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Pooled ignorance

Two reporters, working within earshot of the copy desk, consult on a style point.

First reporter: How do we write okay?

Second reporter: I think we spell it out.

First reporter: That doesn’t look right.

Second reporter: O-K?

First reporter: With periods or without?

Second reporter: With.

First reporter: That doesn’t look right, either.

Second reporter: Then without.

First reporter: That looks worse. I’m using the periods.

An instructive colloquy, even if it ended in the wrong result. The Sun’s in-house stylebook follows the AP Stylebook: OK, OK’d, OK’ing, OKs. Do not use okay. A copy editor (guess who) was sitting a dozen feet away, and, moreover, both reporters had access to The Sun’s electronic stylebook, which would have resolved the issue in a few keystrokes.

It is not just at reporters’ desks that such conversations occur. Copy editors, even though their indifference to the stylebook is less pronounced, also lean over to ask a colleague, “What’s our style on X?” Sometimes the newer copy editors, perhaps reluctant to stir up the grizzled veterans, prefer to ask one another.

Such conversations open a little window on human behavior. With electronic resources multiplying and ready at hand, many people still prefer human contact when they have to resolve an issue. And they prefer to conduct those conversations within the group to which they feel they belong.

Not all issues can be resolved by consulting stylebooks or other references, electronic or printed. Personal consultation is also necessary to carry on the oral traditions of the newsroom.

The oral transmission works something like this:

The Editor [to ranking  editors]: How come we said  X in that Page One story this morning?

Ranking Editors [to subordinate editors]: The Big Guy asked about X today.

Subordinate Editors [to reporters and copy editors]: The Big Guy doesn’t like X.

Reporters and Copy Editors [to new arrivals]: X is forbidden.

The universal appeal of Dilbert among employees of large organizations suggests that this pattern of communication is hardly limited to newspapers.

There can be, however, advantages in keeping the oral tradition separate from the written resources. When the Big Guy, irritated at something he dislikes, issues some ukase that is sweeping, ill-advised and incorrect (I hear that this has happened at other papers), the best course is to let it fade over time, then ignore it altogether, and, if challenged, pretend never to have heard it.

But most of the time, you should just look things up. Or ask someone who might actually know.

Posted by John McIntyre at 8:29 AM | | Comments (1)


Problem with printed stylebook (AP): organized using some arcane principle that perhaps is a secret of the Copy Editors' Guild, along with the handshake; has no index.

Wish we did have an electronic version where I work.

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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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