« Obiter dicta | Main | Pooled ignorance »

Pieces of string

It’s all orts and sorts today.

On a spree

Despite previous cautions, the copy desk’s vigilance slipped on a couple of occasions after the Virginia Tech killings and allowed references to a shooting spree into print.

A spree is, Webster’s New World College Dictionary says, “a noisy frolic.” Or an interval of drunkenness. When the Old Man goes on a toot, he’s on a spree.  Or an interval of “uninhibited activity,” as when the Old Lady goes on a shopping spree. When someone with weapons goes off the rails and kills a number of people, what is happening is a rampage, not a spree. Don’t mistake the casual for the serious.

Arts and letters

A reader has objected to the recent headline: Arts grants to encourage dialogue on race relations.

Here is the complaint: Do you write your own headlines?  If so, you never really explain how a "Humanities" Council makes "Arts" grants.  You do know that these are two different fields, don't you?  That there is both a National Endowment for the Arts and a National Endowment for the Humanities and that they give grants for different kinds of activities?  It's a shame that the Maryland Humanities Council gets stiffed like this, since I take it that many of your readers won't get beyond the headline.

The article concerned the Maryland Humanities Council’s “grant program to fund forums, seminars and other community events aimed at promoting racial dialogue and timed around next year's 40th anniversary of the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.”

Further: “The King initiative grants, which will total $500,000, will be used to stimulate community conversations through the arts and humanities, especially before memories of King's life work start to wane, said Peggy Burke, the council's executive director. [Emphasis added.]”

So apparently a humanities council can make arts grants, according to its own executive director.

First, you may notice that wedging humanities into that headline is going to mean sacrificing other key words, giving the reader less information. Second, the arts have always been understood to be included in the humanities. Using arts as a shorthand for arts and humanities is not ideal, but it does not deprive the reader of accurate information.

A headline — please keep this in mind — is inherently elliptical and approximate. The text has the exact, detailed information. The headline is a suggestion that you should read the damn story. 

What you graduate with

Another reader points out a reference in an article on the gender gap in pay to a pay gap caused by lack of a "high school degree."

The reader observes, “At 77 years of age it's been a while since I was in high school, but am curious as to when high schools began granting degrees.”

The reader it right: High schools confer diplomas; they do not grant degrees.

Will work for sex

In an article about charges in a prostitution case, we published this sentence: Craigslist and other online classified sites have become a popular marketplace for sex workers and their clients; fees are established after the two parties make contact.

A colleague asked, “Do we use sex worker?” No, we shouldn’t. The term sex worker implies that the person involved is engaged in some legitimate employment, like a steelworker or a caseworker. Whatever one may think philosophically or morally about accepting money in return for sex, it remains a crime. We wouldn’t call a hired killer a homicide worker.

In a different context, however, in a society in which prostitution has been legalized, a case could be made for using sex worker.

Posted by John McIntyre at 7:38 AM | | Comments (3)


So, what is the politically correct term for a prostitute?

Probably nothing (for a newspaper, anyway) as long as it's illegal. There's "escort" and "call girl" but those euphemisms are often inaccurate, and accuracy is what we're all about. And John's point about "sex workers" is good -- if it's legal, then that's fine. If it's not, then "prostitute" is as good as we've got.

A headline — please keep this in mind — is inherently elliptical and approximate. The text has the exact, detailed information. The headline is a suggestion that you should read the damn story.

What a wonderful precis of the process, so to say.

As far as ladies of easy virtue, the "media" seems to like "Madam". Which I think is stupid. It reminds me of THE PRODUCERS, where Zero and Gene are looking for the author of "Springtime for Hitler" and the lady in the Bronx declares:

"I'm no madam! I'm da consee-oyje."

Post a comment

(If you haven't left a comment here before, you may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Until then, it won't appear on the entry. Thanks for waiting.)

Verification (needed to reduce spam):

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
Baltimore Sun Facebook page

Most Recent Comments
Sign up for FREE local news alerts
Get free Sun alerts sent to your mobile phone.*
Get free Baltimore Sun mobile alerts
Sign up for local news text alerts

Returning user? Update preferences.
Sign up for more Sun text alerts
*Standard message and data rates apply. Click here for Frequently Asked Questions.
Stay connected