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October 31, 2007

Not an error

Anyone who has worked for a daily newspaper for at least a week can recount some imbecilic remark from a higher-up.* Generations of journalists have shared the unenviable role of Mr. Salter, the foreign editor of the Daily Beast in Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop, as he meets with the publisher, Lord Copper:

“Mr. Salter’s side of the conversation was limited to expressions of assent. When Lord Copper was right he said, ‘Definitely, Lord Copper’; when he was wrong, ‘Up to a point.’

“’Let me see, what’s the name of that place I mean? Capital of Japan? Yokohama, isn’t it?’

“’Up to a point, Lord Copper.’

“’And Hong Kong belongs to us, doesn’t it?’

“’Definitely, Lord Copper.’”

But even I, inured to idiocy by more than three decades of exposure (I was in a graduate program in a university English department before resorting to journalism), was stunned to read on the Testy Copy Editors’ Web site the response a copy editor got after proposing to correct a published error:

“If nobody notices, it’s not wrong.”

We have the sovereign pronouncement: “If the president does it, it’s not illegal.” And we have the morning-after pronouncement: “If we never speak about it, it didn’t happen.” And now from journalism we have the epistemological pronouncement: “If no one perceives it, it’s not an error.”

 This is the kind of thinking — if that is the correct term — that leads newspapers to post unedited copy on the Web. It’s cheaper to do without editors. But I suspect that people do notice errors, even when they make no complaint.

(Sun readers, bless their hearts, do complain, frequently and in detail. Just think what they would say if they also saw the errors our copy desk catches.)

I suspect that the readers who do not complain do the easiest thing: They turn away and seek information elsewhere. Imagine the fate of a retailer who says that everything is fine because no complaints are coming in, while ignoring that the number of customers is dwindling.

Then there is the other kind of noticing, the kind that comes as a reader sees that the publication has let through a false and damaging statement about him.

My mother wanted me to become an attorney, and it’s too late now. But you young people out there, you go into the law. Study libel case law. There’s a good chance that you may be able to make a living off what remains of American journalism.

 

*Candor compels me to point out that, drudge though I am, I count as one of the lower higher-ups in this shop.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 7:29 PM | | Comments (2)
        

October 30, 2007

Argument from authority

It turns out that Cranky Old Guy does not sing solo.

Roy Peter Clark of the Poynter Institute said much the same thing that I did about J.K. Rowling, and said it twice.

And Edward Rothstein expressed similar sentiments in The New York Times.

So there.

Posted by John McIntyre at 11:53 AM | | Comments (3)
        

October 29, 2007

Female trouble

If you watched comedians during the 1950s and well into the 1960s, you know that a staple of the shtick was jokes about women drivers — you know, scatterbrained and prone to get into scrapes out of their darling incompetence with machinery.

We don’t go in for those jokes much anymore, and we have also tended to dump from the working language a number of terms now perceived as condescending and sexist: authoress and poetess, for example, which suggest second-class standing. Garner’s Modern American Usage suggests that the feminine suffix trix may also be on its way out even in the law, with executor, prosecutor and testator increasingly edging out executrix, prosecutrix and testatrix. (He does point out one hardy survival, dominatrix in sadomasochism.)

But woman and female continue to unsettle, the former when used as an adjective, the later when used as a noun.

A colleague has asked about “references to women journalists, women politicians, etc.,” saying “Even feminist writers like Ellen Goodman do this. Isn't it flat-out wrong? Last time I checked, women was a noun, just like men. On this issue am I the only one sane, while the rest of the world is crazy?”

Bryan Garner agrees that it is “jarring to hear phrases such as lady lawyer, woman doctor, female booksalesman, or the Air Force’s female airman. It sounds condescending, even if that wasn’t intended.” And he is largely right. Lady, like gentleman, appears as a marker of class distinctions to be on the way out.

But woman as an adjective seems to have staying power. In Anglican circles, for example, both in Britain and the United States, woman priest has been the common term for three decades or more, to all parties in the dispute over ordaining women. (Only the snarkiest opponents insist on using priestess.)

It is a mark of the plasticity of English that nouns can be used as adjectives and adjectives as nouns. In writing about “functional variation,” Garner points to phrases such as body weight, insurance policy, home repairs and witness protection program as examples of an unobjectionable semantic shift, though other combinations can be ambiguous. Similarly, no one is jarred by references to the poor, the rich and the homeless.

For my part, female doctor, though grammatically unexceptionable, sounds as bad as woman doctor when it is a gratuitous indication of sex. And female as a noun is far more troublesome than woman as an adjective. When applied to human beings, it evokes a sense of reducing women to the level of, say, insects or quadrupeds considered scientifically, as in Kipling’s famous line, “For the female of the species is more deadly than the male.”

So if you want to use woman as an adjective, you appear to be swimming with the current of the language. Just make sure that the distinction is one it is necessary to make.

Posted by John McIntyre at 2:32 PM | | Comments (6)
        

From "fanatic"

It’s not mere coincidence that fan derives from fanatic.

The Oxford English Dictionary goes back to the Latin root, fanaticus, itself derived from fanum, temple. A fanaticus was a person who had been driven mad by a god, or as the OED says, “Such as might result from possession by a deity or demon; frantic, furious. Of a person: Frenzied, mad.”

As Christianity replaced the old pagan religion, a new sense developed: “Characterized, influenced, or prompted by excessive and mistaken enthusiasm, esp. in religious matters.”

And thus by logical extension into American usage as “a keen and regular spectator of a (professional) sport, orig. of baseball; a regular supporter of a (professional) sports team; hence, a keen follower of a specified hobby or amusement, and gen. an enthusiast for a particular person or thing.”

