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Inquest on a sentence

Sometimes a single sentence exemplifies the hazards of writing and editing in daily journalism.

Take this one, from an article about the recently released Hairspray:

The fashions of the musical represent the silhouettes and styles of a well-known time period — the calm before the civil rights storm; the iconoclastic Jackie O years.
Perhaps you spot the two serious problems immediately.

(1)Hairspray is set in 1962, when the former Jacqueline Bouvier was still Jacqueline Kennedy, not Jacqueline Onassis.

(2) Then there is that troublesome word iconoclastic. I suppose that in some sense Jacqueline Kennedy, in reacting to the drabness of the 1950s and setting a new trend in style, broke a model of dress. But she was, if anything, iconic, her style of dress imitated by women throughout the country (often to less effect). She was chic, not iconoclastic.

So we have a problem of accuracy — if a writer is going to establish a historical perspective, it’s vital to get the factual details right — and a problem of language.

It is not my intention to hold a writer up to scorn. Indeed, though I winced on reading this sentence in the paper, I hadn’t intended to write about it until a colleague commented on it.

It is, rather, my intention to point out a lapse in editing. The editor’s function is to protect the writer from lapses and from lack of clarity. This sentence, by the standards established at The Sun, went through the hands of an assigning editor, a copy editor, a slot editor checking the copy editor’s work, and another copy editor reading page proof. That is the minimum, and it is entirely possible that one or two other editors had a look at the article before publication. The writer was not well served.

Even in a well-ordered newsroom, faulty and unclear sentences find their way into print. And as newspapers cope with economic pressures, we will see more faulty sentences, produced by fewer journalists doing more work in less time. The Jackie O sentence isn’t all that bad; it is not the kind of sentence that leads to an embarrassed correction or a lawsuit. But it is one more minute ding to the paper’s credibility.

The question, one that the business is hesitant to address directly, is how much slippage of quality publishers are prepared to tolerate — or perhaps more to the point, how much readers will tolerate before they simply look elsewhere.

Journalism is done in a hurry. Get the story. Get me a draft of that story. Get the story out. Get ahead of the competition. Meet the deadline. What’s the headline going to say? We’re running out of clock.

We need more editing, sharper editing. This is not an environment in which reducing the number of editors and copy editors is going to make the product more accurate, clearer, more compelling — better.

Posted by John McIntyre at 11:07 AM | | Comments (1)


I will say this: you folks in the world of daily journalism deserve tons of respect and praise, yourself included. Why? The time constraints alone put tremendous pressure on all involved. So, a lot has to get done correctly and quickly.

I don't know if it is fact or legend, but I once heard that articles in The New Yorker are reviewed by 17 pairs of eyes. I wouldn't doubt it. Rarely do I find an error there.

But TV, radio, and Internet news is riddled with ever more errors, in my view.

And what about books? Something in production for a year or two should have fewer errors!

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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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