of room in the ba-a-a-ack with the seats removed.


Obvious puns, particularly those that rely on non-standard spelling, are juvenile.

Item: And to round everything out, a cliche rung round the world, collected by a single suffering soul:

Fat is no longer a four-letter word in nutrition circles. (Washington Post)
Annuity is not a four-letter word (Sarasota Herald-Tribune)
CRM is not a four-letter word (San Antonio Business Journal)
Debt doesn't have to be a four-letter word (Portland Press Herald)
Come on now. Something has to be a four-letter word.
Soft is a four-letter word (Orlando Sentinel)
Walk is a four-letter word (Brisbane Times)
Zone, once again, is a four-letter word in Lexington (Louisville Courier-Journal)
She also had to introduce a four-letter word to her vocabulary — diet. (Fairbanks Daily News-Miner)

When a writer’s lack of judgment is painfully apparent, it falls to an editor to call a halt.

Posted by John McIntyre at 11:15 AM | | Comments (3)


You're quite right -- but may I point out that writers of plain prose can also be betrayed by copy editors who think their job is to liven things up?

I say this as someone who recently wrote "The distinction is going away," only to see it come out in print as "The distinction is methodically disappearing."

What does this editor think "methodically" means? Beats me.

What does this editor think "methodically" means? Beats me.

Hmmm. UNlike the Cheshire Cat, which simply faded in apparently random fashion?

Is the distinction thus blinking out, pixel by pixel, from top left to bottom right? Or letter by letter, in alphabetical order?

Beats me how a "distinction" -- inanimate -- can have the self-awareness to be methodical about anything.

Alan Shaw comments:

I'm sad to see my own paper in the four-letter list! At least I didn't write the headline ...

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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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