A colleague, Damon Curry, takes exception to last week’s post about J.K. Rowling on behalf of fellow fans of the Harry Potter books and films:

The Harry Potter series, as, I trust, you know, has gained quite the cult following. This following has lifted the world she created out of the context of the series and placed it in a larger cultural context. Look, for instance, at the midnight release parties and the myriad fan fiction Web sites. Online communities such as MuggleNet.com and The Leaky Cauldron sport member boards where the plot is discussed outside the context of the books. At midnight release parties, of which I have attended the past three, theories are tossed around and the plot is discussed outside the scope of the written, as with other popular series such as the Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan.

To the dedicated fan, the fact that Neville Longbottom marries Hannah Abbot is important information. It continues the story, which is the goal of the writer. The same goes for Dumbledore's sexual orientation. If the means by which she continues the story are outside a traditional realm and dip into popular culture, what is wrong with that?

Why must the character development be confined to her pen? Yes, fan fiction is separated from the official work and should in no way be considered a part of the world she created. But she has, indeed, created a world which she has documented *parts* of in the series. She has said that she has enough information left over to write an encyclopedia (and lord knows millions of people are waiting for her to release it). She knows each character's favorites; each character had motivations for their actions, which she, because of space, did not reveal in full.

So, I guess my question is this: Why must the world "beyond the realm of copyright" be discarded?

Harry Potter parties on the night of the release of the (presumably) last book of the series are no doubt innocuous fun. Members of the Baker Street Irregulars gather to read papers about the Sherlock Holmes stories that can be an arch satire on academic societies and papers.

But the tendency in fan is to gravitate toward fanatic. One likes a group of science fiction television series and movies. One discusses them with fellow enthusiasts. One starts to sprinkle conversations with “Live long and prosper” or “Make it so.” One puts a “Star Fleet Academy” sticker in the back window of the car. And soon one is showing up for jury duty in a Star Trek uniform or translating the Bible into Klingon.

It may be that I was displaying a personal distaste for excess last week — copy editors, apart from a fondness for drink, are not a notably Dionysian crowd — but it still seems to me that pandering to the appetite of fans for more stuff beyond the text is not the best use of a writer’s time and ability.

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 11:37 AM | | Comments (19)
        

October 26, 2007

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Posted by John McIntyre at 4:43 PM | | Comments (2)
        

How many boyfriends had Albus Dumbledore?

I was not always as you see me now.

Many years ago, in a graduate school far away, I was a student of what H.L. Mencken liked to call “beautiful letters.” And it was with dim recollections of a past life as a graduate student in English that I reacted to J.K. Rowling’s announcement last week that she had envisioned Professor Dumbledore, headmaster of Hogwarts in the Harry Potter series, as gay.

However this may have titillated or energized her readers, I think that the remark was misguided — not because Dumbledore’s sexual orientation is in any way offensive, but because it appears to be irrelevant. While fresh scrutiny of the Potter novels may reveal hints, it doesn’t appear that Dumbledore’s sexuality matters in the books, which is the only place where it counts. He’s a character in fiction, not a person.

Seventy years ago, the British critic L.C. Knights published a famous (among academics) essay, “How Many Children Had Lady Macbeth?” It effectively demolished the older critical approach exemplified in A.C. Bradley”s Shakespearean Tragedy. Knights ridiculed criticism that treated Shakespeare’s characters as representing fully realized individuals, arguing that the characters exist only in the work to carry out the purposes of the work. They do not exist outside the play/poem/novel, and it is idle to talk of them as if they did.

That has been critico-literary orthodoxy for decades, and the attitude was pithily expressed by Vladimir Nabokov, who ridiculed the notion that characters could somehow “get away” from the control of their authors; his, he wrote, worked like galley slaves.

So Ms. Rowling, giving in to the avidity of fans who have not had enough Harry Potter with the completion of the series, offers them an additional crumb. No doubt in some electronic netherworld of which I remain blissfully unaware, avatars of all the Hogwarts characters are carrying on some further existence beyond the realm of copyright

But if Ms. Rowling wants to develop the characters further, she has a pen.

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 7:20 AM | | Comments (9)
        

October 24, 2007

House and home

When I see on a page proof that Habitat for Humanity is seeking to build “two homes,” I reach for a pencil.

Houses, not homes. Habitat and contractors build houses, which are structures. Houses become homes when people live in them. That newspaper reporters and editors continue to write about homes when talking about houses shows how deeply infected by real estate cant we have become. Realtors prefer to talk about homes to lure the customers, and now, apparently, everyone has to follow suit in coyness.

I suppose that I should be grateful that the proof doesn’t refer to Habitat’s plan to build “two new homes.” So far as I know, nobody much is in the business of building old homes.

And probably this Habitat project is going to be identified later in this proof as a “new initiative.” Initiare, people, Latin for to enter upon, begin. Root of initial, the first letter; initiate, to introduce; initiative, a first step. An initiative is by definition a new thing, a beginning. The only time it is appropriate to refer to a new initiative is in a context that contrasts the new effort with a previous initiative.

(No offense to Habitat for Humanity, which does good, selfless work. People in Habitat are not responsible for the way journalists write.)

Finally, to round out the rant, I’d better not see If you build it, they will come. It was 1989 when Field of Dreams appeared in theaters. That’s 18 years, a generation ago. You’d think that we might scratch up some fresher allusion.

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 3:04 PM | | Comments (3)
        

O.K. by me in America*

Over at the American Copy Editors Society’s discussion board they’ve been trying to figure out where to put Puerto Rico.

The Associated Press, for reasons best known — and perhaps known only — to itself, sends news from Puerto Rico packed with its foreign report. And some newspapers unthinkingly put Puerto Rican news with the world coverage rather than the national.

Back in the palmy days of the McKinley administration, when the United States decided that it wanted to be an imperial power, there just weren’t many places left to colonize. (We had tried to grab Canada twice, once during the Revolution and again during the War of 1812, but the U.S. has never paid much attention to its spectacular failures.) So we picked a fight with Spain, a much-decayed and tottering imperial power, and for the trouble of a short little war took over the Philippines, Puerto Rico and Guam. The Philippine state has been independent since 1946, but we got Puerto Rico and Guam fair and square in 1898, and we’re holding on to them.

Both are American territories, American soil, under the American flag, so it seems, well, odd to write about them as if they were foreign entities.

One comment in this discussion included a remark that “Puerto Rico just doesn't feel like a part of America to me,” which I was floored to see. Puerto Ricans have held U.S. citizenship by act of Congress since 1917. Whether they seem like Americans or not, they indisputably are.

It comes to mind that one of the issues leading to the events of 1775 and 1776 was the attitude among Britons that the colonists in America just didn’t feel like real Englishmen, with, you know, rights and things. Attitudes can be troublesome.

*Yes, an allusion, a line from the song “America” in West Side Story.

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 8:55 AM | | Comments (12)
        

October 22, 2007

Just sack all the editors

Copy editors have made a big mistake. For years, coming in to work, typically in the evening, after the Important People at the paper have gone for the day, editing through the night and producing, all things considered, a remarkably clean newspaper, they saw no reason to trumpet their achievements. The work, after all, the product, speaks for itself.

Their misjudgment was thrown into high relief last week when Joseph Lodovic, the president of Dean Singleton’s MediaNews publishing concern, was quoted as saying, “We have to find ways to grow revenue or become more efficient by eliminating fixed costs. Why does every newspaper need copy editors? In this day and age, I think copy-editing can be done centrally for several newspapers.''

He’s right. Any kind of quality assurance is expensive. Meat inspectors are also a cost. They do not generate any revenue. Reduce their number, and you can save a few bucks. Sure, a little E. coli will get into the hamburger, and you may have to recall a few million pounds of meat, and a few soreheads may file multimillion-dollar lawsuits — but really, all you were doing was eliminating some fixed costs. And who’s supposed to pay for people to check all those toys for lead paint? Doesn’t the public understand that maintaining a satisfactory profit margin depends on reducing costs?

While Mr. Lodovic appears to understand money, his grasp of newspaper production seems less secure.

To start with, if intensive local coverage — the current industry mantra — is the future of daily newspapers, then they will need local copy editors. We have enough trouble at The Sun distinguishing between the MTA police (Maryland Transit Administration/buses, trains, light rail, subway) and the MdTA police (Maryland Transportation Authority/toll bridges and tunnels, airport and port). A bunch of entry-level editors huddled in a converted warehouse in say, Sioux Falls, or worse, Bangalore, is not going to do a better job of observing our local distinctions. Do you suppose that a copy editor working five states away is going to recognize when the photo desk has supplied for the James F. Smith obituary a photo of James T. Smith? Or that an article has located Savage in Anne Arundel County rather than Howard?

It isn’t just the errors in grammar and usage that the copy desk catches (though Lord knows we catch enough of them), but it’s also the multitude of local details that will either enhance or diminish the credibility of the report.

Perhaps Mr. Lodovic was thinking primarily of the Bay Area in California, where MediaNews owns a handful of papers. Surely there, centralizing the copy desk would be a prudent economy.

Perhaps not. The obvious goal of centralizing copy editing is to save money by reducing the number of people. One diminished copy desk putting out a handful of papers won't be able to produce all of them at once, so some of them are going to have an unfavorable deadline schedule, going to press too early to capture late sports scores or other news. Or they are going to run common news or even common pages in all the papers, which will undercut the effort to be intensively local.

What it comes down to is an unstated but pervasive belief that quality can be sacrificed without any serious penalty. If local news is our strongest remaining franchise, then we have to produce papers with local employees who know their area and their audience. These papers have to be edited, which is time-consuming and expensive; otherwise, the accumulation of little errors and great ones over time will erode the reliability of the product.

But all this does make sense if the goal is what Philip Meyer describes in The Vanishing Newspaper as “harvesting the assets.” In brief, one reason for the decline of newspaper circulation is that older readers are dying without being replaced by younger ones. Since no growth is foreseen, cheapen the product to wring out the profits. The dwindling number of readers still on this side of the ground will continue to read; they have the habit, and there is no substitute. Eventually the business will collapse, but only after the current owners have taken the money and gone elsewhere. In such an environment, copy editors are a frill easily to be dispensed with.

In Santa Barbara, California, where the local paper has been plunged into turmoil — the publisher sacked the editor, many staff members quit or were fired, and the paper in enmeshed in legal disputes — a new news outlet has appeared. William H. Macfadyen has announced the arrival of Noozhawk, an electronic community paper produced by experienced journalists. I know Bill Macfadyen from the American Copy Editors Society. He is a smart and energetic editor, and his new publication shows the marks of responsible journalism. It is too soon to tell whether Noozhawk will succeed, but it is encouraging to see someone with a broader vision than squeezing the last couple of dollars out of the operation while destroying it.

As for Mr. Lodovic and the other managers who figure that they can do well on the cheap, verily, they have their reward.

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 8:08 AM | | Comments (19)
        

October 19, 2007

The Sun regrets

“I’ve stopped reading The Sun because of all the errors.”

You can hear this remark when readers call in to local talk shows. You can see it in the complaints that Paul Moore, our reader editor, sifts through daily. You can read it in letters to the editor.

And there are errors. Producing a text of tens of thousands of words every 24 hours means that typos, misspellings of names, errors in factual details and other flaws will slip through.

People are inherently prone to error. Kathy Schenck’s blog, Words to the Wise, at the Journal Sentinel in Milwaukee, has a post about the errors in notes sent home by schoolteachers. A factory that produces hundreds of cars will turn out some that are faulty. A hospital that treats hundreds of patients will harm a number of them — there is even a word for it, iatrogenic, meaning the unintentional introduction of a disease or symptom by a physician’s treatment.

It falls to the particular responsibility of the copy desk to hold the number of errors to an irreducible minimum, and I have spent the past decade hiring the smartest people I could find to perform that test. (Yes, there is a bias toward intelligence in hiring for the copy desk.) When we let something slip past into print, I wince as much as any reader, and I have contributed a full share of mistakes to the total. But that statement about no longer reading the paper because of all the errors could stand some examination.

First, I have on file the in-house newsletters about writing and editing produced at The Sun since 1970, and the same damn mistakes keep cropping up with monotonous regularity: the same slips in grammar and usage, the same casualness about the names of persons and places. And while I see things I don’t like every time I open up the paper, I have serious doubts that a rigorous sampling would disclose that the error rate is substantially up over the past 37 years. The Sun, particularly in comparison with other daily newspapers, some of which have ill-advisedly neutered their copy-editing operations, is remarkably clean.

Second, some of the errors that readers complain about are not, in fact errors at all. There are people who have been taught that none can be used only as a singular, which the practice of the language since the time of Chaucer shows that it can be singular or plural, depending on context. Aha!-gotcha! letters and e-mails about the violation of some treasured superstition or shibboleth are a recurring phenomenon.

(I omit the complaints about articles that present facts with which the reader disagrees or would prefer not to see — that’s a separate area.)

But yes, we do err, and no one regrets that more than I do.

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 2:36 PM | | Comments (4)
        

October 18, 2007

Cranky Old Guy redux

Down at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla., Roy Peter Clark wrote a little essay last week on the duty of reading the newspaper. And he got some lively responses.

My own suspicion is that duty will prove to be an ineffective motivation. Let me raise the curtain for a brief glimpse into the newsroom of a major metropolitan daily.

I was sitting at the copy desk one afternoon when A Senior Editor stopped at a nearby desk to compliment a reporter on an article that had run in that morning’s editions. It was a great story, A Senior Editor said: “I read it all the way to the end.”

When the highest praise A Senior Editor at your own paper can bestow is that he read your story to the end, you can be sure that not many people are reading anything all the way through. And if the people who work with you and make their bread by producing the paper cannot be troubled to read stories through, why should we expect the customers to be doing anything more, duty be damned.

Yes, we do produce the occasional article that identifies a compelling subject and explores it with grace. But it is much more common for us to produce, say, a 3,000-word article that the reader abandons after about 150. (The word frequently applied in-house to the article of 3,000 or more words by Another Senior Editor was “goat-choker.”) Or we produce a 300-word article that is so sketchy as to be pretty much worthless to the reader. We seem to have trouble gauging the range.

We run a wire service article about Iraq that leads with a car bomb explosion in Baghdad, switches to two American soldiers killed in Anbar province, adds a riot in Kirkuk, doubles back to the car bombing in Baghdad, tosses in some quotes from a general and then stops abruptly. It’s hard to lead the reader in a dance when you’re stepping on your own feet.

We run lengthy articles about families who have lost children and discover, at length, that they feel the pain of loss. We discover that the weather gets hot in the summertime and cold in the winter. We dwell on the anniversaries of events, which means that we can pad out these stories with archival material at intervals of one, five, 10, 20, 25, 30, 40 and 50 years. We write about bureaucracies in language that mirrors the way bureaucrats write.

It is easy to lose sight of the really solid articles we produce because they get choked and obscured by the weedy products of habit, self-indulgence or lack of imagination.

I doubt that duty will carry anyone — not the newspaper staff, much less the reader — very far in reading newspapers. I think that the trick lies in writing something that someone would have a good reason to read.

Posted by John McIntyre at 2:51 PM | | Comments (1)
        

October 17, 2007

Silver

I will be taking the day off to mark 25 years of marriage to Kathleen Capcara.

Not one of you could have endured me at close quarters for half that time.

Posted by John McIntyre at 8:50 AM | | Comments (3)
        

October 16, 2007

Come over to the dark side

Were it not for gallows humor, we’d have no morale at all.

Yesterday’s post offered a window into the sensibility of the copy desk. Humor on the copy desk is usually dark and ironic. Like the humor in Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H and the adulterated humor of the television series based on the film, it is not for civilians.

There was a woman employed in The Sun’s human resources department who had, I suppose, a sense of humor. She was observed laughing with other people. But when met with the kind of ironic tone in which copy desk discourse is marinated, she looked as mildly bemused as Margaret Dumont to Groucho Marx’s zingers.

Take an example from my days at The Cincinnati Enquirer. A colleague lived on a street that motorcyclists used as a racetrack in the evenings. We reached a point at which, when a story about a motorcycle fatality arrived on the desk, usually involving someone without a helmet, we would nod formally to each other, and one of us would intone, “The Darwinian process continues.”

Or at my current job, where I am known as the Death Slot because so many prominent figures have climbed that golden staircase on nights when I was working the desk.

Or the remarks, best not repeated here, about a president of the United States, a White House intern, and a certain blue dress — which might come as a surprise to those entertaining the lurid fantasy that everyone at The Sun is on Stalin’s payroll.

As I said, not for civilian consumption.

You have to consider the circumstances, which, I discovered in many late-night conversations with colleagues from across the country in the American Copy Editors Society, are duplicated in newspapers across this great broad land of ours. First, copy editors experience the easygoing scorn of many reporters. (Think of reporters as the football team and copy editors as the marching band, and you will have twigged to the hierarchical scorn.) Second, whatever it is that copy editors do occurs anonymously and late in the evening, a time when the upper-level editors of newspapers are entirely without a clue about how their newspapers are actually produced. (It’s a mystery to the reporting staff as well, and they show no interest in being inducted.)

The result is a paradox. The copy desk, which actually functions more like a team than any other unit in the newsroom — otherwise, no newspaper would be produced — is allergic to management cant about teamwork. Still and all, they’re a murmuring but steady bunch who have constructed an esprit de corps out of unpromising materials.

Now comes the point at which I should repeat that just about all I know about these attitudes comes from what I have heard from people who work at other newspapers.

Posted by John McIntyre at 10:46 AM | | Comments (5)
        

October 15, 2007

Great moments in copy desk history-III

It was an otherwise uneventful evening in May 1982. The copy desk at The Cincinnati Enquirer was at work on the first edition for the next day. Webb Matthews was reading the wires.

Webb was the sort of polymath who crops up on copy desks. He knew more about U.S. vice presidents (and had stronger opinions about them) than any man ought to. He was writing, in his free time, a verse drama in heroic couplets after the manner of Dryden. He shared a few pages of it one night in a bar; it was far from contemptible.

As wire editor, Webb was monitoring the incoming news from the wire services to which The Enquirer subscribed, alerting editors on the news desk to updates and breaking news.

Then the announcement came from the Associated Press that Hugh Beaumont, who played Ward Cleaver for 235 episodes of Leave It to Beaver, had died. Webb sang out, his voice carrying through the newsroom:

“June, I’m dead!”

 (If you’re under 40, ask your father why this is funny.)

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 10:41 AM | | Comments (4)
        

October 11, 2007

The naked lapel

Like Barack Obama, I do not wear an American flag lapel pin. Unlike Barack Obama, I have never worn one.

No doubt that leaves ample room to question my patriotism — craven toady of the East Coast liberal media establishment that I am — never mind that I pay my taxes, without complaint; vote in municipal, state and federal elections; and obey the statutes. But it is hard for someone my age to look at an American flag lapel pin without summoning up the image of Richard Nixon, lapel pin prominently on display, insisting on his probity.

I did not always present a naked lapel to the world. There was a time when I sported prize buttons won in speech competitions, but I put them away after graduating from high school. And I have a pin somewhere bearing the logo of the American Copy Editors Society, of which I am a charter member, that I have worn at ACES events. But that seems a little odd — they already know I’m a member, and no one else knows what ACES is.

I also have an orange-and-navy-blue-striped necktie that announces to the knowing observer that I attended Syracuse University. A gentleman once approached me after church to ask, “Is that a Princeton tie?” “No,” I said, “Syracuse.” (Princeton is orange and black.) “Too bad,” he said.

The whole lapel pin kerfuffle looks even sillier that the usual rodomontade* that passes for political discourse in the Republic. Does any sane person — that is, anyone outside the confines of talk radio — seriously imagine that any of the presidential candidates, Republican and Democratic, is anything less than a patriotic citizen? Or that any candidate, by pinning a flag to his lapel, could add a cubit to his stature?

Flaunting flag lapel pins is of a piece with wearing clothes that show designer logos. (I don’t wear those, either. Any clothier who would like for me to be a walking billboard should pay me. I’m a newspaperman; that’s how advertising works.) Designer logos speak to middle-class status anxiety. Wearing designer clothes shows that I am one of the Quality. But since my fellow middle-class worriers lack the nous** to identify the good stuff without prompting, I have to wear something that blares the announcement to them.

All clothing is, of course, costume, and we all dress for the roles that we choose to play. It says something about us as a people, and it’s not something flattering, that the kind of political theater we prefer to attend can spend days on buffoonery about lapel pins.

[Yeah, I’ve gone off-topic again. Sue me.]

* rodomontade. A fine old word meaning “arrogant boasting or blustering, ranting talk.” (Thank you, Webster’s New World.) It derives from Rodomonte, the boasting Saracen in Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso.

** nous. Transliterated straight from the Greek for mind or intellect, used in English since at least the 18th century to mean practical intelligence, common sense, knowledge and judgment. My daughter, Alice, as I have bragged previously, holds a degree in Latin and Greek, and I feel a paternal responsibility to uphold the classics.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 1:14 PM | | Comments (8)
        

October 10, 2007

Down Memory Lane to Tobacco Road

Ever willing to gratify readers of this blog, I take on their questions:

What does "cracker' mean and what is its derivation?

The Oxford English Dictionary, like many others, will tell you that cracker is a “contemptuous name given in southern States of N. America to the ‘poor whites’; whence, familiarly, to the native whites of Georgia and Florida.” That’s at the main cracker entry. An allied definition appears at the corn-cracker entry: “A contemptuous name for a ‘poor white’ in the Southern States (? from his subsisting on corn or maize); a ‘cracker’. Also, a native of Kentucky.”

It is not quite the equivalent of hillbilly, which indicates poor whites of Appalachia rather than Georgia; or linthead, which identifies poor whites from the cotton-mill districts of the Carolinas; or redneck, which has an even broader geographical reach. But it is, like its first cousins, disparaging.

The origin is obscure. One theory is that it comes from the aforementioned corn-cracker. You’ll remember that Jimmy cracked corn (but perhaps you don’t care). But that etymology is questionable, partly because the citations are not the oldest.

A more interesting theory is that it comes from cracker in the sense of “one who cracks,” not just objects, but also jokes. There are some fairly old citations indicating that a cracker is a boaster or braggart or liar, as in this from Shakespeare’s King John:

"What cracker is this same that deafes our eares / With this abundance of superfluous breath?"

The OED offers this passage of a letter from 1766: “I should explain to your Lordship what is meant by crackers; a name they have got from being great boasters; they are a lawless set of rascalls on the frontiers of Virginia, Maryland, the Carolinas and Georgia, who often change their places of abode.”

Cracker, like many disparaging terms, reeks of class distinctions. My parents, who spent their whole lives in Fleming County, Kentucky, who lived for many years in modest circumstances and who spoke with a pronounced regional accent, nevertheless spoke condescendingly of other Fleming Countians whose accents were even stronger. Language is an invaluable support in our efforts to identify people to look down on.

And a few other questions:

Do copy editors ever get together and throw down? Like, someone hands a pair of editors some high school essay, and they race to see who can most quickly clean it up?

Every blessed night.

There should be a Bulwer-Lytton prize for journalism.

Perhaps we could send in what the Pulitzer Prize-winning texts look like before they go through the copy desk.

Mr. McIntyre, did I just read the word "ass" in your post?

Indeed you did. But if my masters ever get wind of what I’m doing here. …

What good is it to be a Titan of Copy Editing if you can be "overruled"?

Being a titan of copy editing is roughly equivalent to being the proverbial one-eyed man in the valley of the blind.

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 2:19 PM | | Comments (6)
        

October 9, 2007

Ask me if I care

In 1936 a magazine, The Literary Digest, conducted an elaborate opinion poll on that year’s presidential election. The magazine, which had conducted successful polls for the elections from 1916 on, mailed out 10 million questionnaires. It selected owners of automobiles, magazine subscribers, registered voters and people with telephones. More than 2 million people responded, and the magazine triumphantly published an article predicting that Kansas Gov. Alf M. Landon would defeat President Franklin D. Roosevelt, 57 percent to 43 percent.

Roosevelt won more than 60 percent of the vote, carrying every state but Maine and Vermont, and The Literary Digest did not long survive its embarrassment.

The Literary Digest poll, it turns out, was flawed, despite the impressive number of responses. Respondents were self-selected, and the sampling group included a large number of people (owners of cars and telephones during the Depression, people who could afford magazine subscriptions) who were Republicans.

Surveys of public opinion, thanks to George Gallup and his many successors, have grown much more sophisticated and reliable. (Gallup himself accurately forecast the outcome of the 1936 election.) Unfortunately, the public, including journalists, has not grown more sophisticated. I suggest that you have a look at two posts by my fellow blogger, Fred Vultee, “Democrats eat babies, too” and “More fibbing with ‘polls,’” to see examples of desperately flawed polling being fobbed off on the public.

As we should have figured out since 1936, surveys with self-selected responses are not trustworthy. That includes those click-on-the-button trivialities you see at Web sites and the “votes” you can cast for figures on “reality” shows on television.

We should understand that polls should state what their sampling methodology is. We should also wonder how the questions are worded, since subtle — or blatant — slanting is common.

We should also understand by now, as Brother Vultee points out, that responses falling within the “confidence interval” or “margin of error” are effectively ties. You have no business saying that Candidate A “leads” Candidate B by two percentages points in a poll that shows A with 51 percent and B with 49 percent and a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percent. Nobody can say who is leading in that contest. And we should expect to see what overall “confidence level” has been calculated for the conclusions.

Combine the brandishing of unreliable surveys with the horse-race, who’s-ahead-this-morning approach to political coverage months before anyone outside the campaigns themselves has any interest in the coming election, and you may have one explanation for the public’s overwhelming lack of interest in elections.

If you prefer not to participate in a herd, skip most of the polling stories, try to find more substantial material, and make up your own mind.

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 2:19 PM | | Comments (0)
        

October 8, 2007

There, there, no harm meant

Last week an unknown hand posted a short quotation on the copy desk bulletin board at The Sun, a sentence from one of my own posts about what to expect when you allow a dolt to edit your copy. The effect, you see, is to turn my own words against the copy desk. Can you beat it? Devilishly clever.

It appears that I have, in these operations, touched on a tender part.

So, in the interest of achieving a broader perspective on the tensions that sometimes rise between writer and editor, I suggest that you consider a post by my learned colleague, Phillip Blanchard, at the Testy Copy Editors Web site.

He has, at various times and at various newspapers, edited the work of Roger Ebert, Bob Woodward and Robert Novak, and he comments: “Each is extraordinarily cooperative with copy editors. ... I never got so much as a hint of resistance from any of them. They know their jobs and accept that we know ours.”

Brother Blanchard’s experience dovetails with everything I have seen over more than a quarter-century as a copy editor. The ablest reporters and writers are, almost without exception, the most cooperative with the copy desk. Those who are most antagonistic tend to have the most to be defensive about.

Now not every copy editor is equally able, and all of us are guilty at one time or another of making really dumb judgments. And antagonisms do crop up because of differences in personality and temperament. If a reporter has difficulty with a single copy editor, we should probably chalk that up to inescapable personal differences. But if a reporter has difficulty with the copy desk in general, there is something wrong with the reporter.

That principle works in reverse, too. And the copy editors read this blog, so you needn’t trouble yourself to post that.

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 4:57 PM | | Comments (0)
        

Strict sense

They blew up a parking garage yesterday morning, a block from The Sun.

Mercy Hospital is expanding, and the Loizeaux family of Baltimore County, justly famed for conducting controlled demolitions around the world, brought the 10-story garage down to make room.

The technique, in which the central supports are collapsed in a series of explosions so that the structure falls in on itself, is popularly called an implosion. When I suggested to my colleagues at the paper that we might want to avoid using implosion in the story, they goggled at me as if I had just announced that I was receiving messages from Mars through the fillings in my teeth.  

Implosion, I explained, is a technical term for the circumstances in which the external pressure on an object becomes so much greater than its internal pressure that the object explodes in on itself. The term became widespread after it was used to explain what happens to buildings in the explosion on an atomic bomb. The demolition of the parking garage was not, strictly speaking, an implosion but a controlled collapse.

My colleagues came back with an irrefutable reply. “It’s in the dictionary,” they said.

So it is. So are many other things. Dictionaries will show you that people use infer and imply interchangeably. Dictionaries will show you that people use impact as a verb. Dictionaries will show you the usages that lexicographers — bless their hearts — discover. But dictionaries tend not to be much help in determining whether a word should be used in a strict, technical sense or a broad, popular sense.

It didn’t disturb me to read that George Allen’s candidacy had imploded because of a series of inept remarks, because it was plain that the word was being used metaphorically. But implosion for a controlled demolition is not a metaphor. It is the wrong technical term.

Even so, I was overruled by my betters, and implosion was published in the article.

But I kept it out of the headline.

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 9:16 AM | | Comments (3)
        

October 5, 2007

Prone to error

People are no damn good, and copy editors know it.

No proper copy editor gets misty-eyed over Rousseauan claptrap about people’s inherent goodness and innocence corrupted by society. Copy editors understand that we are all bad to the bone, that on any given day, any given group of children is just about this far away from Lord of the Flies.

People lie. Spouses lie to each other. Parents lie to their children, children to their parents. People tell lies to deceive and comfort themselves, but more often to others, including newspaper reporters. No one is under oath when talking to a reporter. In recent weeks, for example, on two occasions people have knowingly provided false information for obituaries in The Sun.

So copy editors are suspicious characters. They are not being paid to sit at the desk for an eight-hour shift admiring the copy, but examining it for errors. And they are not sitting at the desk for an entire shift trusting the copy, but thumping and prodding it for dubious statements to see if anything gives way.

These are some of the things a copy editor taps a story for, to see if anything rattles:  

Exaggeration. Any claim that something is the first, the only, the largest of its kind is automatically flagged for inspection. Superlatives are not to be trusted.

Anonymous sources. Readers wonder about stories with anonymous sources, and with good reason. By definition, an anonymous source has something to hide. It may be a good reason — and at The Sun, there are two legitimate reasons: apprehension of physical harm if the source is identified and apprehension of significant economic harm. Reporters are not supposed to grant anonymity casually, just to spare someone embarrassment.

Unsupported statements. Single-source stories make editors sit bolt upright. Anything that comes only from a single source — a person, a document — without support, without independent confirmation of its factual accuracy, can’t be trusted. Has The Sun been burned by stories with single-source information in the past? Oh yes.

Quality of the support. Who or what actually backs up the source? Is the person a figure of credibility? Does the person verifying the source have an interest in the statement? Have reliable reference works been cited? Better not mention Wikipedia.

Copy editors as well as reporters live by the motto of the Chicago’s City News Bureau: IF YOUR MOTHER SAYS SHE LOVES YOU, CHECK IT OUT.

Tom French, a reporter at the St. Petersburg Times with a national reputation, makes it his practice to go over the final draft of each story he writers, marking each statement of fact and confirming to his own satisfaction that he can vouch for the accuracy of each one.

Such an approach is unworkable for newspaper copy editors, who lack the staffing and time for extensive fact-checking. That makes it all the more important for the copy editor to zero in on anything in an article that sets off the little editing alarm bell in the head. “That doesn’t look right. That doesn’t smell right. I’d better check that out.”

The Sun, like other newspapers, has had to deal periodically with instances and plagiarism and fabrication by members of the staff. In the cases in which such lapses have been detected before publication, it was typically on the copy desk. That is why that on well-regulated newspapers, each copy editor’s work is checked by other copy editors. What one overlooks, another can catch.

Of course we turn a gimlet eye on the work of reporters. We do the same for one another.

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 10:58 AM | | Comments (2)
        

October 3, 2007

Lancing and draining

“You’re draining the life out of our stories.”

The plaintive cry, or an equivalent about “greying” the stories, typically comes when a copy editor has excised something dear to a writer’s heart. Unfortunately, writers, like parents, sometimes bestow immoderate affection on their homlier productions. Judge for yourself from this sampling of authorial treasures singled out for revision or removal by those cold-eyed, literal-minded, rule-bound, tone-deaf bastards on the copy desk:

* For the 1 million to 1.5 million Americans who test positive for the human immunodeficiency virus, which destroys the body’s defense against disease, living is all-important.

* Spring has sprung and besides trying to cope with the pollen attacking your sinuses, the staff at Grassroots Crisis Intervention Center Inc. wants you to be aware of another usual spring ritual: suicides.

* The late fall sunrise is a frosty Popsicle that pokes with sadistic glee at the previous evening's enthusiasms.

* It was the second consecutive controlling performance for Loyola, a team that had been exciting in the manner of a blind grab into the toilet –– you never knew what you’re going to get.

* For any young company, capital is like mother’s milk, the sustenance needed for growth. A captive audience of attentive financiers offered hope for a long, cool drink.

* When doody calls on the picturesque shoreline, the city is no longer answering. The city’s “Mutt Mitts” program, which provided dog walkers with free shoebox-size plastic bags to clean up after their animals since 1999, has been scrapped because of budget cuts.

* One day James Larrimore had two arms, and the next day he only had one. In between was a horrible accident involving a mulching machine.

Lord, forgive us dull-witted copy editors for our offenses against Art.

Posted by John McIntyre at 12:49 PM | | Comments (6)
        

October 2, 2007

The x-words

For the love of God, I’m sick of the coyness.

It may have started with the reluctance of the mainstream press to publish the common profanities and obscenities. The f-word, we write, when we want to indicate one of the most popular verbs in English.

That led by extension to other objectionable words, at the hazard of some confusion. If you can’t think of at least two terms that the c-word might represent, then your convent education has been a success. The Sun used to represent objectionable words with the initial letter and a string of hyphens, but a former editor decreed that we would use the initial letter and two em-dashes instead (not f - - - but f — —).Don’t treat obscenities like the Jumble, he said; we’re not making it a puzzle for them to solve.

Apprehension about using a taboo word has led to widespread use of the n-word in place of the most common racial slur directed at African-Americans. The NAACP conducted a ceremony this summer to “bury the n-word,” to encourage the retirement of the demeaning word not only among white racists but also among African-Americans themselves.

Good luck with that. As I drive through Baltimore with the car windows open, the n-word blares from car stereos half a dozen times in a block.

The n-word among African-Americans, like the q-word among gays, indicates a persistent phenomenon about pejorative terms. They can be used by members of the group, but not by outsiders. If I, a first-generation Appalachian, choose to utter the c-word (that’s cracker) among my fellow hill-jacks, that’s my business; but you would be well advised to mind your manners.

In the monkey-see-monkey-do world of professional journalism, this weasely circumlocution proliferates all over the landscape. In political articles, one sees the l-word to represent the conviction that dare not breathe its name. This is, of course, meant to be cute, since liberal is an obscene termamong only a handful of readers.

I feel a strong anarchic impulse to abandon all this nonsense and publish words as they are used. But as long as we have readers who find profane and obscene language deeply offensive, it is not in our interest to cheese them off.

At the very least however, if we must tiptoe around the language and festoon it with euphemism, let’s euphemize what is genuinely offensive instead of trying to be cute.

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 4:35 PM | | Comments (2)
        

October 1, 2007

Inflect this

Sitting grumbling in the chimney corner over the weekend, I discovered this opening sentence in an article published in The Sun:

The Beatles may have sang that all you need is love, but when it comes to disobedient and dangerous mutts, Cesar Millan firmly yet calmly disagrees.

Is no one taught to conjugate English verbs any longer? You know: infinitive, to sing; present tense, sing; past tense, sang; past participle, sung; present participle, singing, past and present participles used with auxiliary verbs such as is, has and have. Any of this sound familiar?

In standard English, the dialect in which Sun articles are presumably written, the irregular verb sing is still inflected as sang in the past tense and sung in the past participle. Ring, rang, rung, but not bring, brang, brung. Some things just have to be learned.

There are verbs in which some leeway is permitted — Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, in an entry more permissive than is to my taste, says that “sank and sunk are used for the past tense of sink. Sank is used more often, but sunk is neither rare nor dialectical as a past tense, though it is usually a past participle.”

That’s as it may be, but Garner’s Modern American Usage and the Sun stylebook say to use sunk only as a past participle.

Sun house style also objects to snuck as a past tense of sneak. Merriam-Webster goes into the history of the word at some length, from its early appearances as “representing the comical speech of a bumpkin” to its current status as “a standard, widely used variant that is about as common as the older sneaked.”

We allow snuck in quoted speech, so it’s up to you, the reader, to decide whether a bumpkin is talking.

Posted by John McIntyre at 11:15 AM | | Comments (9)
        

Nobody else said boo about it

A colleague was startled by a word he saw in this sentence in the pages of The Sun:

But what happens when two of the most important people in your life — your best friend and your boo — don't agree?

Boo? Our desk dictionary says that boo is a slang term for marijuana. And it is. But the Oxford English Dictionary also lists this meaning:

Esp among teenagers: a girlfriend or boyfriend. Also as a form of address.

And, among others, these citations:

1988 Washington Post 22 Dec. Lionel R. Harris is my boyfriend. Lewis shot my Boo and it was not self-defense.

1994 T. WOODS True to Game Qua, please, please..baby, don't leave me. Don't leave me now! Boo, talk to me!

1998 Time Out N.Y. 2 July Reenacted phone conversations that find Miss Jones dishing stridently to a girlfriend about her man's imagined infidelities, as well as an actual conversation with her boo.

I’ve omitted a citation from 2004, which contains a couple of additional words that we do not permit in the print edition and which I am reluctant to introduce to the electronic edition.

The OED speculates that boo derives from beau, a point with which the electronic Urban Dictionary agrees:

boo is a term that is derived from the French word "beau" meaning beautiful. In 18th century England it meant an admirer, usually male. It made it's way into Afro-Caribean language perhaps through the French colonisation of some Caribean islands.

Now meaning girl or boyfriend

pet name: your hunny,sweety,baby.

The Urban Dictionary is, of course, an uncertain authority, since people are free to post whatever they think a word means. The entry on the origin of boo might have carried a little more weight if the author had spelled Caribbean correctly. But let that pass; the Urban Dictionary is not anal about orthography.

“Thank God John Carroll is no longer here,” my colleague commented. Mr. Carroll, a former editor, had pronounced views about the language published in his newspaper. It took some persuasion for him to permit the features desk to write about Beavis and Butt-head, and he might well have shrunk at boo as well.

It falls to copy editors at newspapers such as The Sun to operate as gatekeepers about language, particularly to question slang and colloquial expressions. Are they going to be obscure to many of our readers? Are they clear in context, or do they require some explanation? Are they of questionable taste? And whose taste is to determine that?

I’m not necessarily happy about policing the language — a grammarian’s lot is not a happy one. But so long as The Sun aims to be intelligible to a wide rather than a specialized audience, and to maintain a flexible but identifiable range of diction, the duty falls to the copy desk. And we gave boo a pass.

Posted by John McIntyre at 10:23 AM | | Comments (7)
        
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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 john.mcintyre@baltsun.com.
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